The Heresy of the Charleston Shooter: Racism and Lutherans

The Charleston shooting is still heavy on our hearts and issues around race boiling over and over on social media. Here in Canada, we have been dealing with issues related to our (predominantly white and Christian) government’s relationship with indigenous peoples. Just this week, the premier of Manitoba apologized for the “60s Scoop” where thousands of aboriginal children were taken from their homes and given up for adoption to white families, often in other countries.

As a white Canadian, I am pulled to consider the role I play in passive racist systems. I have to acknowledge the privileges I enjoy because of my skin colour and the benefit of the doubt I receive because I don’t look “other.”

As a Christian, I am also moved to consider the role our faith plays in the suffering of marginalized peoples, and the ways in which the church has been tacitly and explicitly connected to racism.

However, the Charleston shooting hits particularly close to home as the suspected shooter (who I refuse to name) is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). I serve in the ELCA’s sister church of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada (ELCIC). It not just that the shooter was a Lutheran. Our church bodies are so interconnected that I could have been the shooter’s pastor. There are number of Americans serving ELCIC churches that I count as friends. There are Canadian friends of mine serving in the ELCA. He could have been my parishioner.

And still again, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, wrote in her pastoral letter following the shooting, “Mother Emanuel AME’s pastor, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, was a graduate of the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, as was the Rev. Daniel Simmons, associate pastor at Mother Emanuel.”

This incident is first and foremost a tragedy for the victims and their families, for the African American community, for South Carolina, for the US as a whole. But further down the list, it is also a Christian and, specifically, a Lutheran tragedy. 

And as Lutherans it is particularly troubling that the shooter sought to identify himself with the racist regimes in apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia. The shooter’s twisted view of race, clearly born in a larger system of racist thought, is something that Lutherans have indeed strongly and clearly condemned for decades.

Almost certainly the shooter did not know, probably nor cared to know, that the Lutheran World Federation in fact condemned apartheid in 1977. “A statement on “Southern Africa: Confessional Integritydeclared that the racial separation of the church in compliance with apartheid in Southern Africa constitutes a “status confessionis” (a basis in faith for churches to reject apartheid publicly and unequivocally).” And while Lutherans have a complicated history when it comes to racism with Hitler using some of Martin Luther’s writings to justify his actions, Lutherans during the past few decades have sought to clearly condemn racism, as they did in 1977.

To put this in perspective, the last time Lutherans added something to their confessions (collected statements of faith) was in the 1500s. The Lutheran World Federation thought it was so important to condemn the racist regimes of apartheid, that it made the issue a matter of faith, and those who practiced apartheid would be excommunicated.

The accused shooter’s views on apartheid and race, therefore, make him a Lutheran heretic. His views and actions have put him outside of fellowship with Lutheran church.

Lutherans are a people and community born out of excommunication, and it is very odd to turn those tables around. However, I think it bears understanding just how contrary to the core of our faith as Christians, and especially as Lutherans, that the events of Charleston are.

In the wake of this tragedy, I would expect bishops and pastors closer to the situation to make pastoral statements, expressing care and concern, sorrow and sadness, while also calling for healing and pointing to our source of hope – The One who was also murdered by oppressors and those in privilege.

However, I think that it needs to be said publicly, by pastors and other faith leaders, that the actions of the shooter last Wednesday night in Charleston were just as contrary to Christian faith as denying the Trinity or the divinity of Christ or any other heretical view.

The exclusion of someone based on the colour of their skin, gender, age, sexual orientation or otherwise is contrary to the gospel. 

Here is an anecdote to explain why:

When I was doing my pastoral internship in Calgary, Alberta, it was the in the 12 months just prior to 2008 financial crisis. Oil prices were booming. Housing was soaring. Rental units were impossible to find. The economy was firing on all cylinders.

But poverty was also soaring. The population of Calgary was growing very fast and 25% of the population was comprised of visible minorities. Poverty was growing, but in a new form. The ‘working poor’ became a new term.

Housing and the cost of living had become so expensive, that people with full time jobs couldn’t find housing and were living on the street. As a winter city,  Calgary churches and other organization were scrambling to find people shelter. Our congregation participated in a program called “Inn from the Cold”, where we provided cots and food for people to have a warm place over night. Many of the clients using the program were families where both parents were employed, but who couldn’t find affordable housing.

As a pastoral intern one of my regular duties was to help serve communion. It was during that year, having the chance to regularly serve communion – the body and blood of Christ, to that congregation, at that time, opened my eyes to the reality of God’s hope for the church.

Week after week, at the communion rail, people of all different kinds knelt with hands open to receive. There were rich oil executives, teachers, doctors, blue collar oil patch workers, single parents, unemployed people and even homeless people. There were young and old, men and women, and people of all different ethnicities.

It became clear to me, just as it was in 1977 to the Lutheran World Federation, that the Body of Christ cannot be limited by human categories. Regardless of gender, class, occupation or race, we are all equal before God. We are all kneeling beggars with our hands open to receive at the railing.

And this equality at the communion rail is a fundamental characteristic of the God’s grace for us. There is nothing about us, about human beings, that earned our place at the railing. And in fact, to suggest that something like skin colour would be a disqualifying characteristic, denies the very nature of God’s grace and mercy – a divine love – given wholly and freely by God with no condition.

That is why the Charleston shooter is a heretic. That is why he is to be excommunicated. His views on race contravene the very nature of God’s unconditional love for all humanity. 

Along side heavy hearts, conversations about race relations and renewed focus on gun violence, it also needs to be said that this tragedy committed in a church by a church member against other people of faith is tragic, deplorable and ultimately, heretical.


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7 thoughts on “The Heresy of the Charleston Shooter: Racism and Lutherans”

  1. As a pentecostal minister I am ashamed to say that I don’t know enough about the Lutheran prescriptions for excommunication (though I understand the general nature). While I know the practice happens in the Assemblies of God, we normally eschew the terminology.

    My question for is this: would repentance provide a route back into fellowship with the church? Or would this action be irreversible?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He would be put under discipline at the congregational level, and formally excommunicated by the pastor and church council. A return to fellowship would involve public repentance and public renunciation of his heretical views.

      Liked by 2 people

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