Introduction of Theme

[1] The next three issues of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics will focus on various dimensions of the theme: “Ethics and Family: An African American Perspective.” The theme emerged in conversations with several members of the Conference of International Black Lutherans (an association of African and African American Lutheran teaching theologians and bishops in the Lutheran communion). Many of us have been concerned about the role of the African American family in shaping ethical behavior. Many questions emerge about what we are teaching and transmitting to the next generation of African Americans, especially those who hold membership in the Lutheran communion. Will the African and African American religious tradition and values continue to be central in the lives of both communities in this new millennium?

[2] Similar concerns were raised at the Conference of International Black Lutherans in its 1999 conference in Wittenberg, Germany. After a pre-conference gathering, African and African American women wrote a report encouraging partnership between members of both sexes. Moreover, no fewer than five (5) of the 38 Theses produced by the gathering relate to relationships between African and African American women and men. For example, Thesis 11 says, “We assert that God has called all Christians, men and women together, to be a community of servants to the whole of creation.” While there may be many interpretations of this Thesis, one interpretation is tantamount; God calls African and African American women and men, as a community, to care about the elders of the community. A part of caring includes knowing, understanding, and having the capacity to teach and receive values that have sustained both communities in our long hard journey in the world. And that is certainly one of the crucial roles of the elders in the African American community.

[3] The Holy Bible is a second source of our theme. Since African American Christians are people of the Bible, what does it mean when we hear the Fourth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother [parents]” (Ex. 20: 12; Deut. 5: 16; Mark 10:19)? In the first instance, this means that the Bible presents normative understandings of ethical principles and moral behavior expected by God. Through various sorts of literature, the Christian community is confronted with God’s wishes for how human morality is to give God glory and honor. Second, our theme reveals that the content of the Bible is constantly shaped by the context of the people. The African and African American experiences of racism, sexism, and classism are critical factors that contribute to our understanding of ethics and family. While the civil rights movement enhanced the life of some African and African Americans (e.g., the middle class has grown), an overwhelming majority of the African American community is poor, undereducated, without health care, and economically disadvantaged. And, with a disproportionate number of African American young people in prisons, fueling that vast prison industrial complex, what does it mean when Luther says in his explanation of the Fourth Commandment in the Small Catechism that we are to “honor, serve, obey, love, and respect” our parents? Some people even suggest that the young people are operating with value systems derived from the world rather than from the Word of God.

[4] The church and family in the African American community have been intimately connected. Noted scholars like John Mbiti, Mercy Amba Oduyoye, Emilie Townes, and Peter Paris point critically to the central role of the church and family in the formation of the ethical value system of African people. These two institutions have played and continue to play a prominent role in shaping the ethics and moral behavior of African American people. In fact, when one talks about the family, one is also talking about the church. More recently, African American scholars in the ethics and pastoral care disciplines reveal the deep connections in moral discourse between the family and the church. In fact, these scholars show the deep connections between African and African American experiences of family and church.

[5] Spirituality, ethics, and morality are ultimately interdependent in ways significantly different among African people than what is promoted by the Western world. For example, the Western world emphasizes rugged individualism. The self is autonomous in its being, thinking, and doing. On the other hand, people of African descent on the continent of Africa and in the Diaspora emphasize community. The community makes the self what it is to be, think, and do. The adage that it takes a village to raise a child reinforces the difference between Western thinking and African thinking.

[6] A word should be said about key terms of the theme. “Ethics” is used in the broadest sense to mean those principles that guide moral behavior. For example, justice is a universal principle that is central to enhancing the life of God’s people in society. The specific meaning of justice, however, is particularized by the context of African Americans. Racial justice; that is, just treatment of African American people in all aspects of life, is a specific moral behavior expected of Christians and all religious people.

[7] “Family” is also understood in a broad sense. While there is a diversity of families within the African and African American community, as within all communities, family goes beyond the typical Western notion of “nuclear” family. Family includes all relationships, blood or otherwise. Usually the word “kinship” or “extended family” points in this direction. Family, then, is used to mean both the formal and informal relationships developed and nurtured by the people. Family also suggests that African American people are shaped by a common experience (e.g., race) and so develop a sense of peoplehood that has persisted for more than four centuries in North America.

[8] Finally, the phrase “African American perspective” is a broad term. There is a rich diversity of perspectives within the African American community. Some folks are liberal and some are conservative. Some people understand themselves as being Americans and some see themselves as being African/Black Americans. African American is used to designate a connection to the spiritual and cultural heritage normally associated with the continent of Africa.

[9] The next three issues of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics are an opportunity to enter into some conversation about various dimensions of ethics and family from an African American perspective. The August issue begins with the Bible. One of the African American community’s premier biblical scholars explores a biblical and theological understanding of the African American family and its moral significance. Another aspect of life in the African and African American community is the role and importance of elders. The book review will focus on the importance of ministry with and by African American elders. Two opinion essays will focus on mentoring and the importance of community in shaping the moral behavior of the community, one written by an African American pastor currently serving in an African American urban congregation and the other written by an African American teaching theologian.

[10] The September issue will focus on moral guidance in congregations. It is commonly understood in the African American community that preaching is a primary, if not the primary way, through which moral guidance is given in the African American church. The book review will focus on the contributions of a book of sermons by one of America’s popular preachers and will be written by a pastor who served an urban congregation. Two opinion pieces will reflect on moral guidance, one from a layperson who is active in an urban African American congregation and one from a pastor currently serving in an urban African American congregation and on a synodical bishop’s staff. While preaching is critical in dispensing moral guidance, pastoral care is increasingly becoming a key skill for African American religious leaders. The scholarly article, written by an African American teaching theologian in pastoral care, will focus on pastoral care and moral guidance.

[11] The October issue will focus on church leadership. The role of the priest or pastor is critical in modeling and transmitting sound, biblical ethical principles and behavior. Equally important is the role of lay people and the exemplary lives they live daily. The book review will focus on the nature of leadership provided by both clergy and lay people, especially in urban areas. It will be written by one of the elders in African American Lutheranism who has served as a pastor, executive director of a social ministry agency, and in various capacities related to leadership. Several opinion pieces will touch on various dimensions of leadership: youth, education, and leadership training respectively. The scholarly piece will focus on leadership and the family and will be co-written by the first African American Lutheran teaching theologian and a doctoral student in Bible.

[12] These three issues mean to enhance the church’s public conversation about ethics, morality, and family from an African American perspective. While the book reviews, opinion pieces, and scholarly essays emerge principally from African Americans within the Lutheran communion, they will certainly enhance the Church Catholic’s conversation on issues like human sexuality, racism, sexism, and classism from a multicultural point of view. Furthermore, these issues will demonstrate how one part of the Lutheran communion, active lay people, parish pastors, and teaching theologians within the Conference of International Black Lutherans, expresses its faith and ethics in a contextually sensitive manner. And so, in the words of one of the Lutheran church’s popular public theologians, Dr. Martin Marty, “Let the conversation begin!”

Richard J. Perry

Richard J. Perry, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church and Society and Urban Ministry at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Dr. Perry is a member of the Advisory Council for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, represents the Lutheran Ethicists Network on the Theological Roundtable, and serves as convener of the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL, USA).