Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe

“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)

16 thoughts on “Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe

  1. Let’s get this straight. An ELCA that

    *excuses and funds (in its employee health plan) any-reason abortion, which disproportionately decimates the black population, and
    *praises Planned Parenthood, 79% of whose abortion clinics are in high-minority neighborhoods,

    is now touting itself as a friend of blacks? What hypocrisy. Start working to save the lives of God’s preborn creations, ELCA. Rescuing black lives from abortion is your first, biblical duty. And then repent of your abortion advocacy and complicity.

    “Rescue those who are being taken away to death. Don’t stand back and let them die. Don’t try to avoid responsibility by saying you didn’t know about it. For God knows all hearts, and He sees you. He keeps watch over your soul and He knows you knew!” [Proverbs 24:11-12]

    1. Thanks for your comments, M. BTW, abortion procedures are a very small part of what Planned Parenthood provides to the communities in which it operates. They also provide, contraception, counseling and OBGYN care-all of which significantly reduce the instance of unplanned pregnancies. Thus, Planned Parenthood is a leader in preventing abortion. Just saying.

      1. And killing Jews was not the majority of the Nazis’ war efforts. Abortion is Planned Parenthood’s cash cow; it provides the majority of abortion clinic income. (The 3% myth has been disproved many times, by the way, here for example: https://www.liveaction.org/learn/3percent/ ) Planned Parenthood does less than 1% of the nation’s pap tests, 1.8% of breast exams, 0% of mammograms, and about 35% of the nation’s abortions. Its health services have declined dramatically in the last 10 years, which I could prove (if you like) with figures from and links to Planned Parenthood’s own annual reports. The number of Planned Parenthood’s abortions is its only statistic that has steadily risen in those 10 years.

        But all of this begs the question. No matter the Planned Parenthood percentages, abortion is murder in God’s eyes. Whether it’s one abortion or 345,672 abortions (the number of Planned Parenthood abortions in 2019), they’re all murder, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted: “Destruction of the embryo in the mother’s womb is a violation of the right to live which God has bestowed upon this nascent life. To raise the question whether we are here concerned already with a human being or not is merely to confuse the issue. The simple fact is that God has certainly intended to create a human being and that this nascent human being has been deliberately deprived of his life, and that is nothing but murder.”

        Martin Luther echoed Bonhoeffer: “The God who declares that we are to be fruitful and multiply regards it as a great evil when human beings destroy their offspring.”
        And ““For those who have no regard for pregnant women and who do not spare the tender fruit are murderers and infanticides.”

        Unlike the ELCA, confessional Lutheran denominations neither excuse nor fund abortion. The LCMS stance: “Our conscience is bound by both the Word of God & reason to speak for life as a precious gift of God & to speak against any & all who promote the killing of unborn children.” https://blogs.lcms.org/2019/lcms-presidents-statement-regarding-gubernatorial-actions-expanding-abortion-in-new-york-and-illinois

  2. But will these Black churches be teaching Lutheran doctrine, that is the full Gospel? Does the mere fact they are Black churches make them worth subsidizing? What if they are anti-Trinitarian Oneness teachers like T.D. Jakes? What if they are Prosperity Gospel teachers like Creflo Dollar? Do we want to support these abominations and heresies because they are held by people with more melanin? These churches would almost certainly be Sacramentarian and would deny the Real Presence in the Supper and the efficacy of Baptismal Regeneration? Or they could simply be Black Orthodox or Roman Catholic congregations with whom we still have serious theological differences. And many ELCA Lutherans would have serious problems with Black churches’ stance on homosexuality. Do the consciences’ of Reconciling Works count?

    1. I am trying to give you as much benefit of the doubt as the Eighth Cmdt. commands. But I would re-examine what our efforts to the Black American community should be. I would suggest the greatest gift we have to offer is not just money but an actual sharing of the richness of Lutheran theology, with our Word and Sacrament ministry, Confession and Absolution, full Law and Gospel teaching, Two Kingdoms doctrines and the Three Estates, and most importantly, our Theology of the Cross versus some vain Theology of Glory that you will find in almost every Christian denomination and sect.

    2. Thank you for your comments. I understand your concern for doctrinal purity, but I suspect that you would probably find more heresy and doctrinal differences among members of your own congregation than you would between the respective positions of various denominations, both black and others.

  3. We are all sinners no? I am not responsible for someone else’s sin. This article and the ELCA is complete nonsense and blasphemy. No wonder membership is tanking as it should. There is no longer a faith in the word from the ELCA only idolatry.

  4. well, I for one, agree. and am impressed by your calm restraint to some other comments. I don’t know why I still react with shock to non-loving Christians, as I should be accustomed to it by now. Keep writing what needs to be said, Reverend Olsen

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