Saturday, August 7, 2010
In the Ghetto
Germans have always had a big presence in America. Scandinavians have always had a presence in America. Therefore, Lutherans have always had a significant presence in America. But until the urban revolution and the end of the two big wars, Lutherans lived in the ghetto -- a ghetto in the sense of an area often associated with a specific ethnic or racial population often because of social, legal, or economic pressure. Lutherans lived in Lutheran ethnic communities largely on the northern prairie but not always such. Some Lutherans lived in the South and some in NYC but they tended to gravitate together where people shared a common tongue and a common culture. As long as America was largely a rural nation, this only further isolated Lutherans from the mainstream. Sure there were standouts (the Lutheran breweries and pork stores that America learned to love) but Lutherans themselves were hidden in America for a very long time.
We could say the same about the Roman Catholics who came in waves to America and each new immigrant group started on the bottom of the economic and social ladder. The Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Czechs, and on and on -- they all came and made the Roman Catholic the largest religious community in America long before they were accorded any recognition or a place at the table. For Roman Catholics the pivotal events were the nominations of Al Smith and JFK for President and Archbishop Fulton Sheen on TV -- these signaled acceptance in a way that previous generations would not have known -- having lived in the ethnic, language, and cultural ghettos of so many places.
After World War II Lutherans emerged on the American scene en masse. See the post or two below for TIME magazine's take on it all. Lutherans were movin on up to the East Side in a deluxe apartment... oh, I got carried away... But my point is this. This is the age in which I was formed in the faith -- when Lutherans were movin on up in numbers, visibility, acceptance, and influence. That is, until the 1970s.
Some internal denominational battles and mergers and social changes and now, it seems, Lutherans (at least the ones who look, act, and believe like Lutherans) are back in the ghetto -- hidden in and among but not nearly so obvious as they were in the 1950s and 1960s. Our worship is under attack even by those who claim our name, our identity has been blurred by concordats and inter-communion agreements and radical shifts in practice and belief, and our music is like the disappearance of the classical sound from the FM band. We are hidden in many ways and it feels weird to me. I guess it is what we are in for over the long haul but it feels like a retreat from where we were.
Clearly in terms of language, music, and books, the confessional Lutheran is living in a foreign world and to find things amenable to the Lutheran faith and identity means escaping from the press of an American Christianity that transcends denominations but is generically Protestant. In response to this, many confesional Lutherans have chosen isolation over engagement. While not an altogether satisfactory choice, it is understandable given the dimensions of the evangelical movement and its American style.
BUT... living in those ghettos, Lutherans did flourish. They were confident of their identity, confident of their confession, confident of the Christ who was present in worship through Word and Sacrament... So perhaps a little time back in the wilderness won't hurt us in the long haul. I am not speaking about disengaging but recouping, regrouping, and restocking... A large number of issues and events have pushed confessional Lutheranism to the sidelines of American culture and life and from the center stage of American pop religion... and maybe we can use this time fruitfully...