Racial Mercy

[1] A different way of thinking about racial justice is to work toward racial mercy.

[2] Before the difference between justice and mercy is explained, there must be an agreed upon standard that is used to discern the worth of what will be suggested.  This is, after all, a theological discussion, for it is about the difference between God’s law and God’s Promise in Jesus.  The standard to be used is the same standard used continually and dependably in The Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article 4, Justification.  The standard has two parts.  One, does what is taught and preached use the death and rising of Jesus as the basis and proof for what is taught and preached?  Two, is the death and rising of Jesus used in a way that comforts the consciences of those who hear it?  This standard is seen in Article 4 in words such as, “to honor Christ,” or “Christ is buried,” or “in order to comfort troubled consciences.”  Those two questions keep our faith in Jesus.  And those two questions give glory and praise to Jesus, the one crucified and risen. Use any other standard and we are putting our faith in something other than Jesus.  An example of St. Paul using this standard is, “13For the promise that he would inherit the world did not come to Abraham or to his descendants through the law but through the righteousness of faith. 14If it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void” (Romans 4.13-14).  “Faith is null” means Jesus is useless, so what is taught is not based on the death and rising of Jesus.  And “the promise is void” means no one is comforted by the promises of forgiveness and eternal life.

[3] Article 4 of The Augsburg Confession1 is an example of how this two-part standard is used, “We receive forgiveness of sin and become righteous before God out of grace for Christ’s sake through faith when we believe that Christ has suffered for us and that for his sake our sin is forgiven and righteousness and eternal life are given to us.  For God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness in his sight, as Paul says in Romans 3[:21-26] and 4[:5]”  “For his sake” is how this article uses the death and rising of Jesus as the grounding for what it teaches; and it comforts us using the words “given to us” and “God will regard and reckon this faith as righteousness.”

[4] Article 4 also states that Scripture is divided into two topics, namely, law (defined as the Ten Commandments) and Promise (defined as Jesus’ death and rising  as the reason God forgives us and gives us eternal life).2  Justice is a term of the law.  Mercy is a term that belongs to the Promise.  So justice is based on law, mercy is based on the death and rising of Jesus.

The Law

[5]  When Christians talk about the problem of racism, they will often call for racial justice, they will say the church is to speak for justice, that the church is to use its prophetic voice, and that the church is called to speak for justice.  Even the question for this discussion as asked by the Call for Papers for this issue of The Journal of Lutheran Ethics uses the term racial justice.

[6] Racial justice is a law based term.  As a law based term, racial justice makes demands of people–don’t be racist; treat all people equally.  The law threatens us if we do not cooperate–“You will be fined $150.”  The law, any law, all laws, always accuse us of not doing what the law demands of us (lex semper accusat). The law judges us for our wrong behavior, it condemns us, and the law’s final condemnation is death—God’s final judgment.  “For the law brings wrath” (Romans 4.15a).  The law brings wrath, it does not change what hearts believe.

[7]  No one likes it when others make demands of them.  And no one likes to be threatened or told they are wrong.  To be told we doing wrong is an attack on our worth and goodness, which we feel must be defended at all costs because the law demands that we be good and because the law threatens us with judgment and condemnation.  People who try to talk to others about racism will often get a reaction of anger.  That anger is a defense against the law’s accusations.  Anger is how people protect their belief of, “I’m a good person.”  It is the law that demands that one must be a good person.

[8] Racism is caused by being focused in on the self, which is defined as sin.  Sin is to have faith in ourselves and not in Jesus.  As he said, “And when the Holy Spirit comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment: 9about sin, because they do not believe in me; 10about righteousness, because I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer; 11about judgment, because the ruler of this world has been condemned” (John 16.8-11).

[9] Focused in on ourselves, we use ourselves as the norm by which look at all around us. Racism is also caused by the law.  It the way of the law to judge, to measure, to compare, and to put things in an order of importance.  So when we look at other people who do not look like us–and we are the norm–then we judge the other person because we can only think in the way of the law.  It is that law-based opinion that enabled European people to make up the idea that people from Africa were less human than white people and so did not need to be treated humanely.  That was the reason used to excuse the terrible mistreatment of black people as slaves and to justify the slave trade.3  This made up idea of racism was taught and perpetuated for two hundred years so that it became the norm.  Look at how the United States Constitution defines a slave as only three-fifths human.4  It became the way many people thought without questioning it.  We see a person whose skin is a color different than ours and we judge them as different and not what they are supposed to be, which is to be the same as us.

[10]  Using the law to measure our differences with others is to put our faith in the law.  We trust it, use it, to make sense out of the differences we see.

[11]  When our faith is in the law, we have misplaced our faith because our faith is to be in God.  So we have a problem with God, and God has a problem with us.

[12] To use justice as the way to solve sin is to trust law as a way to overcome our law-based way of thinking, and using justice to solve sin (our not trusting Jesus) will not work because the law does not mention anything about faith in Jesus as the only thing God calls good (“For God will regard and reckon this faith [in Christ] as righteousness, as Paul says in Romans 3.21-26 and 4.5). 5

[13] Even God’s law is useless against sin.  At best, all God’s law does is show us our sin, “19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin” (Romans 3.19-20).

The Promise

[14] Jesus died and rose from the dead for us.  That is his promise.  Jesus promises us to overcome our death with his resurrection.  He promises to forgive us and that his forgiveness is God his Father’s forgiveness.  Jesus’ resurrection creates for us a new life, a new life in which our faith in the law is replaced by faith in Jesus and his way of mercy and forgiveness.  “Christ is the end of the law” (Romans 10.4).  As St. Luke tells it, “Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations’” (Luke 24.45-47).

[15] Jesus’ death and rising are the reason God forgives us.  Such forgiveness is to die and rise with Jesus, so that we live in him and his forgiveness and mercy, not in the law.

[16] Living in Christ, we are turned towards him and not in on ourselves.  Living in Jesus is to live in his way of mercy.  Therefore, the only way to look at others when one has faith in Jesus is to see that they are a person Jesus died for.  We no longer compare ourselves to others because we are not focused inward on ourselves.  We do not judge others as being different because we do not use the law.  We do not trust in our own power, and we do not fight to justify our goodness.  As St. Paul says, “As many of you were baptized into have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3.27-29).

[17] Thus, differences between us and others are no longer judged, they are no longer a threat to one group’s supremacy.  Instead we can delight in and be thankful for, and be merciful about each person’s or group’s uniqueness.

[18]  The Promise of Jesus puts the law out of our hearts, and his Promise turns us toward him.  Therefore the causes of racism—law and sin—are no longer in us.  Now we can begin to “think and work differently toward a constructive future,” the difference being that we use Jesus’ mercy.  Look at how Paul worked differently, “14For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. 15He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, 16and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (Ephesians 2.14-16).   Note how Paul says that reconciliation is made to happen “through the cross.”  That is an example of how the death and rising of Jesus are used as the basis for what Paul taught.  So when we use the first question on how to discern if what is being taught is good, this would be  good because it uses the death and rising of Jesus as the means goodness is imputed to people.

[19]  The place to start making a difference is us, the Lutheran church.  Racist things are done by people in the Lutheran church. For example,  a white, male seminarian, married to a black woman, was told by a professor at the seminary,“If you want a call, you need to get a divorce.”  For example, we place pastors who are black or brown in congregations that are the poorest and pay the least.   “God has called and continues to call women of color as leaders in this church, yet their ministry experiences are often characterized by discouragement and lack of support. On average, women of color in the ELCA wait three to five years to enter their first (and sometimes subsequent) pastoral calls, according to ELCA Research and Evaluation. Forty-five percent report receiving compensation below synod guidelines.”4 For example,  in 2015, ninety-six percent of the ELCA’s membership was white, making it the second least diverse group out of thirty groups.5

[20]  It might be difficult to believe that mercy rather than law can change systemic racism.  Systemic racism is built on human laws.  For centuries white authorities created political policies that purposely disadvantaged people of color.  From slavery to Jim Crow to red lining to mass incarceration, to the 2020 CARES law passed by the United States Congress to aid businesses harmed by the Covid-19 pandemic by which banks turned down ninety percent of applications from businesses owned by black people.  As human laws have built systemic racism, is seems a legal solution is needed.  Yet it is also systemic racism when people of wealth and economic power actively promote ideas of racism so as to have white and black and brown people fight with each other instead of working together against all oppression.  All that is why we need to talk of racial mercy, so that we change people’s hearts instead of making them get angry at us for accusing them of doing things wrong.  For when we use justice as the rallying cry for how to work against racism, all we will do is use human law against human law while invoking divine law.  That psychologically threatens people with judgment and makes them defensive as they attempt to use human law and logic to justify themselves.  It is mercy that gets people to love.   It is putting people in Christ that equips them to love freely instead of being enslaved to the greed of trying to justify themselves.

[21]  For this reason, let the Lutheran church talk, not of racial justice, but of racial mercy.




1 The Book of Concord:  The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert; Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2000; 38 and 40.

2 Ibid., 121.5.

3 “Racism was at the heart of North American slavery and the colonization and empire-building activities of western Europeans, especially in the 18th century. The idea of race was invented to magnify the differences between people of European origin and those of African descent whose ancestors had been involuntarily enslaved and transported to the Americas. By characterizing Africans and their African American descendants as lesser human beings, the proponents of slavery attempted to justify and maintain the system of exploitation while portraying the United States as a bastion and champion of human freedom, with human rights, democratic institutions, unlimited opportunities, and equality. The contradiction between slavery and the ideology of human equality, accompanying a philosophy of human freedom and dignity, seemed to demand the dehumanization of those enslaved.”  Audrey Smedley  Professor of Anthropology, Virginia Commonwealth University. Author of Race in North America: Origin and Evolution of a Worldview.  https://www.britannica.com/topic/racism; accessed December 29. 2020.

4 Article I, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”

5 The Book of Concord:  The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, eds. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert; Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 2000; 38 and 40.

6 Living Lutheran, March 9, 2018, Called and Chosen, M. Wyvetta Bullock and Cheryl Stewart Pero, https://www.livinglutheran.org/2018/03/called-and-chosen/; accessed December 29. 2020.

7 Ibid.

Timothy Hoyer

Pastor Timothy Hoyer is an ELCA pastor at Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Lakewood, New York; and Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Falconer, New York.