“Equity-mindedness” and the Vocation of Lutheran Colleges

The recent  Vocation of a Lutheran College conference energized participants over three days with robust conversation sparked by plenary speakers and concurrent sessions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dr. Guy Nave, Professor of Religion at Luther College, Dr. Monica Smith, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Augustana College, and Rebecca Bergman, President of Gustavus Adolphus College, challenged listeners to consider things like “equity-mindedness” when it comes to institutional identity and collective goals. They asked questions about the ways we are and are not using structural privilege to the advantage of all students, faculty, and staff, and offered deeper reflective definitions of the very terms of the conversation itself. 

Both Dr. Smith and Dr. Nave intentionally foregrounded racial justice and challenged participants to consider who is at the decision-making table from hiring committees to boards of regents, including who is on our campus and how they got there. Smith lifted up “inclusive excellence” as a goal for Lutheran colleges and universities, all of which are historically (and most of which are currently) considered PWIs (Predominantly White Institutions). This includes how well an institution values, engages and includes the diversity of its members.

I came away with a lingering need for a reminder of what made this gathering of around 175 staff, administrators, and faculty unique. It is the fact that we are all at colleges and universities that are Lutheran, members of the Network of ELCA Colleges and Universities (NECU).

So what? As Martin Luther himself queried repeatedly in his catechetical writings, “what does this mean?

I could point to some theological concepts that root Lutheran identity such as paradox (we are all saint and sinner, Christians are freed to serve the neighbor), or to the recent statement about the common calling of our institutions (“Rooted & Open”), but more to the point of this year’s conference topic, I want us to call on some specific practical resources available through the denomination itself.

First, as companion note to Dr. Nave’s opening “land acknowledgement” statement, we can refer to the “Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery” affirmed by the ELCA in 2016. This document is “a statement of repentance and reconciliation to native nations in this country for damage done in the name of Christianity.” It “repudiate[s] explicitly and clearly the European-derived doctrine of discovery as an example of the ‘improper mixing of the power of the church and the power of the sword.’” It goes on to direct various ministries of the Church to develop resources and strategies to live anew and alongside of the indigenous peoples who were the first inhabitants of this land. Though colleges and universities are not named, what strategies might your campus employ to repent its participation in such colonial activity?

Second, as theological and ecclesial guidance for a foregrounding of racial justice in these particular conversations, we can refer to the social statement “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture.” This statement was approved by the ELCA at its Churchwide Assembly in 1993, and begins with an effective definition as well as its theological implications:

Racism—a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice—is sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity. The resulting racial, ethnic, or cultural barriers deny the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefore, persons of dignity. Racism fractures and fragments both church and society. When we speak of racism as though it were a matter of personal attitudes only, we underestimate it.

Nave, Smith, and nearly every other speaker and writer on racial justice reiterates this last point because too many people still fail to understand it: Racism is structural, systemic, and institutionalized. Being allegedly “good people” is not enough; in fact, such assertions are part of the problem. In what ways can and must our colleges and universities adjust policies, procedures, and practices in order to move toward inclusive excellence and racial justice?

Third, as companion resource to Smith’s discussion of the various intersectional social classifications that comprise each of our identities, we can look to the draft social statement “Faith, Sexism, and Justice: A Lutheran Call to Action” scheduled to be voted on by the ELCA’s Churchwide Assembly in August. In this piece there is a call toward new commitments that address the problem as stated in some detail: “Patriarchy and sexism reflect a lack of trust in God and result in harm and broken relationships. Just as this church has identified racism as sin, this church identifies patriarchy and sexism as sin.” Again when it comes to our campus communities, where is gender justice seen and not seen in our patterns and practices?

Finally, when it comes to religious diversity which intersects with racial justice in some very particular ways, especially in relationship to the robust initiatives related to interfaith engagement on our campuses, the ELCA has “A Declaration of Inter-Religious Commitment.” This draft policy statement is also scheduled to be voted on at the 2019 Churchwide Assembly. In this resource, the church commits to engaging with our neighbors who are not Lutheran and not Christian, NOT for the sake of evangelizing them but for the sake of serving and defending them. Insofar as they are both legacies and outgrowths of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are clearly in mind with this statement: 

Being a neighbor can be risky. When power is abused, and fear grips a community or a nation, standing up for those who are being targeted or excluded takes courage. We are called to exhibit this courage and take this risk. 

Our colleges and universities share in this call to take a risk: On campuses where interfaith engagement is beginning to flourish, where must we still attend to the well-being and even safety of our racially and religiously minoritized students and community members?

I offer up these examples not only as footnotes to a conference but as a model for how tending to institutional vocation can include drawing upon resources from its denominational and formational bodies. What resources exist related to diversity, equity, and inclusion for your campus community in particular relationship to its heritage and its mission? 

Caryn D. Riswold is Professor of Religion and serves as the Mike and Marge McCoy Family Distinguished Chair in Lutheran Heritage and Mission at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Before joining the Wartburg community in 2018, she taught Religion and Gender & Women’s Studies at Illinois College for sixteen years. She is the author of “Vocational Discernment: A Pedagogy of Humanization” in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education (Oxford University Press, 2015) where she considers the intersection of vocational discernment with issues of race, class, and gender identity. She has previously written for blogs like Patheos and you can now find work at Medium.com.

Author: Caryn Riswold

feminist theologian in the Lutheran tradition, professor, scholar, advocate for justice

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