We Shall Overcome – With God’s Help

Date posted: Monday 18 March 2019

In January 2019, a cohort of young adults from our synod traveled to Atlanta for Martin Luther King Jr weekend. There, they dove deep into matters of race, privilege, and justice. They met with faith and community leaders, worshiped at Ebenezer Baptist Church, and toured different museums and exhibits. This trip was made possible through the synod's Young Adult Initiative. In this Lenten blog series, members of the cohort share reflections on what they experienced and learned during the trip, and what questions they continue to grapple with.


A Typical Education

I think I had a pretty typical education in civil rights history for a kid in the '90s. I remember listening to Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and learning about segregated drinking fountains in the south. As a kid, I learned that black and white people came together to peacefully protest racism. The implicit message: I was living in that new era and racism was a thing of the past.


I’ve learned since then that legal segregation might be over, but racism is not. People of color still experience discrimination in many corners of life. I've learned that racism isn’t a set of bad laws, and it’s not perpetrated only by Klan members and segregationists. Racism is, as Dr. King said, a moral sickness. The germs and symptoms of racism are embedded everywhere in our society — even among good and kind people. Even among Christians!


I’ve also learned that the civil rights movement wasn’t a cheerful march out of the dark ages and into the light. It was a spiritual struggle with evil, powered by prayer, song, and deep faith in the God of freedom.


Anti-Racism as Theological Work

On our trip to Atlanta, I was surprised to learn how deep the theological grounding of the civil rights movement was. Foot soldiers of the movement faced intimidation, violence, and the constant threat to their dignity. But they also knew that the freedom they had in Jesus was bigger than anything they feared. They were spiritually free, and this made them free to act boldly, even in the face of death.


Jesus doesn’t call us to work against racism but then leaves us to figure out how on our own. Christian life is a powerful resource for the hard work of dismantling racism — and that’s just as true today as it was in the 1960s. I want to point to just a few tools from faith life that might be helpful for Lutherans, and especially for white Lutherans, doing this work.


Practicing Lament

Lament is the ancient Biblical practice of mourning before God. If we are to move forward into a more positive future, we first have to be honest about the awfulness of the past and the present. While we can surely do this in entirely secular contexts, there is something especially powerful about acknowledging this pain before God. To lament racism is to name it honestly and to acknowledge how far away we are from God’s dream for the world.


Lamenting also reminds us of God’s promises that all people will flourish, and we must demand that these promises are made real among us. Lament remembers that we aren’t the only power at hand, and it holds our hopes and our frustrations together in tension. Right now is a good time to start, because lament is one of the traditional markers of the Lenten season!


Confession and Forgiveness

Many of us recite a confession and hear about God’s forgiveness every Sunday in worship, but have you thought about the way that this practice might help us to dismantle racism? Working against racism is hard work. This is especially true for white people like me who have learned racism in our very bodies. We’re bound to screw up. Too often, that’s the end of the story: we feel ashamed that we’ve said the wrong thing or done something hurtful, and to avoid that shame we stay out of the mess of the real work. But by the grace of God, we as Christians have somewhere to go with that shame! We confess our brokenness to God and our neighbors. We also trust that God’s forgiveness will lead us back into the hard and messy work at hand, over and over again.


The Reign of God

Scripture doesn’t just demand that we join God in working for justice in the world; it gives us an image of what we’re working for. In an era dominated by the violent and oppressive Roman empire, Jesus preached about an alternative: the reign of God. The reign of God turns the powers that be on their head. In the reign of God, the first shall be last and the last shall be first; the poor and hungry are called blessed; and imperial violence is met with creative non-violence.


Today the Roman empire has been replaced with often invisible and embedded structures of empire including white supremacy, patriarchy, and classism. Our faith invites us to give our allegiance to God’s topsy-turvy reign over and against the powers of empire. The church has a powerful role to play as a sign, instrument, and foretaste of God’s reign in the world. What would it look like for your congregation to claim an identity grounded in this vision of God’s reign?



Consider making this prayer a part of your Lenten practice this year: Jesus, I have heard that in you all people are reconciled and healed and made whole, but I see a world that still holds pain and division along racial lines. I mourn that I am separated from those you have joined me with. I confess that I don't always know the way forward. Help me, God, to step forward in faith. Help me to trust you when I cannot trust myself. For me and for my neighbors, may your kingdom come and your will be done! Amen.


Bethany Ringdal

Luther Seminary, St. Paul