A Clarifying Response about the ELCA Strategy Towards Authentic Diversity

[1] In its February 2021 Issue, published in Black History Month, during a time when the United States is going through yet another period of racial reckoning, The Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE) published five articles under the collective theme of Racism, Justice, and Mercy. Only one of these was co-written by a woman of color and a white woman with a significant background in race and racial justice; the other four were written by white men with no prior academic interest in or study of race, racial justice, or liberation theology. This was a grave, injurious mistake on the part of the editorial board who should issue a full and public apology before soliciting papers by BIPOC Lutherans that address the ELCA’s work facing its history of white supremacy and racism. It should not go unmarked.

[2] Together, the authors of this response, Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin (MDIv, LSTC)1 and Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings (MA, LSTC: MDiv, PLTS)2, have more than 40 years combined experience “on the ground” in racial justice work on behalf of the ELCA. Most notably for our response here, Rev. Paris-Austin served on the national team that developed the Strategy Towards Authentic Diversity (STAD) document, continues to serve on the Advisory Team to the Church Council regarding the document, Rev. Rawlings serves on the board of the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice, and they both serve the NW Washington Synod STAD team.

[3] While there are reasons to address each of the pieces in the recent issue of JLE, we will focus our comments on Dr. Ted Peter’s essay, “Overcoming ELCA Racism with Authentic Diversity.”  We want to hold Peters and JLE accountable for the false assumptions, inaccuracies and misrepresentations presented in his paper, to deconstruct the mythology of reverse racism and inaccurate statements about race and culture that prop up his paper and to call for engagement with the actual work of the Strategy Towards Authentic Diversity.

[4] Peters states at the outset of his essay that he has two recommendations: “(1) we should cease feeding the unhappy consciousness of the ELCA white leadership and remove this white leadership from the center of our spiritual attention and (2) we should ask people of color…about what they need and would like to see happen in the ELCA.”  His subsequent discussion focuses primarily on the document, “How Strategic and Authentic is our Diversity: A Call for Confession, Reflection and Healing Action,” a product of the Task Force for the Strategy Towards Authentic Diversity (STAD).

[5] As such, we would like to begin with the largest problem with this paper: it is built on a fundamental misrepresentation of the Strategy Towards Authentic Diversity (STAD). Dr. Peters repeatedly asserts that the voices of “People of Color” should have been included in the creation of the document and that we need to listen more to “People of Color.” In fact, per the directive of the resolution3 which formed the Task Force that created the document, it was written and shepherded by a team of 18+ rostered and lay leaders of color from across the ELCA. In fact, there was representation from every Ethnic Specific Association, each of the 9 regions, every expression of the church (congregational, synodical & churchwide), as well as relevant ELCA affiliated organizations. The collaborative process of the document’s creation included, per the direction of the resolution, engagement with the various divisions of churchwide, and the Conference of Bishops.4

[6] While the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice (EDLARJ) was also included in the conversation, their input was limited to the final editing phase and they actively deferred to the judgment of the leaders of color. The Background Summary provided in the document clearly states the resolution created, “a Task Force for Strategic Authentic Diversity composed entirely of people of color (African Descent, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, Arab and Middle Eastern, Latino) and inclusive of immigrant and LGBTQIA+ identities.”5

[7] Peters writes as though there were few concrete, actionable suggestions contained within STAD. He repeatedly calls for practical changes and laments self-flagellation and centering white people’s feelings, but only once in 53 paragraphs (paragraph 37) does he refer to the concrete recommendations found on pp. 11-16 of STAD.  In fact, STAD consists almost entirely of concrete, substantive changes at all levels of the church. Specifically, the document offers recommendations in four areas: Healing (Urging Reflection, Awareness and Training for rostered leaders, synods, seminaries, colleges and the churchwide organization6), Structural Accountability (twelve recommendations including the directing of resources, the creation of an officer for Diversity Equity and Inclusion, and monitoring of “the duration of the call process for people of color, particularly women of color”7), Theological Education and Leadership (fourteen recommendations including antiracism training for supervisors for internship and ministry in context and contextual education directors, and the creation of “a database of rostered and lay leaders of color to create an effective networking platform”8), and Partnership with Full Communion, Ecumenical, and Interreligious Partners and Related Organizations (ten recommendations directing churchwide to review racial audits occurring with partners, giving direction to congregations and synods on where to find resources through partner organizations and requiring documentation of authentic diversity representation on organizational boards9).

[8] The other subject Peters returns to repeatedly is his idea of “unhappy consciousness” which Peters defines as, “a spiritual mindset that feels good when feeling miserable.” He purports this mindset is the main motivation behind the anti-racism work of the leadership of the ELCA and that this mindset is what propelled those leaders to create STAD (par. 8). The latter, as already stated, is demonstrably false as STAD was created not by white leadership in the ELCA, but by BIPOC leaders who are working to call the ELCA into a just, equitable way of doing God’s work in this world. To state the document is a result of a desire to “self-flagellate” is a direct contradiction to the stated spirit of the document: “The spirit and intent of the document are to help us transcend the paralysis of guilt and blaming and reach a shared accountability and honest relational engagement in the body of Christ.”10,11

[9] Peters provides no evidence that STAD was created out of a desire to self-flagellate or that ELCA leadership feels good when whipping themselves with the sin of racism; he is basing a rather large part of his thesis on an assumption. White guilt is certainly a stumbling block to anti-racism work, as is the habit white people have of centering themselves and their needs while pushing the needs of BIPOC to the side. However, there is no evidence that white guilt or white-centering is the motivation for the ELCA addressing its institutional racism, or for asking members to address their own racist beliefs and behaviors. It is an incontrovertible fact that the ELCA has done, and continues to do, great harm to its BIPOC members and BIPOC people writ large, from our predecessor bodies funding of Indian Boarding schools12 and their overt and covert support of slavery13, to chronically underfunding BIPOC churches and leaders today. To make confession of these things is to recognize harm done and ask for forgiveness. The call to confess and repent of our institutional and individual racism does not indicate the ELCA leadership is doing anything more than recognizing historical and continued harm and asking for forgiveness, as we are commanded to do by Jesus in scripture and taught by Martin Luther in the Augsburg Confession and other writings.

[10] It appears as though Peters conflates repeated calls to confession with “unhappy consciousness.”14 We do not agree that the Strategy for Authentic Diversity itself or the calls to confession within the document and issued by our churchwide structure perpetuate the spiritual mindset he calls, “unhappy consciousness” (par 5). Nor is it, as he asserts, a way that “white progressives can keep obsessing about their own failings and perfections” (par 9).  Is confessing our sins in church on a weekly basis somehow a demonstration of feeling good when we are wallowing?  Should we stop this practice in the event some may be getting stuck in guilt rather than turning around to live a new life? Luther recognized our sinful nature and our continual need to confess so that, through God’s forgiveness, we might be opened up to God’s grace. In the Lutheran tradition, confession is not meant as a method of self-flagellation, rather something that is, “lovely and comforting15,” because of the work that God does in us when God forgives us. It is true that confession often does not lead people to a lovely and comforting feeling. If we are still burdened by our sins against our neighbor, Martin Luther suggests confessing our sins to the person we have harmed.16 However, concerning racism in our time and place, this runs into two problems. The first is that this puts an unnecessary and painful burden on BIPOC who are forced to hear these confessions over and over again and who may not be ready or willing to forgive. The second is that white people’s sin of racism is not a sin against one person, rather it is a sin against groups of people. This would place the kind of confession suggested by the ELCA in a spot in-between Luther’s belief that we should confess publicly to have our hearts broken open to God’s grace through forgiveness and that we should confess privately for a personal relief from our burdens.

[11] While through the act of forgiveness we experience God’s grace, and are, ideally, driven to good works in response to God’s grace, we continue to call for confession because those of us who are white continue to act in ways that uphold racist systems because we benefit from those racist systems. White people continue to hold beliefs and live in the world in ways that cause harm to BIPOC people and ourselves. Our structures continue to be racist. The matter is not, as Peters states, “already settled” (par 13). We must continue to confess these sins so long as we continue to commit them.  The church calls us to confess these sins because many of us confess with our words but not with our hearts; we have not yet reached a point of true contrition, whereby God’s grace shines upon us and we move forward doing good works (in this case, being actively anti-racist) as a response to the experience of God’s grace.

[12] Now that we have addressed the two major, problematic, assumptions that undergird Peter’s work, we will address the problematic racism that lies within. Paragraphs 10 and 11 of his paper attempt to define prejudice and racism, but, instead, show a lack of understanding of racism. Peters seems to only understand racism as an institutional issue and prejudice as interpersonal behavior(citation). In addition, he seems to believe that it is possible for people to be completely rid of prejudice(citation). Institutional racism is one of many dimensions of racism, in addition to interpersonal and systemic. White individuals can be, and are, racist, by virtue of being born into a society that consistently glorifies whiteness.

[13] In addition to his inaccurate definitions of racism and prejudice as well as confusing uses of the terms, Peters uses the term, “white racism.” Use of this term implies that there are other kinds of racism distinct from the racism perpetrated by white people. While there are other kinds of race based prejudice, racism requires a level of structural power that is solely held by white people. In his work, Black Theology and Black Power, Dr. James Cone address the idea of “Black racism” thusly:

Black racism is a myth created by whites to ease their guilt feelings. As long as whites can be assured blacks are racists, they can find reasons to justify their own oppression of black people. This tactic seems to be a favorite device of white liberals who, intrigued by their own unselfish involvement in civil rights for the “Negro,” like to pride themselves on their liberality toward blacks. White racists who are prepared to defend the outright subjugation of blacks need no such myth. The myth is needed by those who intend to keep things as they are, while pretending that things are in fact progressing. When confronted with the fact that the so called progress is actually nonexistent, they can easily offer an explanation by pointing to the “white backlash” caused by “black racism.”17


[14] There is no moderating term required for racism. As Dr. Cone states, white people create other kinds of racism in order to deflect from their own racism, but there is only one kind of racism, and that is the kind which is perpetuated by whites.

[15] Peters appears to object to the entire category of whiteness by virtue of the fact that it is an unstable category. For certain, the category of who is white has evolved throughout the history of the United States, but it has its roots in Christians working to justify Black enslavement.18 Beginning in the 1500’s, Europeans who desired to kidnap and sell or purchase other humans began to create theories of racial hierarchy with the lightest skinned at the top and those with the darkest skin on the bottom — these earliest theories were created by manipulating Christian scripture or creating extra-Biblical narratives out of thin air. By the mid-1600’s, this racial hierarchy had solidified as noted by Morgan Goodwin who noted racist planters had made “‘those two words, Negro and Slave’ synonymous, while “White” was ‘the general name for Europeans.’”19 Over our national history, various peoples have been brought into the category of white to stand in opposition to the “other,” those who are to be kept in their place, without political or economic power.

[16] Dr. Peters argues against the use of whiteness as a category through a graphic demonstrating what (we assume) he believes is the ethnic diversity of the ELCA. He demonstrates a misunderstanding of the concept of whiteness and how it is used to reinforce structural racism. Peters is not wrong to suggest that the ELCA is ethnically diverse. While there is overlap between race and ethnicity, they are both social constructs used to organize people, but they are not the same thing.

[17] Race has elements of power and hierarchy and is something that is generally assigned a person by the society around them in order to reinforce that society’s power structure. Many of the qualities that are generally associated with a particular race have been assigned by those who hold power in a society; those characteristics are not generally embraced by the members of the race. Ethnicity, “focuses attention on differences in meanings, values and ways of living (social practices) that are often regarded as equally viable and do not establish a status ranking among the groups.”20 People often claim their own ethnicity, rather than it being externally imposed, and are generally willing to claim these differences in social practices. Ethnic identity has more of a focus on how people within the group define themselves and racial identity has more of a focus on how people outside of the race think about people who have been categorized as being within that race.

[18] In his effort to discuss the diversity of the ELCA, Peters carefully delineates the many European nations ELCA members descend from (graphic following par. 14).  He then relegates the rest of the world to continentally-based ethnic groups. There is not the same respect for, or knowledge of, the strong Lutheran communities in Tanzania, Madagascar, Palestine, or Indonesia as there is for the communities our members descend from in Europe. Here, Peters is showing how he applies value to certain Lutherans over others, and reflecting a much greater problem in the wider ELCA. Throughout the ELCA, these European nations from which many Lutheran descend receive far more respect and analysis than Lutherans from other continents. This diversity of people from European nations, or all of the languages, cultures, and peoples represented within the ELCA, does not make the ELCA racially diverse21, (e.g Lots of people who descended from Scandanavian Lutherans are still a lot of white Lutherans). Racial diversity, not diversity of nation of descent, is the goal that was addressed (however poorly) by the ELCA in 1987 and is the primary diversity STAD is working to address today22.

[19] One final point we would like to address is Peters wholesale dismissal of Anti-Racism trainings. There is a necessary conversation to be had about effective Anti-Racism training and whether BIPOC should be required to attend such trainings given the pain they often experience as a result. The ELCA and its subsidiaries too often rely on organizations with which they have had a long standing relationship, many of which engage models of Anti-Racism training that are not effective. This is by no means a reason to throw out the concept as a whole. There are many local and national organizations and individuals that do effective, culturally sensitive and trauma informed Anti-Racism trainings. The STAD document is intentional about including Anti-Racism Training in its recommendations for the church as an entry point for Healing, and as a way forward with accountability. Within the document there are suggestions of resources23 and recommendations with specific guidelines that address the named concerns and therefore would strengthen Anti-Racism trainings across the ELCA.24

[20] Whether Dr. Peters intentionally disregarded the voices of the leaders of color behind the document or did so inadvertently, his dismissal of their work is a distraction from the work to which the document calls us as individuals, congregations, synods, colleges, seminaries, and as a whole ELCA. In the words of Toni Morrison:

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.25

[21] The action of the JLE editorial board in printing the essay by Ted Peters without a review of its foundational accuracy is one such distraction. This essay is an excellent example of a “liberal” white male trying very hard to declare he is not racist while upholding white supremacy. This is a problem in society in general, but in academia in particular, as white people talk about racism and white supremacy without actually doing their own internal work on their own racism or doing the appropriate amount of external work to research the issue at hand. For too long, white people, white men in particular, have simply been taken at their word on matters of race, while BIPOC are questioned at every turn. The ability to make statements without citations and reference one’s own work with the assumption that the reader will know what the author means is an ability afforded only to white men in academia. This issue of JLE, and Dr. Peters article, in particular, are prime examples of this.

[22] Unfortunately, this distraction has served its purpose in redirecting the energy and time of the BIPOC leaders who wrote the document, the BIPOC leaders on the Advisory Team for the document and the authors of this response. Until the Journal of Lutheran Ethics issues a public apology and full retraction of the erroneous article there is little hope for change. But that distraction ends here, as we refocus ourselves now on the task at hand and close this essay with the words of the document that has caused such disruption.

As siblings in Christ, baptized into the priesthood of all believers, we must hold one another accountable in confession and repentance. Racism may affect each of us differently, but we must

take responsibility for our participation, acknowledge our complicity, repent of our sin, move toward restoration, and pray to God for reconciliation.26



  1. Rev. Priscilla Paris Austin is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church (ELCA) in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle, a congregation that takes seriously their calling to be a Sanctuary that is Open and Affirming of all persons of every gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, ability, age, and status. Their commitment to being actively antiracist has encouraged them to be the fiscal sponsor for the emerging #66th Synod Reparations Fund, of which Priscilla (aka Nakia) is a member of the founding board. Her calling has her serving as a member of the Faith Leaders Action Group (a rapid response team of interfaith leaders in the Seattle metro area), the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion board for her children’s school, as well as being an active participant in various faith based advocacy and action groups locally and nationally, while writing for organizations that are part and apart from the institutional church.
  2. Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings, is a queer, white ELCA pastor who received an MA in Church in Society from The Lutheran Theology of Chicago, which she then transferred to Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary to obtain a Master of Divinity. She has been doing racial justice work for over 20 years, serves as a member of the Northwest Washington Synod’s Strategy for Authentic Diversity working group, is on the board for the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice, and is founder and co-conspirator for Disrupt Worship Project, a liturgical resource for those who wish to engage justice in their sermons and liturgy.
  3. “RESOLVED that the Task Force be composed of one person from each of the nine regions and one Bishop who will serve as co-chair. The composition of the Task Force shall conform with the representational principles in section 5.01.f of the ELCA Constitution except that persons of Color and/or persons whose Primary Language is other than English shall comprise 100% of the Task Force and the Task Force shall be ethnically diverse. The members of the Task Force shall be appointed by the Church Council in consultation with the ELCA Director of Ethnic Specific and Multicultural Ministries” Motion B, Resolution for a Strategy Towards Authentic Diversity within the ELCA, 2016 Pre-Assembly Report: Report of the Reference and Counsel Committee, Section IX, p. 1-3.
  4. The work of the Task Force shall include but is not limited to:
  5. “In response to the proposal, a resolution was presented to the assembly and adopted to create a Task Force for Strategic Authentic Diversity composed entirely of people of color (African Descent, American Indian and Alaska Native, Asian and Pacific Islander, Arab and Middle Eastern, Latino) and inclusive of immigrant and LGBTQIA+ identities.
  6. Ibid p. 11
  7. Ibid 12-13
  8. Ibid p. 14
  9. Ibid p. 16
  10. Ibid p. 3
  11. Ibid p. 4 – Additionally, in defining Authentic Diversity, the document further states the motivation and purpose as “the work of this task force is rooted not in charity or pity but in resistance to tokenism and the nominal representation of cultures in ELCA structures. We work toward seeing a fuller glimpse of God’s image and the fullness of God’s creation.”
  12. http://wigenweb.org/shawano/BethanyIndianMission.html
  13. http://thecresset.org/2008/Trinity2008/Chapman_T2008.html
  14. Unhappy consciousness is a term coined by Hegel, but, after some research, it appears as though this usage is a reference to Peters’ own work. As Dr. Peters did not cite either Hegel or his own work, we will address this argument based on the definitions and explanations provided in the paper he wrote for JLE.
  15. Luther, Martin, “Admonition to Confession (1529)”, retrieved from https://bookofconcord.org/sources-and-context/admonition-to-confession/
  16. Ibid
  17. Cone, James H. 1997, Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll, NY; Orbis Books [p. 15]
  18. Kendi, Ibram X. 2016, Stamped from the Beginning. New York; Nation Books
  19. Ibid [p. 51]
  20. Markus, H. R. (2010). Who am I?: Race, ethnicity and identity. In H. Markus & P. Moya (Eds.), ​Doing race:21 essays for the 21​st​ century​. New York: W.W. Norton, pp. 371
  21. We would also like to note that the LGBTQIA+ community is included in Dr. Peters graphics that appear to address the ethnic diversity of the ELCA. One of the authors is queer, and as much as she enjoys being recognized as a part of the ELCA, LGBTQIA+ is neither a race nor an ethnicity and should not be included as such.
  22. How Strategic and Authentic is our Diversity, p. 7, footnote 18
  23. Ibid, p. 10 “We recognize that many of the ELCA’s full communion partners struggle with similar histories of inaction and indifference. Many of these partners have recognized and are learning from their past actions, especially concerning authentic diversity. Some denominations and institutions have moved faster than others, yet all have recognized that justice work and partnerships cannot survive in a vacuum. There is a common belief that, to strive for and embody justice, we must commit to working together. This commitment must be made active and tangible through allocation of resources, including people and money. Investing in partnerships with other denominations, institutions, and organizations can prompt a congregation to reassess its views and can create new opportunities to develop training and educational material for youth and children.”
  24. Ibid, p11, “Such training would intersect with issues of gender, sexuality, class, ability, naturalization status, etc. in a way that is holistic, comprehensive, and mutual.
  25. Portland State University; Morrison, Toni; St. John, Primus; Callahan, John; Callahan, Judy; and Baker, Lloyd, “”Black Studies Center public dialogue. Pt. 2″” (1975). Special Collections: Oregon Public Speakers. 90. http://archives.pdx.edu/ds/psu/11309
  26. How strategic is our Diversity, p. 6.

Priscilla Paris-Austin

Rev. Priscilla Paris-Austin is pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church (ELCA) in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle, a congregation that takes seriously their calling to be a Sanctuary that is Open and Affirming of all persons of every gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, ability, age, and status.

Elizabeth Rawlings

Rev. Elizabeth Rawlings, is a queer, white ELCA pastor who received an MA in Church in Society from The Lutheran Theology of Chicago, which she then transferred to Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary to obtain a Master of Divinity. She has been doing racial justice work for over 20 years, serves as a member of the Northwest Washington Synod’s Strategy for Authentic Diversity working group, is on the board for the European Descent Lutheran Association for Racial Justice, and is founder and co-conspirator for Disrupt Worship Project, a liturgical resource for those who wish to engage justice in their sermons and liturgy.