The last year or so has been especially challenging, and I’m not talking about COVID; I’m talking about all that is happening in our society around the topic of race. There is rarely a day that goes by without a news story about race and the inequities that exist because of the color of our skin or our ethnic backgrounds. Much of the time, those stories leave me with more questions than answers. I had believed that I was someone who had decent understanding about the invisible lines that exist in our society based on a person’s race.
I am a middle-aged white woman living in west central Wisconsin. Because I am white, I was able to believe that the barriers that separate us are invisible. But to those who are not white, to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC), those barriers are anything but invisible. There are systems built into our society that create, and help to maintain, advantages and disadvantages when it comes to every aspect of life based on race (e.g. education, housing, employment, health care, criminal justice, etc.). Over time, these systems compound the advantages (typically for white people) and disadvantages (typically for BIPOC) that a person or group of people are experiencing.
As a white woman, I enjoy many accumulated advantages and privileges. Racism has been so normalized in our culture that it has created, and nurtured, an illusion that as a white person, I am somehow more deserving than someone who doesn’t have white skin. Recognizing that my status in society has less to do with my character and more to do with the color of my skin was quite a blow to my ego. It is a bitter pill for a middle-aged white woman to swallow but that doesn’t change the truth of the matter. Racism is insidious and destructive. As a pastor, I am called to preach the Gospel, to share God’s love and grace with all of God’s beloved children, and racism is a sin keeps us separated from each other.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) is a primarily white denomination. The ELCA acknowledges that racism—a mix of power, privilege, fragility and prejudice—are a violation of God’s intention for humanity as expressed by Jesus (Matthew 22:37-40 and 28:19-20) and Paul (Galatians 3:26-28). As a part of the ELCA, the congregations that make up the Northwest Synod of Wisconsin (NWSWI) are primarily white. We must ask ourselves, how do we make changes within our communities, churches, and homes that will dismantle the systems of racism that limit our ability to live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ? How do we live into the command to love our neighbors as ourselves?
At the upcoming synod assembly, the NWSWI is introducing a resolution in support of racial justice training along with a racial justice and equity statement. These two documents make a public declaration of faith and a commitment to grapple with the sin of racism. The first step is letting the scales fall from our eyes and acknowledge that racism exists and that it erodes our humanity. We must confess that we live in broken relationships with our neighbors because of the divisions of race that we have failed to correct. We must confess that many of our stories and traditions are based on racist ideas, concepts and origins. We must confess our complicity in systemic racism through our direct and indirect actions and that our silence allows evil to exist in the world. And we must confess that we are called to move beyond empty promises and engage in the work of anti-racism.
What is a faithful response to racism and equity? There are no easy answers, but we must not let that deter us. This will be a lifelong journey that will take sincere prayer and effort to travel. If you have already begun the journey of understanding the complex issues of race in our society, please be encouraged to continue. If you are starting the journey, please be encouraged to begin. I believe with all my heart that God is calling us to break our silence and face the sin of racism that continues to destroy relationships and lives.
We begin the journey together, “Do you renounce the sin of racism as tool of evil?” Let us respond, “We do, and we ask God to help and guide us.”
Rev Karen Ressel
Co-chair, NWSWI Racial Justice Team,
Pastor, Eleva Lutheran Church, Eleva, Wisconsin