A Message from Bishop Mark W. Holmerud

A Message from Bishop Mark W. Holmerud

In the past few days as our nation celebrated the 4th of July, three themes emerged for me about Independence Day:

  1. How COVID-19 affected the way this holiday was celebrated and ongoing concerns about the rapid spread of Coronavirus.
  2. How a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass almost 170 years ago has become a part of celebrating July 4th in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.
  3. How the founding of this nation, conceived in liberty with justice for all, applies to discussions in our congregations about the importance of a prophetic witness because the blessings of this liberty are not being shared equally.

COVID-19 Concerns:

I heard many news reporters offer the phrase “This is a July 4th like no other.” They were referring to how the COVID-19 pandemic limited the ability of people to gather for picnics and fireworks and parades. Some people being interviewed were complaining that government restrictions on gatherings were infringing on their First Amendment rights, that they shouldn’t be forced to wear masks in public, and that this is all a hoax meant to unseat the current occupant of The White House in the November elections.

I have little patience with those who believe this pandemic is not real and do not understand that the transmission of COVID-19 is dramatically reduced where masks and personal distancing are used. People’s lives are being endangered because of such choices. Sadly, it is now being demonstrated that rates of infection are rising dramatically in several states, especially in states where such restrictions were relaxed, or not enforced at all. Please, for the sake of ending this pandemic as soon as possible and protecting those most vulnerable among us – wear a mask!  If you haven’t already done so, please read the special message “Updated Guidelines for In Person Gatherings” that was emailed to our synod on Friday.

The 4th of July and the Black Lives Matter Movement:

This was also a “July 4th like no other” for another reason: I do not recall hearing as many references before to a speech given by Frederick Douglass in 1852 that was entitled, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” In many places around the country, this speech was read to remember the power of his words, which called the people of this country to understand the bitter irony of a celebration of freedom in a country that condoned slavery. Excerpts from his speech are below:

Fellow Citizens, I am not wanting in respect for the fathers of this republic. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were brave men. They were great men too — great enough to give fame to a great age. It does not often happen to a nation to raise, at one time, such a number of truly great men. The point from which I am compelled to view them is not, certainly, the most favorable; and yet I cannot contemplate their great deeds with less than admiration. They were statesmen, patriots and heroes, and for the good they did, and the principles they contended for, I will unite with you to honor their memory …

Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!

The entire speech can be found here.

Can it be that this year’s 4th of July was different because of the national outcry for justice following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others? Calls for an end to violence by police officers against people who are Black must continue. Changes in how police and sheriff’s departments operate and screen, train and monitor their officers are taking place because millions of people have gathered across our country to call for everyone to be able to fully realize the safety, freedom and justice that was the hope of this country’s founding. To cry out, “Black Lives Matter!” and “Remember their names” until these changes finally take place. Thank you for the ways you have added your voice to such calls for justice. Thank you for speaking out and to educate those who do not know or believe the reality of the great peril and fear many people of color experience at the hands of those who are called “to serve and protect” – the police.

Our prophetic calling:

Clearly, not everyone feels passionately that this is a time for change. I am especially grateful to the pastors and leaders of our congregations who are preaching and teaching about these justice issues as a biblical calling to stand with and for those who are oppressed. I also understand there are some who do not believe such conversations should happen in our churches (or in these times, in online worship and bible study). To those who are challenging their pastor for speaking out, I would remind all of us of the language of the Constitution and Bylaws of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:

7.31.12. Consistent with the faith and practice of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,
     a. Every ordained minister shall:
         1) preach the Word;
         2) administer the sacraments;
         3) conduct public worship;
         4) provide pastoral care;
         5) seek out and encourage qualified persons to prepare for the ministry of the Gospel;
         6) witness to the Kingdom of God in the community, in the nation, and abroad; and
         7) speak publicly to the world in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, calling for
             justice and proclaiming God’s love for the world.

I pray our congregations will be places where disagreements can be discussed in a way that is different from the divisive discourse that is happening in this country. Our congregations and ministries can lead by example as we pray, listen, and trust that our differences will not ultimately divide us. No, we are not all in agreement, but can we enter into disagreements first by seeing Christ in the person with whom we are speaking? As we move closer to the elections of the fall, can we listen in a way that isn’t preparing to counter what we are hearing, but truly hearing what the other person is saying out of their experience? And then, and only then, to offer from our hearts our understandings and experiences. And then to pray together. I leave you with this reminder that was part of an online devotional I read each morning:

“The church is political, but not partisan. We pray fervently for God’s will to be done regardless of which political party is in power. Our prayers for those we disagree with, as well as for those we support, change our hearts to see our leaders and political rivals as fellow members of God’s family. Our prayers help us humbly acknowledge that we are not better or more right than others, but that we are all God’s beloved and can show the gospel together through our loving, prophetic actions in the political realm.” 

Amen. May it be so.

Bp. Mark