Pastoral Does Not Mean Anemic: An Open Letter

To the Reverend Elizabeth Eaton,
Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America;

and the Reverend Bill Gafkjen,
Bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod,

Just two days ago, a Grand Jury in Louisville, KY, indicted Louisville Metro Police Department Detective Brent Hankison for his role in the 13 March 2020 murder of Breonna Taylor. That was not good news. Detective Hankison was indicted for wanton endangerment caused by firing bullets that struck the wall of a neighboring apartment, not for murdering Taylor. He will face trial only for some minor property damage and scaring white people.

This verdict is devastating. Two months passed before the LMPD investigation was completed. Hankison wasn’t fired for another month. And now, six months after Taylor’s murder, no charges will be filed. Six months of protests, some that turned violent, of pleas and calls and mailings to elected officials, of hoping and begging–an there will be no justice. To say that the Louisville community, especially the black community, is horrified and terrified is an understatement.

And then you released a Pastoral Letter. You exercised your roles as caretakers for and as speakers on behalf of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Hoping for words of comfort and sensitivity, I read your letter.

And my heart sank into my stomach.

The letter reads like it was written before the Grand Jury verdict was known. It reads that way because it takes no position. It reads that way because it doesn’t address the real pain, suffering, and terror part of our church is feeling because they’ve just been told, again, that their lives don’t matter, and that they can be indiscriminately killed by police who will face no consequences for their reckless behavior and wanton disregard of human life.

It addresses undefined “anger, violence, and injustice”, leaving whose anger, violence, and injustice up to interpretation. Is Breonna Taylor’s murder the violence? Is the attempt to hold Hankison accountable the injustice? It can be read either way, and the entire letter is like that. The letter is far more concerned with saying, “Let’s all calm down” than it is, “We’re sorry that, again, the black community suffers.” It would rather say, “Let’s all get along and talk” than “Let’s all get into the streets, protest, protect our black siblings in Christ, and offer aid to those suffering and in pain.”

It was a perfectly enlightened centrist letter written by and for a church that proclaims anti-racism with its mouth and then doesn’t take any real action, content to appear to be progressing without taking any meaningful steps.

I asked Bishop Gafkjen about the letter after you posted it.

Bishop, where do we go from here? This sounds an awful lot like what Jeremiah preaches against: “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, ‘Peace, peace’ when there is no peace.” It’s seeing the man beaten and robbed on the side of the road, feeling sorry for him, and then moving on without helping him. Or, in modern parlance, vapid “thoughts and prayers”.

This doesn’t move the church forward in either comforting our black siblings who are experiencing profound suffering and entire because of the Grand Jury’s decision, nor does it move the church forward in dismantling the racism embedded in the foundations of our institutions.

You are right in that the Grand Jury indictments, specifically the lack of indictments, has caused great stress and fear and anger in the church. I commend you for attempting to pastorally care for the church. Unfortunately, your letter doesn’t do that.

The letter fails to provide comfort and care because pastoral care is for those who are suffering and oppressed. The letter instead attempts to offer comfort to both oppressed and oppressors, naming the sin of “disunity” as more serious than the sin of racism. It holds the anger that white people feel when they are called out for our racism as equal to, or more important than, the anger that black people feel when they are murdered in their own homes without consequence.

Somewhere along the line, “pastoral” came to mean “anemic”. Weak. Soft. Gentle. And true pastoral care for the suffering often is. Comfort is an intimate expression that requires trust, vulnerability, and openness, and soft and gentle care is needed.

Pastoral care for the oppressors isn’t anemic. It’s sitting down with a married couple who are getting divorced because of abuse and getting the abuser to see what they are doing. It’s hearing the confession of a murderer and, assuring them of God’s forgiveness, convincing them to turn themselves in and even accompanying them through the criminal justice system. It’s telling a convicted sex offender that they are welcome to be a member of the faith community, but that certain restrictions will be put in place to ensure the safety of those around them.

It’s not saying, “Everything will be alright, we just need to be nice to each other.”

Today, Bishop Eaton released a video calling us all together as church, and to remind us that “we’re all in this together” (notwithstanding the very real reality that, in our church, we don’t share the burden of Breonna Taylor’s murder equally). In that video, you said we can’t call others “wrong”. And while that may be true in many cases of opinion, Bishop Eaton, I have to admit… I think you’re wrong.

Racism is wrong.
Murder is wrong.
Covering it up is wrong.
Failing to ensure justice for all, especially the oppressed, is wrong.

People in our church who flood Facebook with horrifically racist comments are wrong.

People in our church who will not call black pastors and deacons because of their race are wrong.

People in our church who refuse to worship when the church (poorly) celebrates Black History Month because singing that kind of music is “beneath them” are wrong.

People in our church who defund ethnic ministries and funnel that money to well-to-do suburban congregations are wrong.

Our callings as pastors, to our congregations, our synods, and our church, require us to care for our siblings in Christ, especially those in our care who are marginalized both inside and outside the church. And we must care for the oppressors, too–after all, self-care is vital to the health of individuals and groups.

But that pastoral care is not equal. It’s not the same. And trying to treat them as such in order to be as inoffensive to power as possible is not pastoral care at all. I hope you’ll reconsider the position taken in the letter you published.

To my black siblings in Christ:

I can only imagine the devastation and anguish you feel after the actions taken by the Grand Jury in Louisville two days ago. I can’t pretend to know what that feels like. I’m a white cis-bi/queer pastor serving in a comfortable neighborhood congregation here in Indianapolis.

We are connected through our baptisms by bonds that cannot be broken, thicker than blood, tighter than cords. Because I am your sibling, your pain and your suffering is my responsibility too. Of my bonds with oppression that have allowed me to stand silently by while you suffer and grieve, I repent. Of my reluctance to march and protest and make my voice heard, I repent. Of my willing engagement with the racism that flows through our church, I repent. Of my slowness in listening to the voices around me crying out for peace and justice, I repent.

Repentance is not just words. It is action. I’m taking my cues from Indy10 Black Lives Matter, FaithIndiana, and other groups in learning how to better proclaim the Gospel in word and deed to accompany you. I have so much to learn.

While my actions try to catch up as quickly as they can, I am praying. I am praying for the officers and officials involved in the death of Breonna Taylor and the injustice of the Grand Jury indictments, that their hard hearts will soften and the Gospel take root. I am praying for Breonna’s family and friends, that their families and friends have the strength to care for them. I am praying for my white siblings in Christ, who have been blinded by generations of privilege born of racism, and who need a new Pentecost to light them. I am praying that we can be forgiven.

And most of all, I am praying for you. I pray that you will find our church less willing to forget you and more willing to protect you. I pray that Holy Spirit wrap you in her arms and fend off the pawns of sin, death, evil, and the devil that seek your lives. And I pray that that day comes swiftly when God will abolish racism in our country in spite of our very best efforts to keep it alive and well.

You deserve so much more from your neighbors and from your church. You are sacred. You are loved. And may God forgive me and everyone like me who hasn’t shown it.

Your sibling in Christ,
Ken

Featured Image: “Protest For Breonna Taylor” by Fibonacci Blue is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

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