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In the September and November editions of CORE Voice, Dennis Nelson analyzed the activist constituency of the members of the Commission for a Renewed Lutheran Church (CRLC). The fact that there are a number of activists on the Commission is not surprising, since the Churchwide Assembly’s directive to the ELCA Church Council was to create a commission to recommend restructuring the church being particularly attentive to the church’s commitment to “dismantling racism.” In other words, whatever recommendations the CRLC makes must take steps to dismantle racism within the denomination.

For many members of the ELCA, the question of racism in the church is confusing. In this instance, why is there a move to restructure the whole denomination around dismantling one particular sin?

To answer this question, it is important to understand the chief philosophical assumption of ELCA policymakers, namely, Critical Theory. In critical theory, the world is viewed chiefly through the lens of power and how some groups use their power to oppress other groups. There are oppressors and victims, especially in the sense that some groups are kept from having full access to the power that opposite groups enjoy. This oppression is racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, etc. This means that oppression like racism is much more than personal prejudice (which is how most of us would understand the term); rather, racism is systemic and institutionalized.

The assumptions at work in the ELCA’s effort to “dismantle racism” rely on a subset of Critical Theory usually called Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory has been popularized recently by books like How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi and White Fragility by Robin Diangelo. In Mainline Christianity, Critical Race Theory has long been defended by ELCA Pastor, anti-racism advocate, and author Joseph Barndt. Barndt offers the distinction in his work that power can be used by Christians for good when it is shared without exclusivity.

The modern anti-racist movement based on Critical Race Theory makes a fundamental claim: You are either a racist or an antiracist. Within this framework, you are either supporting racism or you are working to dismantle racism. Because, in this view, racism is so enmeshed in American culture, one cannot simply be “not-racist.” There is no neutrality. If you are a White person, racism is your original sin. Furthermore, because racism is institutionally enmeshed, to be anti-racist is about supporting particular political policy changes that deconstruct supposed hierarchies of power within society.

Connected to this understanding of Critical Theory is the understanding of Intersectionality, which asserts that there are interlocking systems of oppression that affect more than one individual trait. Thus, oppression based on race is intricately tied together with oppression based on sexuality, gender, ability, etc. Under this framework, for example, opposing the full inclusion of practicing homosexuals on the roster of Word and Sacrament is descriptive of institutional racism. To be anti-racist is to support the full inclusion of any group that claims oppression.

Understanding this will help one understand many of the ELCA’s policy commitments. Working to end so-called Global Climate Change is an anti-racist policy, because it is argued that Global Climate Change disproportionately affects minorities. Likewise, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton’s statements such as those regarding Israel and Palestine or the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, which drew the ire of many moderate and conservative ELCA members, can be understood through the oppressor/oppressed framework of Critical Theory.

The question is, what will it mean to restructure a church around the tenet of dismantling racism? Barndt answers this question in his book Becoming an Anti-Racist Church: Journeying toward Wholeness, providing six steps: Commitment to Institutionalizing, Full Power Sharing, Assured Cultural Inclusion, Mutual Accountability, Multiplying Inclusion, and Restored Community.[1] The purpose of these steps, according to Barndt is, “The ultimate vision that drives the process of institutional change is a future in which both the church and the wider community overcome systemic racism.”[2] Consequently, this means that the fundamental goal of a church restructured to be anti-racist is to be an institution that can partner with the world to overcome systemic racism. In other words, the anti-racist church will be on the leading front of the anti-racist policies that shape the world.

Understandably, when one hears the phrase “dismantle racism,” it is easy to hear it through what we all know: Racism is a sin. There is no question, and the church must always call racism what it is; however, when you hear ELCA policy makers using phrases like “anti-racism” and “dismantling racism,” please understand the goal is to structure a church around political activism. This ought to concern those in the ELCA who understand that Christ has given his church a different commission, a commission found in Matthew 28:16-20 and John 20:21-23.

[1] Barndt, Joseph. Becoming an Anti-Racist Church: Journeying toward Wholeness. 1517 Media, 2011, p. 188-189.

[2] p.194

Join the discussion 16 Comments

  • David Keck says:

    Well written. The mind-set that you describe has infiltrated public schools through the writings of Howard Zinn, now deceased. One does not have to get into Critical Race Theory very far to engage the basic tenets of Marxism. What comes to mind as one reads through what is written here is the essentially same process that the ELCA went through to get to 2009. I remember at one Churchwide prior to that one where “devotionals” were passed out at breakfast that were anything but devotionals. They were testimonials advocating the social statements made at 2009 Assembly, and more. They were paid for mostly by individuals and organizations outside of the ELCA, indeed, outside of the Christian community. This is a Marxist strategy that, like Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” is very transparent in Marx’s writings. These issues are used, not for their own sake, but for the structural and cultural transition into another kind of governance. We call it communism. Once achieved, those in power could care less for the disadvantaged they have used to gain power. The “privileged” changes from any race, financial status, disability, sexual identity or other factor to the ruling class that results from collectivism in governing. “Everyone equal” does not mean that. It means “equally miserable.” Except for the ruling class. Leonid Brezhnev bragged to President Nixon about the dacha he had on the Black Sea and offered all sorts of other benefits Brezhnev had as head of the ruling class, which Nixon turned down. Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike have fared very poorly under communism. To return to the main point, Marxism is all about “oppressor vs. oppressed.” For those who want the documentation and more detailed explanation of the actual history of this, read “Who Was Karl Marx?” by James Simpson.

  • Thanks for this response. I hope many people read and heed Ryan’s article. It is excellent.

  • George Rahn says:

    ELCA is one step away from the dreaded eugenics which claims that by manipulating the population through various ways and means that a desired and biased outcome will result. A truly woke culture is what ELCA desires. I left that group in 2016.

  • Sharon says:

    As a lay person, an ELCA member prior to 2010, I thank you for writing this for non-theologians! It concerns me that young people are being led by pastors not focused on God’s word, grace and mission for all of us. There are so many challenges today, it would be so much better to be able to have that relationship with God to depend upon rather than politics.

  • Allan Oman says:

    Of course, Barndt and others within the ELCA, and other liberals within the wider Church, would claim that their ideas follow Matthew 28:16-20, and John 20:21-23; the question is: are their ideas truly Biblical or not? They would say their ideas are Biblical; others would disagree with them. In the face of these questions, we do need to dig deeper into the Bible.
    In addition to deeper Bible study, I would recommend the reading of at least two other books: “1984” by George Orwell, and “SNAPPING”, 2nd edition, by Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman. After reading these books, especially SNAPPING, 2nd edition, I am convinced that Critical Race Theory is a cult and must be resisted through the Word of God.
    In that same vein, in light of how ‘SNAPPING” describes a cult, I also think the adulation of Donald Trump, and the following of Donald Trump, is a cult, too.
    As is “Chrishun Nationalism”: it is a cult. (I would call it “Christian Nationalism” as it is popularly labeled, but I don’t think it is Christian, so can’t call it as such.)
    We have much work to do to proclaim the Gospel.

  • Mark Ellingsen says:

    In fact Critical Race Theory is compatible with both the Constitution and an Augustinian view of human nature with their collective endorsement of a cynicism about human nature and the need for safeguards. Tune in for my forthcoming book on this subject from Vernon Press. Those in disagreement seem not to take sin very seriously. If we and our structures are not tinged with racism and other injustices, we would not need grace. The tone of critics of CRT sure sounds Pharasaic to these Lutheran Confessional eyes. Anyone want a public debate.

    Mark Ellingsen

    • Ryan Cordle says:


      Thanks for the comment. Your comment reminds us of all the more need for the church to preach the Gospel, since those who struggle with the flesh “need the grace of Christ and, likewise for their mortification, the Holy Ghost.” I sure hope the article does not come across as not taking sin “very seriously.” Instead, what I hope is being communicated is that the church is not going to “take sin seriously” by pursuing political activist agendas. Furthermore, critical theory often pushes an imbalance that wants us to question who the sinner is. Is original sin only found in those in “power,” and is original sin only known through hierarchical structures?

      And, to be clear, what/if any laws would be helpful to curb the harms of racism in the public sphere is a perfectly acceptable debate for Christians to have. What I wonder is why my denomination is now working to re-write its constitution with the primary focus on one kind of agenda.

      • Kevin Haug says:

        Can I have a little bit of fun with one of your questions, Ryan?

        What laws would be helpful to curb the harms of racism in the public sphere? Well, using CRT’s definition, then racism is about prejudice plus power. The only laws that would seemingly curb racism would be laws that take power away from one group and then perhaps give it to another, but then what would prevent that group from becoming racist if they have prejudice? And is there a law which will remove power completely? Haven’t seen a single instance in human history where any particular culture had no one with power.

        It is futile to work with the power side of that equation, which means we need to look at the other side of the definition: prejudice. Can laws remove prejudice? Prejudice, being a matter of the heart leads us to conclude that in order for prejudice to be changed, the heart must change. Only one remedy for that: the Gospel.

        Seems like no law will actually curb racism as defined by CRT. Only the Gospel can. Laws have been passed to stop discrimination, but highly doubtful that any can have an impact on racism. Thoughts?

        • Ryan Cordle says:

          Kevin, your point is taken! No matter how we define racism (either through power structures as in CRT or as personal prejudice), only the Gospel will change hearts. The Law doesn’t do that. There is, of course, a function of the law to discipline those who would otherwise not be restrained and whose hatred can result in substantial harm to our neighbor. In America the 13th Amendment in no way solves the problem of racism, but it mitigates a particular kind of harm caused by sinful men, which is the desire to enslave someone of a different race. Likewise laws around segregation can curb harms of racism. The extent to which laws are necessary, helpful, and prudent is part of how we can practice our vocations as citizens.

    • George Rahn says:

      You may need to show the correlation. Because I certainly do not see it.

    • Kevin Haug says:

      An interesting commentary, Mark. The need to take sin seriously is indeed an important part of our Christian faith, but I might challenge your assertion that CRT takes sin seriously enough. I don’t think it does. Perhaps I am missing something that you could clarify because by my reading CRT defines racism as prejudice with power–which is a departure from the classical definition of racism which is holding the prejudice that one’s particular race is superior to another. As such, CRT excuses anyone who does not have power from actually being racist. If we equate sin with racism, then CRT says that only certain people are sinful–those with prejudice and power. This is blatantly contrary to what we as Confessional Lutherans believe. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God…” No one escapes sin in Lutheran theology. All are guilty. There is no oppressor or oppressed. There is both saint and sinner. In this fashion, CRT does not take sin seriously enough. It falls far short of truly seeing sins corruptive power.

  • Fred DeBell says:

    What confuses me the most with the CRT line of thought is simply, how is Homosexuality now considered a Race. The fact that this is not in the least bit logical and that ELCA leaders and others do not understand or question is beyond the pale.

  • Pastor L.J.Wylie says:

    Excellent piece. The direction of the ELCA is regrettable and in error as regards the original “contract” with “the members of congregations.” They will awaken no doubt.
    Further, we shall indeed look forward to Mr. Ellingsen’s pending publication

  • George Rahn says:

    I thought Jesus’ death on the cross satisfied the issue of justice in life. His death ended that search for fairness and inserted his life as the substitute for the need for justice. That is what justification is all about. Jesus’ death ended that way of finding righteousness. “Apart from law a righteousness of God has been disclosed…”
    See Romans 3. This is what the church should be concerned about and leave the political and social theories to social scientists. Law and Gospel are not the same thing.