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The words “racism” and “white privilege” have been a red button issue in the United States for years and lately it is even more prominent given the current events over the summer months. The ELCA at our Churchwide Assembly this past August even issued a Declaration of Apology to People of African Descent as a follow-up to our 1993 social statement Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture. As I’ve listened to people’s comments in conversation, on social media, and in general, I’ve wondered if we are all using the same glossary of terms when we talk about racism and white privilege. Racism isn’t only about prejudice or privilege. In that social statement by the ELCA we defined racism as a sin that is “a mix of power, privilege, and prejudice.” Power is a key element of racism. In his book, Evil and the Followers of Jesus, Lutheran author, professor, and pastor Scott Gustafson adds, “This definition is behind the contention of many African Americans that persons of African descent cannot be racist in the United States of America. They can indeed be prejudiced, but victims of racism cannot be racist because they lack the other component to racism, namely, the power to enforce their prejudice.” He goes on to add that “this description of racism enables us to understand it as an institutional problem as well as a personal problem.” The simple explanation is this: institutions established in a climate of racism did not acknowledge the power of racism and tend to perpetuate that which is not explicitly purged because the primary goal of most established institutions is survival. “When survival is the primary goal, it follows that the unarticulated, racist assumptions and behaviors that were present at the institution’s foundation will be perpetuated in the institution’s quest to persist.”

This helps understand what is meant when we talk about “white privilege.” It isn’t talking about white people not working hard to get where they are in work, education, and in other aspects of our communal life. However, it is saying there are barriers and hurdles they did not have to contend with in that journey that people of color have and continue to struggle against today.

So what is the ELCA saying about racism and white privilege in this Apology to People of African Descent? The document that is
available online or you can pick up a hardcopy on our Visitor table in the narthex offers responses to the following questions many might have.

  • Why is the ELCA issuing this apology?
  • Why look at slavery? It happened in the past.
  • Slavery is over, so why can’t we just move on?
  • What is the history of Lutherans related to slavery? 
  • Slavery ended over 150 years ago, and I am a white Lutheran who never owned slaves. How and why am I a part of this apology?
  • What is the history of Lutherans related to slavery?
  • What is the history of people of African descent in resilience and resistance?
  • Where do we go from here as a church? 

I encourage you to read this short nine-page document. If in reading it you are inclined to engage in a conversation about what it says and how our faith calls us to respond I invite you to join me and others on Monday, September 9 at 7:30 in Room 112 as we go through the document and provide opportunity for discussion. If you’d like to read more on the topic of racism here are a list of books I’ve been reading and are on my shelf waiting to be read that I’ve found to be enlightening and challenging. 

America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America by Jim Wallis 

Raising White Kids: Bringing up children in a racially unjust America by Jennifer Harvey 

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander 

I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown 

Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the US by Lenny Duncan (an ELCA pastor out of Havertown, PA) 

This is not an easy journey to engage in if you are a white Christian. I know from experience. I’ve been tempted to stop a few times, especially when its cost is relationships with people I care about. It is in those moments that I remember I am yoked with Christ in my journey of faith and that with Jesus all things are possible, but not without transformation of my heart and life. May the Holy Spirit give us the courage and strength to follow our Savior in this process.