- IntroductionRacialized Violence and the Churches’ Responsibility
The essays in this special issue of the Journal of Ecumenical Studies arose out of the work of the “Violence in an Age of Genocide” study group, part of the National Council of Churches Faith and Order Convening Table. In light of the proliferation of extrajudicial killings of people of color in the United States—Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and too many more to name—the majority of these essays address racialized violence against Black people in the U.S. Similarly, these essays are also often directed toward the “white church,” broadly defined, and its need to engage these issues more critically, both theologically and practically. As we reflected on these tragedies, however, another crisis began to form—or, rather, to enter a new stage—on America’s southern border as Latinx families continue to be separated, with frightened children held in makeshift internment camps. Therefore, a few essays also address the racialized violence associated with the U.S. immigration system.
We begin with Tony Kireopoulos’s essay. He asks a provocative question: Should the killing of Black persons in the U.S. be considered a slow genocide? Using the technical United Nations definition of the term and examining its use in the conflict over Palestine, Kireopoulos comes to the conclusion that genocide is, indeed, a helpful concept for understanding racialized violence in the U.S., even if it might not meet official definitions.
Matthew Lundberg’s contribution asks why white folks do not notice the reality of this slow genocide. He examines the mechanism at work in [End Page 1] our denial and self-deception. How can it be that racism is so obvious to one group of people but not to another? Identifying the philosophical and cultural causes of such epistemological failure, Lundberg promotes a theology of truth as a necessary component of the faithful life.
My own essay investigates what resources the Christian tradition might possess for making sense of the extrajudicial destruction of Black bodies. I settle on the theme of martyrdom and martyr veneration, encouraging white churches to recognize and honor the practices of protest and commemoration emerging out of the movement for Black lives as legitimate expressions of the martyr tradition to which we ought to attend.
Rebecca Cohen also attempts to provide a theological framework for understanding racism. She draws on the language of ritual purity to move the conversation away from frames of personal sin and individual morality. Her account provides a way to speak of racism as the structural sin that it is, in order to avoid being stymied by the question of who is or is not a good person.
While Cohen works to frame racism theologically, Doug Foster asks how we might conceive of racial justice in theological terms. In particular, he takes up the term “reconciliation.” This word is loaded. At first glance, it seems to be an obviously positive term. However, upon closer examination, it becomes unsatisfactory, as it implies a mutual guilt between parties as well as a pre-existing state of “conciliation” that, in the case of U.S. race relations, has never existed. Yet, as Foster argues, reconciliation is a central concept of the Christian faith, and we must carefully find a way to bring it to bear upon the struggle for racial justice.
James Thomas’s essay draws connections between the Black Lives Matter movement in the streets of Ferguson and the fight for freedom in Gaza. Sharing some of his own stories of traveling in Palestine, Thomas concludes that the two contexts, separated by so much physical distance, are united in the experience of oppression and the violence of police efforts to suppress freedom.
Our two final essays turn to the immigration crisis—“crisis,” here, understood to refer to the abuse of immigrants, especially Latinx immigrants. Matthew Shadle takes up the rhetoric of “legal” immigration, deconstructing the concept to show how it is a social construct whose goalposts are moveable according to cultural or political desires. He especially highlights how the meaningless terms “legal” and “illegal” are tools meant to [End Page 2] reinforce racial hierarchies. It...