The Montana Freemen are racial extremists and are a part of the many groups that make up the "Christian Identity" movement that claims 20,000 followers, according to the Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Others involved in the movement include Aryan Nations, members of Christian Patriot groups, militia leaders and members, and independent churches and communities from coast to coast, such as the Church of Israel in Missouri and the Laporte Church of Christ in Colorado.
The Oklahoma City bombing tragedy drew the nation's attention to such groups. But most of us do not hear much about their racial extremism or misuse of the Bible to support their views. The extremists' theological agenda, the least publicized, is perhaps the most life-shaping.
Almost four years ago, I opened a letter from Rodney Skurdal, a leader of the Montana Freemen.
"I would like to welcome you to Roundup," he wrote. "What I need to know before I attend church, being that I was brought up as a Lutheran and baptized as such, is what you will be teaching as to our race ... I would be "honored" to attend a true church that finally teaches us (Israel/white race/Adam) the truth as to who we really are and our relationship with the other races, pursuant to the Word of God, the Holy Scriptures."
I wrote back, "Let's have coffee." We never did. Now he is incarcerated and awaiting trial along with the other Montana Freemen.
The "truth" of Christian Identity theology is centered on a two-seed theory of the origins of humankind, and the migration of the "lost tribes of Israel" to northwest Europe and the United States. Identity adherents claim that Adam and Eve had sexual relations and bore Abel (who was killed by Cain) and Seth whose descendants constitute the white race, the "true Israel." But, Identity adherents assert, Eve also had sexual relations with the serpent, or Satan. Their offspring was Cain who, upon leaving the garden of Eden, bore sinister offspring with inferior, pre-Adamic people. Their descendants are the present-day Jews and people of color. Some Identity groups believe that Cain's descendants, because of their evil blood, must be completely exterminated.
In short, Christian Identity adherents claim that the Bible is God's revelation concerning the races. This foundation informs their whole world view. Groups such as the Montana Freemen, Kingdom Identity Ministries in Arkansas, and Lord's Covenant Church of Arizona assert that only the first 10 articles of the U.S. Constitution are inspired by God and are valid, and that these apply exclusively to "organic citizens' or white "Christian" males. All others are 14th Amendment citizens whose rights can be revoked at any time.
The spreading of these perversions results in the creation of communities gathering in the Northwest and throughout the country in a kind of Noah's Ark fashion, heeding the urgent call to preserve the white race.
This "gospel," let it be known, is not the gospel proclaimed by the Apostle Paul: "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). God answered Paul's prayer, "My grace is sufficient for you ..." : (2 Corinthians 12:9). God never said, "Your race is sufficient for you."
As Christians, as Lutherans, we have the unique task of exposing the misuse of the Bible by those in the Christian Identity movement for their cause of creating a white "Christian" nation.
It isn't race, but forgiveness and adoption that set us right with God: "God sent his Son ... in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children" (Galatians 4:4-5).
Though we may share some of the social and political concerns of the racial extremist groups, we can handle those issues more responsibly when the "Christian Identity" theology is exposed.
I've found that it is not helpful, however, to argue the interpretation of particular Biblical texts. Be forewarned: You may not even get a word in edgewise with folks from racial extremist groups. If you are white and disagree with them, you are considered deceived and apathetic to the cause of the white race.
What we must do is return again and again to what is at the center of faith and life: the love and mercy of God for all people revealed in the crucified one who lives, Jesus Christ. With this focus, we can avoid arguing about the "two-seed" theory and, hopefully, change the direction of conversation.
We, too, are "extremists," but in a different way. We live claimed by, and are set free to witness to, the extreme love and mercy of God for all.
Racial extremist groups rooted in "Christian Identity" theology demonize their perceived enemies and call the white race to cleanse the nation. We are called to defend our brothers and sisters regardless of their race and to proclaim with compassion and clarity that it is God, through Christ, who cleanses all sin and ransoms "saints from every tribe and tongue and people and nation" (Revelation 5:9).
While, as a public minister, I am called to "go public" with the above issues, this has not been without risk. In February 1996, in response to my speaking out against "Christian Identity," a $100 billion lien was placed against me by the Montana Freemen and I was threatened with arrest.
Despite that, I was thankful for the 27-page lien's comprehensive explication of the Freemen's beliefs. As odd as it seems, a danger we face related to racial extremist groups is that we might not allow them to express their convictions. The Montana Freemen and other groups are free to believe that the white race is the true Israel. But because they speak does not mean that they must be heeded or that their voices will prevail. I hope, with a mighty hope, that theirs is not the only voice out there.
Jerry Walters, pastor of Zion Lutheran Church in Roundup, Mont., speaks and writes frequently about the misuse of Scripture by extremist groups. A version of this article appeared in The Lutheran magazine, the publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.