Union Presbyterian Seminary forum offers up challenges, ideas
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Panelists, some of them with firsthand accounts, discussed how Christians can respond to unjust policing during a Tuesday webinar hosted by two organizations affiliated with Union Presbyterian Seminary.
The Rev. Melanie C. Jones, a UPS instructor of ethics, theology and culture and the director of the Katie Geneva Cannon Center for Womanist Leadership, moderated the panel, which also featured:
- Lana Heath de Martinez, a 2016 UPS graduate and co-founder of Saint Solaris, a values-based agency that launched Santos En Virginia, a statewide education hub and bail and legal defense fund.
- Rev. Dr. Peter Wherry, pastor of Mayfield Memorial Missionary Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina and a former counselor in the Virginia Department of Corrections.
- Rev. Dr. Alex Evans, a 1987 UPS graduate and pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Virginia. He directs the Virginia Law Enforcement Assistance Program and volunteers as lead chaplain for the FBI’s Richmond Division.
- Dr. Pamela Lightsey, vice president of Academic and Student Affairs and associate professor of Constructive Theology at Meadville Lombard Theological School in Chicago.
“I believe we as a church can and must do better,” Martinez said, suggesting a process that includes turning back and recognizing the harm that’s been done to people of color, seeing what’s been broken, and continuing the process “until that which has been broken is made whole again.”
Christianity is complicit in the policing of Black, brown and Native American people, Lightsey said. The Bible itself “was the instrument utilized to keep Africans enslaved in America.” It was “used in ways that made white Christians comfortable with this evil and sinful institution. Let’s not hold Christianity as innocent, but complicit in what brought us to this day and time.”
Wherry called any attempt at justifying “dastardly public policy” through the Bible “a blood-red thread” that connects “the origins of Christianity in the African American context to deadly public policy” that has contributed to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others.
Asked by Jones how to convey to white, middle class congregations “the urgent need to address unjust policing,” Evans said he serves such a congregation. “People in my congregation are really aware of the significance of these days,” he said. The “horrific” images of George Floyd’s killing and news of Taylor’s death “remind us we have a lot of work to do related to our culture, and police brutality is symptomatic of that.” Most worshipers at Second Presbyterian Church “are totally open to this conversation, but we have a lot of work to do in the broader culture,” he said.
“Pastors need to be in touch with their own sense of humanity to lead those conversations,” Lightsey said. “If ever there was a time to cry out and spare not, now is the time to do that, even if it means putting one’s livelihood on the line.”
Those conversations, she added, “are a comfort zone for many white Americans, but they’re a luxury Black people don’t have.”
To the question of whether police reform is possible without addressing gun proliferation, Wherry recalled the time he was stranded in an airport on the day of President Barack Obama’s inauguration — Jan. 20, 2009. Also watching the televised ceremony were two white men who discussed, in voices loud enough for Wherry to hear them, how they were stockpiling weapons.
Martinez recounted how she had been overrun by police responding to a small number of peaceful protesters. The police response included tanks, helicopters and “officers with their fingers on the trigger.” Some were “actively provoking confrontation” while others “were blocking our videotaping and telling us they would arrest us all,” even though protesters had congregated “where we had been told we were allowed to be.” The police response included rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and flash bombs, she said. “This is a violent culture and agency,” she said.
Evans said he’s experienced policing differently.
“My own experience is with police who ran into Virginia Tech in the face of an active shooter, police going to Sandy Hook to stop the killing of five-year-olds,” he said. “They are trying to stem the tide of violence, dealing with crazy people trying to kill lots of people.”
“I want to hold out the nuances between ‘all police are bad’ and our culture that has people going into lecture halls and elementary schools and shooting people,” Evans said. “The question is, ‘What are faithful people going to do?’ I think they are called to be with the hurting, to bring a garland of hope and work for justice. We have definite problems in our culture, and you can’t excuse the things that are happening. But we also have a lot of things happening that are going to need our best gifts to reform a world polluted by people shooting each other.”
Wherry told Evans he has “a lot of respect for your experience,” but “this cannot change … until white people of goodwill stop doing nothing.”
“You cannot deny the actions of police are heroic, but 40 million Americans (the nation’s Black population) experience micro aggression and measurable anxiety from traumatic experiences,” he said, including the police response Martinez described. “We need our white family to realize these complaints are real and are not excusable by a few good acts,” he said, adding that the window is now open to change the ways police departments operate.
“I think we have the attention of every police department in the country,” Evans responded. “I know they’re listening in Richmond. I’ve never seen people considering citizen review boards and breaking the power of police unions like they are now.”
Jones noted that from 2014-19, 6,557 people died in police custody. Twenty-five percent of them were Black. “They represent families and communities whose lives ought to have mattered to us,” she said. The “I can’t breathe” slogan used during protests across the country is part of “the moral imperative for the church to release, repent and repair what is broken. I hope we can reimagine a better future.”
A panel next week will attempt just that. The topic is “Reimagining community and public safety.”
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Categories: Racial Justice, Seminaries
Tags: how can christians respond to unjust policing, katie geneva cannon center for womanist leadership, lana heath de martinez, rev. dr. alex evans, rev. dr. peter wherry, rev. melanie c. jones, second presbyterian church richmond virginia, Union Presbyterian Seminary
Ministries: Theological Education, Gender, Racial and Intercultural Justice