October 16, 2020
Week of Pentecost 19
Dear ULS Community:
This has been a big week, and it has gone by quickly for me. It has been my thought that these weekly reflections would be separate from (and much different than) the normal announcement of ULS news—which happens on Mondays and Wednesdays in the Common Cup, and whenever we need to make a public announcement of something important. But this week I would like to comment on a couple of things that did happen this week in ULS’s life, putting them in wider perspective.
First (on Tuesday) came the announcement of some staff promotions. That our own Deacon Nancy Gable, acting director of admissions, should become permanent in that position will surprise no one who has known her and how well she has done that job. That we have found a new director of financial aid is also no surprise, though Tyrone Gadson will be new to our community. But the promotion of Ed Henry, our director of human resources, to the rank of vice president with the addition of the portfolio for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, is very deeply significant, and will have an especially great impact on our community as we grow in our work of anti-racism. I thought it important that the person doing that work have the highest administrative rank I could confer, as a sign of the importance of those efforts right now and into the future. I am excited about these new positions and colleagues, and I look forward to a further re-thinking of our staff structures in ways that help our small organization to do its work well and further its mission of theological education. There will be more to come.
Second, I want to acknowledge the appointment of Dr. Kristin Largen as the new president of Wartburg Seminary, and congratulate her again on that accomplishment. Dr. Largen will be sorely missed here at ULS, but her gifts are perfectly suited to the leadership of her MDiv alma mater, and it is hard to be sad about such good news for the network of ELCA seminaries. Wartburg is a special place, and I expect we will work together even more closely than ever. With a former LTSG dean as president of Luther Seminary, and a ULS professor as president at Wartburg, my secret plan of ULS domination of ELCA seminary education gets closer all the time (just kidding!) But it does underscore the tight personal links that bind all our ELCA seminaries together and are a strength of our theological network. Being strongly connected to each other helps us work together in concert with seminaries and institutions of our partner churches, and to build sturdy ecumenical and interfaith alliances.
So now some reflection: today on where we “find ourselves” right now in the calendar, in the week of one Federal holiday, and looking toward another next month. These are of course Columbus Day and Thanksgiving, both of which are fraught with complicated and conflicting meaning.
Personally, I observe October 12 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, as many cities and other political entities in the United States do now, and not as Columbus Day. I am completely sympathetic with the idea that to lift up Columbus, and the day of his “discovery,” as a day of national celebration is to remember the wrong thing in the wrong way. But the date is still significant—though it was not the first encounter between North American natives and Europeans—because it marks the beginning of the systematic exploitation, colonization, and settlement of this continent by Europeans on a grand scale. Those of you who read my Facebook post on Monday saw some more reflections from me on that.
As an American holiday, Columbus Day has a complicated origin, meaning different things to different communities, but today it is most often defended as a day of appreciation for the contributions of Italian-Americans to our common life. Like many questionable choices, it started out with a good motive—to build respect for an ethnic minority that was suffering at the hands of others. A massacre of Italian immigrants (by other white people) in New Orleans prompted the first national Columbus Day observance in 1892—a one-time event. The national unity promoted by the “World’s Columbian Exposition” in Chicago in 1893, marking the Columbus anniversary, also led to other emblems and rituals of American life—like the Pledge of Allegiance. The Columbus anniversary of 1892 was also a moment for American Roman Catholics to celebrate their own integration into a multi-religious nation where Protestants still dominated, and in which anti-Catholic prejudice was still rife. To be a good Catholic could mean also being a patriotic American—something not everyone believed. But Columbus Day did not become a regular Federal holiday until 1934, and it remains unique as a Federal holiday recognizing an ethnic group.
I support a national recognition of October 12 as Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. If we are to remember a single ethnic or racial category on the calendar, it would make the most sense to remember Native Americans. Ethnicities don’t for the most part have sovereignty, as many Indian nations do. None of the European-American ethnic groups suffered on this continent in the way that Natives and African Americans have—and African-Americans and the story of slavery in America deserve their own remembrance day (I also strongly support making “Juneteenth”—June 19—a Federal bank holiday). Though holidays are only symbolic markers, it is important that we lift up as a nation the events that are identity-giving and respectful of painful, as well as joyful, national realities.
The other problematic holiday approaching is Thanksgiving, and I can say more about that later—but like Columbus Day, Thanksgiving has taken on a mythic significance that reaches far beyond a people’s simple and worthy desire to express thanks to their Creator for the benefits and blessings of life and sustenance. For Native Americans, Thanksgiving has often been the vehicle for an unhelpful (and generally inaccurate) narrative of peace and goodwill between colonizers and those they colonized. This year marks the 400th anniversary of the landing of the Pilgrims in Massachusetts Bay—another event fraught with meaning, much of it unhappy. So it will be important to “unpack” Thanksgiving’s origins and significance even more carefully than usual.
But even Natives can celebrate a family feast and festival of thankfulness. In my own Osage tribe, our tribal calendar simply refers to Thanksgiving as “Turkey Day”—food has no politics beyond those we impose; love of family and gratitude for blessings are universal to all. I have more to say about that in a few weeks.
In this Sunday’s gospel lesson from Matthew 22, we see religious leaders set a trap for Jesus on the (even then) complicated relationship between religious duty and civic obligation. They challenge him to say whether it is appropriate for faithful people to pay taxes to the emperor—knowing that for some, taxes (as a form of tribute) are blasphemous, while on the other side to refuse to pay them would be seen as rebellious and seditious by the state power to which they were all subject. Jesus threads the needle delicately, and in a way we can still recognize and understand: he points out human power extends only so far, and what we owe to one another and to the state (whether imposed or elected) is only that over which the state can have control. Over the hearts and the faith of believers no worldly power has control, but only God, so that even though “life be wrenched away,” Caesar (or his modern imitators) cannot win the day.
I’ll have more to say about the upcoming election when I write to you next Friday, but this Sunday’s lesson is perfectly placed to renew our thinking about our parallel lives as children of God, a community forged in faith, and—at the same time—as citizens of a modern state with a democratic polity. “Rendering unto Caesar” is no longer so fraught with moral danger as in Jesus’ time, but it is still complicated even for us, as we as citizens negotiate power structures filled with inequity and shaped by racism.
But like last week, and again next week, we can know that we have a faithful and powerful God, who cares for all that God has made, and who loves us as we are—even in our weakness and fear—and promises to be with us always. The presence of Jesus in our hearts, in our words, and in our actions is not only felt by those who believe, but also experienced by those who encounter us. When we act in love and care for our neighbor, God is revealed to all.
May God bless you in the week ahead!
Yours in Christ,
Rev. R. Guy Erwin, Ph.D.
Ministerium of Pennsylvania Chair
and Professor of Reformation Studies
United Lutheran Seminary