The following is adapted from a statement I originally authored for a release by ELCA Advocacy, the arm of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America working on issues of public policy and advocating for justice. As an ally with people who suffer oppressive systems, and particularly after the death of Jamar Clark, a young black man in North Minneapolis by the hands of the Minneapolis Police Department, ELCA Advocacy approached me to write a statement for them (which can be read here), but I feel compelled to add some depth to my published statement and invite others into a more developed conversation.
Being agitated is not the same as being offended. I write without the intention of offense, but very much with the intention of agitating.
Many Americans live in largely fragmented communities; wealth, poverty, and different ethnic & racial groups are concentrated into separate cities and neighborhoods. This physical divide makes pointing a finger at “the other” so much easier than holding a hand and walking together. Here in Minneapolis it is no different. The past few weeks, the moaning and grieving community of North Minneapolis has come together in peaceful protest to demand for accountability and justice within the justice system. As the story unfolds in the media, it is tempting to buy into the two-sided, black-and-white narrative being presented. And then it’s tempting to keep pointing a finger and dismiss “them” while remaining silent as domestic terrorists shoot and injure 5 protestors. Many are staying silent, because “we don’t have all the information.” The Lutheran congregation I am a part of– Redeemer Lutheran Church— is actively participating in protest and is organizing to provide firewood, warm clothing, warm food, and care for protestors who are experiencing the very real effects of trauma and distress. Many other congregations and church leaders are retreating into relative silence, perhaps in fear of offending the benefactors of the oppressive empirical system we live in- whether we realize it or not.
But even without all the particulars about Jamar Clark, his criminal history, or the release of video evidence from the night he was killed by a Minneapolis Police Officer, we as the ELCA have a voice that may be stronger than our silence. We know something about grace and reconciliation. We pride ourselves on showing up after natural disasters, and have the opportunity to show up after tragedies caused by human sin in our own neighborhoods. Our identity is rooted in the experience of being sinners and saints, all the time. And it’s time for us to leave what feels familiar and safe and show up. We can’t change flawed systems ourselves, but we can listen to and support those who are grieving, struggling, and afraid. We may not be able to topple oppressive systems (Jesus struggled with this too), but we can be allies with the oppressed. We can both support police and hold them accountable, just like we can both confront racism and work for reconciliation.
Asking for accountability and justice when it comes to police officers who have abused their power is not a wholesale dismissal of the police force, just like asking for accountability and justice when it comes to Catholic priests who have abused children is not a wholesale dismissal of the priesthood. I fear that yet again, the word “justice” will be perverted in defense of what may actually be a murder committed by a representative of a powerful, untouchable system.
My question– my challenge– is this: how can we get beyond the idea that allying with oppressed people and proclaiming along with the protestors that black lives do indeed matter is somehow a personal attack on each and every police officer? Is it possible to be against war, but not against those who volunteer to sign up for the military? Is it possible to dislike a song without hating all music?
As a white male who has struggled with my own challenges and life circumstances, I can also claim that my struggles have not necessarily been because of systemic oppression against the social groups to which I belong (white, male, heterosexual, middle-class, educated, yadda yadda). I would urge us all to give some thought to these issues that goes deeper than what the media’s narrative is spinning.