The disturbing and tragic events in Charlottesville, Virginia, on August 11 and 12, 2017, resulted in the deaths of three people, and injury to many others. They have also caused great pain to people of all faiths and ethnicities who are concerned for the future of our nation and its communities. There have been many responses to last weekend’s events, from the realms of media, the academy, big business, as well as our religious and governmental leaders. I write this message in order to bring to your attention the response of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (the ELCA), of which the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Ramsey is a member church, and to clarify a “Lutheran” Christian position for the people of our community on what is driving these events.
This may not be so clear or settled for some people, but for Christians who know they follow the Gospel of Jesus Christ, white supremacy is the bankrupt ideology behind the movement that likes to use more euphemistic terms like “white nationalism” or the “alt-right”. Followers or this movement like to claim an international purchase for their ideology, which wants to become an identity movement for white people in various countries around the world. The church sees this desire for legitimacy as an attempt to manipulate the political culture of various countries by using racism. But the aim of white ethnic nationalists is pretty clear: to distinguish and promote the rights and welfare of white people over against those who are not white.
The church holds that white supremacy is against the Gospel of Jesus Christ. In response to the weekend’s events, and the political aftermath, the ELCA posted a public statement on August 15, 2017, which named racism in any form as a sin against God and humanity. The statement quoted our presiding Bishop, the Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, who encouraged Lutherans to stand against racism and anti-semitism, and be servants who are willing to meet the risen Jesus Christ in the midst of our society’s conflict and pain. The statement provides a link to the ELCA’s social statement on racism, which was passed in 1993. According to that statement, “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.”
I add here a quote from another religious leader, Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. In his op-ed from Monday, August 14, in the Washington Post, he uses one of the chants from the torch-bearing protesters on Friday night. He says that “‘Blood and Soil’ ethnic nationalism is not just a deviant social movement. It is the same old idolatry of the flesh, the human being seeking to deify his own flesh and blood as God.” Unfortunately, not all Christians are equally clear on how or why this point is important. Moore’s view is clarifying: the Christian Gospel is a call away from the idolatry of racism toward the worship of the one true God.
This was the tenor of my sermon delivered on Sunday, August 13. In it, I said that white supremacy and the ethnic nationalism that it fuels is a false god—an idol—that people are worshipping in order to find a seemingly “strong" identity that can serve as foundation for their self-made moral and political identity. The construction of such personal or group/tribal identities depends on stripping apart, undermining, or demeaning the personal and group identity of others, especially Jews and non-whites. White supremacist identity takes from others in order to build itself up, and in so doing creates an idol of itself. It literally steals from God that which is only God's to give, since it steals from others what God has given to all people, i.e. their own dignity as beings created “in his own image."
Using the story of Jesus’ miraculously walking on water to meet the disciples in a boat on a stormy sea, I lifted up the courage of Peter, who got out of the boat and walked on the water toward Jesus. I urged the congregation to be willing to step out from the false security of ethnic chauvinism or forms of racist identity and be willing to meet Jesus out on the sea of God’s redemption, where the only identity we own is that given by Jesus. Standing on what seems to be no ground at all, Jesus reaches out to save us as we sink, gives his own life for ours, and willingly exchanges his own holy identity for our false ones. For Christians, it is in this way and this way alone that we are given an identity worth living and dying for. (Lord, give power to your church to submit to your grace. Amen.)