January 15, 2021
Week of Epiphany 1
Dear ULS Community:
The events swirling around us in the nation in these days, the intensified conversation about racism and anti-racism, the soul-searching many are doing about the failure of America’s promise, and the undercurrent of violence in our society have put me on edge this week, and I suspect I am not alone. We have seen some unsettling things—and thanks to the power of phone cameras and digital connectedness we have seen them up-close and in real time.
So two things are in the front of my mind right now: the upcoming inauguration of the new president next week, and what it will mean for the nation going forward; and all the thoughts that it being MLK Day weekend bring forward for us in this nation enmired in racism, and struggling to find a path forward to resist it and reduce the harm it has done. As to the latter, preparing myself to preach an MLK service for our local Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod and its domestic companion synod, the Southeast Michigan Synod, brought me to some fresh reflection on current events in light of our nation’s history and our collective struggle for racial and economic justice.
Neither of these topics—political polarization or systemic racism—is a reassuring one for a person like me, who is both painfully aware of the distance between our national myths and the realities they disguise, and at the same time somewhat pessimistic about the human ability or desire to change. We’re just not that good at grasping a clearer reality if it challenges our prejudices, or acting on a higher moral and ethical level, if it involves personal sacrifice. But I am convinced that that is what we are called by God to attempt, and I am trying to find every glimmer of hope I can, and rejoicing in every sign I can find around me of what I hope for: deeper reflection on the realities of American life; deeper regret at the impact of hate; and stronger action toward the relief of suffering, at home and abroad.
This is so intimately tied up with what I think theological education is about: trying to see humanity and the world both as it is and as God has shown us—through Jesus—it can and will be, and doing what we can, right now, where we are, to make life better for our neighbors as a way of praising God. Luther makes this so clear in the Small Catechism that it can’t be rationalized away or avoided: that to love God is not a private feeling, but actually to live for the benefit of one’s neighbor. This is not a road map but a guiding principle, and it informs everything I recognize as genuinely Christian.
One evening this week, Rob and I watched the documentary film “The Social Dilemma.” It was a very good thing to see right now, because it was very timely in how it described the ways social media has changed many of us as consumers of information, and how it predicted the ways it could mobilize us into a greater, more extreme polarization and genuine inability to hear each other. I recommend it to you. It was fascinating to hear those who had developed these platforms describe their own current discomfort with them, and with the economy they have created.
As someone who is a “digital migrant” (in that I grew up getting most of my information in print form) I found the film very enlightening, convincing, and disturbing. I wonder, though, how a “digital native” would find it—it is pretty bleak in its assumptions about what having social media as one’s main source of information does both to what one knows and how one is wired (or being rewired) to receive it. I have always been fascinated by epistemology, and this documentary has much in it that will be stimulating to those with that philosophical and theological inclination. But it is not reassuring.
Related, in a sense, is my second preoccupation right now: how we explore, expose, and excise the racism that lives like a cancer in our human social body. The conversation on race is one that we must continue to have, as long as we have prejudice and inequity in our human society—which will be, I suspect, until we have “a new heaven and a new earth” in God’s time. But that is no reason not to continue to build on all the partial advances we have made, and that Martin Luther King pressed forward in his own time with heroic courage and the sacrifice of his own life.
Now, as always, the main work is for those who have perpetuated and benefitted from the systems of oppression—those who enjoy white privilege—to break down the patterns of white supremacy they have sustained. Often we have needed those very people the systems have oppressed to teach us how the oppression feels and how it works, but we should be far enough along by now to do this on our own, without relying on siblings of color for instruction or encouragement. Our eyes should be open enough to see it without help; our hearts and minds should already be on the paths of justice.
But not everyone—even everyone of good will—is in the same place or at the same level of understanding, nor will they ever be—and the uncomfortable conversations must continue until they are second nature to all of us. I believe we can get closer to that every year. At ULS I am happy to see that they will continue in both a structured and regular way, and—I hope—at a less formal, more personal level, as an ongoing part of who we are. We can learn, and help teach the church what it can be, and equip and encourage the pastors, deacons, and theologians we prepare at ULS to lead their own communities into deeper faithfulness to God by greater commitment to justice for their neighbors.
I harbor neither romantic assumptions about how easy it will be to move forward in the wider society toward a collective anti-racism, nor illusions about how we can easily overcome the “truth” gap between conflicting views of reality that draw us into opposing camps. These are fundamental flaws in our way of being. But at a theological school we have some of the best tools to approach these challenges: a commitment to seeing things as they are; to calling things by their right names; and to judging and guiding human action on the basis of a justice and a love that reflect our faith and trust in a higher Justice and a higher Love we can now only partially see, but someday will know face to face.
And, in closing, please keep in your hearts this week the family and friends of Michael Reid, our faithful and beloved ULS chief of public safety, who died last week. We mourn his passing and ask God for comfort in our grief.
May God bless you and keep you safe.
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary