Originally published by Lutheran Services in America's Fall 2020 Issue of Caring Connections, which focuses on Reflections About Racial Justice.
I’M A LIFELONG LUTHERAN. I was Baptized and Confirmed in Lutheran Churches. I attended Lutheran Schools. I married a Lutheran Teacher whose family is from Frankenmuth, Michigan.
But on Juneteenth, 2020, I did the most Lutheran thing possible:
I created an acronym.
Co-founded with Rev. Matthew Ryan González, Lutherans for Racial Justice (LRJ) is a grassroots coalition that seeks to bring about racial reconciliation and reform within the congregations and communities of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (LCMS). This movement is not on a crusade to bear false testimony against current leadership or dwell on past grievances. In fact, the goal is quite the opposite: we love our church body and are endeavoring to find ways to better-understand and better-serve all nations by creating a safe space to ask questions, express ideas, and share concerns about the many complex issues surrounding race. Over the past two months, the LRJ team has created and curated free educational resources, started a network for congregational connections and support, and lovingly encouraged Lutheran Schools to form policies around racial diversity and representation. We’re also in the early stages of developing a diversity training and mentorship program, custom-built for LCMS institutions.
When our churches are facing a global pandemic why should we introduce one more challenge for us to worry about?
This summer, the public health crisis shined a spotlight on needs that have been lingering in the shadows of our society for decades. We caught a glimpse of the challenges single-parents face to raise a child and earn a living wage. We saw the toll that isolation and anxiety can take on mental health. And we watched a man suffocate over the course of eight minutes and forty-two seconds, as a crowd of bystanders cried out in protest. While George Floyd’s murder was shocking, the racial disparities in America across many demographics are no secret. We know that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) Americans are disproportionately arrested and charged. We know that a Black mother with a college degree is up to five times more likely to die in childbirth. We know that a Black child is three times more likely to drown than a white child. Our society’s racial inequalities were not invented in the past few months, but the harsh summer sun has made the truth difficult to ignore: there are systems in place which favor the sanctity of some Americans’ lives over the sanctity of others based on nothing more than the color of their skin.
This is not radical neo-Marxist thought. This is not Critical Race Theory. This is reality — a reality that the LCMS presently acknowledges.
Or as Martin Luther put it: “God does not need your good works, but your neighbor does.” To draw from Luther’s wisdom, racial justice is not about the justice before God that can only be found in the cross. Nor is it an excuse for retribution or a witch hunt. No, the Biblical concept of justice is more radical than vengeance. As Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, we are called to make ourselves nothing and wash one another’s feet. And over the course of my life, countless Lutheran teachers, pastors, synodical leaders, and members have washed my feet, sacrificing their time and resources to love me without pretense, caring for me as though they were caring for Christ Himself (Matthew 25:35–36). Based on my experience, Lutherans are well-equipped to proclaim the Gospel in word and deed. Let us go then and make disciples of all nations.
How do we engage issues surrounding race?
1. LISTEN & LEARN
Feeling overwhelmed? That’s okay! Take time to learn, ask questions, pray, meditate, and converse about the complex issues surrounding racial justice and equity. The LRJ resources page (lutheransforracialjustice.com/resources) has book recommendations, discussion guides, and videos that can help you get started. Kindly ask your home congregation to engage in these conversations as well. This may feel uncomfortable. We may have disagreements. That’s okay too. As difficult as it may be, remember to approach these conversations with a spirit of gentleness (Galatians 6:1–10).
2. START WITH YOUR VOCATIONS
Lutherans are more equipped than most to meet the opportunity of this moment, for we have the concept of vocation built into our tradition:
“The prince should think: Christ has served me and made everything to follow him; therefore, I should also serve my neighbor, protect him and everything So...how does this relate to the church’s call to go into the world and preach the gospel to all creation? (Mark 16:15–19) In light of the fulfillment of the Covenants through Jesus, God calls us, as broken as we are, to bear witness to the covenant and by his love be that belongs to him. That is why God has given me this office, and I have it that I might serve him. That would be a good prince and ruler. When a prince sees his neighbor oppressed, he should think: That concerns me! I must protect and shield my neighbor. ... The same is true for the shoemaker, tailor, scribe, or reader. If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.” — Martin Luther, Sermon at the Castle Church in Weimar
That said, a narrow cultural lens can sometimes create unintentional stumbling blocks as we proclaim the gospel. Challenge yourself to better-understand your neighbors’ culture, whether it’s in your vocation at church, work, or as a citizen (1 Corinthians 9:19–23).
3. AS YOU TAKE ACTION, PRAY FOR GUIDANCE (and Lots of Grace!) Not sure where to start? Contact LRJ at lutheransforracialjustice.com/contact and tell us a little about your vocations. The needs of this world, whichever ones God calls you to meet, will most certainly require sacrifice.
“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” —John 15:13
I was not willing to lay down my life for George Floyd or Breonna Taylor. Most days, I’m not willing to lay down my coffee for a friend, let alone lay down my iPhone or my job or my life ambitions. No, most days when faced with the needs of my neighbor, I’m less likely to respond with Godly compassion and more likely to respond with the words of Cain: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Thank God that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of which I am the worst. With Luther, we pray that “the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.”
Lutherans for Racial Justice does not expect the deep wounds of racial divide to be healed overnight. We do believe, however, that this moment offers both church workers and laity the opportunity to take part in the great Lutheran tradition of Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rosa Young, as we, by God’s grace, pursue our holy vocations, not to better ourselves or our place before God, but to wash our neighbors’ feet.
And I can’t think of anything more Lutheran than that (except for a good acronym, of course).
Joshua Salzberg is a filmmaker, LCMS member, and co-founder of Lutherans for Racial Justice.