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By Rev. Mark Koschmann
In cities across America, your fellow human beings are groaning. Do you hear the hurt and pain of people mourning the loss of life in our cities?
Over the last year and a half, news stories have covered a number of police-involved shootings and deaths of African Americans. When I served as a mission pastor in St. Louis and walked the streets of Ferguson after the tragic death of Michael Brown, I saw unspeakable pain, grief, anger, and mistrust. Since then, there have been several more police-involved shootings and deaths of African Americans in New York City, Cleveland, Baltimore, Chicago, and now, also in Minneapolis when Jamar Clark was fatally shot by two white Minneapolis police officers on November 15, 2015. These police-involved shootings and deaths have brought racism,
racial inequality, and policing practices to the forefront of American discourse.
Are you listening?
It seems so basic, but do we actually listen to the hurt and pain expressed by others? Or do we dismiss the concerns of others because they are different than us? Have we simply become numb to the violence in our cities and nation?
Numerous polls have shown how divided the nation is on matters of race, racism, and racial equality. According to a survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, the vast majority of African Americans and black Christians believe police-involved killings are part of a larger racial problem in America. Meanwhile, many white Americans and white Christians think the issue of race is receiving too much press and the deaths of minorities by police are isolated incidents.1 There certainly are many dedicated and faithful police officers who serve and protect in our cities. But there are too many incidents where a black or brown life ends at the hands of a white police officer. This is an important issue for the United States, but the problem is ramped up several notches when we consider the ministry of the church or university in the city.
Are you listening?
For us at Concordia University in St. Paul, our urban and multicultural location and our theological and ethical commitments as a Lutheran institution of higher education demand that we take these racial incidents seriously. How should we respond as conscientious individuals – and, especially, as Christian people – given the tragic loss of human life and the ensuing public protest?
Three actions are required of us. First, we must value all lives – not just those who are similar to us. Second, we must confess our sin. Third, we must take actions of faith, hope, and love as we go forth as God’s servants in the world. When we do these three things we will respond more compassionately and better address the ails and inequities of our cities.
Let us explore these three actions more closely.
First, we must theologically stress the value, dignity, and lives of all people as created and redeemed by God – especially the lives of African Americans and all people of color. This also means that we must have conversations about America’s racist past and the ongoing impact of this racism on black and brown lives, even when such conversations can be awkward and painful. The point is for us to take seriously the problem that so many black lives have ended in tragedy. Yes, all lives matter, but if you ignore racism, you’re missing the point.
Second, we must confess our sin. We need to measure where we as Christians, as a Church, and even as a university, have fallen short in serving, protecting, and loving our neighbors. Too often we, as Christians, treat racism as a purely ethical issue to be dealt with in society at large instead of in the church. The violence suffered by people of color in our communities, however, is not merely ethical but is deeply religious. We must ask ourselves: when have we ignored those who experience firsthand the consequences of America’s racist and violent past?
Third, we must take actions of faith, hope, and love.
Perhaps the greatest action is to believe the good news that if we confess our sins, God, who is faithful and just, will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. In Jesus, God has decisively taken on our guilt, our shame, and our injustice and inaction toward others in his death on the cross. Freed and redeemed by this atoning work of God, we are sent forth as God’s people to be God’s instruments in bringing healing, grace, peace, and love to all people in this broken world. We need to be people of faith.
There are formidable challenges ahead of us. Incidents so complex, tense, and raw as Ferguson, or the shooting of Jamar Clark, or any police-involved death pull back the veil that too easily hides human suffering, inequality, and injustice. Yet, in these moments when we are stripped raw, it moves us as Christians – black, brown, and white – to turn to the one, sure and certain hope that we have of Jesus the Christ, our risen Savior and victorious Lord. We need to be people of hope.
Do you hear Jesus calling you to love God and love your neighbor? We show love by standing with those who are oppressed. We show love by reaching out to those who are different from us. We show love by listening to those who are mourning injustice and death. We show love by taking on each others’ burdens because our burdens have been carried by the One who goes to the cross out of love for us. We need to be people of love.
Are you listening?
Given the challenge of racism in our cities and our nation, my prayer echoes the Lenten prayer: Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy. Lord, have mercy. We pray this prayer, though, not as people who have no hope. We pray this prayer trusting in the Word of God, when Paul writes in Romans 5:1-5, “And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”
So let us be people of faith, people of hope, and people of love. And from the sure and certain promises of Jesus, let us work for justice, let us work for peace, and let us live as God calls us to be servants in our communities and cities.
Rev. Mark Koschmann is the Fiechtner Chair in Christian Outreach and Instructor of Theology and Missiology at Concordia University, St. Paul. Previously, Koschmann served as mission and outreach pastor at Chapel of the Cross-Lutheran, a multi-racial congregation in North County St. Louis. In the aftermath of the crisis in Ferguson, MO, he and members of his congregation worked with community leaders, protestors, police, and fellow Christians to bring hope and healing to a bitterly divided city. Koschmann received his M.Div. from Concordia Seminary, St. Louis, and is completing his doctoral work at Saint Louis University with an emphasis on religion, race, and U.S. urban history. His dissertation research examines how Christian congregations responded to urban and racial strife on Chicago’s West Side from the 1950s-1970s.
This article appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of the Concordia St. Paul Magazine.