Letter from President James Nieman
June 1, 2020
The change we seek
Dear friends in Christ
In recent months, we have been witnessing a repeated loop of harm and violence toward black persons across America. This culminated most recently in George Floyd’s murder one week ago, but that loop is certainly not ending. The wound of racism on which this nation was founded, sustained by white privilege and power, is again hideously apparent for all to see. This is not something at a distance from persons of color at our school, either. These more public events have also triggered a quite real and unremitting pain, fear, and anguish within our own community. Many people in our midst at LSTC now deeply worry about what might unfold for their own families and friends, and this anxiety exacts a toll.
Something else ought to be equally apparent as well. We surely realize that all persons of color have worked tirelessly to address racism. That said, it is not solely or mainly their problem to solve. White people like me are the source of racism, and it will not change unless we take direct responsibility to work with our siblings of color to confront it. I am therefore writing to those who know our predominantly white seminary in this predominantly white ELCA at this moment of recognition. We need to recognize what shapes me and many of us. And then, we need to recognize the change we seek, the future beyond the things we admit, and what could make a substantial, lasting difference.
First, I recognize what shapes me: the story of white supremacy. All my life, I benefitted from arrangements and structures that degrade and exploit black persons simply so I can have more. I therefore have come to regard myself and whites like me as better than others, superior in some sort of way, and deserving of more. For these reasons, I enjoy considerable privilege and security that, in its own self-reinforcing logic, further stoke my sense of superiority. All this allows me to insulate myself from the harm and death visited upon black persons so that, even though sad, these don’t pertain to me. And when I am honest about it (which I rarely am), I really don’t want my comfortable privilege to change.
These are disgusting lines to write. Surely I am better than this. But the truth is I am not, and the evidence is everywhere. Something is wrong when white people like me casually turn from scenes of racial violence or minimize their gravity. Something is wrong when we appear respectful about black rage while secretly hoping it will soon subside. Something is wrong when we invalidate the harm done to black persons by saying their reactions aren’t peaceful enough. Something is wrong when we rationalize our inaction as a reasonable response to the carnage all around. Something is wrong when we muzzle ourselves around white people so we won’t be judged as intemperate for critiquing our own kind.
Recognizing all this is an essential beginning. And if you’re white like me, I invite you to review the lines above and ponder what you would say of yourself if you were honest about it. Recognizing all this is an essential beginning for white people, but only that. It is empty and useless, though, if it doesn’t press us further. We need a second recognition, acknowledging that we must change as white people, how we must change, who we can become with God’s help, and what work that will require. It is about this second recognition that I now write in my role as president of our seminary. Our school is surely not subject to my personal will, but it does follow a core mission and vision that directly pertain to this moment.
Our mission statement says we form visionary leaders to bear witness to the good news of Jesus Christ. But a visionary is someone attuned to the world, and leaders show the way to genuine thriving, and good news surely means good for all persons of color. The statement also says we are a Lutheran school. But being Lutheran is to be molded into “a theologian of the cross [who] calls the thing what it is” (Heidelberg Disputation, 1518), such as America’s original sin of racism. And our mission is amplified by a vision that says we are responsive to context and attentive to diversity. But again, to be responsive is a call to action and not complacency, while the only diversity that matters involves true equity and full inclusion.
In other words, the very language guiding our school and its governance is steeped in an identity and values that should drive us to confront racism and white supremacy. It is already part of the institutional mission to which I committed myself as president when called eight years ago. Naming the sin of racism and white privilege and equipping students to do this are not optional tracks or electives but core to forming ministers of the gospel here and now. This is why we commit resources to antiracism training and intercultural diversity, and deploy hiring practices that seek the richness that comes when all voices are at the table. Being true to our mission these days means recommitting to these same values.
Yet these are not enough. The change we seek began with persons of color who persisted despite racism, it insists that people like me recognize we are shaped by white supremacy, and then turns to recognize steps of repair through strategies already underway at our school. I am deeply grateful to all at LSTC who have actively worked to pursue such justice and whose efforts are central to our mission. But now, something more must be recognized – that these commitments to change must extend across every part of the institution, not only for our sake but as a model for our church, in our neighborhood, and across society at large. In student recruitment, in all courses and formation, in executive direction on racism, and in what we say through our finances and governance, the work toward racial justice and reconciliation must be deep and meaningful. To this future I commit my office and our school.
James Nieman, PhD