Woke in the WELS: WISCO worship service on Anti-Racism, WELS Lutheran Leadership Conference #6

Dr. Ken Fisher is the president of Wisconsin Lutheran High School (aka WISCO). He was the co-presenter with Dr. Joan Prince (see these posts) as keynote speaker at the WELS Lutheran Leadership Conference in January. 

Today I'd like to look at the "January 20, 2021 Thanksgiving for Civil Rights" which Ken officiated and I feel has some concerning elements to it. In a future post we'll look at the 2022 service. Curiously, the 2023 service was not posted although chapel services the day before and after were posted, the 2023 service just has a one second clip of an image of MLK with a quote.

We'll start with the call and response which juxtaposes MLK quotes (read by 'M' for 'Minister') with Bible passages (read by 'C' for 'Congregation') ...

First, this juxtaposition seems to impute MLK as a church authority, since his comments are flanked with 'supporting' scripture. Typically, this kind of call-and-response it is either scripture answering scripture, or doctrinal statements responded to by supporting Scripture. Perhaps on a festival day like Reformation we might juxtapose Luther with Scripture. Setting aside MLK's non-Lutheran (and quite frankly questionable) theology, a call-and-response using someone outside our fellowship would be somewhere between rare and non-existent. 

Second, consider the juxtaposition. MLK is claiming it may take a long time but ultimately justice is achieved. The response is what Jesus says to the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), that is, the unbelievers who were to be cast into hell. This would seem to impute that those who do not help the arc of the moral universe bend towards justice cannot be saved.

Does the arc of the moral universe bend towards justice? Is this a Christian premise? If the 'moral universe' is our time of grace prior to the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, I believe the Lutheran response is a resounding No! In Luke 18:8, Christ asks "when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" The commentary from the EHV Bible states: "The implied answer to the question is 'Yes, but not much.'". Our Lutheran confessions state "as the world is aging, man’s nature is gradually growing weaker" (AC XXIII:14), does weakness bend towards Justice? No, this seems like an unscriptural Utopian vision, yet Dr. Fisher reinforces MLK's statement with a condemnation of unbelief.

The closing of the prayer presents a moral equivalency of racism with unbelief (“racism, hated and unbelief”). Will there be racists in Heaven? Did they believe in Jesus Christ's all-atoning sacrifice on the cross? Yes, there will be racists in heaven. Murderers, too. Folks who struggle with gay and lesbian inclinations. There is no sin save the sin against the Holy Spirit (outright rejection of the Gospel) that cannot be forgiven. Why is racism given unique standing as damnable? This thought exists in a more subtle form on the previous slide, hidden in the condemnation of those who weren't helping the moral arc of the universe bend towards (racial) justice. 

Note the similarity in tone to the prayer of the church at the WELS Lutheran Leadership conference

The idea of anti-racism is threaded throughout the service. Dr. Fisher opens with “we also consider those who continue the fight and it's my prayer that you commit yourself to joining in that in that struggle in our own country," sets up a racist/anti-racist dialectic, and the Marxist idea of 'doing the work'. If you don't commit yourself to the struggle, you are part the problem. This idea is reaffirmed early in the service when Dr. Fisher says there is "no room for standing by." 

The juxtaposition, then, of MLK with scripture to reinforce Christian anti-racism is a non sequitur. MLK wanted people to be judged 'not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.' Anti-racism doesn't allow for that passive vision of equals among brothers but requires the active work of anti-racism. If you aren't doing the work of an anti-racist, you are racist. There is no neutral path. 

The theme of anti-racism culminates in the sermon (delivered by Rev. Carlos Leyrer) where we are told "race relations are the biggest stain on American history" (34m) and in reference to Matthew 5:14-16, "when it comes to the idea of civil rights or race relations [Jesus is] saying it's not just enough to not be racist you need to be anti-racism.” (50m)

Jesus is telling us to be anti-racist? Again, it would seem there is no room is allowed for an individual to simply exist as a not-racist, they must do the work of being anti-racist. The view that Jesus wants us to be anti-racist is Ibram X Kendi's view of the Gospel, where he places liberation theology in contrast with savior theology: "To me, anti-racists fundamentally reject savior theology. [Savior theology] goes right along with racist ideals and racist theology." This sets up anti-racism as an alternative to a savior who atones for sin. If anti-racists reject savior theology, then Antiracism is a false Gospel. It replaces the free gift of grace with the Marxist conception of 'doing the work' of anti-racism. 

Call me uncharitable but this is the same equivocation expressed in the prayer of the church at the WELS Lutheran Leadership conference. "Help us to be lights for the gospel, but also make us lights that expose racism." Which is to say nothing of the eisegesis of imputing race in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus' point is not to be salt and light to fix the world's social ills but as is said in verse 16, "so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven."

To be clear, I'm not claiming Dr. Fisher or Rev. Leyrer subscribe to liberation theology. I'm saying we need to be careful to avoid assuming Marxist language and the dialectic of racist and anti-racist when speaking of right relations between human beings, or we wind up diluting the pure Gospel. Woke is more than a worldview, it is a competing religion. This care was also lacking in Dr. Fisher's and Dr. Prince's presentation at the WELS Lutheran Leadership Conference as they problematized whiteness by using Glenn Singleton's 'Courageous Conversation' model.