The Reformation Was A #Defund Movement

The Reformation Was A #Defund Movement October 29, 2021

I guess it’s not totally surprising to me that died-in-the-wool Lutherans, lifelong Lutherans, and more generally Lutheran institutions, would resist new Reformations.

Just because the founding moment of Lutheranism was a #DefundtheChurch campaign, we can’t expect those with institutional power or long-standing affiliation with the church to be open to the next defund moment.

Nevertheless, our own history calls us to remember.

So, since we are at the end of October, and Reformation Day 2020 is upon us, I’d like to post this simple reminder that Luther’s 95 theses was a “defund” movement, and those of us living in the 21st century church can make use of Reformation Sunday not so much to celebrate what Lutherans did right back then as continue to identify in ourselves what we are currently getting wrong.

I’d like to start by naming some things I’m NOT saying. I’m not saying I hate the church. I’m not saying I want to leave the church. I’m not saying I want my church to leave our denomination.

This is what Luther and the reformers have frequently and erroneously been accused of, that they led a protest out of the church.

But they didn’t. What they did was call for a reparations and defund movement within their own church because they loved the church. And because they loved the church, they wanted it to do better, to be better.

The reformers were calling on the church to be more faithful.

In 2020, perhaps the most profound 95 theses was by my colleague, Lenny Duncan. Lenny, in a series of posts, has called for the creation of a reparations fund to repair the long history of damage Lutherans have inflicted in the African-American community.

You can read this series of posts here. I very much encourage you to read them right now before continuing with this post. It will be worth your time, if difficult.

Lenny has also written a book naming the issues in a spirit of love and repentance. Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Pastor to the Whitest Denomination in the US

Now, here are the things that typically happen when someone calls for a defund movement in the church, especially if a black voice calls for such change.

One, the institution is silent. We’re seeing that happen right now. This was also a common strategy in Luther’s day. As long as protestors didn’t make too much noise or cause real change, the best strategy was to ignore them. It was only when Luther’s 95 theses starting traveling all over Europe as posters that the church got concerned.

Two, a lot of people start tone policing. Because Lenny expresses anger and frustration, he’s not saying things in the right way. He is offensive and disagreeable. Why don’t those calling for reparations speak in a nice and civil way. Then we’d listen!

Three, even Lenny’s motives are questioned. Nevermind that he has put absolutely everything on the table, is utterly transparent and tells things as he sees them. Nevermind that the reparations fund will actually be administered by an independent group of black women leaders in our church. He must have some ulterior motive. So too with Luther, when he was confronted by those in authority, they questioned his character.

These were the typical strategies of church as empire in the Middle Ages, and they are the same kinds of strategies of white supremacy yet today. Often even those who believe they are very committed to racial justice still balk at a call for actual reparations. That’s part of how supremacy works.

So, here’s where the gospel comes in. Just because we get caught up in such anxious responses to calls for reform doesn’t mean that we are irredeemably bad people. Far from it. Rather, when we act in these ways and then realize we are doing so, we have the opportunity to repent.

The whole point of Luther’s reform, after all, was to emphasize that the whole life of the Christian is to be that of repentance.

Thesis 1: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

The reason a call like Lenny’s to defund the church feels so difficult is because it is actual repentance rather than fake repentance. It requires real commitment.

It requires cash. And we all know that there’s nothing quite like money to teach us what we are truly committed to, or not.

And just as defunding the system of indulgences in the medieval church both freed consciences of believers while also making things more economically difficult for the institutional church, calls for reparations today, if heeded, will be profoundly healing to those in the African-American community while also making things difficult for the current predominately white ELCA.

I have no doubt this will cause some in our congregation discomfort. It may look like we are defunding important things in the short term in order to make things actually better in the long-term.

But we all also can recognize, if we are willing to acknowledge it, that our lip service to reparations over the past decades and centuries hasn’t been deep and significant enough.

Real harm has continued in the African-American community long past slavery. Land was stolen from southern landowners. Whole neighborhoods were redlined. And in our denomination, black pastors have been historically underpaid, black seminaries defunded, and much more.

This isn’t reason to hate or leave the ELCA. But it is something to recognize and address.

That’s what you call reparations.

A few years back, our congregation hosted Jennifer Harvey, speaking on her book Dear White Christians.

One excerpt has stuck with me from that book, and has become a spiritual lodestone. I quote it in full here:

“On May 4, 1969, James Forman interrupted Sunday worship at the historic Riverside Church and read a statement titled the “Black Manifesto.” The manifesto demanded that ‘white Christian churches and Jewish synagogues begin to pay reparations to black people in this country.’ It proceeded to call for the sum of $500 million and to detail how the funds were to be spent.

Forman’s action rocked the worlds of white Christians and sent shockwaves through mainline Protestant denominations. Two scholars of the period claim ‘Manifesto related events caused greater vibrations in the U.S. religious world than any other single human rights development in a decade of monumental happenings.” But when the dust settled, what actually resulted from these vibrations was far less consequential than what did not result.

Robust financial commitments to eradicate racial inequality and bolster Black empowerment did not come. Repentance for racism and repair of racial harm on the part of white churches was not to be found. 

One image stands out as particular poignant. Forman, evoking Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses, nailed a copy of the manifesto to the doors of the national headquarters of the Lutheran Church in America (a predecessor body of the ELCA).

Religious furor followed, and it manifested as three different institutional responses. [First, white evangelical outrage. Second, some Catholic and mainline Protestant groups denounced Forman’s tactics.]

It is a third group that is most interest because this group best reveals the pitfalls of continuing to insist on a reconciliation paradigm for race when a reparations paradigm is being demanded. This revelation comes because members of this group did not fully repudiate the Black Manifesto’s underlying assumptions. They rejected the strategy of the manifesto, often excoriated Forman in the process and/or questioned whether he was a legitimate leader of the Black community; but ultimately they did initiate some new program(s) in response to the manifesto.

In fits and starts the institutions within this group eventually carved out tens of thousands of dollars for initiatives geared toward the well-being of Black Americans. They did so out of an acknowledgment of the reality of racial inequity and Black suffering. Sometimes they even expressed gratitude for the wake-up call the manifesto provided for the sin of racism—and for the chance to be renewed and made newly relevant in society. However, with one partial exception they made certain to carefully separate their new programs from the language of reparations and to avoid the manifesto’s actual demands.

This avoidance was made manifest most clearly in relation to the role of the Black Economic Development Conference (BEDC). At the close of the NBEDC, a freestanding steering committee had been formed to continue the work of the conference. The Black Manifesto specified that reparations monies were to be directly allocated to the BEDC, which would have exclusive control over how funds were used. This meant that those who endorsed the manifesto also explicitly authorized the BEDC as their representatives. 

But the institutional bodies that responded in a partially affirmative, but deeply ambivalent, posture to the manifesto consistently did end runs around the BEDC. Any funds they earmarked post-manifesto were allocated to some other group. With that evasion and what it represented in terms of whites’ equivocation over actually relinquishing white power and admitting the justice of the demands history made clear, they thoroughly alienated Black clergy, leaders, and laypeople who were part of that institution—a visible and vocal cohort of whom had gone on public record in support of both the BEDC and reparations. (Excerpted from Jennifer Harvey’s Dear White Christians, Dr. Harvey is a professor in Des Moines, Iowa, and spoke at GSLC back in 2015).

I imagine it is hard for Lutherans who were alive and leading in our church at the time these events took place to realize they missed a real moment to fund reparations then. But now we are presented with a new opportunity.

As a local church, we are trying to listen to Lenny this time. I would like to avoid the mistakes made back then, of white voices in power so editing and changing the proposal of black voices that they become unrecognizable.

We’ve taken 4% of our church budget and committed it annually to a reparations fund.

No modifications. No white edits. Just hear the ask for reparations, and respond.

I’d like us to learn more about our own fragility and complicity in white supremacy. Working through the issue of reparations offers our church (any church) the opportunity to not simply pay lip service to racial justice, but to actually enact it.

Given the country we live in, our history as a nation, and the state we live in, the history of the south, and the denomination we are in, the history of the ELCA, there’s simply no way that we have fully repaired the harm historically done to African-American communities either by our inaction or our direct action.

I’m reminded of that passage from James 2, that faith without works is dead:

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? 15 If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? 17 So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.

So too with racial justice. What good is it if we just write welcome statements saying people of all races are welcome at our church, but we don’t work on changing our practices so that the reparations are made that make for actual welcome?

Lutherans of the Reformation know a call for repentance when they see it, and like the movement centered around Luther and his 95 theses, they respond.

They no longer buy those indulgences. And they no longer fund a denomination that has committed only half-heartedly to reparations.

A church of the Reformation leads by example, and puts themselves at risk, not because they hate the church or want to leave it, but precisely because they love it, and the One who is Lord of it.

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