Like so many of you, I have been shocked and saddened, grief-stricken and outraged, by the violence in Charlottesville and, increasingly, around our country and globe; the "normalization" of hate-filled and bigotted rhetoric; and the rise of neo-Nazism and white supremacy. Again like many of you, I have wondered how, beyond prayer and lament, to respond. Toward answering that question, I’ve put below a statement written with Prof. Rolf Jacobson, my former colleague at Luther Seminary and good friend. You can access and sign the actual petition by clicking on this link. It is addressed to Lutheran clergy not to exclude others but to acknowledge that Lutherans have a particular obligation to history because of our legacy from WWII and, indeed, because of Luther's own conflicting and painful testimony as one who apprehended God's expansive grace and love but failed grievously at times to apply it to all persons, especially his Jewish neighbors.
Truthfully, I sometimes worry that in our media-saturated world, public statements often either get lost in the cacophony of cyberspace or, while well-intentioned, too often become a substitute for concrete action. Yet in the aftermath of last weekend's horrific events, I was reminded of Martin Niemoller's stark assessment of the failure of the church to speak out against Nazism in its early days, and so felt called to say something. It is not perfect. More can and should be said. More can and should be done. But for these two Lutheran clergy, it is a start.
Statement of Lutheran Clergy Rejecting White Supremacy, Terrorism, and Violence
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” –Revelation 7:9-10.
We the undersigned, as Lutheran pastors and leaders who believe that God’s grace is for “all tribes and peoples and languages,” publicly condemn white supremacy as well as terrorism of every kind.
Lutheran Pastor Martin Niemöller was imprisoned by the Nazis in 1938 because of his opposition to their platform and only released when the concentration camps were liberated by the Allies in 1945. Initially a supporter of Hitler and in the years preceding the war often indifferent towards, and at times intolerant of, his Jewish neighbors, Niemöller was by no means a perfect witness. Yet he nevertheless eloquently expressed the guilt and grief he felt at his lack of empathy and action and offered a warning to future generations in his widely quoted poem:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Socialist. Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Trade Unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me— and there was no one left to speak for me.1
As Lutheran clergy, we recognize our tradition’s difficult history regarding racism and bigotry. Some, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, were quick to respond to and oppose the rise of Nazism in mid-twentieth-century Germany. Others, such as Niemöller, responded over time. Still others sacrificed their faith to nationalistic fervor and betrayed the inclusive nature of the Gospel and became complicit with oppression and violence. Similarly, we are poignantly aware of Martin Luther’s vision of the expansive nature of God’s love for the world and his contradictory and painful failure to apply that vision to all people, resulting in hateful and destructive attacks against his Jewish neighbors. In North America, some Lutherans supported slavery of African Americans, white supremacy, and oppression of Native Americans.
For this reason, we recognize that we are not perfect witnesses against white supremacy and terrorism. Nevertheless, in light of the recent violence in Charlottesville and the ominous rise of white supremacy nationally, we feel called to state as clearly and forcibly as possible our unequivocal opposition to racism and bigotry, our condemnation of hate-based violence, and our commitment to work strenuously for greater acceptance and equality in our congregations and communities. As leaders of Christian communities whose Lord has commanded that we care always for “the least of these” (Matt 25:40), we pledge our support to those who are oppressed because of their faith, race, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexuality. When God declares God’s love for the world (John 3:16), it is for the whole world.
While we speak from our particular faith tradition, we believe our convictions stem also from our status as U.S. citizens. In a 1790 letter to “The Hebrew Congregation at Newport, RI,” George Washington expressed his hope that the new nation would offer the world an enlarged moral vision:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.2
A slave owner to his death, Washington also was not a perfect witness, yet he managed to offer eloquent testimony to his vision for a country where bigotry and persecution would find no refuge and tolerance would not be the exception but the norm.
Therefore, as both Christian leaders and as American citizens who cherish the freedoms of belief, assembly, and speech this country protects, we call upon all leaders – religious, civic, and corporate – to speak out in the clearest of terms to oppose racism, bigotry, and violence whenever and wherever it may happen. Neither our words nor our actions will be perfect, and we will fall short of ideals. Yet speak and act we must, once more dedicating ourselves to the cause of giving “bigotry no sanction [and] persecution no assistance.” For when we remain silent, the whole nation suffers and we betray our responsibilities as stewards of the unparalleled religious and political freedoms our nation affords.
1. As Niemöller made this statement in a variety of venues, there are similarly several different versions in circulation. The one quoted here reflects the translation and wording preserved at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10007392 (accessed 8/19/17).
2. George Washington: A Collection, ed. W.B. Allen (Liberty Fund: Indianapolis, 1988): http://teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/letter-to-the-hebrew-congregation-at-newport (accessed 8/19/17).