Caught in Racism? What Do You Say?

By Bob Hiller

Someone is caught in the act of a grievous error. Everyone saw it. There is no denying it. They can’t justify it. So, what should be said about it? J. R. Smith might not be the best guy to learn from in this scenario. As I’m sure you’ve seen by now, LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers (the team J. R. Smith is on…for now) was about to pull off a huge surprise in Game 1 of the NBA Finals. No one really expects them to win the series; few expect them to take even a game. But at the end of Game 1, they were primed to steal one from Golden State and change the entire conversation. Down by one point with five seconds left, George Hill was at the free-throw line for the Cavs. He hits the first to tie the game at 107. It looked like overtime when he missed the second shot, but for J. R. Smith! He snags the rebound, and all he has to do is put the ball back in the hoop. Game over. Cavs win! Smith is the hero!

Yeah. That didn’t happen. Instead, Smith grabbed the rebound and dribbled the ball AWAY from the rim. LeBron is screaming at him. The clock runs out. Smith looks lost. LeBron is beside himself because Smith played like he thought they had the lead! He didn’t know the score? His coach said as much after the game. He looks like he mouths something to the effect of “I thought we were up.” And everyone saw it. He was unaware of what was going on in what was, at that point, the most important situation of the season?!? Unbelievable!

Everyone saw it. There is no denying it. You can’t justify it. So, what do you say when you are caught in the act? How do you respond when everyone is going to be throwing your foolishness back in your face? I’ll tell you what you don’t do. You don’t deny it. I mean, denying it would only make matters worse. Much worse. But leave it to J. R. Smith. He made matters worse.

Smith, after clearly demonstrating before the eyes of the world that he had no idea what was going on, said he knew the game was tied and was trying to get a better shot or a timeout. Um. No…no, that was not it at all. To be fair, later he admitted he wasn’t sure what was happening at that point. But come on! That first explanation makes him look ridiculous. We all saw it. We aren’t foolish enough to think your head was in the game. You were caught in the act! To theologize it a bit: The condemning eye of the Law was on you! Your sin was exposed! All you have left at this point is to repent and die and pray LeBron will forgive you and give you life on a team next year!

Who would be foolish enough to deny a problem that was so publicly and shamefully exposed? Well, let’s hope not the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (Well, that took a quick turn, didn’t it!). This past week I caught a photo tweeted by a seminary classmate of mine while he was attending his district’s convention (if this is sounding too much like “inside baseball,” stick with me). It showed the results of a resolution which was called for the church to “Decry Racism in Church and Society.” This seems pretty straight forward. The resolution was well written. It opposed racism of all forms, including white supremacy, called the church to work towards racial reconciliation in the church and society, and sought prayer for those who are guilty of racism and promoting racist ideologies.

This was an easy one. In a time when our beloved church body can seemingly fight over everything, the call to stand against racism is a slam dunk. Vote yes on this. Send it to our Synodical Convention (that is, the national convention of our church body held once every three years) to receive another unanimous vote, and more importantly, begin working towards preaching against racism, calling racists to repent, repenting of our systemically entrenched racial issues, and reconciling with those who have suffered under such sin. Just put the ball back in the hoop J. R.!

But J. R. dribbled out the clock. To be fair, the resolution passed. For this, I thank God. However, it passed 123-85. 85? There were that many voters who felt that racism was not a sin we ought to fight against? I don’t know all the details of the vote. I don’t know what went down in the floor discussions. But here we are, with a chance to show the world that though the LCMS is among the least racially diverse denominations in the United States, we are ready and willing to stand against any form of racial sin. Yet, nearly 41% of pastors and congregational leaders in one of our districts don’t think we should stand against racism.

Again, I don’t know the hearts, minds, and motives of those voters. Perhaps many misunderstood the resolution. Maybe there was a glitch in the voting system. But otherwise, what other explanation could be offered that would explain why anyone would vote no on this? Here we have, now, before the world an example of how the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod does not walk together on the issue of racism. The whole world is watching (heaven’s probably tuning in too) yelling at the screen, “What are you doing?!? Don’t you know what happening in the game?”

Everyone saw it. There’s no denying it or justifying it. So, what do we say?

Well, I pray no one is foolish enough to say, “We don’t have a problem with race in the LCMS.” Of course we do. The vote tells the story. There are those who are not white in our denomination with their own stories to tell. We’d better be listening before we are self-justifying.

Social media was no help. I actually saw Twitter arguments over this thing—people were actually defending a vote against racial reconciliation in the church. They had all kinds of reasons. Todd Wilken responded smartly in one tweet “I’m sure there’s a super unconvincing parliamentary reason for this.” Right. But, I couldn’t believe some were offered! The reasons, regardless of how logically sound, look like J. R. Smith saying “I thought we were winning.” It just makes us look dumb.

Some have suggested that the resolution was nothing more than virtue signaling. Are you kidding me, J. R.? Virtue signaling? We have a terrible race problem in the U.S. right now. The church is not exempt. The LCMS is not exempt. Have we really gotten to the point where we are dodging the Law’s accusation by aligning it with political correctness? I mean, I feel like I’m going nuts here. Was St. Paul virtue signaling when he said that, in the justifying waters of baptism, there is no “Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female for you are all one in Christ Jesus?” (Galatians 3:28-29) Ugh. Paul was such a liberal.

How do we not look like JR Smith, excusing our ignorance of what’s happening in the game?

Our culture has become so politicized that it has assigned moral issues to the right side of the room or to the left. And unfortunately (sinfully?) the church has towed the line. Racism, sexism, abortion, marriage issues are issues of right or wrong, not left or right. Decrying racism is not an option for the church. It is a responsibility granted her in Baptism. Or perhaps better said, in Baptism, Jesus placed you in a church full of people who look nothing like you and yet were purchased with the same divine, Jewish blood from the Nazarene’s veins. Whatever cultural walls divide us have been removed by our Jesus with His blood (Eph. 2:11-16). And now He has given you brothers and sisters of other tribes, languages, skin colors, and social classes whether you like it or not. If not, then repent. The Good Shepherd won’t long stand for those who seek (or approve of) harm and discord among His beloved sheep. Yet, in His patient mercy, He’s invited you to dine with them.

Now, at the risk of turning into my own version of J. R. Smith, or worse, virtue signaling myself, let me just add this: I am white male pastor (which is not a problem) who has certainly benefited from the system I grew up in (which means I have many blind spots when it comes to the issues of other cultures). I went to multi-racial schools my whole life, but I understand nothing of what minorities have gone through in this country. I don’t think I’m a racist. But I am beginning to realize that I have likely contributed to a system that benefits white people like me more than, and to the detriment of, people of different social and ethnic backgrounds. And honestly, I don’t know what to do about that. So, help me in this conversation. How can I help change the system? I’m not trying to sound holier than thou here, but I do think this resolution (and others like it) should push us to deal with hard realities about ourselves. After all, if we say we have no sin…

Lord, have mercy.