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