Friday, April 9, 2021

A Faithful Response to Racism and Equity

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.”

Servants Together,

Rev Karen Ressel

Co-chair, NWSWI Racial Justice Team,

Pastor, Eleva Lutheran Church, Eleva, Wisconsin

Friday, March 19, 2021

NW Synod Assembly Resolution 5: Support for ELCA World Hunger

I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger, and you welcomed me.                                                                                      Matthew: 25:35

It would therefore be fitting if the coat of arms of every upright prince were emblazoned with a loaf of bread instead of a lion.                                    Martin Luther in the Large Catechism, Book of Concord

Jesus and Dr. Martin Luther were both into feeding people who were hungry. When Jesus spread the good news about the Blessed Community and God’s great love for humanity, he made sure people had enough to eat, and he did that more than once. Luther made feeding people a big part of his teaching about loving and serving our neighbors, including the quotation above from the Large Catechism. Jesus and Luther helped people when they needed help without blaming them for being in need. Jesus and Luther modeled the ministry of feeding people food for physical bodies along with spiritual food for minds and hearts.

The NW Synod of Wisconsin 2021 Assembly takes place in a few weeks, and one of the decisions Voting Members will be making is about challenging the member congregations of the synod to increase their financial support for ELCA World Hunger. The reasons for this challenge relate to how many people in our world are either hungry or face ongoing food insecurity.

The resolution includes a lot of data about hunger. From the United Nations and the World Bank we learn that more than 821 million people, or almost 11% of the people in our world, are hungry and that 17.5 % of all the children in the world live in poverty. We also learn that, even though there had been a dramatic drop in the percentage of people experiencing hunger and food insecurity since 2014, the number of people experiencing hunger and food insecurity in the world has been on the rise since 2018.

The thing is, when we are dealing with hunger and food insecurity, we aren’t just dealing with issues about food. The people who are supported through programs funded by ELCA World Hunger are more vulnerable to natural disasters, human conflicts, homelessness, disease, shortened life spans, and a host of other disadvantages. With our financial support, our church can respond to hunger and poverty in the United States and throughout the world comprehensively, with direct relief, education, advocacy, sustainable development, and community organizing and networking. Our church does this work so that people have the resources they need to not just survive, but thrive.

When the Voting Members gather online for this year’s assembly, they will have the opportunity to make visible our love for our neighbors who face food insecurity, from those who live right here in Wisconsin to those living in places like Guatemala or Malawi. The resolution asks all congregations in the NW Synod to take time on a regular basis throughout the year to call people’s awareness to the problem of hunger and, if they are not already doing this, to set aside at least one Sunday each year to hear about the work of ELCA World Hunger and collect an offering to support that work.

The resolution is also about financial support. For each of the past several years, member congregations and individuals in the NW Synod have contributed approximately $300,000 to ELCA World Hunger. This is giving above and beyond what congregations and individuals also donate to local food pantries and regional food banks like Second Harvest Northern Lakes or Feed My People. The 2021 resolution challenges congregations and individuals to collectively increase the total giving each year and meet the goal of $1,000,000 by April 2024. It’s a modest increase, which makes it doable if everyone is willing to give a little bit more than in the past.

Whether you are a Voting Member of the 2021 Synod Assembly or not, please take the time to learn more about the resolution and the needs of the hungry before the resolution comes up for a vote on Thursday, April 15. There are Forums on April 8, 11, 12, & 13 scheduled where Voting Members in particular can learn more as well as get some orientation to the Zoom platform for the meeting [URL:]. And along with praying for the people who don't have enough food, please do whatever you can to make a difference in the lives of people who are hungry throughout our world.

Be safe. Be well. Be assured that we are all in God’s hands.

Deacon David Rask Behling

Hunger and Justice Advocate,

Northwest Synod of Wisconsin

Thursday, March 11, 2021

On Faith and Politics

 Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare.     Jeremiah 29:7

Jesus said: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. Mark 12:17

Politics. It’s complicated. It’s controversial. It’s empowering. It’s frustrating. It’s also very human. At the most basic level, politics [Greek root “polis” means “city”] is about how we organize our lives together in communities of any size. Even when we are isolated families or small tribes migrating from place to place, the way we live with each other is political. Even when we make decisions and interact in our churches, we are acting politically.

Politics for the people of God has been all of the things I listed above, and it’s been that way since the very beginning. The stories of the Tower of Babel and the destruction of the world through water are rooted in politics – how people treat each other – as much as they are faith. The Ten Commandments are rules for living that are “political” in nature because seven of them are about how we live with each other.

And when we feel that talking about anything political in our country right now has become scary or dangerous, we aren’t really experiencing anything new. The prophets of Israel and Judah were not popular; on the contrary, they were taking huge risks and more than one was killed for speaking God’s truth to the powerful in those two countries. Jesus himself was killed by the government in support of religious leaders who wielded political power in the community, not just religious.

This is a history that we have mostly forgotten, of course. When we read the words of the prophets in worship services or preach about them in sermons today, we usually focus on the prophets as forerunners of Jesus, as teaching people nearly exclusively about the messiah. And so when things get political, even in a reading from scripture during worship, many Lutherans become anxious or angry. We either don’t want to be reminded that our political ideology doesn’t line up with what the Bible teaches, or we don’t want the ugliness of our dysfunctional political system to show up in church.

 Why is this true? Why are we so determined to block political discussion from our fellowship halls, pews, and pulpits? Well, one reason is that, starting in the 1950s, mainline protestant churches in North America, including Lutherans, entered into an informal arrangement with the governing authorities. Churches would be responsible for promoting individual morality, private spirituality, and religious practices inside their buildings. The government and political parties would be responsible for what happened outside the walls of our churches, like the cold war against communism. With the support of many churches combined with the silence of others, the governing authorities were able to build up the system of segregation we call “Jim Crow” laws and policies, keep women from full participation in the workforce, and treat homosexuality as a crime.

Because we in the white church put up a wall between things we considered “political” and things we considered spiritual or religious contributed to the emergence of black churches and denominations. Our silent or vocal support of “law and order” in the struggle for civil rights made the political practices of a racist America a higher good than working together with other believers to build up the body of Christ.

Given that complicated history and the legacy it has left in our communities, what will be the political response of the congregations in the NW Synod of Wisconsin? What kind of impact are we Lutherans having on what happens to all of the people living in our communities, in our state, and in our country? For those who insist we in the church remain silent, what will be the impact of that silence when so many of our elected leaders are either bullies or allies of bullies, people who only care about themselves and their own power? When we don’t take what the Bible and the church teaches us about loving and serving both God AND our neighbors, what is the result? When the only religious voices that many elected leaders hear are voices speaking about power, judgement, and domination, what will be the consequences? As those conservative, white, Christian voices advocate for imposing their idea of political “Christianity” on the United States, can anything good come from this?

The people of God in this country have the role of Caesar right now. We came close on January 6th, but we have so far escaped the fate of many stuck living in countries with authoritarian governments. As both citizens and Christians we DO have a role to play in what happens in our communities. Remember that our silence is just as political as our speaking. Silence in the face of lies by bullies and hatred of our neighbors communicates our consent, it tells everyone in the community that we believe those lies, that we are okay with what’s happening to our neighbors.

So . . . are we?

Breathe deep. Seek peace and justice. Pray every day.

Deacon David Rask Behling | he/him/his [Why are pronouns important?]

Hunger and Justice Advocate,

NW Synod of Wisconsin [ELCA]


Friday, January 15, 2021

On Faith, State Budgets, and Advocacy

A righteous person knows the rights of the poor.   Proverbs 29:7

The writer of the quotation above offers some pretty direct advice to the people of God: we know what our responsibilities are when it comes to serving our neighbors who are hungry, disabled, homeless, in prison, sick, unable to work, or otherwise unemployed . . . or any combination of the full list. This call to serve those around us when they need help appears in every section of our Bibles, from the beginning of the covenant relationship through the time when Jesus was here with us.

So if we have been faithful in reading God’s Word and applying our faith to our actions, we know what is needed and that we need to respond. What we actually do can vary quite a bit, depending on our own context or resources, but that we are called to do something to make things better for others who are suffering is not ambiguous.

While gifts to private charities and non-profit organizations are usually highlighted in our churches, as individual members and as communities we can also get involved in the process of setting budget priorities for local and state governments. We can call elected officials, email them, or step up to the microphone at a public meeting to advocate for budgets that place a priority on public funds for the people who need help with groceries or rent or utilities or medical care. We can raise our voices in protest when elected leaders make helping the wealthy and powerful a higher priority than the needs of the most vulnerable.

If you agree that participating in public meetings and speaking up during budget debates and discussions is a good use of your time and energy, right now is an ideal time to invest in advocacy, at least here in Wisconsin. The biennial budgeting process for the State of Wisconsin is at the midpoint, with the Governor’s office working on what they will present to the citizens and the legislature on February 12th.

The listening sessions the governor’s office organized have ended, but there is still time to contact the governor to advocate for a budget that is just and serves all the people of this state. After the 12th, action on the budget moves to the legislature, starting with the Joint Finance Committee. That group will be holding meetings and hearings on the budget before sending it on to the Assembly and Senate. At each stage of the budgeting process, your voice as a non-partisan advocate for spending and policies that help poor and hungry people can make a difference.

And you can get some training on how to best do that kind of non-partisan advocacy with your own representatives and senators, the Governor, members of the Joint Finance Committee, and other legislative leaders a couple of different ways:

WISDOM, a statewide organizing network, is offering some advocacy training webinars that are open to any and all who are interested in learning more about the budgeting process or in getting involved in direct advocacy. The next two are focused on how to communicate effectively with legislators, on Saturday, January 23, from 9 am to noon and Tuesday, February 9 from 5 to 6 pm. You will find registration information for those opportunities as well as information about others at I encourage you to register for one or more of these webinars or send this information on to people you know.

The Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin [LOPPW] will also be reaching out with resources and information about advocacy during the state budgeting process in the next few weeks. Please sign up for their regular emails and look for updates on their website []. LOPPW’s advocacy priorities for 2021 can be found at

I encourage you to take the step into non-partisan advocacy this year, if you haven’t done so in the past, and take advantage of any and all resources available to help you feel more confident in talking to our elected leaders.

Breathe deep. Seek peace and justice. Pray every day.

Deacon David Rask Behling he/him [Why are pronouns important?]

Hunger and Justice Advocate,

NW Synod of Wisconsin [ELCA]


Monday, January 4, 2021

On Faith, Hunger, and the Public Good

It would therefore be fitting if the coat of arms of every upright prince were emblazoned with a loaf of bread instead of a lion.                   Dr. Martin Luther, Large Catechism, Book of Concord

As you read the words that follow, and as you make your choices about giving, about voting, about what to talk about with people in your churches and your community, please remember what Luther wrote in the Large Catechism, the one intended to teach pastors and other community leaders about how we are supposed to live and lead as the people of God. Luther believed in acting to help people when there were needs in the community, like making sure people had a enough food, not in blaming poor people for their poverty or hunger. Luther understood that the Christian life included doing God’s work with our hands, and that it wasn’t enough to just sit or stand in a church and pray.

When Covid-19 began to spread throughout our world at the beginning of 2020, many things happened as a result. Hundreds of thousands died because of COVID 19. Hundreds of thousands more were hospitalized, if there were any hospital beds available, or isolated at home if the hospitals were full.

Along with the medical consequences, there were political, economic, social, and emotional consequences in every community. Too many government leaders in our country and around the world didn’t take the virus seriously or used the virus to claim even more power for their authoritarian governments. People saw their incomes reduced, were furloughed, or were laid off when businesses closed and factories shut down. If people were able to work at home, the lack of good broadband access in many urban and rural communities made that very difficult.

People were stuck at home, if they hadn’t already been evicted, and many people were stuck in dangerous living situations. Students from kindergarten to graduate school were learning primarily via online platforms, which only made the weak broadband infrastructure in our country even more obvious. Families and friends kept their distance from each other, if they didn’t live together, and the need for mental health support, which is often unavailable in rural areas. 

Throughout this international crisis the need for help for the poor and marginalized in our communities has grown. Direct aid from the states and federal governments helped the most, but so did people of faith. Inspired by Jesus or Martin Luther or some other religious figure, there were many people living out their faith by serving their neighbors.

It seems likely that the depth and breadth of economic need arising from this pandemic will mean we will be dealing with all of those consequences for quite some time. And so the people of God are going to continue being called upon to serve our neighbors in new and challenging ways throughout the coming year. Hopefully, food pantries and meal sites in your facilities and in your communities have been able to create ways to help families experiencing hunger during this time of physical distancing.

We can, of course, do more than just donate more money to pantries, food banks, and meal sites. As citizens of this state and this country, we can talk to state and federal legislators, the governor, and even the White House to let our elected leaders know we expect them to work together for the public good. As budgeting meetings and decisions are made this spring at the state and federal level, we can call them, email them, or even talk to them via Zoom or in person [while observing a safe physical distance] if they visit our communities. We can become advocates for poor and marginalized people in our communities.

As the budgeting process gets underway here in Wisconsin, please watch for additional messages from me and subscribe to the action alerts and weekly updates from the Lutheran Office for Public Policy in Wisconsin [] about how to best advocate for the people experiencing hunger in Wisconsin.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we need to PRAY every day for all the people involved in food ministry – the agencies, food banks, staff, and volunteers who help bring food to those who need it. We need to pray for those who need help with food. And remember to pray for yourself as I am praying for you, for God to sustain you in this work, and to bring courage, resilience, and patience in equal measure.

If you have any questions, or want to let me (or other synod staff) know about something specific that is happening in your community or congregation, please feel free to email me [] or contact the synod office at 715-859-6810.

Be safe. Be well. Be assured that we are all in God’s hands.

Deacon David Rask Behling

Hunger and Justice Advocate, Northwest Synod of Wisconsin

Sunday, December 20, 2020

On How History Matters

Note from the Hunger and Justice Advocate: A history lesson about racist America may feel out of place during the Advent and Christmas season. Many Christians may feel like it's too terrible a story for a time that celebrates the arrival of Christ as a sign of God's love for humanity. This story of racist America may feel out of place even for many secular people, for whom Christmas still has a kind of "magic" in it that they don't find in other celebrations. But this is also true: when Jesus was born, he was born into a world in which millions of people had been enslaved by others. It might be good to remember that the majority of people living in the Roman Empire at the time of Jesus would  have been enslaved people, considered the property of those wealthy enough to own other human beings. Slavery wasn't dependent on ideas about what skin color meant in the Roman Empire or other ancient empires, but it was nonetheless a destructive, dehumanizing system. When we remember that part of the story about Jesus' birth, maybe remembering our own ways of oppressing people at Christmastime isn't really out of place after all.


400 years ago white people in America enslaved black people. And sold them. And raped them. And made it illegal to be taught how to read anything, even the Bible. And taught Christians in churches of all kinds, including Lutheran churches, that God had sanctioned this brutality and treatment of people as property, as less than human. This continued to be part of American history for 250 years, while white people started businesses and created laws and systems of government. This happened while generations of white families flourished and made choices that made their lives better.

150 years ago Americans killed each other in a war so white people could "free" black people from slavery. But then angry white people in many places created laws that made it impossible for black people to vote. Or to own land. Or to marry white people. Or to have the same rights as white people. Or to live in small towns throughout the country, but especially in the Midwest, Northwest, and Southwest. White people created laws that made it easier to imprison black people for even minor infractions, using them in fields and factories as legally enslaved people. White people even erected monuments glorifying men who had fought to keep black people enslaved. And all of these things happened while generations of white families continued to accumulate wealth and gain land and get an education.

60 years ago white people made it fully "legal" for black people to vote, and to be "free" from discrimination. But many angry white people still fought to keep schools segregated. And neighborhoods segregated. And taxpayer subsidized suburbs surrounding American cities segregated. White people demolished Black communities in urban areas - like in Minneapolis - in order to build highways for white workers to commute back and forth to their jobs from their suburban homes. And white people made it harder for black people to get bank loans, get quality education, and health care. And all of this was done while another few generations of white families passed their wealth down to their children and their children's children.

And then we entered an age where people had the technology to make PUBLIC many things that had been happening in PRIVATE – the harassment of black people shopping in stores, the treatment of black people interviewing for jobs, the use of stop and frisk laws, the profiling of black drivers when seen driving the wrong kinds of cars or for driving in white neighborhoods, the unequal application of justice during trials and sentencing, and police brutality [Uncomfortable Historical Fact: Professional law enforcement started out in America as patrols designed to catch runaway slaves].

And only now, only because what has been invisible has become visible, only after 400+ years and 20+ generations of a head start for white families, are white people STARTING to be ready to engage in a dialogue about what it means to be black in America.

White privilege doesn't mean white people haven't suffered or fought or worked hard. It doesn't mean that white people living today are responsible for the sins of white ancestors. It doesn’t mean white people can’t be proud of themselves as individuals and what they have achieved.

It DOES mean that white people need to acknowledge that the system created by the founding fathers and their political descendants was built FOR white people.

It DOES mean that white churches need to acknowledge that their theology and institutional practices directly support or indirectly tolerate systemic racism.

It DOES mean that black people are at a disadvantage because of the color of their skin.

It DOES mean that white people need to acknowledge all of this history when listening to neighbors – of all colors – in order to find out what those neighbors need white people to do as anti-racist allies, so that walking and working together, we can make our country and our world more equitable.

Breathe deep. Have courage. Be bold, confident that we are all in God’s hands.

Deacon David Rask Behling, Hunger and Justice Advocate, NW Synod of Wisconsin

Adapted from a Facebook post by Anonymous

Thursday, November 12, 2020

Love, Unity, and Forgiveness in a time of Civil Conflict

The election has come and gone and left in its wake a country at war with itself. In community after community, Americans on all sides don’t appear capable of listening to each other let alone maintaining healthy relationships with each other. And those divisions are in our churches, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Unfortunately, the Bible may not provide an easy way to get out of this predicament. Just read these three quotes from the New Testament:

Matthew 5:43–45: “You have heard that it was said, you must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.

Mark 6.11: If a place doesn’t welcome you or listen to you, as you leave, shake the dust off your feet as a witness against them.

1 Corinthians 1.10: Now I encourage you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ: Agree with each other and don’t be divided into rival groups. Instead, be restored with the same mind and the same purpose.

So, do we listen to Jesus and love our enemies despite what they have done to “harass” or harm us? Do listen to Jesus and shake the dust off our sandals, withdrawing our care and support for people we see as enemies of the Gospel? Do we listen to Paul and shut ourselves up in our churches to pray and listen to each other until we are able to see our enemies as our sisters and brothers? What are we supposed to do when loving and forgiving each other no longer seems possible?

In this current reality of civil conflict, what will our preaching and prayers focus on? Unity? Forgiveness? Loving and serving each other? And will our actions be aligned with what we preach and pray? Will we sit down at the table again with those who appear to hate leaders we support or violently oppose actions that we see as God’s work of prophetic justice?

In an earlier blog this fall I quoted lyrics from a song written by Jay Beech: I am the church! You are the church! We are the church together!/All who follow Jesus, all around the world!/Yes, we're the church together! And we are strongest when we are the church together. But I am still trying to understand HOW to be the “church together” right now, especially in the middle of an epidemic that has become a partisan issue.

Covid 19 is a disease that can infect, sicken, and kill anyone regardless of who they are or where they live. What we now know after many months of this pandemic is that people who die from COVID 19 do not sleep peacefully away. They struggle to breathe and live with pain, while those who love them and those trying to treat them can only watch.

In the face of that reality, however, there are far too many Christians who appear to be ignoring the need to serve others. Instead of doing what they can to protect others [and themselves!], they talk about “religious freedom” and treat good health and disease as the result of individual behavior, not something which requires collective action. So why is any Christian expected to love and forgive people who make it clear they have no intention of either changing their behavior or admitting that they have done anything to harm their neighbors?

From my perspective, whether the issue is COVID 19, systemic racism, immigration, or economic injustice, language from rostered and lay leaders about unity, love, and even forgiveness are well-intentioned but na├»ve. Rebuilding relationships within our communities will not be easy, and it won’t happen automatically because of who won the presidential election or because of a worship service focused on reconciliation. It will require repentance, compassion, and humility. It took decades to get us to where we are, and it’s going to take sustained work on community-building and transformed perspectives on the relationships among faith, church, and society.

According to Martin Luther, God calls Christians to serve our neighbors when they are in need, regardless of who they are, what they have done, or whether we like them. There are many neighbors right now who need us to help figure out how to end the civil conflict in our communities instead of adding to it. Are we willing to listen to God’s call to mend and heal? Are we willing to learn what we can do to listen to each other and learn from each other instead of calling each other names and keeping away from each other?

Breathe deep. Have courage. Be bold, confident that we are all in God’s hands.

Deacon David Rask Behling, Hunger and Justice Advocate, NW Synod of Wisconsin