Bishop's Blog

Published on Tuesday, August 22, 2017

A Pastoral Letter in the Aftermath of the Violence in Charlottesville

to the Central/Southern Illinois Synod

     As all of you undoubtedly know, Charlottesville, Virginia, became a flash-point for neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and white nationalist groups protesting the decision by the Charlottesville City Council to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee.  The violence in Charlottesville was instigated by neo-Nazis, white nationalists, and white-supremacists in their confrontations with counter protesters.  People of various Christian traditions including the ELCA, both local and national, where among those who gathered in Charlottesville at that time to stand with the intended victims of racism and to provide a counter-witness in the name of the God of justice, mercy, and equality whom we know in Jesus Christ. 

     We must be absolutely clear and unambiguously forthright here.  We the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) stand against all forms of racism. Let me quote from the ELCA social statement “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity and Culture”: “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.”

     Racism is and has always been present everywhere in this country.  It is America’s original sin, as author Jim Wallis puts it.  Racism explains much of our history.  It explains our treatment of the native populations that have been on this land for thousands of years; it explains treatment of immigrants from worlds as divergent as China and Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany; and, of course, racism explains slavery and Jim Crow laws.

     Lutherans confront racism with law and gospel.  Condemning racism as sin is a word of law.  In traditional Lutheran terminology, this is the second use of the law: that word of God that condemns sin and sinners.  We need to hear this word of law.  The hope is, of course, that ultimately this condemning word of law will drive a person to contrition, to rejection of racism, and to redemption from this sin through Christ. 

     Creating and enforcing civil laws that protect people against racism is also a word of law.  In traditional Lutheran terminology, this is the first use of the law: that word of God that supports orderly community and just government.  This is a word of God demanding an end to racial violence, an end to racial intimidation, and an end to racial discrimination and marginalization. 

     Finally, there is the hope of the gospel.  Martin Luther King, Jr., interpreted the Civil Rights Movement of nonviolent love not simply or even primarily as political action on behalf of oppressed blacks, but as redemptive suffering, living out Christ’s love for white, racist enemies, to redeem America’s soul from the sin of racism.  Ultimately, we trust not in being able to proudly congratulate ourselves on not being racist (a theology of glory), but in the grace of God through Jesus Christ, that it is Christ’s righteousness and not our own by which we are reconciled to God and to one another (the theology of the cross). 

     God’s rich grace be yours as you combat racism in your local context – together with other Christians, interfaith groups, civil leaders, law enforcement bodies, and educators.
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Author: Bishop John Roth

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S. John Roth was elected bishop of the Central/Southern Illinois Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in June 2011.