“The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) apologizes to people of African descent for its historical complicity in slavery and its enduring legacy of racism in the United States and globally. We lament the white church’s failure to work for the abolition of slavery and the perpetuation of racism in this church. We confess, repent and repudiate the times when this church has been silent in the face of racial injustice.” Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent.
“Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” John the Baptist, Luke 3:8.
Dear Bishop Eaton and Synodical Bishops:
By way of this open letter, I am asking you to call upon the ELCA to implement a reparational tithe. This would involve allocating 10% of all income from unrestricted sources received by the ELCA and each of its synods to the aid and support of black churches in the United States for their congregations, ministries, mission and work for their communities. It would further involve an appeal to congregations for an increase in their mission giving by 10% for this purpose and an appeal for individuals to increase their offerings by 10% to that end as well. Duration would be for no less than five years.
It is understood that you are not in a position to implement this proposal by fiat. I am fully aware that such action must be taken through established procedures ensuring representation by the whole church. Nonetheless, the ELCA presiding bishop is to “be a teacher of the faith of this church and shall provide leadership for the life and witness of this church.” So says the ELCA constitution at chapter 13, subsection 21. According to the model synodical constitution, bishops are to “[i]nterpret and advocate the mission and theology of the whole church.” Model Synodical Constitution, chapter 8, section 12, subsection g1. Thus, as I see it, the chief responsibility for calling this church to bear the fruits of our repentance for complicity in our nation’s history of slavery and racism, so eloquently articulated in the above cited Declaration of Apology, falls to you.
Let me be clear. This reparational tithe is not for the purpose of developing new ELCA programs, whether for anti-racism education or multicultural ministries. Its purpose is to support the mission and ministry of black American churches to their communities. As a church which has benefited from white privilege, we would simply be returning these benefits in some measure. By implementing the reparational tithe, we would be imaging within the Body of Christ and bearing witness to the reconciliation and mutuality God desires for the whole world. You can think of it as “becoming the change you want to see.”
I understand that there may be numerous legal, procedural and political hurdles to overcome approving and implementing this proposal. But nothing worth doing is ever easy. Some will argue that such a substantial investment on our part will deplete resources required to support our existing ministries, that congregations are already under financial stress from years of decline, now magnified by economic fallout from the ongoing pandemic. The same argument could have been made for withholding the loaves and fishes from the One desiring to feed the hungry crowd. Others might argue that a tithe is insufficient compensation for centuries of enslavement and oppression. I agree. There is a reason I call this proposal “modest.” I would love to see us follow the example of Zacchaeus and make a fourfold restoration. Still, we have to start somewhere. So let us think of the reparational tithe as a floor rather than a ceiling.
I am fully aware that this proposal represents a “long shot.” Still, I believe that this moment in history is exactly the right time to swing for the fences by challenging our church to confront racism with more than words and symbolic actions. We have an opportunity to do something big. Don’t let this moment pass!
With deepest respect and profound thankfulness for your leadership,
Christ’s Servant and yours,
Rev. Peter A. Olsen (retired)