Wittenberg Meets the World

Reimagining the Reformation at the Margins

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Alberto L. Garcia, John A. Nunes
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , April
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $22.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780802873286.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

During the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, most celebrations viewed the Reformation from the perspective of Lutheran/Protestant Christians in the Global North. However, two-thirds of the world’s Christians now live in the Global South: Asia, Africa, and South America. How do these Christians view the Reformation? In Wittenberg Meets the World, Alberto Garcia and John Nunes offer their Hispanic and African perspective. As Garcia and Nunes note, America was “85 percent white in 1960 and will be 43 percent white in 2060” (142). And as the United States and the rest of the Western world grow more ethnically diverse, a Global South perspective is an important one to pursue.

Most people envision Lutherans to be Pennsylvanians, blond Minnesotans, German, Norwegian, or Swedish. However, the reality is that there are “more Lutherans in Ethiopia (6.3 million), Tanzania (5.8 million), and Indonesia (5.8 million) than in any other nation except Germany and Sweden” (x). In 2016 the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus had seven million members (72). And these church bodies continue to grow at a dizzying pace while Christianity and Lutheranism appear to be moving in an opposite direction in the Global North.

What can Western Christians learn by looking at the Reformation from the “margins” using the “operative categories” of “martyria,” “diakonia,” and “koinonia” (xiv)? One would be the realization that Christianity in its life of witness, service, and fellowship is always on the margins of the world. Christians are aliens and pilgrims on earth (1 Pt 2:11). This truth should help Western Christians see “the other” not as “other” but as a baptized Christian sister and brother.

According to Garcia and Nunes, the sacrament of Holy Baptism unites all believers as one in Christ (147, 149). This unity is also emphasized in the holy Eucharist as Christians share in the body and blood of Christ their Savior (113-132). How can some be marginalized or oppressed when all believers are one in Christ?

The authors write from within their Lutheran faith tradition to provoke new thoughts and insights into what the truths of the Reformation mean for non-Western Lutherans and Christians throughout the world. They give voice to “the other” as they examine and question some sacred cows, like what in the Lutheran liturgical tradition is Nordic and Germanic and what flows from the life of the Church universal, including its Jewish roots?

Justification is understood by the marginalized as God calling “those who are ignored” and on the margins of the mainstream, and as God giving them His “mercy” and “justice” (17). The theology of the cross is seen as a call for justice and not as a “call for God’s wrath to be exercised” on the oppressors. Rather it is a call “for God to” mercifully “preserve” the marginalized as they suffer persecution (19).

Wittenberg Meets the World calls on the church to examine itself to see where it harbors systemic racism, how it marginalizes minorities, and how well it welcomes “the other.” This application of creative disruption is designed to assist the church in moving forward in the twenty-first century. The Lutheran understanding of sin “provides the material to address” the current context of the post-colonial world (47): the Gospel pardons sin and unites the divided. In addition to examining problematic issues, Garcia and Nunes emphasize positive ways forward—a postcolonial “poetics of the possible” (149).

Postcolonial poetics are grounded in a “thick respect for all the baptized, a theologically determined inclusion…a deep commitment to Scripture, confessions, the gospel…church history” and a “global” understanding of Christianity (149). The diversity of the body of Christ is a given, the authors say, but can be misused. Lovers of diversity for the sake of diversity turn “the other” into an object rather than giving them respect, honor, and dignity. All human beings belong to the human race. Divisions result from a “racialized Gnosticism” which gives rise to “claims like ‘it’s a black thing, you wouldn’t understand,’ or ‘mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the most Latino of us all?’ European supremacist narratives likewise perpetuate exclusiveness” (145-46).

The creative disruption in this book is important for the life of the church because the past is not the present nor will it be the future. The majority of the world’s Lutherans are no longer German or Scandinavian. There is no influx of these ethnic groups into America. The future of the Christian church does not rest with white Westerners—in truth it never did! As Wittenberg Meets the World makes evident, Christianity is and always has been a world religion, not simply a Western one. The Savior of the world is Jewish—not German or Scandinavian.

The emphasis on people on the “margins” has special meaning for this reviewer because of service at the margins in Kazakhstan, and with ethnic groups in the United States. While serving in these capacities this reviewer was “the other”—on the margins ethnically, linguistically, and culturally. Walking as “the other” is part of loving “the other” as self. This book stimulates questions like how can the church be inclusive of “the other” when different languages are used in separate worship services? How is the unity of the body of Christ expressed in such circumstances? How does “the other” experience unity and oneness in Christ in such circumstances? Garcia and Nunes prod the church to wrestle with such questions and hopefully to find answers.

The questions for discussion at the end of the book provide for an excellent study to reflect on the meaning and impact of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in this increasingly multi-ethnic world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Armand J. Boehme is associate pastor at Trinity Lutheran, Northfield, Minnesota.

Date of Review: 
November 16, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Alberto L. García is professor emeritus of theology at Concordia University Wisconsin, an ordained Lutheran pastor, and coeditor of Critical Issues in Ecclesiology.

John A. Nunes is president of Concordia College New York, an ordained Lutheran pastor, and the author of Voices from the City: Issues and Images of Urban Preaching.

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