Despite growing diversity in our country, people of different races and ethnicities still tend to live, socialize and worship with those like them. As a result, it has been frustrating for the ELCA to achieve its goal of growing into a multicultural church.
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The Pauline roots of Lutheran theology are as strong as they are well-known. Most Lutherans have heard innumerable times: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus ...” (Romans 3:22-24). Lutherans love the emphasis on grace.
Anne Lalsingh worships at Advent Lutheran Church, Manhattan, which also has a strong young adult population. Read more about Advent in "Reflecting the neighborhood."
But Paul did more than talk about multiculturalism. He actively worked on transforming the early Christian community. Jesus and the first disciples were Jews. After Jesus’ death some of the Jews who accepted Jesus as the Son of God insisted that all males had to be circumcised before they could join the community of Christ’s disciples. “No!” Paul said. Not circumcision — God’s grace and love justifies us and is the only necessary prerequisite to be a disciple of Christ. And that we have freely from God. We don’t have to do anything to be “in” with God.
The Jewish men could follow their culture’s expectation and be circumcised. The Gentiles didn’t have to adopt the Jewish cultural ways. Both could be Jesus’ disciples. “Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also?” (Romans 3:29). Just a few years after Jesus the church already was multicultural.
One in Christ
Paul said, “There’s no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). Not only is the body of Christ multiethnic (Jew or Greek) but also multi-class (slaves or free) and multi-gender (male and female). Paul says all of us are one in Christ. His vision of the church, the body of Christ on earth, was eminently multicultural in all sorts of ways.
The ELCA — which follows so passionately Paul’s theology that derives from a contextual dynamic of the inclusion of Gentiles — is particularly called to continue in the Pauline tradition of multiculturalism. Since its inception in 1988, the ELCA set a 10-year goal: The ELCA would be composed of at least 10 percent people of color in 1998. In 2009 it’s 3 percent people of color and 97 percent white.
The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the U.S. will have a majority of people of color in 2045, just 36 years from now. The ELCA has a choice to make in view of those projections. Will it be a ghettoized church serving mainly the white minority in America in 2045 or will it be one with all the peoples and cultures in this land?
As important as diversity and representation are, more important is Jesus’ mandate to share with “all nations” in America the Christian story and the special Pauline emphasis on grace.
Michael Aune, professor of liturgical and historical studies at Pacific Lutheran Seminary, Berkeley, Calif., insistently reminds us that the Lutheran church in the U.S. has been multicultural since the boats started arriving from Northern Europe. Germans and the various Scandinavians brought diverse Lutheran styles and traditions. Many years ago, and still today in some places, Lutherans worshiped in Finnish, German or other languages. Then in 1988 three branches historically composed of those different ethnicities came together to form the ELCA.
But multiculturalism is a dynamic, contextual and flexible social construct. Current U.S. multiculturalism isn’t just composed of Germans, Scandinavians, British, Italians and Irish. The number and power of other groups define our contemporary multiculturalism in America. Now we are white (the cultural “melted pot” of earlier European immigrants) and those who will become the majority in 2045: Latinos, people of African descent, the many different Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, American Indians and many others. Some of these groups have been here as long or longer than the white European immigrants and their descendants. But in terms of political power they were invisible to the powerful majority and even more oppressed than now.
When we envision a multicultural ELCA, we see our pews, pulpits, Sunday schools, council meetings, committee and task force meetings, synodical and churchwide administrative offices, seminaries, fiestas and potlucks, hands at work in the community — all that we are together — reflecting the country’s diversity. I’m not talking about quotas or tokens. I’m talking about the full vision of the ELCA reflecting the fullness of the numbers and the gifts of all the people in the U.S.
To reach this vision we need a lot of prayer, work and self-reflection in our church. May God guide us in being one in Christ through and through.
© 2016 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers