Intentional Bridge-Building after Charleston

Dear Colleagues,

On September 18, 1963, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered a eulogy for three of the little girls killed in the cowardly bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. In his eulogy he said of the victims:

“They have something to say to every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained-glass windows…
“They say to us that we must be concerned not merely about who murdered them, but about the system, the way of life, the philosophy which produced the murderers.”

What were the conditions that produced the murderer at Mother Emanuel in Charleston? Doubtless we will continue to learn more and more about the shooter in the weeks ahead.

You may have heard that the white supremacist shooter, Dylann Roof, was a member of an ELCA Lutheran Church in Charleston. This difficult truth urges me to contemplate the conditions of our congregations. We may be unconsciously tolerating and perpetuating hatred. We may be silently complicit in an underlying racism.

In seminary, my Professor of Systematic Theology, Dr. Walter Bouman, forced us to contemplate the Holocaust. How could so many people in Germany, and other places, get swept up in the racist ideology of the Third Reich? “As Lutherans, we cannot do theology the same after the Holocaust,” he insisted. We must come to understand the power of sin not simply as a personal moral failing, like eating too many sweets, but rather a powerful, systemic force that drives otherwise well-meaning folks into corporate evil. We are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We participate and collaborate in evil knowingly and unknowingly through what we buy, who we love, and how we think and speak about people.

Sometimes I think we see diversity as a politically correct thing to do. Or we see it as a way to bolster our membership rolls. What if, instead, it’s a matter of life and death? In the wake of this shooting, we must take note that racism kills.

How do we overcome corporate evil? We can’t. Our Scriptures and Confessions tell us it is part of the human condition. We can, however, become instruments of God’s peace. We cannot bring in the Reign of God, but we pray that we might be a small part of what God is doing in the world. The Body of Christ can be a small foretaste of the feast to come. How?

First we must acknowledge it. We cannot confess to and repent of that which we refuse to acknowledge. We have to begin by acknowledging that this country is prosperous to a great extent because it was, like most empires, built on the cheap labor of slaves and the confiscation of resources from this land’s indigenous peoples. If we cannot make this simple start, I fear all is lost.

Second, we must trust in God’s grace in Christ and the power of the Spirit to overcome the walls of division. The Spirit of Pentecost has a uniting effect. Paul understood this all too well when he wrote to the Galatians. He understood that the death and resurrection of Jesus meant something revolutionary: an end to the age-old institution of slavery. It meant an end to racism, sexism, and classism. Hear his voice anew. Because of what Christ has done, “…there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

Third, we must help our people understand racism and privilege. This is an uphill climb, because the media and those living in privilege often don’t get it. Every time I hear someone say, “I’m not a racist,” I sigh. We all have the seeds of xenophobia in us: fear of the stranger. That natural fear becomes deadly in the lives of those in the dominant culture. Minorities have fear of the stranger too. It can be unkind. But when the powerful majority gives full vent to its prejudice and fear, it becomes dangerous. This is when holocausts happen.

Finally, we must become very intentional bridge-builders. In my experience, the only way to overcome racism and bigotry is by developing meaningful relationships with those across the fence. It’s much harder to believe ignorant ideas about a group of people when you have abiding friendships with those people. We can’t shame people or argue them into a new humanity. If, however, we invite them into joyful, life-giving relationships with others, and they fall in love with their neighbor, powerful things can happen. We must allow our diverse communities, who often live in their separate ghettos, to collide. Leaders can provide the platform for this righteous collision.

Here is what I am asking of you: This year, some time in the next 12 months, before the anniversary of the Mother Emanuel shooting, I am asking you to provide the platform for your people to come into relationship with people of another race or religion. Build this in to your congregational plans. Play with those who will play, a coalition of the willing.

Here’s what this could look like: One possibility is to find an AME congregation and schedule a couple of dinners, one at your place and one at theirs.people of both communities share a table. Sing together. Have both pastors say a few words. Pray together. Eat together. Then provide families a way to sign up to have dinner together, just two families, one from each church, in their homes. Be intentional about building relationships across social barriers.

Figure out what makes sense in your context. In one setting it may be a Latino congregation. In another setting it might make sense to get together with a mosque or a synagogue. Pray about it. What barriers do your people need to overcome? Create the conditions for it to happen, and then let the Spirit work. The Spirit often surprises us.

If I could demand this of you, I would. Instead I appeal to you out of the love of Christ to be a sign of the Reign of God, which transcends race, where there is no Jew or Greek.

This won’t end racism or solve every problem, but it will slowly build bridges. It will help us take down walls of division and turn them into tables of fellowship. Will you commit to doing this with me? Will you give this gift to your congregation and to the world?

Who knows what might happen?

In Christ,

Mike Rinehart, Bishop