Serving the Black church for three decades in its largest accredited seminary in the States, I’ve been asking this question of friends, colleagues, and students quite frequently. And so on the basis of his thoughtful presentation, I now turn to Farris Blount to get his read on what the Lutheran tradition needs to do to become a better colleague for the African-American community in following Jesus and working for freedom and justice. Of course my friends in the too-small segments of African-American Lutheranism largely do not think we need to abandon our core theological commitments, that what is needed is for the Church as a whole to become better Lutherans, to become more engaged with the Black community, and to get the word out among members and the public of Luther’s indebtedness to Augustine and other segments of African Christianity (Albert Pero and Ambrose Moyo, eds., Theology and the Black Experience; A. Trevor Sutton, “The Reformation’s African Roots,” Oct. 31, 2019, at www.thegospelcoaltion./org/article/reformation-african-roots/). But since that is obviously what this son of Norwegian immigrants is only too happy to hear, I wanted to learn if from a different segment of the African-American church, Rev. Blount might see some things in Lutheranism that need to be reformed in order for its members to be helpful partners with the Black church. A couple of these points I have previously raised with Rev. Blount in private correspondence, but perhaps it is useful to make these points more public here for the sake of our overall dialogue.
Of course justification by grace and freedom from the Law entailing the spontaneity of good works are the core commitments for Lutheranism (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, IV.2-3; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.333-377). I note that those themes were not noted in your comments on the Black way to follow Jesus, Rev. Blount. Was that deliberate, or would you agree with Albert Raboteau’s characterization of early Black spirituality (at least through the 19th century) as freedom-loving to the point of objecting to preaching which is devoted to morality (Canaan Land, p.66)? Or is your filure to mention these themes the result of a concern that too much emphasis on freedom from the Law leads to a faith only concerned about personal salvation? Clearly sometimes in history, Lutherans have (erroneously) interpreted their heritage in that way. But my concern on the other side is that teaching morality can readily lead to further oppression or feelings that your value is determined only by what you produce for the master. (I like to think that the Lutheran sense of the spontaneity of good works when you are wrapped up in worship and in the stories of Jesus and the Bible is not unlike the spontaneity of response that happens in Black church worship.) Or are those concerns and Raboteau’s analysis not relevant for the Black church today?
Another commitment that is precious to Lutherans who know their heritage is an appreciation that that Bible is not the sole legitimate source for the politics of freedom, that social policies need to be formulated through the use of reason and the natural law (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XV). Such an approach allows for cooperation across religious lines like the Jewish-Christian congregational dialogue described in the paper. Yet I note no reference to these themes in the paper, but rather to a Christocentrism, with hints that perhaps only the Bible can give us insight about seeking justice. In interests of justice and partnership with the Black church, should Lutherans side with this Christocentrism? Is such a social ethic taking guidance from reason and the natural law deficient in our quest for a just society? Am I reading Dr. King incorrectly when at several points in his career he seems to have endorsed an appeal to the natural law as a norm for the movement’s quest for justice (“Letter From a Birmingham Jail”), and Lutherans need to get over this hang-up?
Two or three other items characteristic of Lutheranism were not noted in the paper, and I wonder if this is a sign that they are better de-emphasized in interests of Black-church-Lutheran cooperation. Rev. Blount’s paper did not elaborate on the kind of economic justice we need in society and did not address how worship and the Sacraments facilitate following Jesus. Both in European Lutherans and the non-Americanized segments of Lutheranism in America Lutherans have a definite bias against capitalism (The Large Catechism, I.7; Luther’s Works, Vol.45, pp.159-194). Is that not a commitment where Black church-Lutheran concerns overlap, or are the economic preferences of DuBois and Ransom no longer relevant for the Black church today? As for Sacramental liturgical worship, are these Lutheran commitments better de-emphasized in favor of more Pietist styles? Of course, I would want to point out how these emphases characterize the ancient African churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, to remind ourselves that liturgical worship is itself rooted in early North African Christianity (The Didache). But is such Afri-centrism not as useful in ecumenical dialogue with the Black church as a sensitivity to the call- response piety of many in the Black church?
One last point of contact between the Black church and large segments of Lutheranism is worth noting, because I fear that this is a characteristic which could divide us, and so I come seeking advice regarding how to avoid making this similarity a problem. We are both largely ethnic churches. American Lutherans with German and Scandinavian roots largely still (though less and less) identify with the cultures of the motherland. It is this feature of the Black church that makes this Norwegian American feel so at home in the Black church. The Black church historically has had such a wonderful way of maintaining these ethnic and cultural features while always welcoming white worshippers. German and Scandinavian Lutheran congregations would profit from Black church advice regarding how we could celebrate these cultural links (too many of us have just submitted to a white version of “Americanization”) and still send the message of welcome to our sisters and brothers with ethnic roots to the South and Far East of us. If Lutherans could learn to act on that advice from Black church quarters, we’d be a lot better partners.
Of course the Black church seems to have an advantage in celebrating its members’ ethnicity without that ethnicity becoming oppressive insofar as to celebrate Black culture in America is counter-cultural. But Lutheranism’s character as an ethnic/immigrant church has made it counter-cultural in America too at least to some extent. I wonder if the counter-culturalism of Luther’s Theology of the Cross, the awareness that faith goes against ordinary socio-cultural and philosophical expectations (The Heidelberg Disputation), could help Lutherans get a little less “white American” and more counter-cultural in the way the Black church has in nudging America away from all its unjust “isms.” Are there other ways in which the Lutheran church in this country could join the Black church in counter-cultural protest to follow Jesus and seek justice?