A Lutheran Paradox: Racism and Anti-racism

Author's note: In my sermon last Sunday, I asked my congregation to finish my sermon for me by writing down or sharing with a friend how God was working in their lives. My goal was that we might behold, hear, share, and proclaim the mighty works of God together. Below is one of the ways God is working in my life right now.

If there is one thing Lutherans are good at, it is holding the tension of a paradox. We are sinful people, but we are simultaneously saints. These two are opposites, but both true. They create a paradox. As we walk the journey of faith, we continually seek to sin less, to discipline ourselves to not sin, but we know that until Jesus returns, that sin will be there. Yet despite that sin, we are saved in Christ. We are saints.

It is time for Lutherans to begin confession of another paradox: Racism and Anti-racism.

This tweet by author Ijeoma Olou articulates this paradox.

Many Christians I know (myself included) bristle (or rage) when there is the slightest insinuation that we are a racist. 

As Lutherans we have no problem confessing our sin, so why do we have such a problem confessing this sin?  

I think part of the problem is what we imagine a racist to be. Perhaps what is in your mind when you hear "racist" are extreme, overt examples of racism such as the KKK or Nazis. Nobody wants to be categorized with such hateful, evil people. These extreme versions of racism are such an affront to us that we try to get as much distance from them as possible. 

I honestly think that is part of the reason we have such a problem confessing racism. But we are fooling ourselves if we think we can proclaim we are "free of racism." The Rev. Dr. Leopoldo Sanchez puts it this way (in this very worthwhile article): "racism is not merely about people acting out their racism in public, but much more often people thinking and speaking in subtly racist and ethnocentric ways." 

If we limit the definition of racism in our minds to only people publicly acting out racism in the most evil ways (KKK, Nazis etc.), we give ourselves a loophole. We conveniently exclude ourselves from that sin because we come off favorably in the comparison. We pray the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18, "God, I thank you that I am not like other men." Such prayers do not send us home righteous. What sends us home righteous is that the Lord hears the prayer of the tax collector, "God, be merciful to me, a sinner." 

We must confess, as individuals, as institutions, as churches, that we are in fact dealing with racism in our hearts. For very few of us is this public and overt. For most of us this is thinking and speaking in subtly racist and ethnocentric ways. This might manifest itself in degrading languages, music, or fashion that are outside your own experience. This might look like thinking you do not have white privilege because you grew up poor and have suffered greatly in life. This might look like locking your car doors at a stoplight when a person of color walks by. (I name these sins in particular because they are confessions I myself have had to make.) 

These sins of racism, like so many of our sins, are often unspoken. Some, we may not realize are sinful. Some we may not realize are even happening. All of our sin is comprehensive. We sin in thought, word, and deed. We sin by what we do and what we fail to do. Some of our sins are known to us and others are unknown. Racism is one of our sins. And we don't accomplish anything other than self-deception by pretending it is not. 

Just as we hold the paradox of sinner and saint, we must hold the paradox of racism and anti-racism. We must work against racism in our spheres of influence. We must work against racism in ourselves. And we need not pretend to be free of racism to be anti-racist, just like we need not pretend to be sinless to be a saint.

Just as we already confess that we are simultaneously saints and sinful, always working to be less sinful, we must also confess that we are simultaneously anti-racists in a state where racism exists within us, always working to be less racist. 

You may still be afraid to confess these sins. I understand. But remember, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. The blood of Christ forgives our comprehensive sin. Racism is not unforgivable. But refusing to confess this sin is quite literally living in sin. It is living an impenitent and unrepentant life. 

Don't allow Satan to trap you in this sin. Bring it to Jesus. Quit carrying it around pretending it isn't there. Let Jesus take it and bury it in the tomb. Then go in your freedom to love your neighbor, knowing it won't be perfect, knowing you'll have to confess this sin again, knowing that this paradox of prejudice will continue until Christ returns.

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