Uncomfortable Grace: Drawing on St. Olaf’s Lutheran Identity to Guide Our Path to Anti-Racism
The truth is centuries old: racism is embedded deep within institutions across the United States, including St. Olaf College. The awful killing in May of George Floyd has been a catalyst to name, confront, and work to finally and belatedly overcome the many legacies of harm against Black and Brown children of God. St. Olaf is joining in these efforts, embarking on a new time of reckoning with the structures of racism in our culture, policies, and practices.
The summer brought with it the creation of several new groups of faculty, staff, and students dedicated to the work of anti-racism, along with a commitment by the administration to implement ongoing anti-racism training at all levels of the college. Amid the work of identifying racist structures and building anti-racist ones in their place, it is important to consider how St. Olaf’s commitment to be “nourished by Lutheran tradition” factors into both the structures we have and the structures we have yet to create.
During his visit to St. Olaf in February, Black Lutheran pastor Rev. Lenny Duncan challenged us to embrace a vision of Lutheran identity that actively counters our broken structures. Standing in the tradition of Martin Luther’s radical challenge to the corrupt systems of his own day, Rev. Duncan called on St. Olaf, in good Lutheran fashion, to name the evil in our midst and to confess and repent for the harm that’s been perpetuated through the systemic racism that exists on our campus. While many of us who are White may not see ourselves as agents of racism that harms people of color within and beyond the St. Olaf community, Rev. Duncan helps us understand that “white supremacy doesn’t need active racists to function.” (1)
These words should push all of us, but especially those of us who are White, to become more aware of the systems that have benefited us but harmed those in our community who are Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). It also means that those of us in leadership positions at the college need to listen with renewed receptivity to the voices of students, faculty, and staff of color as they name the harmful aspects of our structures. We must also find ways, with the support of our Lutheran heritage, to publicly confess and repent of the harms that have been caused to members of our own community.
“Grace is free. But loving the neighbor has a high cost,” writes Duncan. At its best, Lutheran tradition helps St. Olaf envision a way forward, a path through a period of uncomfortable reckoning. This year begins a new season of uncomfortable grace for this community.
Relying on St. Olaf’s Lutheran identity to bring us through a time of uncomfortable grace as we work against structural racism may sound like a stream of Lutheranism disconnected to the college’s Scandinavian Lutheran heritage. But Lutheran Christianity, like all streams of living religious traditions, have always been undergoing revision, reform, and adaptation. In 19th-century Norwegian American congregations, for instance, lively debates were being had not only about whether worship services should be in Norwegian or English but also about whether slavery was a sin, or whether the church should adhere to Norwegian religious practices or secular American ones. Cultural and societal realities of any age often become sites for reflection and action for religious individuals and communities — that’s what it means to be part of living religious traditions.
THAT HUMANS ARE CREATED IN GOD’S IMAGE MEANS FOR LUTHERANS AND OTHER CHRISTIANS THAT WE ARE MEANT TO BE IN RELATION TO ONE ANOTHER AND THE REST OF CREATION IN ALL ITS DIVERSITY.
The 26 colleges and universities that are affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently collaborated on a joint statement of what it means to be a college of the church in the 21st century. “Rooted and Open” names a “common calling that is deeply rooted in the Lutheran intellectual tradition and boldly open to insights from other religious and secular traditions.” (2) For these colleges and universities — St. Olaf included — Lutheran identity continues to play out in its vision for education, a vision grounded in particular theological themes and embodied practices.
One prominent Lutheran theological affirmation is that of giftedness. Martin Luther believed in a generous, gracious God who created a good and diverse creation. That humans are created in God’s image means for Lutherans and other Christians that we are meant to be in relation to one another and the rest of creation in all its diversity. Another key affirmation of Lutheran theology is that God bestows good gifts on all of us regardless of belief, and these gifts are meant to be the stuff that binds our connections to one another and creates our common life together.
But these affirmations about the goodness and potentiality of human beings are always tempered by the recognition of the fallenness of individuals and the systems in which we live. Even though Lutherans affirm that God in Christ offers gifts of healing and reconciliation, our fallenness continues to manifest itself in this world. While education is not salvation, the experiences institutions like St. Olaf offer form people in mind, heart, spirit, and body in ways that orient us toward the good of the neighbor.
The Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community was formed in 2019 to advance this vision for Lutheran higher education at St. Olaf. As its inaugural director, part of my charge is to help the college articulate and live into what being “nourished by Lutheran tradition” looks like in our 21st-century context. A rootedness in Lutheran tradition shapes the college’s commitment to engaging all traditions in order to bring together people of different faiths and worldviews so that we might enrich spiritual inquiry, foster love of neighbor, and deepen a sense of vocation in all, as stated in the Center’s mission statement.
At the same time, when we’re nourished by something, some of what gets taken in must go out as waste. It is important in any 21st-century articulation about the enduring gifts of Lutheran tradition that we also are clear that there are aspects of Lutheran tradition that must be discarded. Luther’s writings against the Jews, most especially his awful treatise “On the Jews and Their Lies,” must be condemned. At St. Olaf, we echo the ELCA’s repudiation of those views (3) and insist that the college’s nourishment from Lutheran tradition includes critical engagement with the legacies of harm as well as legacies of gift and grace that come from 500+ years of Lutheran tradition.
The Lutheran Center and the College also must address the reality that the contemporary landscape and college demographics continue to evolve: Among all St. Olaf students in Fall 2020, 21 percent indicate a Lutheran religious affiliation, while 25 percent claim no religious affiliation, and 6 percent claim affiliation with other religious traditions such as Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism. While the number of Lutherans continues to grow globally, especially in Asia and Africa, that Lutheranism is declining in the United States means fewer Lutherans are enrolled at U.S. Lutheran colleges like St. Olaf. Being a Lutheran-affiliated institution no longer means, as it did when my grandparents attended St. Olaf in the 1930s, that the college is a college primarily for Lutherans.
Dr. Darrell Jodock, a 1962 alumnus and previous holder of the Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy, calls 21st-century Lutheran institutions of higher education “third path institutions.” They offer a path between “sectarian” institutions that strive to nurture students in only one religious tradition and “non-sectarian” institutions that do not prioritize religious life as part of the communal life of the college. In contrast, Jodock suggests, third path institutions like St. Olaf are rooted in Lutheran tradition and take it seriously, and also are inclusive in at least two senses: they are made up of students, faculty, and staff from diverse religious backgrounds, and they seek to serve the larger community beyond the denomination. (4)
Informed by a Lutheran vision of reform and religious inclusivity on campus and beyond, this fall the Lutheran Center joined many other parts of St. Olaf’s campus in focusing on anti-racism work. About 50 faculty and staff were part of a fall book discussion group co-led by Vice President for Equity and Inclusion Bruce King and me. Together we explored Dialogues On: Race (Sparkhouse, 2018), a collection of essays by BIPOC clergy and theologians who name the structural racism in Christian history, theology, and practice and envision ways forward toward an anti-racist future. In addition, the Lutheran Center’s Symposium this fall featured Cambodian American biblical scholar and 2013 St. Olaf alumnus Kristofer Coffman, who led students, faculty, and staff in a discussion about the use and abuse of the Bible in U.S. race relations.
These events are attempts at embodying this third path institutional identity, where members of the St. Olaf community are “nourished by Lutheran tradition” and engage in critical reflection on the legacies of harm and gift of this tradition and what it means to members of the community, individually and as a college.
The Lutheran Center’s main event this fall featured a day with national interfaith leader Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith and director of the Interfaith Youth Core. Patel’s book was the Common and All-Community Read this summer and fall, where close to 1,000 students, faculty, staff, and alums read and discussed his book and its vision for a religiously inclusive society. Patel’s day-long virtual visit to the campus included workshops for faculty and staff about the role of religion in 21st-century liberal arts education, along with an opportunity for administrators, faculty, staff, and students to be in conversation about the intersections of race and religion, not just in our national landscape but in how they are embodied at St. Olaf and how we might become better at honoring them in our life together.
Patel’s inspiring keynote address focused on “Racial Justice, Interfaith Cooperation, and the Common Good on Campus and Beyond.” Patel called on all of us to draw from the deep wells of our religious and spiritual traditions to nourish us in the work ahead of building bridges across those issues, like religion and race, that divide us deeply. The Lutheran Center plans to build on the broad engagement with Patel, his memoir, and his vision for 21st-century life on campus that honors religious commitment and supports the development of community, encouraging people to bring all of who they are to their lives and roles at St. Olaf and beyond.
To become a more racially and religiously inclusive campus, St. Olaf will need to summon all the resources possible to carry out necessary self-reflection and reform. May we also embrace the uncomfortable grace witnessed to in Lutheran tradition to forge a path forward.
(1) See Lenny Duncan, Dear Church: A Love Letter from a Black Preacher to the Whitest Denomination in the U.S. (Fortress Press, 2019) | (2) “Rooted and Open,” download.elca.org/ELCA Resource Repository/Rooted_and_Open.pdf | (3) “Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community,” download.elca.org/ELCA Resource Repository/Declaration_Of_The_ELCA_To_The_Jewish_Community.pdf | (4) See Jodock’s essay “The Third Path, Religious Diversity, and Civil Discourse” in The Vocation of Lutheran Higher Education, ed. Jason Mahn (Lutheran University Press, 2016), 82-99.
Dr. Deanna A. Thompson ’89, the Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy, is Director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community at St. Olaf College.