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.