Series editor’s note: Throughout 2024, “Deeper understandings” will feature teaching scholars of the ELCA reflecting on the many ways that Lutheran theology makes a difference for our daily lives. —Kristin Johnston Largen, president of Wartburg Theological Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa, on behalf of the ELCA’s seminaries

Before being called to serve as rector and dean of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C., I lived or worked among churches in 43 countries on six continents across the Lutheran World Federation (LWF). One of those places was among the Lutheran Church of Senegal. A predominately Muslim country, Senegal is made up of people from five ethnic groups, each with a distinct language and culture. Historically the Senegambian people have maintained ethnic and interreligious peace by telling stories of the ways they are all related.

One story that is often repeated concerns sisters who married into different tribes. One day, harvesting tamarind, each laid her baby at the base of a tree and climbed up it to pick the fruit. Hearing a lion roar, the mothers climbed down the tree, took their babies and ran home. Days later each realized that she had taken the other’s child. Today their descendants remember these ancestors nursed by their “other mother” and strive to reconcile their diversity and maintain unity in a bond of peace.

Stories like this provide ways for us to nurture a sense of belonging with the cultural “other.” They bridge the gap between peoples by helping resist narratives of division and providing hope for reconciled diversity.

When relationships, societies, institutions and ecologies are being pulled apart by the centrifugal forces of our age, what are we to say about these things?

In my role within the LWF Department for Theology, Mission and Justice, I was blessed to engage theological questions that lie at the heart of the joys, challenges, blessings and anxieties across the global church. As most of us in the United States have experienced, the unity of congregations is straining under the weight of partisan positions.

Communities continue to be divided along generational racial lines. Civic organizations meant to maintain peace and promote human dignity are being torn apart by national or economic self-interest. Ecosystems are disintegrating because habitats that support biodiversity are disappearing. When relationships, societies, institutions and ecologies are being pulled apart by the centrifugal forces of our age, what are we to say about these things?

Martin Luther spoke of sin as the state of being turned in on the self. Genesis describes the “fall” as a turning away from our relationship to each other to focus on the individual self. That egocentric focus introduces shame into the human experience. And shame leads to isolation and violence that separate human beings from one another, from the land, from animals and, ultimately, from the Divine.

Being turned in upon ourselves takes the form of “othering” our neighbor. Someone who belongs to a different race, gender, religion or culture, or a nonhuman creature, becomes the “other”—someone “alien,” someone strange and suspicious. “Othering” becomes a barrier to belonging and separates what was meant to be held in harmony.

A fresh vision

In 2023 the LWF chose the theme “One Body, One Spirit, One Hope” for its 13th Assembly. Drawn from Ephesians 4:4, the theme speaks to the unity of body and spirit, the integral dignity of created bodies, the life-giving diversity of ecological and social bodies, the baptismal unity that reconciles diversity in the body of Christ and the hope we proclaim for the reconciliation of all that God has made.

The gift and promise revealed to us in Christ Jesus is the source of our hope in the cosmic reconciliation of all that has been divided by the forces of our age. The world fractures along lines of race, gender, culture, class, economy, geopolitics and species. But God’s mission is to transform broken relationships into a just and holistic balance that sustains life and peace for people and the planet.

Paul writes to the Corinthians that this ministry of reconciliation begun in Christ Jesus is entrusted to the church (2 Corinthians 5:18-20). Lutheran confessional writings understand the administration the gift and promise found in Word and Sacraments as a means of participating in this ministry of reconciliation. Our diversity is reconciled not through our strength but through the gospel of Jesus Christ.

God’s mission is to transform broken relationships into a just and holistic balance that sustains life and peace for people and the planet.

In a time of increasing polarization, the gospel invites and empowers us to engage in the ministry of creating radical and countercultural spaces of grace that can reconcile diversity in the Spirit of the Triune God, whose essence is reconciling love.

Among the theological gifts of our Lutheran tradition for a time such as this (theology of the cross, law and gospel, the priesthood of the baptized, the real presence of Christ and goodness, beauty and truth hidden under the sign of the opposite), I encourage us to revisit the radical simplicity of the church as a community of Word and Sacrament. In times of shrinking democratic spaces and polarization of civil society, the church can embody the kind of reconciled diversity that will be the healing of the nations.

Where discourses of our day interpret difference as division, the gospel equips us with fresh vision. The good news of reconciliation lifts our gaze to see ever-expanding circles of belonging. Being found in the heart of the Triune God, who is a dance of diversity in perfect love, offers us a new story of belonging to our local community, to the global body of Christ across God’s garden, to the land, to our co-creatures and to the whole inhabited Earth. How is your congregation embodying the story of “One Body, One Spirit, One Hope” in your corner of God’s garden?

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Chad Rimmer
Chad Rimmer is rector and dean of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, Columbia, S.C.

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