By John Nunes
The starting point for celebrations of African-American history month in February begins with the recognition of the unique struggles and toilsome successes of people of African descent.
For Lutheran Christians, however, the celebrations do not end there. God’s people necessarily possess a faith-inspired, theologically defined, transcending vision of the human community: “so we, though many, are one body (soma) in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Rom. 12:5).
This mystery of our unity in Christ is nothing short of miraculous. Jesus Christ is the cosmic glue, so to speak, which holds us together in spite of our differences (Col. 1:17). Nowhere is this more evident than at the church’s altar. We receive together the real presence of Jesus — “This is my body (soma, again) which is for you” (1 Cor. 11:24).
Irrespective of the amount of melanin we may biologically possess, regardless of our regional or cultural distinctiveness, it’s not the color of our skin, but our shared Redeemer from sin and brokenness that unifies us. We belong! We are reconciled to God and to one another through faith alone, by grace, not race or any other ephemeral human category. This fabulous “Life Together” which we enjoy frees us to take this February pause for Black History Month, in order to honor the particular lives of particular people from particular cultural communities, in a manner that is not divisive.
In fact, the Lutheran Confessions commend our recollection of those who have run the race of faith; these saints should be honored with “imitation: first of their faith, then of their other virtues, which people should imitate according to their callings” (Ap XXI 6, Kolb/Wengert).
I would like to take a quick peek at two 20th-century Lutheran leaders: Richard C. Dickinson (1925-2010) and Gudina Tumsa (1929-1979), one from the United States and one from Ethiopia — both unashamedly of African descent and both unapologetically Lutheran.
Dickinson’s gravely ill mother, Alice, was ravaged by ill health and was advised by doctors to abort her child in order to save her own life. She decided to let God decide. Richard lived. And Alice herself lived to 103 years of age. Rising from conditions of extreme economic poverty in rural Alabama, born less than two months before Malcolm X, Richard was wealthy with resilient faith in Jesus Christ. He walked with personal integrity and humility in service to God’s mission of justice, mercy and justification by grace.
From the 1960s through the 1980s, Dr. Dickinson challenged the church with bold speech, with parrhesia — which in the New Testament can mean both candid rhetoric and cheerful fearlessness. Dickinson possessed both. His favorite topic was addressing the church’s seemingly intractable legacy of racism, its acquiescence to cultural systems of structural sin that grotesquely compromise its evangelical witness and undermine the baptismal promises that unite the body of Christ.
“Black named,” the news release headline announced as Dickinson became “the first Black person ever to hold a top staff position with Synod” in 1977. Thirty years later, my own appointment in 2007 to the top executive position at Lutheran World Relief cannot be untied from the pioneering path Dickinson charted within the Lutheran church.
Dickinson regarded pastoral recruitment and training as a key to health and growth in ministry. During the 1977 centennial year of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod’s ministry among blacks, he resolved to recruit 150 African-American men for ministry in the LCMS. Strengthening pastoral leadership, in his strategy flowing from the Lutheran Confessions, was (and remains) integral to Christian mission: “So that we may obtain this faith, the ministry of teaching the gospel and administering the sacraments was instituted.” Now, in his memory, a scholarship fund has been established to augment the number of active African-American clergy on the LCMS roster, which is now less than 50 active men.
Dickinson avowed this in his landmark book, Roses and Thorns — itself a paradoxical title to describe the complex exclusion experienced by many non-whites in the Lutheran church. In it, he wrote, “I want to be a part of this ministry of reconciliation. I will therefore continue my quest for full participation for all races and nationalities in this glorious ministry. May God speed the day when race and nationality are meaningless and faith in our Savior Jesus Christ is all in all.”
Gudina Tumsa of the Oromo ethnic group also was born in extreme economic poverty — in western Ethiopia in 1929, the same year as Martin Luther King and four years after Dickinson. He was martyred on July 28, 1979, at the hands of a brutalizing Marxist revolutionary government.
Candid rhetoric and cheerful fearlessness in the name of Jesus were among Tumsa’s traits. Educated at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., in the 1960s, he also was a student of the civil-rights movement in the United States.
Both Tumsa and Dickinson opted for a Martin Luther King-like strategy of identifying structural sin, mobilizing people of faith, and then working non-violently (which is not passivity) within human institutions — not to overthrow them, but to improve them gradually from within.
Upon his return to the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY), Tumsa rose quickly in leadership. This dynamically booming Lutheran church body, headquartered in Addis Ababa, embodies its name “Mekane Yesus,” which means in the Amharic language, “place of Jesus.” Its membership has grown from 65,000 members in 1959 to 2.5 million by 1999 (larger than the LCMS), to more than 5 million in 2009 (larger than the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America). Since 2009 alone, the EECMY has burgeoned by more than an additional half-million people.
Lutheranism is vibrant with a bright future on the African continent. There are twice as many Lutherans there as Lutherans on the continent of North America. As I’ve visited these churches I’ve been impressed by their ultimate zeal for the things of God, their brimming joy in the power and promises of the Gospel, their integration of mercy and witness (evidenced by the success of the Lutheran Malaria Initiative) and their willingness to suffer for their faith. Another early African church leader, Tertullian, was right: “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church” (Apologeticus, Chapter 50).
In the 1970s, Tumsa served as the general secretary of the EECMY. Refusing to bow down to the draconian political demands of the revolutionary government seeking to silence the church, he was arrested. Refusing to submit or recant, he was tortured. Refusing to flee from Ethiopia while he had a chance (like Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany) he was re-arrested and viciously murdered. Each refusal was predicated on his doctrinal conviction: that God’s justice in the world and God’s justifying act in Christ are inextricably linked.
Tumsa wrote: “The Gospel of Jesus Christ is God’s power to save everyone who believes it. It is the power that saves from eternal damnation, from economic exploitation, and from political oppression.”
How does the Gospel address not only the spiritual problem of damnation, but also this world’s problems of exploitation and oppression? Human injustice can destroy physical life, but the Gospel, as Tumsa adds, “is the only voice telling about a loving Father who gave his Son as a ransom for many. It tells about the forgiveness of sins and the resurrection of the body. It is the Good News to sinful humanity. … It is too powerful to be compromised by any social or political system.” By the courage the Gospel gives, justified Christians can and do — and must — stand against injustice and oppression.
Both Tumsa and Dickinson have been transferred from the Church Militant and rest gloriously in Jesus. Their prophetic voices are silent, but not silenced. Triumphantly, their legacies live because the Resurrected One lives; and because, as Martin Franzmann insistently reminded us, “the Word of the Lord grows,” the Spirit’s fission continues to gently generate a multiplicity of ways to serve in God’s church. His transcending work is to call, gather and enlighten all of God’s people as one, even in our wondrous diversity.
The Rev. Dr. John A. Nunes is president of Lutheran World Relief, Baltimore.
Posted Feb. 13, 2013