Religious institutions speak out on George Floyd’s murder, repent for past complicity, call for change

Police protect the Third Precinct. (file)

The President of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said most police officers “carry out their duties with honor”

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the anger over long-standing problems with police brutality has boiled over to the streets. It’s put the question of the police’s role in society squarely on the front burner. Some are pushing to abolish the police altogether.

In this deeply moral moment, religious communities are weighing in, issuing statements on Floyd’s murder.

Faith communities have played an important role in civil rights movements. Their voices could be powerful in pushing for greater police accountability. This blog will follow how they engage in this important work in the coming months.

What follows is a summary of some of the initial statements on Floyd’s murder, including links and short excerpts. For those of you who are part of one of these faith communities, this is an opportunity to push them to follow through on their commitments and then some.

This list is based on an Internet search and may not be complete. Please post links to statements we missed in the comment section below.

Chicago Avenue near where George Floyd was murdered.

Some faith community statements offer expressions of shock and anger over Floyd’s murder and calls to challenge racism in all its forms. Some statements have specific calls to action, including defunding the police, finding alternatives to calling the police, and funding front-line efforts to address police brutality.

Several denominations reiterate their past statements denouncing racism and white supremacy without connecting the dots: Those statements, and any follow up action, have failed to bring about change.

The American Friends Service Committee posted one of the strongest calls for change in a June 4 blog: 6 reasons why it’s time to defund the police:

We need real change. That’s why we must stop investing in police and incarceration and instead intentionally invest in alternative models that are centered in community and address the root causes of harm, in addition to making greater investments in schools, health care, and other human needs that keep our communities safe.

That same day, the AFSC newsroom ran a story: We Won’t Stop Until We Dismantle the Whole Racist System.

Perhaps no institutions play a more crucial role in upholding white supremacy today than the police and the criminal legal system. In cities and counties across the country, police encounters end the lives of people of color and trans and gender nonconforming people. …

An institution that justifies brutality and racism cannot be tolerated. Our failure to directly confront the brutality of the system has led to a president and an administration openly inciting police violence, threatening military force against protesters, and repeatedly using racist language and enacting racist policies.

Fence art.

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) issued a statement June 2 which encouraged people to stop calling police to fix every problem and start focusing more on eradicating anti-blackness. (Here their link to alternatives to calling the police.)

The UUA also called on members to:

  • “Support the uprising” and commit to combating “the violence of militarism and the police state”
  • Support the front line organizers providing leadership
  • Examine their own assumptions “about whose safety is protected by law enforcement.”
  • Start the work of building alternatives to policing.

UUA President Susan Frederick Gray wrote a special column directed at white Unitarians.

Uprisings are occurring across the country because police have never been “helpers” for most Black people in the United States, nor for most Indigenous people and people of color. As with so many experiences of inequity in this country, white supremacy shields white people from harm while teaching us to disbelieve the lived experience of our Black, brown, and Indigenous neighbors.

Flowers left for Floyd.

Bishop Brian N. Prior of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota and Bishop-elect Craig Loya issued a statement following Floyd’s murder. It urged members to call elected officials to demand justice, to donate to front-line organizations and George Floyd’s family; and to continue to learn more about racism and privilege. (Here is a list of their resources.)

Many denominations issued statements saying their core values called them to speak out against white supremacy and institutional racism, and confess and renounce the church’s own complicity for failing to speak up.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) issued a statement May 29 reaffirming its commitment to combat racism and white supremacy.

As the Conference of Bishops, we condemn the white supremacy that has led to the deaths of so many unarmed Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color in our country. We grieve with, pray for and stand in solidarity with the families and friends of all whose loved ones have been and continue to be victims of injustices run amok, racist violence and the insidious venom of white supremacy.

The Minneapolis Area Synod of the ELCA ran a column by Bishop Ann Svennungsen titled No Neutral Ground:

Neutrality isn’t really an option. According to Ibram Kendi, “there is no such thing as a nonracist or race-neutral policy. Every policy in every institution in every community in every nation is producing or sustaining either racial inequity or equity between racial groups” (emphasis mine). We can’t stand on the sidelines; sidelines don’t exist. We can’t just look on. Trying to look away is just another way to support the racial inequities developed in our country over centuries of racist policies and practices.

Bishop Bruce R. Ough of the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) issued a statement endorsed by the UMC Council of Bishops. It read in part:

Now, it is our responsibility as persons of faith, and particularly as followers of Jesus in the Methodist tradition, to address this pervasive pandemic of racism. …

We begin by acknowledging that racism is sin and antithetical to the gospel. We confess and denounce our own complicity. We take a stand against any and all expressions of racism and white supremacy, beginning with the racial, cultural, and class disparities in our state and country that are highlighted by the coronavirus pandemic. We sound the clarion call for the eradication of racism. We challenge governmental leaders who fan the flames of racial division for political gain.

Door art.

Elected leaders in the Presbyterian Church in America issued a lengthy statement on the “heinous” killings of Floyd and other black people at the hands of police, calling on members to repent and act.

In humility, we repent of our ongoing racial sins. We repent of past silence in the face of racial injustice. We repent of a negligent and willful failure to account for our unearned privilege or to surface the unconscious biases that move us to protect our comfort rather than risk speaking against racial injustice. We repent of hearts that are dull to the suffering of others.

Finally, we realize that merely issuing a statement is insufficient. We need to act, within the spheres where God has given us influence, in the interest of biblical justice for men and women of color.And above all, we will not be silent but will speak out when the bitter fruit of racial injustice rears its head in the systems, structures, churches, and individuals in our land.

The national officers of the United Church of Christ (UCC) called Floyd’s death “a lynching.” Rev. Shari Prestamon, Conference Minister for the Minnesota Conference of the UCC also spoke to the Christian church’s complicity:

We must unequivocally affirm that George Floyd’s life mattered. His black life mattered. He was a precious Child of God.

We must confess that the evil scourge of white supremacy, historically aided and abetted by the Christian Church and its self-avowed faithful, has pressed its full weight into the necks of black bodies for centuries and is still actively doing so.

We must lament our own complicity in systems that privilege many of us while those same systems from which we benefit oppress and kill communities of color. …

Fence art.

Pope Francis has commented on Floyd’s death several times, saying” “We cannot tolerate or turn a blind eye to racism and exclusion in any form and yet claim to defend the sacredness of every human life.”

Yet other Catholic leaders have issued some tone-deaf statements.

Archbishop José H. Gomez of Los Angeles, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Floyd’s death was “senseless and brutal,” a “sin that cries out to heaven for justice.” Yet Gomez failed to address the bigger issue of the day: Institutional racism within police departments that targets blacks, Indigenous and other people of color. Gomez said:

The cruelty and violence he [Floyd] suffered does not reflect on the majority of good men and women in law enforcement, who carry out their duties with honor. We know that. …

A U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops issued a statement saying a lot of the right things, but still had a clunker. It said the bishops were “broken-hearted, sickened, and outraged” at Floyd’s murder.

Then they called Floyd’s death “the latest wake-up call that needs to be answered by each of us in a spirit of determined conversion.” “Determined conversation” does not convey the urgency this moment calls for.

Following Floyd’s murder, Catholic Archbishop Bernard A. Hebda of St. Paul-Minneapolis said: “The sadness and pain are intense. Let us pray for comfort for his grieving family and friends, peace for a hurting community and prudence while the process moves forward.”

Hebda participated in a silent walking protest over Floyd’s death. He and other Catholic leaders have criticized the violent protests that took place in Minneapolis and other cities. According to a story in Catholic New York

“I certainly understand the anger people are feeling, especially since this isn’t the first time our community has experienced something like this,” he [Hebda] said. In the last five years, police were involved in the shooting deaths of two other black men: Jamar Clark in 2015 and Philando Castile in 2016.

However, even when people experience righteous anger and long for justice, they are still called to love their brothers and sisters, Archbishop Hebda said.

Hebda would have done well to include a specific call for police officers to love their black brothers and sisters, too.

UPDATES

  • Statement from the Mennonite Central Committee

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