Standing Accused of Glory: The Heidelberg Disputation and Racism in the ELCA

The Problem:
As the US reeled from yet another eruption of racist violence, the summer’s usually fleet flow slowed to a leaden crawl after Charleston. And as the darkest truth came to light – that not only had two of the nine victims been alumni of the ELCA’s Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (Mother Emanuel's Senior Pastor Rev. Clementa Pinckney and Associate Pastor Rev. Daniel Simmons) but that even the shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, was an ELCA member – that already heavy burden began burning to the touch. Bishop Eaton's pastoral epistle, released the day after the attacks, gave a sobering summation of the feelings of many in the ELCA: “All of a sudden and for all of us this is an intensely personal tragedy. One of our own is alleged to have shot and killed two who adopted us as their own.”

The Response:
But as the white leaders of our overwhelmingly white denomination (nearly 94.8% by ELCA internal estimates, 96% according to the recent Pew study) struggled with how to react, there came a still, small blog post guiding the way - not so much through its courage or vehemence, but rather by its damning exposé of the trials of one person of color in the ELCA. At the heart of the post the blogger, Rozella Haydée White - Program Director of Young Adult Ministry at the ELCA's Church-Wide offices in Chicago - details a series of jarring personal realizations sandwiched between the Mother Emanuel massacre and an important public appearance:

I have bgeen claiming a church as my own that’s not actually my church. My cultural practices and ways of being are not seen as authentically “Lutheran.” I have been defending a church that has never repented of the systemic racism that is present within. I have been leading within a church that is blind to its own white privilege and the ways that white supremacy work… I am a part of a church that raises racist white people who then kill people of color who are educated in our institutions.

Sadly, participating in the aforementioned church event only increased her burden:

During the opening worship of this event, I waited desperately to hear a word of lament; to share in communal grieving; to experience a moment of collective acknowledgement for what was going on in the world around us. I felt like the ground that I walk on had fundamentally shifted and that everyone around me was proceeding with business as usual.

Unable to bear the silence, she posted her feelings on social media, mourning how the worship “went on without a mention, a moment of silence, a word" to the victims of Mother Emanuel. And then the next day, shaken by backlash from the previous night's post yet undaunted, she then revealed the full force of her sorrow before all attending, saying: “I felt the night before and shared that I felt like, for the first time, this church wasn’t my church.” In response, some of the good Christians assembled said they felt “personally attacked by [her] statements,” that her confession would “start the race war” that Roof had tried and failed to do, all while coldly questioning her credibility as “a public leader.” 

It was too much. An African-American boldly broke the silence of her marginalization and as so often happens to people of color in our church, her words were deemed “inappropriate” and even placed on-par in wickedness with Roof’s multiple murders. So despite the intensity, depth, and power of Rozella’s African heritage and Lutheran witness there are still far too many members of this church who see her testimony as little more than inconvenient dissent, an inconvenient dissent which they could and would follow-upon with attacks to her character and thinly-veiled threats to her career.

Rozella Haydée White

But we black and brown folk in the ELCA have a defender, oh yes yes yes.


A Response to the Response:
Although the works of God are always unattractive and appear evil, they are nevertheless really eternal merits Thesis 4 of Luther's Heidelberg Disputation, the words came back to me in a flash and I returned again to vol. 31 of Luther’s works (page 44) to get the full picture: “In this way, consequently, the unattractive works which God does in us, that is, those which are humble and devout, are really eternal, for humility and fear of God are our entire merit.” Ms. White spoke of her pain to white colleagues well-knowing that, to them, her words would be unattractive and evil, but the Spirit called her saying “Hier stehe ich” - Here I stand - and she stood.

Going further on to Thesis 8: So much more are the works of man mortal sins when they are done without fear in unadulterated, evil self-security. And further still, “The inevitable deduction from the preceding thesis is clear. For where there is no fear there is no humility. Where there is no humility there is pride, and where there is pride there are the wrath and judgment of God for God opposes the haughty” (Luther: 47). 

There he is, Mad Brother Martin, huffing and puffing, rolling up his sleeves across nearly five centuries, getting ready to pound some popery, some white supremacy - his target the “unadulterated, evil self-security” (yes he said evil, dear people) of those who think themselves so above racism that they have the temerity to equate truth from an African-American woman to the heinous murders of a 21-year-old wanna-be Cecil Rhodes.

Then, at last, we come to the center of Luther’s argument - Thesis 21: The theologian of glory calls evil good and good evil. The theologian of the cross calls things by their true names (Luther: 53).

Here Brother Martin most tersely and unambiguously states his main point. If you "comprehend the visible and manifest things of God... through suffering and the cross," and then fiercely declare such to all who can hear, this makes you a theologian of the cross (Luther: 52). This is precisely what Rozella Haydée White so bravely demonstrated back in June - speaking boldly of the cross that years among white colleagues had forced her to carry, but a cross whose love is so great that it gives her constant strength and healing. It is a cross so great and powerful that just a few weeks later, during the ELCA Youth Gathering, she would heal enough from the abuse to stand before a 30,000 fellow Lutherans and boldly claim "This church is my church."

Rozella speaking during the 2015 ELCA Youth Gathering in Detroit.

In contrast to this are theologians of glory. This is how Luther names those who prefer “works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and in general good to evil” (Luther: 53). Since they are taken with "human works" that are "attractive outwardly" (such as church institutions and careers, political reputation, etc...) they consequently “hate the cross and suffering and love works and the glory of works... call[ing] the good of the cross evil and evil of a deed good" (Luther: 53).

Overloaded with white privilege and loathe to part with any of it, this succinctly describes all those who heard Rozella call racism in the church by it's true name and immediately acted to silence it. Though only speaking for herself, her testimony of racial harassment struck many in the room. And instead of examining their discomfort or maybe giving her a warm hug to ease her mourning, many desperately tried to shore up their own denial of their power and privilege by lashing out.

Silencing Voices of Color 
and the Theology of Glory:
Though written nearly 500 years ago, the Heidelberg Disputation has direct application to the ever-open wound that is racism in the ELCA. It’s already nightmare enough that people of color in the US must show constant vigilance to avoid racist attacks in the world-at-large, but it is a grievous sin and evil that these same fears are regularly magnified within the walls of our own churches, transforming our denomination’s many promises and declarations of justice and reconciliation into filthy hypocrisies. And since so many of us people of color within the ELCA are wholly frustrated with the slow pace of change, the Holy Spirit convicts me to come before you all with words of terrible judgment. I am reluctant to do so, to be sure, but it is all that I can do to truly fulfill my role as a member of this church and to honor the fire of love that the Lord has put within me.

I must call this thing by its true name.


Whenever people of color in the ELCA stand-up and give gut-wrenching testimony to the pain and isolation we have faced - knowing full-well that our candor and our vulnerability may cost us our jobs and our peace and the security of our families - we are theologians of the cross.

How could it be anything else? Friends and colleagues questioning our credibility, undermining our work, casting seeds of doubt and suspicion without even knowing us - this is the true cross that so many of us carry from day to day. We are theologians of the cross not just because we're Lutheran and have read the books, but because we actually live the cross EVERY day. And knowing well this God that is "hidden in suffering," knowing that this call and this power accompanies our every step, we follow and will continue to follow wherever it takes us.

Such is our love of the Gospel.

Such is our love even of the ELCA.

Likewise if you try to minimize our stories when we speak of parishioner harassment, of pastors who discount our voices in meetings and accuse us of being too "emotional" or "aggressive," of professors or administrators or committees insist on hearing "all sides of the story" before they will even consider listening to our pain - well, my most beloved friends in Christ, you are theologians of glory.

Paraphrasing Luther, denying our testimony means that you prefer the glory of church politics and human comfort to the humility of the Crucified – and by doing so reveal yourselves to be enemies of the cross. And yes, these are hard words, harsh words of judgment - but in my desire to do a truly new thing I am throwing this terse pronouncement into the conversation happening within our church - and I'll do anything I can to keep the fire hot, anything to prevent another Dylann Roof from being nurtured within our walls.

So where do white allies go from here? Three things:
First: Listen to us. When people of color speak of the hardships they suffer in the ELCA they do so knowing full well that what they share may well be held against them. The only thing that makes such disclosure worth it is if the one receiving our confession actually listens to us instead of trying to censor, correct, or deny our words. The relief and grace we experience when this happens is precious.

Second: Believe us. We don't do this for fun. So please, recognize the holiness of these moments and accept what we say as true. Don't pepper us with clarifying questions that sour the balm that we seek, nor demand that we re-tell and re-traumatize ourselves in order to "prove" our case. These disclosures are a confession, a lament - not a discussion. Please treat it as such.

Third: Follow us. Sometimes it'll be just by giving a sympathetic ear, other times making a phone-call to a supervisor, maybe giving bit of personal testimony and your own skin on our behalf, or during crucial times simply being quiet and following our lead as we make a stand. Whatever it is you do, your willingness to help us shoulder a bit of racism’s impossible weight will give us just that much more grace and support and we will appreciate it.

During the ELCA’s “Confronting Racism” webcast/conversation with William B. Horne II, Bishop Eaton was keen to remind everyone of Luther's theology of the cross: “We are also a theology-of-the-cross people in a culture that is just suffused with glory.” As followers of Jesus it is part of our call to “point to all the places in the world where there is brokenness" as "the place where the cross is planted. And if that’s where the cross is, that’s where we need to be also.”

The racism in our church is such a cross, and the ELCA's connection to Charleston has made it clear we that can no longer avoid it.

And yes, my white friends, taking our stories to heart, pushing for change in your own communities, even standing up and accusing those who malign and abuse people of color - yes, these things will be difficult for you too, but by doing so you will help us carry some of the darkness that ceaselessly burdens and burns our backs and that so often we must carry alone. So in the coming days as more and more of us start coming forward, listen to, believe, and follow us as we praise and weep and praise God on our way to the cross. The Risen Christ is waiting for us there, let us not delay.



  1. Thank you. I should have better words, but all I have is thank you.

  2. We must stand up with love and kindness in answer to racism and hate.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. I understand your concerns, Zach, but I would recommend that the proper forum for your concerns would be to reach out to Rozella directly and soon. If you gave an opportunity to speak after the incident and she said no it doesn't surprise me. I was at a community organizing training and there are times when people want to come to me to clarify or explain themselves when they do and say hurtful things but I am SO exhausted from dealing with racist everything that I demure - often pretending there is nothing wrong when there most certainly is. If you are serious about getting understanding then you need to approach her, not come into this forum and defend yourself and then do the DOUBLE duty of trying to side-line TWO voices of color in this church. Mine as well as hers.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Well, but you HAVE come here to address the issue - which is good. That says something for your integrity, putting yourself out there with the risk of being judged for things that you did not do. I just pointed out that if you seek understanding then you need to talk to Rozella directly and accept her judgment of you. You will not get out until you pay the last penny. But hang in there, Zach. Believe it or not this conversation may be hard but you are truly doing the right thing.

  6. I for one am glad that Rozella used the platform she did, to bring this issue to light. It's not only those who were present at the "event," who need to be in the conversation. As one of the 96.4% (is that right?), I am trying to listen and learn, and Rozella is helping in that process. I'll keep listening. God-willing, many in the ELCA will keep their ears and hearts open.

  7. Thank you for this powerful message. May the Holy Spirit continue to work through the ELCA so people of color are heard and seen for what they are: beloved children of God, simultaneously saints and sinners. Just like the 96%. Without all voices, all people, we are diminished indeed. As Black lives matter, so Black lives of faith matter!

  8. Thank you. Humbling, but healing too.

  9. I thank you and the Holy Spirit who is surely moving through your beautiful work.

  10. Thank you for posting this in ELCA Clergy this week, Francisco. When I was an anti-racism trainer for an ELCA synod and received the "he's so angry" dismissive comments when I shared my experiences of being a white pastor of a multi-racial congregation, and accused of being "a racialist, because he's with those people" I felt more angry and dismissed, with my witness discredited--and I still reacted out of my white privilege, that this was a personal affront to me. I completely missed what sister Rozella is doing here: describing this experience as part of the Theology of the Cross. Wow. This is so helpful and once again I am brought to me knees in prayer, and to this Lutheran tradition of ours in wonder. Thank-you.

    1. My pleasure friend, and thanks for the thanks. Shall we pray for each other, sounds like we could use it! Also, don't let the bastards get you down. If you start getting angry, and they say something, then start getting VERY angry and showing it. If there is one major thing that I've learned about Lutherans, it is that they're conflict averse. So when you actually SHOW that fire that's in you they either 1) Get overwhelmed and shut up or 2) Concede quickly so YOU shut up. Either way - win-win. You either get what you need or they zip-it and get the hell away from you. It works! Blessings, friend.

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