Why churches must center power in conversations about race.

2020 has been a year mired in political and social unrest, an unreal and devastating pandemic, and perhaps most significantly, a year of high-profile cases of police brutality and murder. In May, George Floyd was murdered by ex-Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin, sparking massive protests, and after continued violent interactions with police, days of terrifying riots.

Though George Floyd’s murder, caught in real time, sparked the mass movement, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery’s deaths laid the groundwork. Breonna, a twenty-six-year-old EMT, was killed by police executing a no-knock warrant, and Ahmaud Arbery was killed by two white vigilantes while on a run. These were just a handful, if not the most visible, of the violent murders of Black Americans in 2020 and we ought not forget the names of those whose stories didn’t reach the public’s consciousness in the same way; Rayshard Brooks, Tony McDade, Priscilla Slater, Darius Tarver, and many more.

The combination of George Floyd’s murder being seen by nearly every citizen in the country, with the massive protests that followed, transformed the conversation about police brutality, racism, and the Black Lives Matter movement overnight. Suddenly, folks who were unwilling to discuss structural problems in our policing after the murder of Philando Castille were calling for a radical reimagining of law enforcement in the US.

However, in the last couple of months the support and backing of the movement has decreased, 12 points from June to September according to The Hill. This drop is particularly troubling because of the lack of real systemic change within our structures of policing and our legal system. There was, amid the grief, a short window of hope, where many of us felt that we were finally headed in a better direction.

In Minneapolis, City Council members committed to a radical reimagining of policing in the city. Serious reforms were introduced in the state legislature by long-time community organizations, bills and policies that seemed to have real potential. A newly vital movement for Black lives, now including suburbanites, Republicans, and faith communities felt immensely powerful and capable.

So, what happened?

Honestly, that’s a question for someone far wiser and more schooled in the political and social sciences than I. But I did notice something in the communities I belong to; a return to the idea that racism is primarily a psychological and emotional problem. The cries for police reform or for the complete reimagining of our policing and law enforcement systems turned into book groups, self-reflection, and the wanton calling out of individual racist thinking and language.

Do not misunderstand me, I believe fully that to tackle the racial inequities in our nation we must address the psychological and spiritual factors that contribute to their persistence. But in my opinion, these practices in isolation only serve to distract from larger structural questions and leave us feeling despondent in the face of ongoing injustice.

A quote from Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) has been swimming in my head since May:

“If a white man wants to lynch me, that’s his problem. If he’s got the power to lynch me, that’s my problem. Racism is not a question of attitude; it’s a question of power.”

This is, I think, the fundamental question for those of us who are white to be considering if we are truly interested in being trustworthy and effective allies. This is a particularly tricky idea in communities of faith. How will we think and act critically to challenge systems of power that continue to oppress people of color?

White mainline congregations and denominations, broadly, are far too quick to retreat from questions of power in relation to racial injustice, and to consider only the personal elements of racial oppression. We want to read the books that can explain to us the deep unconscious elements of our own personal bias. We want to read about the history of race in America. And we want to learn practices of individual decolonization.

Again, these are all good and holy things…as part of a larger, collective strategy for racial equity.

Faith communities must find the courage to address real questions of power at the congregational, city, and statewide levels. We must return to those questions of how we structure our ways of living and serving together, and finally upend those structures that continue to exclude and harm our neighbors of color.

We must remember that structures of power do not require cruel white supremacists to function in oppressive ways. The police don’t kill Black folk at a pace two and half times more than white folks because they are populated at every level by officers with corrupt and racist hearts. They disproportionately kill Black folk because the laws and the structure of policing are designed to do so. Black communities are not experiencing the stripping away of their voting rights because our politicians failed to read the latest Atlantic piece from Ta-Nahisi Coates. Voting rights are being stripped away because certain elected officials know their re-election efforts succeed more often if Black folks can’t vote. Our churches (here I mean those like my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) are not overwhelmingly white because we haven’t included enough African American spirituals in our liturgy. They are overwhelmingly white because our entire institution doesn’t have an imagination for supporting Black and Brown churches and leaders.

We must stop this fairy tale that racism is strictly an issue of the heart and begin to get real about the ways that racism is an issue of power. And church, we have a lot of power. The question now isn’t simply how will we use our power to make more compassionate white people, but must be focused on how we redistribute and focus our power towards the transformation of systems and institutions that perpetuate white supremacy, including our own.

In the ELCA, a demand for 32 million dollars in reparations by Rev. Lenny Duncan, has drawn significant attention to this question of structural power and prayerful response. While I do not support any effort to #defundchurchwide, I am grateful for the renewed energy around an important element of this church’s commitment to racial justice and for the tense conversation that most recently kicked it off. I am grateful as well that the ELCA, led by leaders of color, has been intentionally engaging this work for economic and structural change, within and without the Churchwide, synod, and congregational levels.

In the ELCA’s “Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent”, our church says, “An apology is only empty words and promises unless it is accompanied by action, which is grounded in prayer, education, and soul-searching repentance. We trust that God can make all things new.” As a part of this accompanying action, the ELCA committed 1:

  • To engage in anti-racism and racial justice work, work toward economic justice- including the study of reparations.
  • To work to address and end modern forms of slavery and human trafficking.

These are some baby steps towards a commitment to examine and act to address issues of power in our church. But they are only as powerful as our engagement throughout the church.

For congregations, this may mean examining and transforming our decision-making processes and the stewardship of our resources, as well as our leadership, both who we empower and the process for developing leaders. Some congregations have created funds for college and seminary students of color as an act of reparation. Some have raised funds to specifically support and highlight the work of BIPOC congregations and organizations in their communities. It is vital that we address the questions of power and race in our church.

But this focus must not stay only within the walls of our churches, but must follow us into the public square where, as citizens, Christians carry a particular kind of spiritual, moral, and grace-filled power. This isn’t just about voting for the “right” candidates, but about being clear about the church’s responsibility to speak for and amplify the voices of poor folks and people of color.

This means that we can talk about policing, law enforcement, and the prison system in our faith communities, because as people who follow Jesus, who was himself arrested, imprisoned, and became the victim of capital punishment, we have powerful ground from which to speak. This means that we can build power in our congregations, synods, and Church-bodies, and leverage that power in local and federal legislatures to reimagine systems that have historically oppressed BIPOC communities.

My hope is that the church will stretch itself beyond merely personal and internal action to challenge racism in our communities and our structures. Because if history has taught us anything, it’s that ideas and attitudes do not immediately translate into policy and action. We have a gift for doing the deep internal work that is required of a community committed to equity, but we must press ourselves to move into those spaces where we feel less comfortable. Where the truth about power, who has it and how we use it, can be honestly evaluated.

Despite everything, I believe in my church. I am committed to sticking it out with this denomination, this community of faith that I love. We can get real about power in our neighborhoods and in our churches, and we can pair that power lens with the spiritual strength we bring as the people of God. If we can do that than literally anything is possible.

*Photo by Max Bender on Unsplash

Originally published at https://nicholastangen.com on October 13, 2020.




Nicholas Tangen is a Lutheran, writer, & community organizer in Minneapolis, MN writing at the intersection of faith & social transformation. nicholastangen.com

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Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen

Nicholas Tangen is a Lutheran, writer, & community organizer in Minneapolis, MN writing at the intersection of faith & social transformation. nicholastangen.com

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