Note: This is the fifth in a series on the Social Statements adopted by the ELCA in Assembly. Previous reflections are available at www.montanasynod.org, archived.
In 1993, 5 years into the life of the ELCA, the Churchwide Assembly adopted a social statement “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture.” (You can find the full statement printed at www.elca.org/socialstatements .) When the church came into being we had the hope of becoming a far more multicultural church than we had been previously—we even had the goal of being 10% people of color or language other than English in the first decade of the church’s life. It did not happen. The social statement is hauntingly relevant today.
It begins with stating the 8 commitments the ELCA made at its beginning, including the 10% goal, representational principles, a Commission for Multicultural Ministry; ethnic interest groups, culturally specific new starts, advocacy and inclusivity across the church. It goes on to say: “The source of this many-faceted crisis, however, is profoundly spiritual. We will rise to the crisis, not by making a longer list of commitments, but by persisting with repentant hearts.”
Addressing racism, the statement says: “Racism—a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice—is sin, a violation of God’s intention for humanity. The resulting racial, ethnic, or cultural barriers deny the truth that all people are God’s creatures and, therefore persons of dignity. Racism fractures and fragments both church and society.” Addressing the church, the statement says:
“We expect our leadership to name the sin of racism and lead us in our repentance of it.” And
“We expect our leadership to persevere in their challenge to us to be in mission and ministry in a multicultural society.”
The statement goes on to describe ways for the church to do justice:
+A time for public leadership
+A time for public witness
+A time for public deliberation
+A time for advocacy
The statement suggests that racism is both a public and a private matter, both local and global, and urges the church to keep it at the top of our agenda.
In the 23 years since the statement was adopted some things have changed. But the underlying issues are still there, perhaps stronger than ever. High profile racially motivated violence has become a regular feature of our news. As a church we still struggle to respond.
A recent poll showed the ELCA to be the second least racially diverse church body in the United States. The challenge is there. Among the current ways that the ELCA is attempting to do justice is through the repudiation of the doctrine of discovery at the Churchwide Assembly, and standing with indigenous people seeking their rights. Another is the decision at the Churchwide too ask synods to provide regular anti-racism training. Presiding Bishop Eaton has hosted online conversations on race during the last year, and they are archived and available at www.elca.org. The Montana Synod will again start anti-racism training, with the expectation that it is as important for all leaders as boundaries training is.
“When we rebuild walls of hostility and live behind them—blaming others for the problem and looking to them for solutions—we ignore the role we ourselves play in the problem and also the solution. When we confront racism and move toward fairness and justice in society, all of us benefit.”
“So the Church must cry out for justice, and thereby resist the cynicism fueled by visions that failed and dreams that died. The Church must insist on justice, and thereby refuse to blame victimized people for all their situations. The Church must insist on justice, and thereby assure participation of all people.”
“We of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, with the whole Church, look forward to the time when people will come from east and west, north and south to eat in the reign of God. (Luke 13:29) For the Church catholic, diversity of cultures is both a given and a glimpse of the future.”
May it be so.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
In 1993, the ELCA Churchwide Assembly adopted its 4th Social Statement: "Caring for Creation: Vision, Hope and Justice." Like all ELCA Social Statements, it is available at www.elca.org/socialstatements, as are interpretive materials. Much has happened in the last 2 decades in the area of the environment. There has been a dramatic increase in scientific documentation of climate change and other environmental impacts. Public opinion on environmental issues has intensified, as is evident in the frequency in which they are part of political debates. And there has been a great deal of moral discernment on environmental issues since 1993, both in the church and in the society at large.
Based on robust Lutheran theology, the social statement identifies "The Current Crisis" thus:
"The earth is a planet of beauty and abundance; the earth system is wonderfully intricate and incredibly complex. But today living creatures, and the air, soil and water that support them, face unprecedented threats. Many threats are global; most stem directly from human activity. Our current practices may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner we know."
The social statement identifies two interconnected problems: excessive consumption by industrialized nations and the growth of human populations worldwide. It lists depletion of non-renewable resources, toxic emissions, erosion of topsoil, destruction of habitats, depletion of the ozone layer as some of the damage to the environment. No mention is made of rising oceans or of mass extinctions. Nor is desecration of lands and waters sacred to indigenous peoples mentioned.
The social statement spends a lot of time on what is sometimes seen as the conflict between the economy and the environment. In response it states: "Meeting the needs of today's generations for food, clothing, and shelter requires a sound environment." And it describes the power of hope: hope as gift, and hope in action.
Next is a discussion of justice:
"Caring, serving, keeping, loving, and living by wisdom-these translate into justice in political, economic, social and environmental relationships. Justice in these relationships means honoring the integrity of creation, and striving for fairness within the human family.
It is in hope of God's promised fulfillment that we hear the call to justice; it is in hope that we take action. When we act interdependently and in solidarity with creation, we do justice. We serve and keep the earth, trusting its bounty can be sufficient for all, and sustainable."
The social statement goes on to describe various ways that justice is lived out:
+Justice through participation
+Justice through solidarity
+Justice through sufficiency
+Justice through sustainability
The final section of the statement is a series of commitments of the church, including as individuals, as worshiping and learning communities, as a committed community, as a community of moral deliberation, and as advocate.
As an ELCA we have pursued the goal of advocacy in environmental issues. One of our full-time advocacy positions in Washington is dedicated to environmental issues, and there is a Bishops' Ready Bench also dedicated to it.. Most of our social statements do not get the same kind of institutional commitment to follow through. Although the statement is 23 years old, much of it still applies. If anything, the crisis is even more real than it was 23 years ago.
In the section on moral deliberation, the statement promises:
"We will play a role in bringing together parties in conflict, not only members of this church but also members of society at large. This church's widespread presence and credibility provides us a unique opportunity to mediate, to resolve conflict, and to move toward consensus."
What a gift it would be if our congregations could be communities of moral deliberation in this fractious time, not only on the environment, but on any number of issues that face our communities. It would indeed be a treasure.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
“Freed and Renewed in Christ: 500 Years of God’s Grace in Action” was the theme of the 2016 Churchwide Assembly and Grace Gathering (a y’all come event for ELCA members who wanted to be part of the action in New Orleans.) We had ten voting members at the Assembly—Beverly Bell from Cody, Tammy Bull from Great Falls, Tom Gossack from Great Falls, Rick Mikkelson from Malta, Alicia Moe from Two Dot, Deb Oldfield from Great Falls, Ben Peterson from Missoula, Carly Tattoo from Wold Point, Brad Ulgenes from Helena, and Bishop Jessica Crist. In addition, Jon Bates from Billings, Fran Gossack from Great Falls and Jayson Nicholson from Frenchtown attended the Grace Gathering.
All who attended said it was a highlight of their church life. So much information about the wider church, such inspiring worship, such important issues to be debated—it was a wonderful opportunity to be church together. An ELCA news release about the Assembly’s main actions is included with this week’s News. I will highlight a few things.
Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery: At our Montana Synod Assembly we passed a memorial asking the Churchwide Assembly to repudiate the doctrine of discovery, as did 16 other synods. The doctrine of discovery originated as a papal bull declaring that any lands that were not populated by Christians were subject to being conquered. The doctrine, which was embedded into US law in the 19th century, continues to justify the treatment of indigenous people as less than fully human. The Assembly affirmed the repudiation overwhelmingly.
Ecumenical Progress: The Assembly had visitors from a number of Christian Churches, and greetings from both a rabbi and an imam, who expressed gratitude for Lutherans’ interreligious commitments. There were 2 significant ecumenical happenings, as well. First was a long-awaited Declaration on the Way, an agreement among US Lutherans and Catholics on 32 items that once divided us but no longer do. After the Assembly affirmed the agreement, Presiding Bishop Eaton presented a gift to the Catholic co-chair of the group, Bishop Denis Madden. As he opened the gift and held up the chalice, he said that he eagerly awaits the day when we will drink from the same cup at communion.
The other ecumenical standout was the presence of a number of Bishops from the AME Zion Church. We are not in full communion with this denomination, but we are in the process of establishing cordial relations. The Presiding Bishop of the AMEZ, Bishop Battle, preached at one of the worship services, and a group of ELCA Bishops had lunch with the AMEZ Bishops present. During the lunch, when one of my table mates learned there were no AMEZ churches in the whole state of Montana, declared that I must be the “Auxiliary AMEZ Bishop” for Montana. And then, at the end of the lunch, Jesse Jackson dropped by on his way to speak with another part of the Assembly on issues of race and justice.
Each person at the Assembly had a different experience. One evening the Assembly divided up into hearings, and among the hearings attended by our voting members were: Declaration on the Way; Theological Education; On the Way Forward: Called Forward Together; The Campaign for the ELCA; AMMPARO; World Hunger: The Roster of Ministry of Word and Sacrament; Women and Justice. On another afternoon the participants were divided up into experiential learning groups which ranged from Human Trafficking to Anti-Racism to Peace to the Music and Food of New Orleans. I hope that you will invite these folks to your congregations or clusters and learn more about the Churchwide Assembly from them. There are also video clips on our website, www.montanasynod.org, and on www.elca.org.
The Churchwide Assembly is a triennial event, with the next one taking place in 2019. Be thinking of people you would like to see attend, and watch for Nominating Committee announcements in 2018.
Jessica Crist, Bishop
Bishop Jessica Crist
Bishop of the Montana Synod of the ELCA