Deutsch: Weisheit der Völker – Theologie des Volkes
Italiano: Sapienza e teologia del popolo
Português: Sabedoria e teologia do povo
Français: Sagesse et théologie du peuple
Español: Sabiduría y teología del pueblo
English: Wisdom and People’s Theology
Dave Brauer-Rieke – « Walking with »
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the Lord their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them;
who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed;
who gives food to the hungry.
The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow,
but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.
The line between vulnerability and victimization is thin. We know this from lived experience, and we read this truth in Scripture.
Vulnerability itself is not a problem. Vulnerability exists hand in hand with great beauty, wisdom, insight and humility. Humanly speaking, there is a part of each of us that is vulnerable. This is to be valued. In the broader sphere of creation, we observe micro-climates that nurture more tenuous forms of life. This is God’s way. Likewise, human communities of character and care lift up the “stranger, the orphan and the widow”. The command to care for such people is clear. However, what ‘should be’ is not always ‘what is.’
My personal history and life journey weaves through experiences of vulnerability, victimization, privilege, fear and faithfulness. As a fourth generation German American I know that people like my great-grandparents fled Germany in part because of poverty, disease and oppression. I know that German Americans in the U.S. were suspect, and between the first and second world wars some were imprisoned in internment camps. However, this is no longer the case, and I recognize that as a white, heterosexual male of European dissent, I am now among the privileged and powerful in my world. So it is that I wrestle with both faith and forgetfulness in my life today.
The line between vulnerability and victimization is often crossed when we forget, fear, or simply pervert our faith to favor the few. Despite my best intentions, I grew up in the United States wholly ignorant of the genocide of Indigenous Peoples who cared for this land before colonization. The stories of Pilgrims and Indians which I was taught in school were deeply flawed. As a child and young adult systemic racism, even as a concept, was not in my theological tool kit. “Sin” was personal, “truth” imported, and “spirituality” existed in another realm of experience. When people think this way, vulnerability easily leads to victimization – and those who victimize may be totally blind to what they do.
How can “obispo” be blind? My very title demands that I see.
There are histories other than mine. The World War II experience of German Americans may be my story, but the gift of Mexican agricultural workers during this same period is another. During World War II Mexico sent men to work the fields of Oregon – where I live – while North Americans, who usually did this work, went overseas to fight. Often these Mexican allies would live in barracks and march out to fields in military formation. This was a part of Mexico’s contribution to the war effort. After the war, Mexican agriculture assistance continued, and it was highly valued by local farmers. Yet, somewhere between Oregon circa 1945 and the present these neighbors and colleagues have become “illegal immigrants.” Today they and their families are at risk.
Why did I not see this happening?
Oregon Lutherans have now awakened to this deep injustice. In the summer of 2016 we designated ourselves a “Sanctuary Synod.” (“Synod” is the Lutheran term for “Diocese”.). Many of us feel betrayed by our own government and can’t understand what happened to the values we thought our country held. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …” it says on the Statue of Liberty. German and Scandinavian American Lutherans, for this is still how we think of ourselves, were among those huddled masses welcomed to this land. Since 1939 Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services have helped settle people in America from all around the globe. Yet, now our country’s president wants to build a wall between us and Mexico. We are told that those who come from the south are murders, rapists and the dregs of society.
How did we get to such a place? Why are we just now wakening to these lies?
What it means to be a “Sanctuary Synod” is something we are living into. In the beginning it meant simply offering safety within Lutheran church walls for those who were being sought unjustly or inhumanely by U.S. Immigration Officials. To date two of our 120 congregations have done this. “Sanctuary” in this sense means space and time for everyone to catch their breath and reconsider. This is important, but it is not enough.
Growing into our new identity, we now understand that it is more often sanctuaries of flesh and blood, rather than wood and stone, which are needed. “Accompaniment”, a spiritual, personal and legal walking with another, is the true gift and need. Accompaniment is needed so those who are arrested or imprisoned along their journey are assured due process. There can be no ministry of sanctuary without a deep commitment to accompaniment.
As a person of privilege, still living in the rhythms of unconscious colonialism, I first believed accompaniment to be a gift of the powerful to the vulnerable. Sometimes this is the case. However, such a limited understanding of accompaniment is why I continue to be part of a system, a country, even a church, that victimizes. True accompaniment is a two-way transaction. It leads to both personal and social transformation for all. Sanctuary is not simply space. It is not just safety “from.” Sanctuary is safety “for.”
Sanctuary is sacred time and space, given that all might flourish. When the vulnerable have become the victim, sanctuary is provided so that the victim might become the survivor. And what is a survivor? A survivor is a victim who has regained their voice.
Survivors rediscover, or perhaps have revealed to them for the first time, their true humanity. As our Lord Jesus Christ himself was Victim and the Resurrected One, so the vulnerable/victim/survivor among us are uniquely qualified to give a true, Christian, testimony. The Gospel is known through the witness of the survivor. I find the Kingdom in communities that accompany. And, where the Kingdom is found, the vulnerable retain their beauty and the line between vulnerability and victimization is protected.
My mother was one of four children. She and her siblings loved to pester their mother with the question, “Which of us do you love the most?” It became a game, where they would ask and ask until, finally, Grandmother would say to them, “I love the one who is sick, until they are well; the one who is sad until they are happy; and the one who is away until they are safely home again.”
These are the words through which I learned about God’s preferential treatment of the poor. Poverty, hunger, differences in our skin color, acculturation, gender identity or faith affiliation – these are not what define us. Rather, such attributes are sacred dimensions of our being through which we express our uniqueness. In human sinfulness, though, these aspects of our personhood can become excuses to divide, abuse or set our neighbor aside. When this happens, God claims with power and promise those we have discarded. “I love the hungry until they are fed; the discriminated against until they are honored; and the refugee until they can call their new land ‘home’.”
When we in Oregon declared ourselves to be a Sanctuary Synod we thought, perhaps, that we were doing a good thing. We believed our motivation was of God and our eyes were turned appropriately to the poor and outcast. I think this is mostly true. However, what the privileged among us did not realize was that we ourselves were both imprisoned and victimized by our own fear and greed.
So it is that my personal life journey continues to weave through experiences of vulnerability, victimization, privilege, fear and faithfulness. I have learned to be vulnerable from those who have survived victimization in their own vulnerability. Being deeply welcomed into the lives of those I myself have had a hand in wounding, I find healing for my own failings. “The way of the wicked”, as the Psalmist says, God “brings to ruin.” In such ruins a Sanctuary of sacred time and space rises up for all.
Bishop Dave Brauer-Rieke is graduated from Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, WA, USA, and from Luther Northwestern Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN. He was elected to serve as bishop of the Oregon Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). He has written devotions for The Upper Room Disciplines 2007 (Abingdon Press) and has poetry included in Simul: Lutheran Voices in Poetry (Xulon Press, 2007). He has supported the “sanctuary movement” within his Church since 2017.
Address: Oregon Synod, ELCA, 2800 N Vancouver Ave. Suite 101, Portland, OR, USA 97222.