A Long Shot for Racial Justice-Open Letter to the ELCA Bishops Revisited

TENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

Prayer of the Day: O God our defender, storms rage around and within us and cause us to be afraid. Rescue your people from despair, deliver your sons and daughters from fear, and preserve us in the faith of your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
righteousness and peace will kiss each other.
Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
and righteousness will look down from the sky.
The Lord will give what is good,
and our land will yield its increase.
Righteousness will go before him,
and will make a path for his steps.” Psalm 85:10-13.

This hope of the psalmist is also the hope of prophets, apostles and saints of every generation. It isn’t yet a reality. That is because hope is not self-executing. Unlike a mere wish, hope does not come to fruition on its own. Jesus tells us as much: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” Luke 9:23. Allegiance to the reign of God leads to loss of privilege, loss of property and even to dissolution of family ties. Luke 18:29-30. So the question every generation of disciples must confront is this: Is it really worth it?

As those of you who follow me know, I recently wrote an open letter to the bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) proposing a five year reparational tithe to be delivered to black American churches for their mission and ministry. There was, in my view, nothing particularly “radical” or “new” in this proposal which I intentionally dubbed “modest.” To the contrary, it promoted nothing more than what St. Paul called for in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, namely, that “as a matter of equality your abundance at the present time should supply their want, so that their abundance may supply your want, that there may be equality.” II Corinthians 8:14. Those words were spoken in support of the apostle’s own very concrete challenge to his churches to supply aid for the famine stricken church of Judea. Just as the gentile churches had benefited so richly from the spiritual wealth of Israel’s heritage, so they also must share generously of their material wealth with the Judean church. Paul believed that the church was the embodiment of the resurrected Christ and his reconciling power. Or, as farmer, preacher and New Testament scholar Clarance Jordan puts it, the church is a demonstration plot for God’s reign. The ELCA acknowleges in its Declaration of Apology to People of African Descent the benefits it derived from centuries of slavery and economic exploitation of black Americans. Furthermore, like Paul’s gentile churches, the whole church in America has been enriched by the deep spiritual contributions of the black American church’s music, preaching and witness. Returning those benefits in some measure by way of a reparational tithe is simply what St. Paul would call “a matter of equity.” It is the ecclesiastical embodiment of the reconciliation God desires for all creation.

I received a wide range of responses to my proposal. As it was presented as an “open letter,” I heard from a number of folks who thanked me and told me they felt actions of this kind were long overdue. I also received the usual tiresome objections, to wit, “We don’t owe them anything,” “Slavery ended over a century ago,” “None of my ancestors had slaves and, even if they did, I had nothing to do with it,” “We had the civil rights movement and we’ve had an African American president-so racism isn’t an issue anymore,”  “Some of my best friends/coworkers/grandchildren, etc. are black,” “What about the Native Americans? What about the Asians? What about the unborn? What about…(fill in the blank). I can’t say I saw a lot of these responses, but there were enough to convince me that our church has a long way to go in understanding systemic racism and its complicity therein.

As the letter was addressed to the ELCA bishops, I was most interested in their response. A few replied simply to tell me that my proposal was “intriguing.” Others reminded me that the bishops, as a group, do not serve any legislative function and were thus powerless to act on or advocate for my proposal unless or until it found its way through congregational resolution to synodical memorial where the churchwide assembly could then act on it. One of the bishops assured me that my proposal would be discussed among them as a group. I was assured by our presiding bishop that the proposal would be “shared” among the bishops as they continue their study of, among other matters to related to racism, reparations.

I have mixed feelings about these responses from the bishops. I am obviously pleased that they didn’t simply hit the delete button on their computers. I am glad that there is an openness to the proposal-at least among those responding. But I cannot say that I am satisfied. Since I was ordained in 1982-before the ELCA was a twinkle in anyone’s eye-Lutherans have been talking about racism, issuing statements against racism, doing antiracist training, dialoguing about race, advocating on racial issues, participating in protests, candlelight vigils and marches. Yet we remain solidly white and solidly entrenched in white privilege. For that reason, I’m done with resolutions calling upon us to “talk about race.” I’m done with breaking up into little groups at synodical conventions to talk about my feelings on race. I want no part of any statement of repentance that does not bear the fruit of repentance. I am hoping that recent events have convinced enough of us that it is time for something different.

Having been involved with my church for nearly forty years, I am well aware of its institutional limitations. Lutherans change direction more like aircraft carriers than speed boats. Thus, I had no delusive belief that my open letter would ingite a new reformation. I knew from the beginning that a call for reparations to African American churches from an overwhelmingly white denomination was a long shot. Indeed, getting our bishops’ attention with such a proposal was a long shot, as is persuading them to step up to the plate and call upon the church to take this step toward racial healing. Getting a favorable response from our ELCA and its members to any such appeal by the bishops is a long shot. The hope that the ELCA’s commitment to reparations might push our society as a whole in the same direction is, to be sure, a long shot. But I took that long shot because sometimes the long shot is the only shot you ever get. Take it and you risk missing the hoop, failing and perhaps looking a little silly. Don’t take it and you risk nothing-but you can be sure you will never score. Hope is on the side of the long shot. Those who don’t shoot have no hope, only wishes.

I am hopeful that our bishops will find the courage to be teachers and theologians of the church and call us to a daring step toward racial justice-whether to something like the one I propose or a better one. I am hopeful that the Holy Spirit will overcome the craven fear lying behind racial prejudice and open our eyes to the need for justice that must be met within the church before it can witness faithfully as Jesus’ reconciled community to a segregated nation. I am hopeful that my grandchildren will inherit from us a church that doesn’t embarrass them and that they will not be compelled to issue yet another apology for our inaction at this critical time. I am hopeful that  “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other. Faithfulness will spring up from the ground, and righteousness will look down from the sky.”

Hope is a powerful force that drives one forward even when it seems there is no place to go. It strives toward a future that looks to all the world like a dead end and keeps one struggling long after the battle appears to have been lost. Here is a poem that touches on the contours of hope.

Perpetual motion
 
Someday perhaps I’ll understand
Why the ocean’s waves assault the sand,
Why the rocky cliffs above
Stand fast against the tide and will not move,
Why these great powers match their might,
And strive against each other day and night,
One a mighty, relentless force,
The other too strong to move or change its course,
Why they strive in hurricane and gale,
Though each must know that neither can prevail.
Once that riddle is clear to me
Then perhaps I’ll also see
What drives men into battle time and time again
Though war’s a game that nobody can win,
Or why a woman longs so to give birth,
Knowing that the life she gives today
tomorrow must be laid beneath the earth,
Or why when overcome by dark despair,
My stubborn heart keeps beating
And my lungs still gasp for air.

Source: Anonymous

 

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