Backwards Again

Did you ever have one of those moments when a thought is out there in the fog of awareness, just beyond any clear vision? That’s my state of consciousness most of the time, but right now it’s a bit more pronounced.

I keep thinking about the ELCA plan for the future and the plan’s identified priorities for restructuring and renewal in the denomination. Just for a review, those priorities are:

  1. Prioritize the engagement of new, young and diverse people.
  2. Unite all expressions of the church (congregations, synods and the churchwide organization) into one church—together.
  3. Align decision-making, accountability and leadership where best suited.
  4. Operate in agile, flexible and speedy ways.
  5. Act based on data and measurable impact.
  6. Eliminate silos and divisions.

The only one that really interests me is the first one. If you play the “one of these things is not like the other” song, then #1 is the answer. Priorities two through six are all management issues. Number one has the potential to be a mission issue. But I think it fails in that regard (I hope I’m as wrong as I usually am). I find myself in a fog because just as this announcement came, so did several pods and articles that speak directly (at least in my little brain) to this issue.

“Throughline on NPR” features an episode called “The Invention of Race.” It’s an excellent and troubling reminder of how race, eugenics and class warfare combined in the early twentieth century to produce deadly consequences and how Franz Boas almost singlehandedly dismantled the “scientific” basis of structural racism.


Of course, whiteness was invented long before the early twentieth century. In 1619 in Jamestown African and Irish laborers were treated as indentured servants. There was an immediate distinction between the “less white” Irish and the “black” Africans, but legislation took time to develop. The original system did not guarantee a steady flow of cheap and malleable labor for the wealthy landowners in Virginia.

By 1691, slave laws had been enacted in several of the colonies to remedy the situation. The slave laws had a dual impact. They insured a permanent supply of slave bodies to provide free labor to the wealthy. And they established a racial caste system that gave poor whites just enough status to keep them mollified. So rich people had plenty of free labor to hand and a cheap police force to keep the slaves in their place.

It was genius level social engineering through policy. That social engineering persists to this day. It has been one of the most significant factors in national elections in America since 1964 and Barry Goldwater. I would recommend the recent Code Switch podcast, “The White Elephants in the Room” for some background in this regard.


In 1619 the division is between landowners and indentured servants. It is a class division. By 1691, whiteness has been invented to accomplish two agendas — manage white peasants by promoting them to white and suppressing black peasants by rendering them subhuman. The strategy was to use the rage of the white peasants to police the slaves and to protect the wealth and privilege of the upper class.

I was introduced yesterday to the work of Ian Haney Lopez in this regard yesterday on Ezra Klein’s podcast (I feel so late to the party on almost everything important). The Ezra Klein podcast focused on what the Democrats got wrong with Hispanic voters. This leads into a conversation about Lopez’ fuller work. I would recommend the podcast. However, a talk by Lopez gives a fuller exposition of the subject that really interests me — how the 1691 strategy continues to work today.


I will be interested to read his book, Merge Left. He argues convincingly that wealth and privilege use race as the wedge to divide lower economic classes who might otherwise unite around shared interests. So people of color and lower income whites are used to support the maintenance and expansion of concentrated wealth. Welcome to 1691…and 1876…and 1964…and 1984…and 2016.

Now to the church stuff. Jemar Tisby (author of The Color of Compromise), wrote a post entitled “Why Multiracial Churches Fail.” He comments on a Washington Post article. The article reports that the number of multiracial congregations has increased recently but that the price of that increase appears to be the continued suppression of black people within a dominant white church culture.

Here’s Tisby’s post:

A few lines are most salient. “Multiracial churches fail,” Tisby writes, “because they make diversity the aim while leaving issues of justice and equity virtually unaddressed.” I now refer to ELCA reorganization priority #1: “Prioritize the engagement of new, young and diverse people.”

Multi-racial churches fail in large part because they’re just white churches with spice. The only ones that succeed in becoming multi-racial do so as a byproduct of the struggle for social justice. “Churches that prioritize justice and equity for Black people and other people of color demonstrate their solidarity with those communities, “Tisby notes. This solidarity is not a recruitment strategy but rather a values commitment. “Yet when churches demonstrate a commitment to the dignity of an oppressed people by pursuing their uplift through policy and systemic changes,” he observes, “those congregations become sites of refuge and may see more racial and ethnic diversity in the process.”

If Tisby is correct (and I believe he is), then priority one may be getting it backwards. Seeking “new, young, diverse people” as a goal will result in replicating the pain of our own white privilege and systemic racism. Diversity is a byproduct of working for justice. But justice is precisely the language that is avoided in the restructuring proposal because such language will alienate politically conservative pew-sitters in the ELCA. If this is the case, then that priority will land on the same trash heap as the goal for the ELCA to be 10 percent people of color by…well, whenever that was.

Is it perhaps the case that embracing peasant solidarity is always central to the mission of the church? Jesus tells the rich man to join the peasants in order to be part of the reign of God. It seems that Zacchaeus makes a similar pledge to bankrupt himself in order to set things right. The Magnificat turns the great economic reversal into a hit song. Jesus makes it the game plan in Luke 4. Social solidarity in economic terms across class and ethnic divisions seems to be the plan in the New Testament.

I can see that in political terms. But what can it mean for being church? That’s the thought out there in the fog for me. Diagnosis is always the easy part…

2 thoughts on “Backwards Again

  1. I do so enjoy joining you in the fog these days. I would add another thought provoker to your observations. N.T. Wright has book out right now entitled “God an the Pandemic.” He does some interesting unpacking of Christian responses that if I’m not mistaken, may have some implications for the ELCA’s reorganization. “When the world is convulsing, the followers of Jesus are called to be people of prayer at the place where the world is in pain.” If you haven’t read (or better, listened to him read it himself on Audible) yet you might find it further grist for the mill.

    Liked by 1 person

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