2021-22 New Jersey Synod Bishop’s Challenge: The Jehu Jones Mission
Educational Piece: Black Lutheranism and the ELCA: 1988 to the Present
This brief overview is in no way as comprehensive as necessary. It restricts itself to the churchwide official level discussions and actions about racism and equity within the ELCA since its inception.
At its formation in 1988, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) was already committed to addressing the sins of racism and prejudice within its church and society. There had been an original commitment at its inception for the ELCA to grow in racial and ethnic diversity over the first 10 years of its existence so that 10% of its full membership would be African American, Asian, Hispanic, or Native American. Following up on this emphasis, in 1993, the ELCA published a social statement on Race and Racial Diversity called “Freed in Christ: Race, Ethnicity, and Culture”. This document reaffirmed that earlier commitment and committed the church to facilitate more diversity within its leadership and opportunities for ministry, as well as to become more vocal in its public advocacy: “We expect our leadership to name the sin of racism and lead us in our repentance of it.”[i]
That initial goal of 10% racial and ethnic diversity within the ELCA was never realized. Furthermore, in the view of Black Lutherans represented by the African Descent Lutheran Association (ADLA), the ELCA has not lived up to its other commitments, as expressed in “Freed in Christ”, to help heal racism and lead in confession and repentance for the sins of slavery and the legacy of inequality. In 2015, ADLA called on the ELCA in its 2016 triennial churchwide gathering “to ‘draft a formal letter of repentance,’ to commit to examine the church’s complicity in slavery, and to acknowledge ‘the ELCA’s perpetuation of racism.’”
In response, the ELCA in 2016 adopted the social policy resolution, “Renewed Action Regarding Racism Toward Lutherans of African Descent”, (CA16.05.17) which calls for a recommitment “to create, sustain and reinvest in African descent communities, congregations, and ministries” and to “recommit this church to growing its ethnic and racial diversity” in leadership, congregations, and communities.
Meanwhile, in explicit response to ADLA’s 2016 request, the ELCA commissioned its Domestic Mission unit, through its African Descent Ministries desk and in consultation with the African Descent Lutheran Association, to create a “Declaration of the ELCA to the African Descent Community”, which was adopted on June 27, 2019 by the ELCA Church Council. It’s opening paragraph reads:
“The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) apologizes to people of African descent for its historical complicity in slavery and its enduring legacy of racism in the United States and globally. We lament the white church’s failure to work for the abolition of slavery and the perpetuation of racism in this church. We confess, repent and repudiate the times when this church has been silent in the face of racial injustice.”
This document calls on ELCA Lutherans to repent of the sin of racism and lament its legacy, encourage the church to observe a Day of Repentance, engage in anti-racism work, work toward economic justice, including the study of reparations, and address modern forms of slavery and human trafficking. (The study of reparations has since been taken up by the ELCA Conference of Bishops, which has yet to publish its findings.)
At the Churchwide Assembly in August of 2019, the “Declaration” was presented to leaders of ADLA, and the Rev. Lamont Wells accepted the apology in the “Declaration” on behalf of ADLA, albeit conditionally.[ii] Pastor Wells indicated that the acceptance stands if the apology indicates a true relinquishing of the “lust for oppressive power” for the sake of others, and as a “divine mark of repentance that serves as a catalyst for change.” On the other hand, their acceptance of the apology should be considered void if it amounts to simply “…a cheap indulgence to clear the conscience of our oppressors.”
The language here shows that many Black Lutherans view their experience as characterized by oppression, both within the ELCA and in the larger American society. Part of the struggle is then for white Lutherans to hear this for what it is. Just as in the case of trying to increase diversity within the church, the ELCA’s goals for reconciliation and justice still face formidable obstacles going forward.
[i] By the turn of the 21st century, other church denominations in the US were also focused on this issue, and sociological research began to study the state of racial and ethnic diversity in Christian churches in the US. Studies such as, “How Monochromatic is Church Membership: Racial-Ethnic Diversity in Religious Community,” (2003) and “Congregational Diversity and Attendance in a Mainline Protestant Denomination” (2015) both featured the ELCA as one of its data sets. Such research confirmed that not much headway was being made to reach that initial goal of increased diversity. This reality was confirmed yet again in the Pew Research Center survey, “2014 Religious Landscape Study”…, which found that the ELCA was still the second whitest major protestant denomination in the US, with its percentage of whites at 96%. This issue continues to present a challenge to the ELCA and its vision for greater diversity.