Current Events, Reconstructing Faith

Why I Left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod: By Their Fruits… (Part 2)

Photo from Wikimedia Commons by Markus Trienke

For several posts, I will be writing about specific things that came up while I was within the LCMS–that is, at its schools, churches, and university–that made me start to think that the LCMS way of things didn’t align with some aspect of reality, what I learned in the Bible, or something else. Here, I continue a miniseries within that about the fruits of our actions and how they tell about who we really are. Check out the Hub for this series to see all my posts on why I left the LCMS.

By their fruits… (Part 2)

[Content warning: discussions of racism, antisemitism, and Islamophobia.]

I talked about how I learned that faith lived wasn’t the same as faith professed in my last post. It was a kind of disturbing reality to become aware of, but also one that would get repeatedly shoved in my face as I studied to be a church worker in the LCMS–initially as a teacher, and later as a pastor. The black-and-white, rigid doctrinal purity I was taught was essential didn’t get applied to the lives of Christians, including church workers and those studying to be the same.

I enjoyed visiting other LCMS churches. I’d come prepared with my well-worn and well-marked Bible, eager to join the Bible study, which is where I knew the rubber hit the road regarding discussions of doctrine. I wanted to engage scripture as much as possible, and learn it as deeply as possible. One visit took me along with another man studying to be a pastor to a church site he was working at. I enjoyed the Bible study well enough.

After church, I went to speak with the pastor, who knew I was a pre-seminary student. He asked me how college was going, and how I liked my classes. At some point, the conversation turned to sports and he asked about my favorite college team. I said it was Nebraska, and the pastor said that he liked them too. The reason, he said, was because they “don’t have any of those black boys on their team.” He favored Nebraska because, in his words, they liked “white boys playing football,” even at positions other teams often had–here he used a derogatory term for African Americans–playing the position. He grinned at me with a knowing smile. I was genuinely shocked. So much so that I was literally dumbstruck. I could not untie my tongue to correct him or even say I disagreed. I think after some awkwardly long silence I said something like “I like them because my parents do,” and walked as swiftly away as possible.

When I met back up with man I’d come with, he asked what I thought about the experience. I’d managed to muster my thoughts a bit more at this point. In no uncertain terms I said the pastor was a racist and that I found that reprehensible for a pastor, especially. I repeated what had been said. I had expected the other pastor-in-training to be similarly incensed. I don’t know exactly what I thought would happen–some kind of confrontation with the pastor over the absurdity of his statements. Instead, this man who was at seminary in the LCMS told me that I shouldn’t be worried about it. The pastor was old, and stuck in his ways. Something to the effect of, “That’s just how people his age think” was said. I was even asked if I would come back the next week for Bible study and church. I was appalled and said something that made it clear I’d not be setting foot in the place again. He shrugged it off.

The LCMS had and has a very uneven stance with race. While outwardly speaking against racism abstractly, inwardly instances of racism were hushed up. Racist jokes were not infrequent among pre-seminary men[1] when I was in college. Whether it was about how “illegals” would ruin our country or jokes about other minorities and stereotypes, these were seen as good natured fun, not as the vile racism they reflected. Again, to my shame, I wasn’t nearly loud enough in my condemnation of it. Indeed, like all too many people, I found myself laughing along to try to fit in. It was easier to conform and be “in,” than to be “out.” The visit to a church with a racist pastor is what broke me. I realized that I was enabling others on that same path. I got louder in pre-seminary circles at lunches or breaks between classes, not laughing at jokes. I wish I’d been better at this than I was, to be honest. Even the inadequate amount of pushback I offered made me a bit of a pariah.

The pattern of racist remarks is one I encountered at many levels of LCMS leadership at many different sites. Defenses of the Confederacy is one way this manifests. Defending an alternate history narrative of “states’ rights” as the cause of the Civil War[2] provides a convenient dog whistle to cover up, at minimum, prejudice. Thus, when I grimaced as I listened to one pastor go on about the “glorious cause” (actual quote) the South had fought for, he was able to take a few steps back and say, “I mean states’ rights, of course!” Defense of the Confederacy cannot avoid being tied to racism. Thankfully, my elementary and middle school education in LCMS schools did not support a Lost Cause false narrative of the history of the United States, but I frequently encountered it among LCMS teachers and pastors.

Directly racist statements were also not out of the question. I already shared above my story about visiting a pastor who doubled down on racist statements, and the defense of that pastor by others. Another pastor, after overhearing an elderly woman using a derogatory word for Black people, told me that I should not be upset or intervene about it because “that was just the times she was in.” I was a young teen at the time, and did not yet have the capacity to question such an answer. But horrific, racist language from people that then gets defended by pastors (or having that same language come from pastors’ mouths) is the kind of thing that makes an impression on a young mind. It would take me some years before I was able to dig through that morass of obfuscation regarding racism and realize that “growing up some number of years ago” does not excuse one for being racist.

Comments about Islam and Muslims were and are extremely common. Reading Facebook comments on LCMS groups trying to teach about racism gives many, many contemporary examples of this. But my own experience in the LCMS demonstrated time and again that Islamophobia was not only endemic in the LCMS, but was often tied to racism in complex and interconnected ways. 9/11 wasn’t when this started, but certainly touched off a number of comments, from Americans across the board. However, within LCMS institutions, I would frequently hear about how Muslims were all trying to kill Christians specifically and that Islam’s teaching is explicitly violent. Indeed, it was not uncommon to be told that if Muslims said Islam wasn’t violent, they were doing so in order to cover up latent desire to cause violence or to allow a kind of shadowy Sharia to sneak into “the West” in order to take over peacefully before starting a violent regime. Any action by anyone who could be identified as Middle Eastern was therefore automatically linked to this global Islamic conspiracy. The tie to racism came up not infrequently, such as Christians who engaged in violent acts but “looked Muslim” being tied to Islam. The color of skin was apparently enough to tie the perpetrator into Islam.

One memorable conversation about Islam ended after I asked something similar to “If all Muslims really wanted to kill all Christians–if that was really want they all wanted, deep down, and they were covering it up–then how come, if there are over one billion Muslims in the world, we aren’t all dead or fighting for our lives?” The question was pointed not because I believed the charge that all Muslims wanted to kill all Christians, but because I wanted to point out the absurdity of the claim. This was in conversation with an LCMS pastor, and the response was basically to change the subject. Again, due to widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in America, this isn’t uncommon, but these are comments from and by pastors or people studying to be pastors within the LCMS, and one might wonder what standards and corrections are being offered within to make this not be such a common problem.

Antisemitism also reared its ugly head. There were offhand remarks about how Jews today (those who hadn’t converted to Christianity, anyway) were all going to hell, for example. While this aligns with the general belief that anyone who isn’t Christian is going to hell, time and again Jewish people were singled out for especial remarks to that effect. Lutherans, especially, have a history of antisemitism. Martin Luther’s horrifying comments about Jews were either ignored or given a context that was supposed to justify them. At multiple points within the LCMS, I was taught that Luther’s comments about Jews were understandable because he was frustrated that they didn’t convert to Christianity. This wasn’t just a way to explain why Luther turned towards antisemitism more fully[3]. Instead, it was an explanation that was supposed to exonerate him, in some way. Luther could emerge from this explanation, if not sparkling clean, then understandable.[4] Rather than simply condemning Luther as a sinful man engaging in detestable behavior–something that would very much align with Lutheran theology–Luther was given an apology for his behavior. This opened up, for some, the possibility of doing the same or at least excusing other behavior. In college, some classmates, including a few pre-seminarians, engaged in Holocaust denial. Some of them were treating as a joke, apparently thinking it was “edgy” to make such comments. However, even “jokes” about antisemitism are engaging in antisemitic behavior.

Racism continues to be a major problem within the LCMS. Currently, controversy has erupted at Concordia University Wisconsin (and by extension, Concordia University Ann Arbor) because the job description for the President of the university included diversity and equity in what was being sought. The extreme conservative pushback against this is a major problem that shows leadership in the LCMS continues to prefer to hide or ignore racism rather than confront it. It’s easier to pretend racism in the LCMS is impossible than it is to confront the ugly truth that it exists and is tolerated and even protected. My own experience encountering racism in the LCMS reinforces this. (For more on this controversy, see my post here.)

Another recent example is from the reporting around a survey of Young Adults who’d left the LCMS. I received this survey and filled it out. When the reporting came out explaining the reasons why people like me had left, racism was one of the examples. One other young adult said she left because her boyfriend, who’s Hispanic, felt unwelcome at an LCMS church. But the report said something to the effect of “We in the LCMS aren’t racist and are welcoming of people from anywhere, so it’s likely that this boyfriend was being paranoid.” I wish I were making that up. But this kind of head-in-the-sand reaction to overt and covert racism is enough of a pattern that it is clearly an issue.

The easiest response to all of this would be to say not all LCMS pastors are racist, and many would be appalled by racist jokes. Not all LCMS pastors are Islamophobic or antisemitic… not all… I agree. It’s true that not all LCMS pastors are guilty of the things I saw and experienced. But too many LCMS pastors allow racism within their ranks. Too many LCMS pastors cover up racist jokes and comments made by peers. Too many LCMS pastors have defended the Confederacy with impunity. “By their fruit, you will know them.”

[1] I’ll occasionally use the term “pre-seminary” or “pre-seminary students.” It should be understood unless otherwise noted that this always refers to groups of exclusively men, and specifically men who were on track to study to be pastors. Women are not permitted to be ordained as pastors in the LCMS, and so it is exceedingly rare for a woman to be enrolled in the pre-seminary program.

[2] States’ Rights was manifestly not the cause of the Civil War. Reading the articles of secession of several states reveals this, as they explicitly state that a major or even the reason for secession was they wanted the Federal Government to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, itself a major infringement on States’ Rights. I outline some of this, and other reasons to point to slavery as the reason for the Civil War, here.

[3] Research shows that Luther was surrounded by antisemitism from childhood in every context in which he operated, and even his earlier works featured antisemitism at least in illustrations. See Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet by Lydal Roper.

[4] This propensity to deny or explain away defects in heroes’ character is pervasive. That doesn’t excuse it, but should instead make us cautious about our own heroes.

Links

Formerly Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod (LCMS) or Wisconsin Synod (WELS)– A Facebook group I’ve created for people who are former members of either of these church bodies to share stories, support each other, and try to bring change. Note: Anything you post on the internet has the potential to be public and shared anywhere, so if you join and post, be aware of that.

Why I left the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod Links Hub– Want to follow the whole series? Here’s a hub post with links to all the posts as well as related topics.

Be sure to check out the page for this site on Facebook and Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies and more!

SDG.

——

The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.

About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.

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