Problems with white Christian racial reconciliation murals
July 9, 2020
activism / theology
Recently there’s been some conversation in Minneapolis about a mural done by some white Christians who want “racial reconciliation.” The mural shows a cop (some have said it’s supposed to be a Black cop, but certainly it looks like a white one, and ultimately it doesn’t matter) hugging a Black protestor. It’s called “Love Your Enemies.” The scene contains other protestors with gas masks, and police riot gear. You can read a bit more about the situation in this Star Tribune article.
I’ve seen the pictures of the mural all over social media in recent days, and it’s very bad in the way that most white (especially evangelical) efforts to deal with race without doing any deep work to get past whiteness are very bad. But what I didn’t realize until recently is that it was created as part of a larger art project on Lake Street in Minneapolis, run by a group called Source. In the past I used to interact them with whenever I would visit Minneapolis before living here. Its director has been a friend of mine for some time, although we don’t interact much these days. Our most recent conversation was a short one when we disagreed about the Minneapolis Uprising in early June.
I write this because I have had a relationship with Source and with Peter in the past, and while we’ve both moved in different directions since then, we have cared for each other, presumably we both still do care for each other, and I want to try to speak through that relationship. I think Source could do better, but not from the analysis they currently have or the goals they’ve articulated for a project like this. I have tried to write this with language that I think they could understand, although it has been a while since I was in the evangelical world. I leave things unsaid that I might have said in a different context, and say things that I might not have said, or in ways I might not have said them, in other contexts.
I also write this because I disagree with how reconciliation language and imagery are used, especially by white Christians (certainly it’s not only Christians who do this; it is part of our cultural discourse every time a police officer hugs a person, plays a sport with a person, distributes ice cream, or any other basic kindness in contrast to their overall harmful role in society). They are harmful and they need to be critiqued and Christians especially should hold ourselves accountable for this.
As an aside on this topic, I’ve saved various posts about this over the years. I was thinking about two of them in particular. In 2016, just after Philando Castile was killed and, around a Dallas protest in response, five police officers were tragically killed, my friend Ebony Johanna Adedayo wrote Your Vision of Racial Reconciliation is Inadequate. In 2017, Erna Kim Hackett wrote Why I Stopped Talking about Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking about White Supremacy. I was also thinking about my friend Mark’s Facebook post earlier today about this mural.
So I’m hoping to articulate the problems I see with the mural and the surrounding project Source took on, partly on as an individual organization acting in the ways it did, but more importantly as part of a bigger ecclesiological and societal whole that has the same problems. I’d also like to point to better ways they could move faithfully in the world.
- It doesn’t see racial injustice as systemic but as personal. That is, it’s between the cop (whether it’s Chief Arradondo of Minneapolis, another Black cop, a white cop or whoever else the cop might be in any given mural) and the protestor. If they can love each other as individuals, there’s no problem. I don’t get the impression that Source views other issues of injustice this way (and if it does I disagree with that as well), and I think that gives room to move differently about this issue. Racism isn’t primarily a personal issue any more than other issues Source might choose to engage. All justice issues have personal implications, but they are not addressed solely or even mainly in individual ways.
- It doesn’t see policing as systemically racist and unjust, regardless of people’s personal intentions. Chief Arradondo is not a bad dude. But that’s also not the point. His role as chief of police, as head of a violent system, is bigger than whatever he may intend.
- It’s focused on individuals and how they feel about each other rather than how they are impacting each other. Arradondo, again, is head of a system that has a 2020 budget of $193.3 million, and it gets more money every year. This doesn’t change based on whether he likes Black people in general, or Black protestors in particular, enough to hug them.
- It tries to get to reconciliation without telling the truth about, much less stopping, the harm that is happening. I think especially for Christians this is very key. It’s good that people want reconciliation and peace. But to seek reconciliation without telling the truth about policing and systemic racism, and also without stopping the violence of policing as a system, is not reconciliation. The Truth & Reconciliation processes in places like South Africa and Canada, though imperfect, are illustrative of how this works. Change in actions happens before there is space for people, especially people with power imbalance, to find healing of relationships, new relationships, etc.
- It lacks a power analysis between Black folks (in the mural’s case, Black protestors) and the police. The police have the power of state violence on their side, and protestors do not. Whatever their tactics are, whatever I might think of them, they’re not equal to the violence and power that the police have to use against people. This means, for me, that we don’t stand in the middle between two equal sides, we’re asked by the message of Jesus to stand with the people who don’t have the power to oppress.
- Usually this impetus for reconciliation comes from a place of silence in the face of systemic injustice. So in this case, for a lot of white Christians they start to care when there are riots but they didn’t care when police were killing, abusing, criminalizing, Black folks in the streets regularly. They didn’t show up for any of the previous injustices but now they want reconciliation.
These problems are very similar, in my view, to the way Christian pacifists have to engage the military, war, soldiers, and other parts of the military industrial complex. We can love soldiers as individuals, offer them paths out of the military whenever that’s possible, engage them as humans. But none of that changes the facts of the military system and the actions it engages in.
It reminds me of early churches who would accept soldiers as converts, but they’d have to leave the military. They didn’t just have to be nice soldiers. I know not all early churches practiced that way, but certainly early church fathers wrote that way. I believe we should treat police officers in a similar way, but it’s also much more demanding on us because while we don’t live in a war zone we do live in a city, like all US cities, where the system of policing is oriented against Black people, Indigenous people, immigrants, poor people, and so on as part of the broader system they fit within. That doesn’t mean police can’t individually do good things, just like soldiers in Iraq might build a house or whatever, but the systems are fundamentally unjust and their individual feelings of affection, if they have any, don’t change that.
There’s a lot of good work for people of faith to do in this context without offering a vision of reconciliation that doesn’t change the systems. I think Isaiah is out there doing good work, Center for Prophetic Imagination is doing good work, MARCH is doing good work, among other faith-rooted organizations from Christian traditions. But it requires a different stance than the one Source appears to be taking. I think it’s important that we have serious conversations about that.