Theology at the Margins: Rev. Dr. John Nunes

We’re joined by Rev. Dr. John Nunes for a talk about theology at the margins—in particular what it looks like to re-think reformation Christian theology from the perspective of marginalized people. As a jumping off point, we’re discussing some key topics from the 2017 book Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimagining the Reformation at the Margins, written by Dr. Nunes and Alberto L. Garcia. Published as a commemoration of the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the Roman church, it provides a critique of where the church in America has become complacent and even complicit in ignoring and silencing voices at the margin.

Guest Appearances

Rev. John Arthur Nunes, PhD currently serves as the president of Concordia College New York. Prior to accepting that position, he served at Valparaiso University in Valpo, Indiana as the Emil and Elfriede Jochum Chair for two years. Rev. Nunes was also president and chief executive officer of Lutheran World Relief from 2007-2013. 

Rev. Nunes was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica, moved to Canada when he was four, and immigrated to the United States where he attended college at Concordia University in Ann Arbor. Rev. Nunes graduated with a master of divinity degree from Concordia Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario as well as both a master of theology and doctor of philosophy from the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

Key Topics

  • Who/What are “the margins”? The definition of the margin is determined by what we consider to be the center. For example, in the West and the North, we value access to knowledge, financial resources, education, etc. as markers of prominence, success, and decision-making power. Therefore, individuals and groups of people who don’t have that same access to formal systems of learning and knowledge, education, investment capital, credit, etc. are at the margins.  
  • What is a post-colonial framework, and why is it necessary? A colonial mindset sees the things and/or people of the colonizing entity as essentially superior to the things and/or people that are native to the indigenous setting. In contrast, a post-colonial mindset, or approach, is an attempt to name and reclaim the identity and culture that has been labeled and treated as inferior. 
  • Reclamation of identities and cultures is necessary and consistent with our Christian heritage; Jesus Christ took on human flesh and died for the sins of the whole world, irrespective of categories, cultures, or classes. 
  • What is the relationship between justice and justification? From Dr. Nunes: “The presence of justification is tantamount to the practice of justice in the world.” What is the responsibility of the Church to recognize the relationship between the two and act on it? 
  • Do we, as the church, want to be the thermometer, simply measuring the temperature of what is happening in the world, or do we want to be the thermostat, setting the temperature by leading the way? 
  • “The poetics of the possible”: In the West, we often think of theory and practice as the only two ways of learning, of coming to knowledge. But there is a third way—through poetics. 
  • As redeemed Christians, we are created co-creators. Art, music, and poetry can help build human community in ways that far exceed the theoretical or practical. In fact, the experiential process by which we engage in creative actions and artwork of other cultures has the power to build new kinds of communities—this is the poetics of the possible. 

A Few Mentioned Resources

What are your thoughts on theology at the margins and the responsibility of the church? We’d love to hear from you regarding your experience. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram to share your feedback on this episode.

Episode transcript

Dr. Nunes: That’s a myth that immigrants are a threat to the faith of people in the United States of America. If it weren’t for immigrants to the Roman Catholic Church, the Hispanization of the Catholic Church, you would see numbers really drop off, for example. But immigrants, they’re churched… immigrants are predominantly Christian, and immigrants tend to go to church at higher levels than native-born people in the United States of America.

Michael: Welcome back to another living uncommon podcast. We’re just talking about how Dan is uncomfortable with seizing life by the neck and riding through it without a plan.

Dan: I do like to have some structure at least. I like to know what to expect. It helps me plan. Everything doesn’t have to be planned down to the second. 

Michael: We all we have families, and we’re married, and when you were a single individual, when you could do whatever you wanted and life was good, did you plan your day out, or did you just ride it?

Dan: No. First of all, I got married when I was 21, so I barely remember a time that I was ever single. I mean, I was more just do whatever. I kind of reacted to things versus planning them out. Now, I like to plan things. So, that’s changed a little. Maybe I’m just more mature.

Michael: I’d wake up at ten o’clock in the morning, maybe eleven o’clock, eat a peach.

Dan: Just like TS Eliot.

Michael: Take a bath, walk around… I didn’t have a shower. I was living in like a place that only had a bath. I would walk around the neighborhood, check it out, get some goodies at the local Mexican grocery store, read something, drink some coffee.

Angelina: Did you work?

Michael: Yeah. Once in awhile. That’s life. How about you? Did you plan your days out? 

Angelina: Yes. I’ve always been very, “How many lists do I need to have? What needs to be on each list?”

Dan: You have a list of lists?

Angelina: Sometimes. I love my lists. 

Michael: Do you do new things that weren’t on the list, and then write them down on the list, and then cross them off? 

Angelina: Yes, I have. 

Dan: Do you use some software to control your lists? 

Angelina: I’ve tried. I love paper. I always go back to a paper planner, and paperless just doesn’t do it.

Michael: When you go grocery shopping, do you bring a paper list with you?

Angelina: Sometimes paper. Sometimes, I will do that on my phone. 

Michael: And cross it out as I go?

Angelina: It’s organized by the route that I know I will take through the grocery store. 

Michael: I do that too.

Angelina: So I don’t have to do any backtracking. No time wasted.

Michael: When I go through the grocery store, I’ll have my route, and then I’ll be like, “Oh, now I can go anywhere I want. Maybe grab a frozen pizza, or I could grab some new breadstick invention they’ve come up with.”

Dan: We work with a pre-printed checklist. When we run out of things, it’s magnetized to the refrigerator. When we run out of things, we take the thing, check it off, if we need more cereal, and then that checklist becomes the grocery list. It’s kind of nice, but I don’t ever bring anything with me to cross it off once I get it. I just grab the pea pods, or whatever, and put them in the thing. 

Michael: Do you always eat the same stuff? 

Dan: Somewhat, regularly, yeah. We always seem to run out of the same things every week.

Angelina: What about bulk buying? How do we feel about bulk buying? 

Dan: I’ve never done it.

Michael: There’s two things. The happiest place on earth for me is a grocery store at like 10 o’clock at night and 11 o’clock at night when there’s no one there. I love it. I can walk through the frozen food aisles and just browse. My unhappiest place is a place like Costco at 12 o’clock on an afternoon on a Saturday. You’re elbowing your way through old people that are thinking that it’s  10 o’clock at night on a Monday. So, it’s miserable. Everyone’s crowding around to get samples, and then you have no options. You have one kind of chicken breast, you know, whatever, it’s just a big box of it. These are the problems we deal with right now in society. What do you think of bulk buying?

Angelina: I mean, we don’t have any kids, so it doesn’t make sense for us to do it. There’s not really anything that we use in such a large quantity that wouldn’t go bad. Maybe rice? We don’t use that much rice. 

Michael: I like paper towels.

Angelina: I’m trying to move away from paper towels. 

Michael: Good for you. What are you using? Just use the corner of your shirt?

Angelina: Yeah. Just wipe your hands on your pants. They’re coming off at the end of the day anyway.

Dan: What about single-use plastic forks? 

Michael: Like in our office? 

Angelina: Oh, I feel so bad when I forget my silverware and I have to go over there and get one of those.

Dan: You use it once, and throw it away. I have been reusing mine. I just clean it. It’s one of the hardy ones from the salad vending machine. They have better plastic ware.

Michael: Do you guys use those paper straws?

Dan: I don’t use straws. I just drink. 

Michael: I don’t use straws either. When I’ve gotten them at restaurants, or places, they give me a paper straw, it’s okay. I’ll suffer for it. 

Angelina: They always get so soggy. At that point, it’s almost like, I’d rather just drink out of a cup. 

Michael: I feel like they should give you a little scissors so when it gets soggy, you can cut off the top, and keep going down. So, why are we here today? We had a really good podcast. I wasn’t here for it. I kind of wish I was. I was in Ann Arbor, taking care of some business there. We had the president of Concordia in New York join us, John Nunes. Talk to me a little bit about what you knew about Dr. Nunes before this podcast, and how it came to be.

Dan: So, I like to read a lot of theology, and my interest lies in culture and theology, and the church, and how they mix together. I read a lot of theology from people outside of the mainstream of your standard white, evangelical theology. I was looking to see, here at Concordia, who we have that fits into that mold. Someone said, “Oh, Dr. Nunes has written on that and speaks on that extensively.” I should also say Dr. Garcia, who used to teach here in the theology department, is retired now. He also writes extensively on the topic. The two of them wrote this book together for the 500th Reformation anniversary. I thought it was a great book. We have a signed copy here in the library, which is nice. It’s signed by Dr. Garcia. I also was the only person that checked it out. I was kind of sad when I checked it out. It was brand-new. The book had never been cracked open before. It’s not light reading, but it’s pretty interesting. They each split the topics. Each man is writing from his own perspective. They trade off chapters. Dr. Nunes has interesting backstory. He was born in Jamaica, and his family came over to Canada. Then, he immigrated from Canada to the U.S. for college and spent his time at Concordia Ann Arbor for undergrad. There’s a lot of ties between us and him. I thought it was a great conversation.

Angelina: What’s the title of that book? 

Dan: I know the book is Wittenberg Meets the World. I believe you can find it at just about any library and definitely on Amazon. 

Michael: Well, let’s take a listen to that podcast. As a reminder, speaking of Concordia, this podcast is brought to you by Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor. In particular, their online programs. For anything you want to do in life, there’s a program for that at Concordia. Also, there’s some great continuing education options that are coming out as well. Check us out at online.cuw.edu. Hope you enjoy the podcast.

Dan: All right, so, welcome back to the Living Uncommon podcast. Today, we’re gonna be talking theology. Angelina, I know you’re excited about that. Particularly, we’re gonna be talking about what it looks like to rethink Reformation Christian theology from the perspective of marginalized people. It’s an important topic in the Western Church, especially, and for global Christianity in general. So, as a jumping-off point, we’re gonna be looking at the 2017 book, Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimagining the Reformation at the Margins. This book is kind of a commemoration of the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther’s protest against the Roman Church, but it’s a commemoration in a different way. It’s kind of a good way to commemorate a protest, almost with a protest, or a critique, of where the church in America is right now, where we’ve become complacent, and even complicit, in ignoring and silencing voices at the margin. I have my copy here. Actually, it’s really late. I keep getting late notices. So, I owe the library some money now. Wittenberg Meets the World is written by Reverend Dr. Alberto Garcia, emeritus professor of theology for Concordia University Wisconsin, and our guest today, Reverend Dr. John Nunes, president of Concordia College New York. John, welcome to the living uncommon podcast. 

Dr. Nunes: It’s great to be here. Thanks a lot, Dan. 

Dan: We always like to start out hearing a little bit about the backstory of our guests. One of the things that we like to hear is your own Christian journey, your faith journey. Where did you start out, and where are you right now?

Dr. Nunes: Sure. First, actually, and Dan, thanks for the opportunity to talk about myself. I was born in Montego Bay, Jamaica. I was born in a place that some people might consider on the margins a developing world country. I was baptized as an infant in February of 1963, about a month after I was born. My family moved to Canada when I was about four years old, and we joined a Lutheran Church because of a three-letter solution to my mother’s summertime blues. She had four kids at that point, and we were like eight, six, four, and two. I was the oldest and the most active. She found this solution for us, and she sent the two boys down the street to VBS, and we got dragged home on the very first day of VBS by the pastor’s wife who rightly accused us of fighting. You see, when boys meet new friends, they often introduce themselves to them with their fists. We got into a fight, and she dragged his home. We got to the screen door of the house, and my mother came to the door balancing two children, a four-year-old and a two-year-old. My father was hard at work. She saw the pitiful look on my mother’s face. Then, my mother said, “They’re back?” Through the screen door on that day, the pastor’s wife said something like,“Well, we’re the Lutheran Church. We’re the Church of second chances. So, we’ll take them back,” which is actually what she did. She did some things to us to make us behave that were still legal in the 70s. I think about that a lot, Dan. Our life is often filled with contingent moments, those moments when life can go one way or another way. Just imagine that day at that screen door. Had she chosen to give us sort of the justice that we deserved rather than the mercy that we didn’t deserve, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here with you today. The rest of my life journey probably wouldn’t have gone in this direction because we clearly wouldn’t have joined the Lutheran Church. I clearly wouldn’t have met my wife who is Lutheran. I met her in a Lutheran Church. I clearly wouldn’t have taught at a Lutheran College in Valparaiso, Indiana. I clearly wouldn’t be the president of Lutheran College in New York now. So, there’s an amazing providential love that God shows us and weaves through the course of our lives.

Dan: So, that was when you were young in Canada? Actually, you made your way over here…

Dr. Nunes: At 18 years old through a tunnel, the Detroit Windsor Tunnel. So, I’m an immigrant to the United States of America. Thanks for letting me in. Glad to be here. I hope I haven’t messed it up too much for you. I’ve tried to do some good. Since I’ve been 18 years old, I went to Concordia College in Ann Arbor, Michigan and had a great experience at the sister institution, the sibling institution of Concordia University Wisconsin. I got great grounding there in the humanities, philosophy, and political science. I experienced great intellectual, challenging growth when I was there. I went to seminary, went to a couple seminaries, ended up graduating from Concordia Seminary in St. Catharines, Ontario, and lived in Buffalo New York and community, and then did graduate work after that at the Lutheran school theology at Chicago, another master’s degree, and then a PhD also from there.

Dan: Wow! And, you ended up as the president of Concordia College in New York. Tell us a little about how you got there.

Dr. Nunes: Yes, I’m the president of Concordia College in New York for three years now. The metropolitan New York area is home 20 million people, and it’s the largest, diverse megalopolis on the planet. Eight hundred different languages are spoken in the Greater New York City area, and really, Concordia College New York is a microcosmic representing of the Greater New York area, which makes it very exciting. The majority of our students are so-called minorities. Minority is an interesting term, isn’t it? 87 percent of the world’s population is minority, which is interesting. How could the majority be the minority? But, nonetheless, we can maybe return to that a little bit later. 

Angelina: Let’s definitely do that.

Dr. Nunes: Nonetheless, we have an incredibly rich and diverse tapestry of students at Concordia College New York. Our mission is that we are a Christian higher education community of learning. There are 300 colleges and universities in the Greater New York City area, and we are one of a handful that is explicit and self conscious in it’s Christian identity. We say that we are a place where mutual respect flourishes because in a diverse environment, there has to be a mutual respect, a place where responsibility is developed. We want all of our students to have a sense that there’s a world for which they are responsible, there is a neighbor for whom they are responsible, and there are causes that they need to invest their lives in. So, a place where mutual respect flourishes, where responsibility is developed, and where reverence for God is cultivated, and the notion that our life is about more than just us, that there’s a kind of transcendent destination and design to the fabric of life, where reverence for God is cultivated. And, it’s all about the ‘so that’ clause. So that students can pursue lives of passion, purpose, and service, that’s who we are.

Angelina: That’s beautiful. That’s so beautiful. 

Dan: We’re gonna talk a little bit about some of the ideas in the book. So, we’ll start actually by revisiting that question that you’ve just asked. Who is the margins? The subtitle of the book is “reimagining the reformation at the margins.” We hear these words kind of thrown around, ‘minority’ or ‘margin,’ things like that. Can you help us define that? 

Dr. Nunes: These are really interesting categories, aren’t they? In a certain sense, your definition of the margin will be determined by what you consider to be the center. Attributions of marginality depend on our assumptions about what’s at the center. I think, in the West and in the north, we tend to think that to be Christian, or to be Lutheran, means a particular set of things. Sometimes, those things that we think that it means to be Lutheran are more cultural than they are the content of the Christian faith. So, we define, often, in the West, you know, in the West, we have a repository of knowledge that is largely propositional. On pages, and in books, and in libraries, and formalized knowledge, in the West, we have financial resources. We are the wealthiest society that has ever lived in North American society. In the West, we have access to opportunity and all those things are kind of definitive of what it means to be at the center. At the margins would be the inverse of those things. So, people who don’t have access to formal systems of learning and/or knowledge, people who do not have access not only to education, but to financial resources, and access to credit, and access to investment capital, people who don’t have access to decision-making in power. I would define the margins as that. Now, you could argue, from a theological perspective, that if Jesus is at the center of all that we are, think, believe, and do, then whoever’s closest to Jesus is at the center. I think it’s more than just Jesus that figures into what Dr. Garcia and I mean when we use this term, but we’re actually thinking about the systems of power, the systems of justice, and the systems of defining terms. Even if I say, “What does a Lutheran look like?” Immediately images come to your mind. A casserole, and bowling leagues, and coffee. For the average Lutheran, it looks like East Africa now. I mean, there are more Lutheran’s at church in Ethiopia and Tanzania, just those two countries alone, than there are in North America. 

Dan: That very clearly then is something that those of us in the majority world, or the Western world, or however you want to define us, something we need to be paying attention to. Then, why does it matter now? Why are we now suddenly recognizing, or trying, to be more intentional about looking at the marginal?

Dr. Nunes: I think we have a great opportunity, Dan, here in the United States. I love your word intentional because, I think, we have a great opportunity. The United States is undergoing a significant, seismic, demographic shift. It’s more than just a simple change in the landscape, but it’s at a tectonic level. It’s at a deep level in the U.S. In 1960, the United States, was 88 percent white by 2060, the United States will be 44 percent white. That’s an amazing kind of demographic shift, which means that we have great opportunity to really engage the world with immigrants, like me, and others who have moved to the U.S. and considered it home, but still have linkages all over our planet. I believe that God is actually up to something with the kind of diversity that we have. Namely, the whole tide of history is not like incidental or accidental, and it doesn’t just happen. The eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea as the place the destination for the first coming of God’s Son Jesus Christ, I believe that God intentionally chose that place, Palestine, because it was from there that there was an access to Africa, and to Asia, and to Europe, and to get the gospel into all the world. So, similarly, I think what God is up to here, in North America, with the movement of people’s to North America, this amazing shift in our population, really gives us incredible, expansive, evangelistic opportunity. If we listen, if we pay attention, and I think that was the term used, pay attention.

Dan: Well, the majority of immigrants coming into America, I believe, are Christian, or would self-identify as Christian. 

Dr. Nunes: That’s a myth that immigrants are a threat to the faith of people in the United States of America. If it weren’t for immigrants to the Roman Catholic Church, the Hispanization of the Catholic Church, you would see numbers of attendees and Roman Catholic churches really drop off, for example. By immigrants, their church, immigrants are predominantly Christian, and immigrants tend to go to church at higher levels than native-born people in the United States of America. 

Angelina: As I’m hearing, as I’m listening to you talk, we just had a conversation last week with President Ferry and Dr. Cario about history and the role that history plays in understanding our current world. They were talking about now, today, there’s more minority groups, and women are stepping up to reimagine history, or reinterpret history, and look at what really happened. That’s giving us new insight into how we got to where we are today. As I’m hearing you talk about where the United States is going demographically, and when you really look at the numbers and see what the average Lutheran really looks like, these are stories that we’re just now, these facts and figures, we’re just now paying attention to them. It’s interesting to think about the increase of minorities and how we’re now seeing the stories that we’ve been telling ourselves aren’t true any longer. I find that really fascinating and encouraging. 

Dr. Nunes: I like the way you say that, Angelina. I believe that to be Western, and I think this is something unique about being Western, namely, that to be Western is to be diverse. In other words, so called Western tradition is a fabric of many tributaries, many rivers, that form this great, mighty, rushing, western river. They did this poll recently of Americans, and they asked people in the United States of America whether or not schools should teach Arabic numbers. The majority of people in the United States of America said, “No, absolutely not.” Well, we already do teach Arabic numbers. I mean, otherwise we’d be stuck with Roman numerals. We don’t realize the degree, or the extent, to which the Western tradition itself has been informed by so many other voices that have been, in many cases, either ignored, or neglected, or silenced at the margins, and then to shift the narrative helps these other voices to get a place at the table. I mean, even historically, if you look at St. Augustine. St. Augustine, who is probably one of the, if you think of like who are the fathers of Western civilization, you think, ‘Augustine’s gotta be, right?’  Augustine helps shape Western Civ. Augustine grew up in North Africa. His father was probably a Roman, and his mother was probably a Berber, which is a native of that part of North Africa, Carthage, present-day Tunisia. There’s much evidence in Augustine’s Confessions of Africanisms in Augustine. So, for example, there’s this place in the confessions where it says that Augustine’s mother offers meal cakes at the shrine. The offering of meal cakes at the shrine is an african custom. So, my point is that Western Civ is more informed than we realized, to your point, with all of these other global inputs. So, part of the purpose of “Wittenberg meets the world” is to lift up and identify these other voices. 

Angelina: In the process, we can reclaim those bits that really do belong to the marginalized groups that we’ve retold the story to erase their impact. I think there’s a beautiful work to be done in reclaiming that. 

Dr. Nunes: I agree with you. I think, Angelina, what we can do is we can enrich the tradition, the Western tradition. We can enhance its perpetuity because a tradition is not a fixed thing, it’s a fluid, adaptive kind of thing. So, as their tradition adapts, it actually lasts. It’s a dead, ossified thing that never changes.

Dan: One of the concepts that you talk about in the book is the idea of a post-colonial framework, and again, these are terms that we hear out in the world. These days, a lot of people are talking about how these may be more sociological terms. Can you describe what a post-colonial framework is and why it’s necessary?

Dr. Nunes: I think, Dan, what I’ll do to describe that is tell a story about my dad. So, my dad is Afro Jamaican and grew up during the colonial period in Jamaica, when Jamaica was a British colony, from which we get the word ‘colonial.’ My dad had fabless schooling, but he would always say, “I can’t give three cheers to colonialism. Maybe I can give two Cheers. Some days, it’s only one cheer, but I can’t give three cheers.” Although he had a fabless colonial education where he learned Shakespeare, and learned Wordsworth, and he learned from the Masters, you know, the British masters. He also learned that an elm tree was a superior form of tree to a mango tree. Now, mango trees grow in Jamaica. Mango trees produce fruit, mango trees produce shade on hot days. Elm trees grow in England, which is the only reason that the British schoolmaster said that the elm tree is a superior form of tree. Who has ever heard of a form of tree being a superior type of tree, you know, or gayness of tree then another type of tree? So, clearly, this is what’s called a ‘colonial mindset.’ The things that come from the colonial, or colonizing, entity are inherently, essentially superior to the things that are native to the indigenous setting. So, a post-colonial mindset, or approach, is an attempt to reclaim the sort of identity and the naming of things that exist, the naming of the culture. So, there’s always among a half row Jamaicans, a sort of shame around complexion. For example, a darker skin. There used to be this thing, “if you’re black, get back, if you’re brown, stick around. If you’re yellow, then you’re mellow, and if you’re white, you’re just right.” So, there’s this notion that even this kind of color consciousness, this kind of caste classification of people, was based from the texture of their hair, to the color of their skin, to the to the breadth of their nose, to the width of their lips, all these kind of features, which were seen as inferior. That’s all a colonial mindset. Of course, God made all of these things that I have described. God made trees, God made people, and God made people in God’s own image. For us to then deprecated a kind of people, not based on anything they say, or do, but based on who they are, is not what God would have us do. A post-colonial theology attempts to address this concern. 

Angelina:I love that. 

Dr. Nunes: Thank you. I think that’s pretty important. Jesus Christ, at the end of the day, came and took on human flesh and died for the sin of the whole world, irrespective of all of these kind of categories, and cultures, and classes, that we’re talking about. This reclamation is consistent with our Christian heritage. Christianity is not a culture.

Angelina: Do you find when you’re having these conversations, and you’re doing this work of living out the post-colonial theology that you’re talking about, do you find that people are willing to engage in that? Or, how do you deal when there’s pushback to that? 

Dr. Nunes: That’s a great question. I hadn’t thought about the pushback. I think, more broadly to your question, Angelina, what we need to do in pluralistic settings, such as that which the church has the opportunity to to engage in North America, what we need to do more of is engage in really sincere, deep listening to one another, actually paying attention to what others are saying. That goes on every side. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that, “the first service that Christians owe each other is to listen, and if we stop listening to one another, it’s not long before we stop listening to God.” Listening is hard work. Listening really requires actively paying attention and listening with all of one’s senses, and listening without presuppositions. When there is pushback, I try to listen and see where it’s coming from. Some of the pushback, I think, is from people who feel that their identity would be threatened. The affirmation of identity that others might have is perceived to be a threat, sometimes, to the identity that other groups have. I think, to pay attention to that fear, and to listen to that fear, and to take it seriously, that’s really important work. I think, sometimes the pushback is just because the person is having a bad day. It’s not to take it too personally either. What a person says about you often says more about the person than it does about you.

Angelina: Almost always.

Dan: One of the things that you’re doing in the book is reframing some common terms and theological ideas, one being justice and justification. One of the things you said that I found really interesting, you said, “The presence of justification is tantamount to the practice of justice in the world.” What is the relationship between justice and justification?

Dr. Nunes: That’s a great question, Dan. In the first place, linguistically, in both Greek and Hebrew, the two biblical languages, primarily biblical languages, justification and justice come from the same root. God’s justice for us is God’s justifying love towards us. That’s the first place. There’s a semantic connection between these two terms. Second, those who are justified by this mercy of God that comes to us undeservedly will live lives of justice for others. Justice, in other words, can’t be just for us. Justice has got to be for others. What I attempt to do is to show the fundamental linkage between justification and to live a life of justice. Now, some times, in conservative Lutheran circles, we are hesitant. I think we draw a wedge between justification and justice because we say, “Well, you know, justification is what God does for us. Justice is how we live that out in the world, and it’s a messy business.” We lack this insistence. I think, one of the things we learn from the church in the developing world is the imperative to be people of justice, where rights are denying people, where access to opportunity is denied people. These are fundamental justice questions. I’m wondering, if we draw the wedge between justification and justice in the North because we have access to these opportunities. So, therefore, we don’t have to have these two categories so close together because we’ve got that all figured out. For people who have suffered oppression, or for people who have suffered from lack of access, that justice question is a key question. If Lutheran’s don’t take seriously the kind of justice question, then, it’s gonna be hard for us to be heard in many communities where people are so called ‘marginalized.’ Does that make sense?

Dan: It does. One of the examples in the book that you bring up a couple of times is, I’m just gonna give you the the EECMY.

Dr. Nunes: That’s the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus. It’s an American phrase which means place of Jesus. 

Dan: This is an Ethiopian branch, would that be appropriate to say, of Lutheranism? 

Dr. Nunes: Its it’s own independent National Church. So, it’s the Ethiopian national Lutheran Church. 

Dan: They have something like 8 million followers. You do bring them up several times in the book, and the stories that you tell about what’s happening there are fascinating. Why is that a good example of what’s happening outside of the centering of Western theology?

Dr. Nunes: That’s a great question as well. You ask great questions, Dan. Thanks very much. 

I think Ethiopia and the United States are correlates in so many ways. In other words, we need each other, and God’s up to something there too. I believe God builds codependency, or inter dependency, into the fabric of who the body of Christ is. We realized, at some point or another, that we need one another, we need each other, we need other believers, and Ethiopia, and the U.S. need each other in some amazing ways that I find really inspiring. For example, their churches have a lot of young people. The majority are young people. Our churches don’t. Their churches are growing in a great great way. Our churches are not. Their churches have really energetic worship. Our churches tend not to have, we tend to be formal. That’s fine. I mean, we tend to be formal, and we call that reverential. That’s fine. Their churches also are hungry for theological education. We’ve got lots of that. Their churches are hungry for financial resources. We’ve got that as well. I think God is kind of built something into this. I think God, sometimes, just builds it and then kind of just watches. “Let’s see how you live this out. Let’s see how you do life together, live out your faith.” That’s one of the reasons I decided, because I just think there’s an amazing correspondence between these two church bodies. 

Angelina: Do you feel any sense of urgency when you look at the values that over in Ethiopia, what they’re kind of embodying, and their theology, and their practice, and even the conversation of justification, and living out a life of justice? Is there a sense of urgency there for the Western Church to really pay attention and to start integrating some of those?

Dr. Nunes: It’s really interesting. I’ll paraphrase a quote I have in the book. “Jesus saves us. Jesus saves us from our sin. Jesus saves us from poverty. Jesus saves us from disease. Jesus saves us from injustice.” I do think there’s an urgency for us to reclaim. I believe North American Christians and Lutherans once had this sense that Ministry of the word and Ministry of deed are the same ministry. They are not two different kinds of ministry. Administrative mercy, and administrative works, and a Ministry of the word of God. That’s as one ministry. If you notice, in the West, we have this bifurcation of our social service agencies. A Lutheran agency, way over here, and not a whole lot of connection to the church. Then, you had the church, which opens on Sundays, and maybe it has a school Monday through Friday, or a daycare center, and it doesn’t do much in its community beyond that. Again, there’s much that we can learn from each other. One of the senses I get that we can learn from the church in Ethiopia, and in many parts of the developing world, is that the church is the focus and the center of the community. It is the church that carries out so many of these functions in civil society. I think, in the West, we bequeathed that to the government and to other large institutions. I think a reclamation of that, that’s where I would sense there would be some urgency. A reclamation of the inherent connection between word and deed. 

Dan: So, one of the things, and again, a hot buzzword, we talk about diversity, talk about pluralism. I know that these are things that you speak on regularly. What are we missing? What opportunities are we missing right now in the West to organically become diverse? Not just diverse for diversity’s sake. We have a few people of color over here, and they’re part of our thing. To become organically, to to kind of invite people in, or to maybe, even better, to go out to where the people are. What opportunities are we missing?

Dr. Nunes: In the first place, I think that, in the West end, we’ve probably done better with diversity than the developing world has. I mean, the developing world tends to be more homogeneous. As I mentioned, New York City, for example, is a diverse megalopolis. It’s the most diverse, large city on the planet. I actually think in the West, we’ve done well. I don’t think in the church we’ve done well. I think Western society has diversity built into its fabric. If you look at London, if you look at Paris, you look at New York, these are all what great western cities, if you look at Johannesburg even, which I would consider a Western city, it’s on the continent of Africa, but I would consider Western, great diversity in these places, it’s the church that has lagged in this respect. Yet, built into the church, built into the faith, is all the material we need for diversity. I mean, we’ve got all of the kind of theological apparatus to build diversity. All of the materials and fabric to build diversity, but we’ve struggled in the church. In those terms of struggle, Lutheran’s are more white and more english-speaking than even Mormons, which is stunning because Mormons actually had laws against people of color joining their church. That takes work for us to be more white and English speaking than that. I think we have great opportunity, in our Lutheran faith tradition, to build on some of these connections that we have with Lutheran’s all over the world. The Lutheran Church is actually growing around the world, it’s not declining. There are more Lutheran’s alive now than there have ever been in the history of the planet, but there’s been a great shift in terms of who comprises these Lutheran’s. I think, for us to just stay within our own faith tradition, we don’t have to go outside of our faith tradition. I just recognize, and realize, and receive some of the gifts and the benefits that come from Lutheran’s around the world. 

Dan: Looking closer to home, not just in the international community, but in our local communities, and one of the things that I have always really respected about the Lutheran church is that, in a lot of our urban centers, Milwaukee is no exception, there was a period of what we like to call “white flight.” A lot of white folks left the city and abandoned inner city areas. A lot of Lutheran stayed. I should say, a lot of Lutheran churches stayed. The church that I grew up in was one that had a very prominent place at the old Concordia, near the old Concordia campus downtown Milwaukee. They fled the inner city, and they built a large campus outside. I didn’t grow up in the Lutheran Church, but a lot of Lutheran churches in Milwaukee stayed, and they started opening up schools, and they started trying to minister to the community. Is that the kind of thing? That’s one of the opportunities, obviously, that I think some Lutheran churches are well equipped for.

Dr. Nunes: I agree with you. I think the fundamental question is, does the church want to be a thermostat or a thermometer? A thermostat measures the temperature. A thermometer sets the temperature. I think we have an opportunity to set the temperature in a very hyper segregated society. The Upper Midwest is one of the most hyper segregated parts of the United States of America. Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, St. Louis, this belt here, the old industrial belt, the Midwest is hyper segregated. I agree with you. We have a chance to set the temperature more than merely reflecting the kind of patterns, which I believe are sinful, when people segregate themselves for negative reasons.

Dan: We talked a little bit about the global picture for Lutheran’s. You’re talking a little bit in the book about doctrine, or theory, and practice. Then, you identify a third way that you’re calling, “the poetics of the possible,” and I love that phrase. I love poetry. I think poetry is an amazing way that we can communicate ideas and emotions in a very kind of concise way, and maybe a little more creative and artistic way. What is the poetics of the possible? What does that look like? How does that connect us to each other? How does it connect people at the center with people at the margins?

Dr. Nunes: I want to thank you, Dan, for noticing that point. I sometimes think that point is a little bit too rarefied, and refined, and abstract for people to pick up. In the West, we think of theory and practice, those two ways. Aristotle, who is Western, who is a dead, white male. I just want to go on the record that I’m quoting him. Aristotle said there are three ways that we can learn things or come to knowledge, one is through theory, one is through practice, and the third is through poetics. It’s interesting from a theological perspective. We have this thing we call the Creed. “I believe in God the Father, the Almighty, the blank of Heaven and Earth.” What’s the blank? 

Dan: I’m gonna say its creator. Is that right? 

Dr. Nunes: That’s correct. Or, maker. Creator, maker of heaven and earth. If you peel back that word, maker or creator, the word is “the poet” in Greek, the poet of heaven and earth. So, think of it that way, this creativity is built into the creation. As redeemed Christians, we are created co-creators. We are created, for sure, but we’re also co-creators. Part of that work of being a co-creator is that we can create things like music, like art, like poetry, and I think there’s a place for the Arts and for music to build human community in ways that seven easy steps, and four quick tips, and the three highly effective habits of diverse churches can’t do. The experiential process that you enter into when you sing songs, and when you dance dances, and when you engage in creative acts, and actions, and artwork of other cultures, and they of yours, I think has power to create new kinds of communities. This is the poetics of the possible. That’s what I’m trying to do with that thought there. In ways for me to write it in a book, or say, “let’s go do this,” as I said, with the “how to,” in ways that exceed the theoretical and the practical.

Dan: How are you putting these ideas into practice? How do you see these may be reflected in some of the work that you’re doing at Concordia, or some of the work that you’re a part of? 

Dr. Nunes: One of the reasons I love being at Concordia College of New York is, well, let me just say this, being a part of the whole Concordia University system is a great blessing because we have these eight Concordia’s, and they each have their own charism, their own character, their own spiritual gift. Concordia University Wisconsin and Ann Arbor offer the University System so many aspects from which we can learn. I’m always calling President Ferry and seeking his guidance. I called in three days ago I said any advice on something, I need your help with something, you’ve got something I don’t have, you know something I don’t know, can you please help me? One of the benefits and blessings I believe that Concordia College New York brings to the system is, and partly it’s because of where we’re located, and partly because we’ve been intentional for a lot longer, is the sort of diversity that we have. That’s just a way of life at our place. In fact, we don’t have any groups. We don’t have any identity groups, black student organization groups, or Black Student Union, or Latino students groups. We’re just one Concordia. Everybody’s at the table. So, one of things we like to say is, “If you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu.” So, everybody is at the table, and everybody’s a part of the community. I think we have a great history of shared voices and intentionality around that. It’s a delight to be able to bring the gifts that we have to the whole system, and also to receive from the system the gifts that other institutions have. 

Angelina: I think that’s such a beautiful example of you talking about being in the system of universities, and how you see the value, and learning from each other, even though we can look very different, or whatever those differences may be. I think that is a great example of when we’re talking about the church in Ethiopia, and the Western churches, how that it can be mutually beneficial to learn from each other, and to work together, and there are gifts that each side can bring to the table.

Dr. Nunes: You’re exactly right, Angelina. There’s just something. I’m always trying to understand the way God works in my own life. One of the things I’ve noted is that God will often get us to the place where we say, “I need you” to another person. There is something about that that helps create Christian community and Koinonia, this kind of sense of mutual need, and this mutual consolation, and this mutual sharing. I believe that’s one of the powerful things of the Concordia University system, and the church internationally. 

Dan: Can you recommend some resources that if people want to dig a little bit deeper, other than your fine book? Are there some other resources that people might be able to access to learn more about either post-colonial theology, or even some more practical tips, and how they can start applying these things? 

Dr. Nunes: Absolutely! So, a couple of things I want to say. First, I want to mention the theologian named Leopoldo Sanchez who teaches at Concordia Seminary St. Louis. I would say just google him, Leo Sanchez. Anything he writes, I would highly recommend. When we’re talking about human communities and how communities work together, I’m liking a lot of this book by Ben Sasse. He’s a conservative, Republican senator from Nebraska. He’s got a book called, “Them” subtitled, “why we hate each other and how we can heal,” which I think is a great book in terms of civic participation and how we can learn to build community in the United States of America. I highly recommend my co-author of this book, who’s written all sorts of things. His name is Alberto Garcia, as you mentioned earlier in the program here, and one of his books is called, “Signpost for Global Witness and Luther’s theology of the cross.” A chapter he wrote in a book called, “Theology of the cross for the 21st century.” I highly recommend him. I think it’s important to read liberals, and I think it’s important to read progressives, so I think it’s important to read Gustavo Gutierrez on topics of liberation theology. You’re not going to agree with everything he says. I think it’s important to read James Cone. He’s got a book called, “A Lynching Tree,” to help just broaden perspective. You’re not going to agree with everything he says. I think it’s important to read a a conservative named Arthur Brooks who writes for the American Enterprise Institute. I think we have an opportunity to open ourselves to a world of ideas, and just take from them what works, finally, in the places where God has planted us. At the end of the day, like Booker T Washington said, “You got a bloom where God has planted you.”

Dan: Well, we could can talk about this for hours, I think, but we’re gonna wrap it up. John, thank you so much for being a be our guest today.

Angelina: We really appreciate you taking time.

Angelina: That was an interesting conversation, certainly.

Dan: Yeah, definitely.

Michael: Are you guys able to recite the Creed now? 

Dan: It was a little painful, a little embarrassing from my perspective.

Angelina: That was certainly embarrassing. If you’re here now, you probably know that we were asked a question about the Creed, and Dan and I both froze. Dan, you you did a good last-minute rescue there.

Dan: I tried my best. Michael has some good exposure to the to the Creed.

Michael: The only way I know the Creed is through, there’s a Christian rock band called Petra from the 80s that I listened to when I was 6. They have a song that’s basically the Creed, but it rocks harder. 

Dan: Thoughts on some of the stuff that Dr. Nunes was talking about?

Michael: I mean, I thought it was interesting. Again, I wish I could have been there in person to be part of it. One thing, he mentioned this quickly. It wasn’t something he focused on, but it got me thinking, was the “bifurcation of social issues and social care” and the court Church, right? That’s not wrapped up into the church itself, but there’s often a branching out. There was an overarching thread of the conversation that was different than that, but that stuck out to me. I never really looked at it from…the organizations that are Christian organizations that do good work, but, really, it should all be housed within the church itself, if that makes sense. I mean, churches should be more proactive with how they engage their communities.

Angelina: I thought it was such a good example to show the church in Ethiopia and what it looks like for them to have that in practice. When you compare that to the American church as a whole, it’s quite different.

Dan: I always wanted to go over there and just see how they do things. I mean, I probably wouldn’t quite fit in, and they don’t speak English in their services. I think most of their literature is untranslated in English still. They’ve got a tradition there that’s almost 2000 years old, so, of course I’m talking about the ethiopian orthodox church. It’s a slightly different thing. 

Michael: There’s a Coptic Orthodox Church, that’s different. There’s communities that probably practiced that in our areas, but it’d be fascinating. 

Angelina: In thinking about what they’re doing well and what, here in America, what we can learn from them. It was encouraging to see, as Dr. Nunes was talking about all of these things, there’s just so much hope in him, and also compassion. It wasn’t just, “these are the things that are not being done, and these are the things that could be better,” and it wasn’t just a criticism. It was a hopeful push towards something better.

Michael: Dan, you’ve said that you feel like understanding post-colonialism, understanding racial issues in looking outside of the American context is a hope for the church. Can you explain it? That’s an interesting thing. Can you explain what you’ve meant by that?

Dan: I think, to your point, Angelina, he definitely wasn’t cynical. He had some critiques, but it was a critique from within, and the fact that he is still confessional Lutheran, and he’s still within the institution, but he’s kind of critiquing from within. I really appreciate that. For me, I didn’t grow up Lutheran, or with liturgical background. I’ve kind of bounced from nondenominational church to nondenominational church. A generic evangelical. You kind of get a different sense of what American Christianity looks like. For me, I had lost some hope in the American church just because we seem to be very tied up in politicizing in our faith. There tends to be a reaction against some of these things, some of these ideas, he was talking about. He talked about the idea of justice being wrapped up directly in your faith practice. There’s some back-and-forth in the American church about that right now. For me, to look elsewhere meant looking at other practitioners within the Christian faith. Looking at what has the black church been doing all this time because they’re definitely outside of what we would consider mainstream evangelicalism, and yet, they’ve been very active. They have a very vibrant kind of theology and community. They been very active in politics, and in cultural questions, and things like that. That expands as we look at the global church, we look at different cultures that maybe are outside of the colonial cultures. We talk about the west and broken up into America, North America, and England, and Australia, and some of these other cultures. Then, you look outside that. How are they practicing faith in China? How are they practicing faith in Kenya, or Ethiopia, or Tanzania? To me, that is very hopeful because you get a broader picture, a global picture, of what God is doing and the work that God is doing everywhere. I think, sometimes, it’s very myopic to sit here and look at what’s happening in America and to assume that that’s the church. It’s not. There’s so much more.

Michael: Do you guys feel hopeful? Dr. Nunes had an aspect of hope. Do you feel hopeful for the future of the church in light of all the issues that were discussed in the podcast?

Angelina: Not really. I mean, after hearing him talk, I think I am looking at the situation in new light where I have a responsibility to be hopeful. I can’t just sit back and say, “It’s so bad. There’s nothing I can do. It’s just all a mess.” And to sit in despair over that… I think, hearing him talk, hope is not just some frivolous thing that some people have, it’s a responsibility. Being able to take on hope and realize that that’s something that can motivate you towards action and towards creating a better future, that shifted my perspective. I would say that before that conversation, I was very hopeless and in despair. That had crippled me in a lot of ways. Realizing that his hope, it can actually be a motivating force towards doing something, changed my perspective. 

Dan: How about you, Michael?

Michael: I’m not sure. I mean, I think that there are certainly issues with the church, and by the church I mean that universally. I mean all denominations because we’re imperfect people. In other words, I’m thinking about what’s the thrust of the issue, and how do all the issues that would affect the church come together? I think that, without a doubt, racial issues, social justice issues, issues of colonization, traditions, diverging, and converging, It’s a factor in discrepancies, or potential tension, between different Christian groups. I just think it’s a really complex thing to think through. I try to be hopeful in light of the things that we were discussed on this podcast. I think that there’s a consciousness that’s changing in Western culture, more particularly in white America. I think that things are changing, people are getting more aware. At the same time, I think those that are entrenched in certain ways make it more entrenched. I think, overall, the momentum is on the side of change in that area, but I don’t know. The world in the fallen state of man is a bundled, complicated thing that reaches into every aspect of life, and identity is one of that those aspects of it. I don’t know if that made any sense at all, but that’s a long, diverging way of saying nothing.

Dan: I mean, I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m a little older than everyone in my department. Michael’s close in age to me, but I’m a different generation. I had a little different perspective. I don’t want to say I have a historical perspective, but I’ve been within the evangelical subculture for 30 plus years, and that’s the world that I grew up in. So, living now and seeing that, if you look at the statistics, different church is the way they’re growing, and not growing. Some are even starting to drop off. There’s a lot of talk in America, especially is Christianity still the majority religion? Does it still have the power that it once had? There are reasons to lose hope, but then, I think, there’s a lot of reasons to have hope. I think Dr. Nunes does a good job of cataloging those reasons, looking at the church, looking at Christianity, at the margins. What are people who have traditionally been marginalized by mainstream Christianity? In the case of America, that would often mean white expressions of Christianity, whether that’s Lutheranism, or some of the other mainline denominations. What are some of those Christians who are outside that area? How are they reacting to the changes happening in America? How have they been dealing with questions of faith, and culture, and and politics, and justice over the last 400 years? You look at the example of the black church, and the example of some other kind of churches within America. He talks about immigration a lot because he’s an immigrant. Just noting the growth of Latino Christians coming into the country, almost all of the immigrants coming here from Central and South America are coming in as Christians already. They’re practicing Christians, so, they’re growing the ranks of Catholic churches and other types of Christian churches. There are Christians shuffling in and out of this country, and I think it’s changing the makeup of what the church looks like here. That does give me hope. You can see that God is doing something. You know, Dr. Nunes said that God is up to something, and it was interesting the way he pointed out that the church in America and the church in Ethiopia, for example, are almost kind of set up to be a benefit to each other. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses, and the strength of the American church plays to the weakness of the Ethiopian church and vice versa. We look at it from that perspective, and you can see that there are a lot of interesting things happening. Again, that gives me hope. If I were just looking at the mainstream expressions of Christianity that maybe you might see when you open the newspaper, or turn on CNN or something, I think there’s more. You have to dig for it. I think the church has always been like that. Maybe there’s been a more popular expression of it, but there’s always been an undercurrent of people who are faithful, and people who are looking for God’s leading in how they should be living Christianly in the world.

Michael: Those are probably good words to end on here. Thanks for listening.  As always, follow us on whatever social media platform you prefer. We would love to hear from you. What are your opinions on this topic? You can write to us as well at our email address. You can find all that on our website, livinguncommonpodcast.com. Thanks for listening.

This podcast is brought to you by Concordia University Wisconsin and Concordia University Ann Arbor. However, the opinions and views are not meant to be official statements on their behalf.

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