A few years ago a local United Way Director told me about a troubling conversation he had with his Presbyter, an official from the Presbyterian Church in the USA (PCUSA). The Presbyter guessed that the United Way Director, a faithful Presbyterian, must have a special fondness for the parable of the Good Samaritan. The United Way Director admitted that the story was especially poignant to him, given his line of work. The Presbyter said that the story made him wonder if the whole messy ordeal might have been avoided had the Samaritan and other locals lobbied their municipal governments to increase security on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem.
While this is just one anecdotal exchange, I think it demonstrates the mindset of leaders in the PCUSA church. A few weeks ago I wrote a piece for IRD about the long tradition of institutional activism in the PCUSA, which I believe has come at the expense of the sort of personal Christian hospitality that touches hearts.
As if to reaffirm my points, this week the PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness issued a statement regarding the events in Ferguson, Missouri. In response to the riots, PCUSA called for some concrete federal actions: gun control, affirmative action, and federal regulation of local police departments. PCUSA’s Director of Public Witness, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, exhorted Presbyterians to “recommit to the pursuit of and struggle for racial justice.” To do this, congregants were urged to heed the “collected discernment of the Spirit,” which he stated was best articulated in a 1999 PCUSA proclamation:
“Racism remains resilient and resurgent. While the social policies and pronouncements of denominations continue to emphasize inclusiveness and justice, these do not translate in the hearts and minds of Christians who participate in the electoral and political process. Christians are passive in the face of attacks on affirmative action and the adoption of regressive social policies at the local, state, and national levels. There is a growing awareness that a new understanding of racism is needed that takes into consideration the centrality of power in the institutionalization and perpetuation of racism. There is also an awareness that the methodologies that brought us to where we are will not take us where we need to go in the next century. If we are to build on past accomplishments, we must do a new analysis of racism within the current context of the nation. This will inform the direction we must take in the next century and provide guidance as to how we might get there.”
This “new understanding” of racism sounds like it was borrowed from Jacques Derrida’s postmodern critical theory, a philosophy that has become particularly popular in secular academic circles in the last few decades. There is a tidy, tautological appeal to this approach to discernment: If all power points to degenerate structures of oppression, the individual facts become less important. For example, the impossible question of whether a white cop harbors racist sentiments when he shoots a black man (which is unprovable unless the cop admits it) is not important if the structure already points to racism. In the postmodern worldview, the individual is just a cog in a larger racist machine, his will and actions colored by this racism, whether he acknowledges it or not. This theory posits that all institutions of power inherently manifest the bourgeois impulse toward self-preservation. With this moral framework, all unwarranted (and oftentimes even legally warranted) use of force—regardless of the intent of the individuals—can be seen as evidence of this insidious prejudice, which undergirds all power structures. In short, all violent acts of the State can be seen as self-fulfilling prophesies emanating from a rotten core.
Again, I don’t mean to disparage institutional activism per se. We all know that the achievements of the Civil Rights Era could never have been achieved without the defeat of Jim Crow laws. The danger is when the church’s institutional activism comes at the expense of personal attention to human suffering. The PCUSA’s response to the events in Ferguson are particularly troubling to me because of the way that the events unfolding there speak to a very traumatic personal experience of mine:
It was just a flesh wound—like the best action flicks I watched growing up. Of course the aftermath was much more complicated. The criminal who shot my father had also killed another cop who left behind a wife and two young children.
Given my personal experience with traumatizing violence, I find PCUSA’s response to Ferguson particularly shameful. Instead of confronting the more difficult problem of our society’s apathy to violence, the PCUSA has decided to lobby Congress—along with various advocacy groups, politicians, and even the President—in favor of legislation that would put Washington bureaucrats in charge of deciding what sort of weapons and armor local police departments can purchase.
If cops feel vulnerable in certain “dangerous” neighborhoods because they are ill-prepared, they will simply avoid those areas. This point is powerfully illustrated in the PovertyCure film project, an initiative of the Acton Institute, where I now work. In the documentary series, they travel to Argentina to speak with a city councilman, Marcos Hilding Ohlsson, who represents Buenos Aires’ largest slum, La Cava:
“A few years ago there were some really high crime rates in the area, in all of San Isidro. And many people blamed it on the people inside of La Cava. So government decided to put policemen, but they put policemen on the borders of La Cava. They go around the streets, but they don’t go inside. It is a sort of wall that they put. But it is actually a way of protecting the people that live outside La Cava from those that live in it. But they won’t protect the people that live inside it. [The residents of La Cava] are the ones that actually suffer the most insecurity of all. Because most of the people that live inside of it are people that are hardworking and want to have a better life and want to develop and want to send their kids to school. And they’re really struggling to have a better life.”
Argentina, a developed country, ought to be a cautionary tale of what could happen should the movement to “demilitarize” our police win the battle of public opinion—and actually become law.
If there is one thing I learned from the whole ordeal with my father, it was that the ubiquitous violence on our evening news—which our society shrugs off or, worse, uses as fodder for primetime television—is a crisis of human relationships, not laws. After getting shot, my father met with the parents of the young man who shot him. They were good people, as far as my dad could tell. They were surprised that their son was capable of the sort of brutal violence that still gives my dad nightmares.
As comforting as it might be to attribute this violence to racism, institutional oppression, or systematic inequalities, the truth is usually much more complicated and difficult: it involves the human heart. The church, throughout its history, has proven to be particularly well-suited to influence even the most hardened hearts. Unfortunately, PCUSA has chosen to abdicate their responsibility in this realm in favor of institutional activism. If we are not careful, the next casualty may be the Rule of Law.