Deanna Thompson: Uncomfortable Grace, Anti-Racism, and Lutheran Tradition at St. Olaf

Photo taken by Deanna Thompson at the lynching memorial in Duluth, MN

Photo taken by Deanna Thompson at the lynching memorial in Duluth, MN

This blog, written by Deanna A. Thompson of St. Olaf College’s Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community (Northfield, Minn.), exemplifies one Lutheran institution’s commitment to anti-racism work. Nourished by Lutheran tradition, the Lutheran Center engages people of all backgrounds and beliefs in deep exploration of core commitments and life choices in ways that foster inclusive community, both within and beyond St. Olaf College.

The truth is centuries old: racism is embedded deep within institutions across the United States, including St. Olaf College. The awful murder in May of George Floyd has been a catalyst to name, confront, and work to finally and belatedly overcome the many legacies of harm against Black and Brown children of God. St. Olaf is joining in these efforts, embarking on a new time of reckoning with the structures of racism in our culture, policies, and practices.

The summer brought with it the creation of several groups of faculty, staff, and students dedicated to the work of anti-racism, along with a commitment by the administration to implement ongoing anti-racism training at all levels of the college. The need for this work is as pressing as ever; we need look no further than last week’s 7 Feet for 7 Shots event, as BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) students gave voice both to their shared experiences of racism and injustice here on the Hill and their visions for how to move forward. Amid the work of identifying racist structures and building anti-racist ones in their place, it is important to consider how St. Olaf’s commitment to be “nourished by Lutheran tradition” factors into both the structures we have and the structures we will build.

During his visit to St. Olaf in February, Black Lutheran pastor Rev. Lenny Duncan challenged us to embrace a vision of Lutheran identity that actively counters those structures:

Standing in the tradition of Martin Luther’s radical challenge to the corrupt systems of his own day, Rev. Duncan called on St. Olaf, in good Lutheran fashion, to name the evil in our midst and to confess and repent for the harm that’s been perpetuated through the structural racism that exists on our campus.

While many of us who are white may not see ourselves as agents of racism that harms BIPOC members of the St. Olaf community, Rev. Duncan helps us understand that “white supremacy doesn’t need active racists to function.”

These words should push all of us, but especially those of us who are white, to become more aware of the systems that have benefitted us but harmed the BIPOC members of our community. It also means that those of us in leadership positions at the college need to listen with renewed receptivity to the voices of BIPOC students, faculty, and staff as they name the harmful aspects of our structures, and find ways, with support of our Lutheran heritage, to publicly confess and repent of the harms that have been caused to members of our own community.

“Grace is free. But loving the neighbor has a high cost,” writes Duncan.

At its best, Lutheran tradition helps St. Olaf envision a way forward that doesn’t move immediately toward calls for reconciliation because the reckoning is uncomfortable.

Informed by a Lutheran vision of reform, the Lutheran Center joins many other parts of St. Olaf’s campus in focusing on anti-racism work. Faculty and staff are invited to join a fall discussion group co-led by Bruce King, Vice President for Equity and Inclusion, and me on Dialogues On: Race (Sparkhouse, 2018) a collection of essays by BIPOC clergy and theologians who name the structural racism in Christian history, theology, and practice and envision ways forward toward an anti-racist future. The Lutheran Center’s fall Symposium on September 24 will feature Asian American biblical scholar, pastor, and 2013 St. Olaf alum Kristofer Coffman who will lead participants in a discussion about the use and abuse of the Bible in U.S. race relations. And later this fall, Eboo Patel, author of Acts of Faith and director of the Interfaith Youth Core, will address the intersections of race and religion, not just in our national landscape but with administrators, faculty, staff, and students on how those identities intersect and are embodied at St. Olaf and how we might become better at honoring them in our life together.

To become an anti-racist institution St. Olaf will need to summon all the resources possible to carry out necessary reforms.

May we also embrace the uncomfortable grace witnessed to in Lutheran tradition to forge a path forward.


Deanna A. Thompson

Dr. Deanna A. Thompson is Director of the Lutheran Center for Faith, Values, and Community and Martin E. Marty Regents Chair in Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Before moving to St. Olaf, Thompson taught religion for over two decades at Hamline University in St. Paul, MN. Thompson is a sought-after speaker on topics ranging from Martin Luther and feminism to the intersections of cancer, trauma, and faith, and what it means to be the church in the digital age. She is author of five books, including Crossing the Divide: Luther, Feminism, and the Cross; The Virtual Body of Christ in a Suffering World; and most recently, Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma, and Ministry.


Used with permission. Originally posted on Church Anew, a ministry of St. Andrew Lutheran Church in Eden Prairie, MN.

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