After the death of George Floyd, there were an abundance of statements on racism and justice. For better or worse, I was hesitant to add to the list of "statements." Instead, I invested time in one-on-one conversations. Scores of them. Two of those conversations were with the brothers pictured above, Pastors Gerard Bolling and John Schmidtke.
In those conversations, I learned something: my assumptions were off. Assumptions about what people thought about racism. Assumptions about what they expected from the church. It prompted me to make a clear statement to our congregation. In retrospect, I should have done it sooner. But this is a long road and demands more than a single statement. Here’s a letter I sent to my church a this week. It's start.
A Statement on Racism and Social Justice
The death of George Floyd on May 25th sparked a national reckoning with long-standing racism and injustice in our country. That painful event produced a variety of responses that continue today: anger, grief, violence, denial, hurt, political posturing, advocacy, etc.
I have pastored our people through this time. As I have listened to you, I feel the need for biblical clarity as the people of God. We are too often swayed by the voices of society. God’s people are bold to speak and act in a way that is distinctive in the world, as “salt” and “light.” (Matt. 5)
Too often, moral convictions become politicized. But we don’t believe that issues such as social justice or the sanctity of life are party platforms. They are biblical and moral convictions. They find their grounding in the first article of the creed.
If I may speak personally, there is a burden on my heart. I have seen overt and covert racism firsthand. I repent daily of my own prejudices. I have struggled to find meaningful ways to walk with Black brothers and sisters. In “normal” times, we would have in-person venues to discuss and pray about important issues like this. Without such spaces, I pray that a pastoral letter can start a conversation that we can continue for the long road ahead.
We recognize the sin of racism.
As Lutherans, we have a history of standing for life – for the unborn, those at the end of life, etc. Racism too is a “life issue.” We confess that we are created “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27). Every human life is given by God and therefore has worth and value. To subjugate a race of people is an assault on the Creator of those people.
We recognize that to marginalize any people group, race, tribe, or class is an insult to the Great Commandment “to love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31).
We recognize that loving our neighbor overwhelms any racial preference (the Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37). We celebrate the uniqueness of God’s creation, and await a full and final unity of “every nation, from all tribes and peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (Rev. 7:9).
Our Lutheran tradition calls us to honesty about our sin. We confess our sins early and often. We “call a thing what it is.” Examining our own sin is always uncomfortable. This is even more reason to reckon with it.
Before we utter, “but I’m not racist,” or “but what about . . .,” we join Paul in saying, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). We repent not only of individual sins, but of corporate sins. As God regularly reckoned with the sin of all Israel, we too recognize sin that is societal and structural. Just as we repent of willful and deliberate sins (overt racism), we also repent of subtle and hidden sins (covert racism). Our most insidious sins are those unrecognizable to us, the sins of omission, the apathy when we should have acted, the silence when we should have spoken.
We Cling to our Unity in Christ.
We are people of the law and the gospel. Where we have failed, Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf. Christ died for all, that we might live under grace, not burden.
Christians approach racism and injustice differently than politicians and academics in secular spaces. We come with humility and grace, knowing that we are all sinners justified by our Lord Jesus. “He himself is our peace” (Eph. 2:14). We find our ultimate unity not in a political party or in our human attempts to overcome racism. Christ is already our hope and unity. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28). We work from a place of freedom in Christ.
“Be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22). It’s one thing to say that a Black life matters. It’s another thing to tangibly show it in action. In Jesus’ parable, there are those who “pass by on the other side of the road.” We seek the way of the Samaritan who goes to his neighbor in the ditch. He acted at great risk to his life, and at a cost of time and money.
The fifth commandment calls us not only to “not kill,” but as Luther says, to “help and support our neighbor in every physical need.”
What do we do?
First, “be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). Some of you have said, “I don’t understand it.” Spend time listening and learning. I recommend this interview with two Black Lutheran pastors in our synod. Also, see this statement from the Black Clergy Caucus of the LCMS. Do you have Black neighbors, friends, coworkers, or classmates? Listen to them.
Second, contact the C.A.R.E. team. This group in our church is committed to prayer and action for issues of social justice (similar to our Life Team). They can provide you with information and direction on how our faith informs our response to racism and injustice. As Christians we are looking to distinguish ourselves from secular approaches to social justice. We will use Biblical language and a gospel-centered approach.
You are invited to contact any of these individuals . . . .
Third, our church leans into existing partnerships that bridge racial divides. Our partnerships with Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Christian Friends of New Americans, and Bridge City in Chattanooga, TN. See our interview with our friends at Bethlehem. These relationships unite our church with people of color across the church. We learn, serve, and grow together. We will continue these partnerships.
Pray (“For National Integrity,” from the Lutheran Book of Prayer)
Lord God, Ruler of all men:
The unruliness of our nature,
The disorderly inclinations of our minds,
The rebellious whims of our hearts.
Our need to be guided,
Our need to be ruled,
Our need to be disciplined.
We ask you
To guide us by just laws,
To rule us with love,
To govern us through responsible leaders,
To give us judges who are wise,
To raise up leaders with integrity, justice, and righteousness.
We pray you
Help us to exercise our freedom in love,
Help us to live as compassionate citizens,
Help us to work for the well-being of our neighbors, and even our enemies.
In Christ’s name, Amen.