August 30, 2014

The Good Samaritan (Is a Lobbyist)

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:

A little over two years ago, my father, a cop in Mobile, AL, was shot in the line of duty.

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.

 


8 Responses to The Good Samaritan (Is a Lobbyist)

  1. MarcoPolo says:

    I’m sorry that your father was a victim to gun violence, but also happy to hear that he survived, although traumatized.

    Your area of study is vitally important to understanding today’s world, and I encourage you to further pursue it. However, I think the issue that the PCUSA is striving to make relevant, is that racial prejudice is still present within the hearts of many “privileged” white people, and sometimes (not ALL the time), the power aspect that comes with people with a badge, can be blinding to the social ills that come with being a minority.

    I think you’d be hard pressed to deny that there still exists a sense of superiority with some Caucasians, and as long as that exists, the black community will be subject to overbearing acts of power.

    My friends that are on the Police force feel vulnerable at times too, but vulnerability is something that our black brothers have almost always felt growing up in a country that shows little judiciousness in it’s sentencing guidelines for different racial groups.

    I have to admit, every time I see the word: ‘Lobbyist’, I shudder!

    • Peter Johnson says:

      Hi Marco. Thanks for your response! I hope that what you say about
      the PCUSA is true: that the Church truly wants to touch people’s hearts. (And not just try to end racism through state-sponsored coercive policies.)

      I would like to see the PCUSA answer this question: compare and contrast the institutional activism of the PCUSA during the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s and the work that we are doing today. The quote above says, in essence, that the Church needs new “methodologies” to fight a new understanding of racism. I’m not sure anyone has clearly articulated what this means for the Church.

      I suspect that part of the answer is in the demographic trends of the
      Church (PCUSA is getting older and continues to struggle to attract
      minorities). Maybe the lack of diversity in most PCUSA churches has led to the Church’s impersonal response to racial issues. Perhaps the institutional activism is all most PCUSA folks can think to do?

      • MarcoPolo says:

        Post note to the PCUSA position…

        It is likely that the older generational members of the PCUSA (my age), are expressing from their personal experience from the 50′ and 60’s, how minorities were treated, and how little has changed between the civil authorities and minorities, today?
        Whether a church group, or a civil-action group, their conscience must be expressed both vocally and legally.
        You can’t squelch old Hippies like myself….just sayin’.

        • Peter Johnson says:

          I went to public high school in Mobile, Alabama at a majority black school. I think it would be unfair to say “little has changed” between the 50s and 60s and today. At the very least it diminishes the important legacy of the Civil Rights pioneers in our country.

          But it’s true what you say about old counterculture types: they are vocal. I just hope my generation of counter-counterculture folks don’t leave the Church because we’re made to feel unwelcome participants in the conversation about the direction of our faith community.

          • MarcoPolo says:

            I’m comforted knowing that your acknowledgement of the progressive changes are apparent in schools today, versus the days when I graduated (1973).

            I spent most of my youth trying to get my father (who was born into the Presbyterian church in 1915), to understand that blacks in America deserved more than his generation allotted them, so I tend to be a tad reactionary when I think someone is being less than judicious about Race in America.
            My apologies to you, if I sounded defensive.

            You, are our country’s hope, and it seems by your knowledge and perspective that our world will be a better place for all to live.

            Keep up the good work!

          • Peter Johnson says:

            Thanks Marco. I am hopeful. Sounds like you are too.

  2. Peter Johnson says:

    Hi Marco. Thanks for your response. I hope that what you say about the PCUSA is true: that the Church truly wants to touch people’s hearts. (And not just try to end racism through state-sponsored coercive policies.)

    I would like to see the PCUSA answer this question: compare and contrast the institutional activism of the PCUSA during the Civil Rights Movement of the 50s and 60s and the work that we are doing today. The quote above says, in essence, that the Church needs new “methodologies” to fight a new understanding of racism. I’m not sure anyone has clearly articulated what this means for the Church.

    I suspect that part of the answer is in the demographic trends of the Church (PCUSA is getting older and continues to struggle to attract minorities). Maybe the lack of diversity in most PCUSA churches has led to the Church’s impersonal response to racial issues. Perhaps the institutional activism is all most PCUSA folks can think to do?

  3. RichardAubrey says:

    There is an aspect to white privilege which is rarely mentioned: If a white person kills a black person, that black person becomes hugely important. On the other hand, one of the hundreds shot in Chicago, a little girl named Heaven. She was seven years old, my granddaughter’s age. She was fleeing gang shootings and was killed as she fled.
    She, not being killed by a white cop, is nothing to these people, the aging hippies, the permanently outraged of the churches of the NCC (nobody goes to any more), the politicians, the race hustlers, the poverty pimps. She is nothing to the journalists. She is nothing. Because she is no use to the Movement. None of the Necessary Suspects can be blamed and those who can be blamed must not be blamed.
    So Heaven is nothing These people are despicable, disgusting.
    It was obvious with Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, half Hispanic and blacker than Homer Plessey was anointed an honorary white guy for the duration. It was necessary Martin be awarded the privilege.

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