Luke Ellinger

Jun 2, 2020

14 min read

An Open Letter to My Father

“I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner. July 17, 2014.
“I can’t breathe.” George Floyd. May 25, 2020.

Dad, you asked me to promise that I would quit smoking when you offered to help me with the purchase of the property where I run my non-profit and where I reside, the same property from the comfort of which I now type these words. I’m breaking my promise. I need something else from you. More than financial aid or support, I need your ear. I need you to listen. I’m breaking my promise because the promise of property no longer holds, as devastated protestors set fire to the country chanting the words, “I can’t breathe.” The sound of this chant rings in my ears after walking the streets of my city all afternoon, chanting along with my peers. This has become the refrain of a generation. I’m breaking my promise because I’m distraught, and I need a damn cigarette.

Photo: Matt Dunham / Associated Press

I know your business is the church and your book is the Bible, but I need you to put down that book for just a few moments. I need you to put down your guard. I am writing this with love believing that you will receive it in love and humility, and with a willingness to respond with urgency. What I am going to say may be hard for you to hear. Please try to sit with that discomfort. Please try not to be defensive. Please. The words “I can’t breathe” are not an invitation to reiterate one’s preconceived beliefs. You may not have the answers, and that is OK. The refrain “I can’t breathe” is a charge to think anew, to produce new conditions for breath, for life, for actual and spiritual respiration. It is a moment to produce abolition against the narratives, behaviors and systems that have sustained violence against our neighbors since the founding of the United States. Instead of recoiling in disapproval at the violence of the protests, and instead of listing the things we are already doing to support communities of color, why not take this as an opportunity to truly examine ourselves? To truly question the conditions of our social and economic privileges, to question the entire configuration of a society that could produce tragic events like this. “I can’t breathe” expresses the asphyxiation of communities of color around the world. “I can’t breathe” expresses the slow suffocation of a generation gasping for breathable air, a livable future for our children, a future without exploitation, violence, alienation, fear. You’re a leader of a religious congregation. You have a platform that gives you influence in a community that has wealth and power, and so you have a responsibility. I’m asking you to listen. This is about life. Respiration. Inhale. Exhale.

“I can’t breathe.”

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii / Star Tribune

You raised me according to the core tenets of Christian belief: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” for starters. And I left the church through the very doors of conviction crafted by its own creed, for whatever love I encountered in the church was overshadowed by the contradictions between the gospel of love and a politics of fear. What I discovered in the church was silence, judgment and control, all set against the backdrop of an affluent, sprawling suburban landscape. Your community called me out when I was a teenager for exploring my sexuality—what they deemed to be a grave moral transgression. Now I am calling your community in to a dialogue on institutional racism. I am calling all Christians up to a radical form of love: action. Consider it a kind of karmic tough love :) This is not written with an ounce of bitterness, but with a belief in the best that Christianity has to offer. I believe that Christianity demands social justice. So I am writing to plead for action in the name of justice from those who profess a gospel of love. I want to dialogue with you about systemic racism, white privilege and the role our communities play in reproducing these systems of violence. I am writing to you as a son and a friend, but more importantly as a fellow white American with immense privilege and a public platform, and so, with the same responsibility as you. I am not simply pointing the finger, for I am responsible too. Raising issues like this with family can risk straining relationships, causing defensive reactions or broken ties. I am writing to you because I know our relationship can handle it. And if we are not a little uncomfortable, a little shaken up in our white comfort, then we are the problem, and nothing will change.

My personal experience is not the point, and neither is this specifically about your church. There are many of us, those who were told stories about Love and Forgiveness and Sacrifice but found little evidence of its practice. Disillusioned and disappointed by our parents’ religion, we fled to the cities in search of kindred spirits likewise bereft of their religious foundations but stuck with the insatiable ache for Justice. Yet even the most optimistic spirit will flounder in the face of such immense systems of violence and their systematic denial by the ones who preach Love. How can we not reach for a cigarette or take to the streets in furious protest when the ones who told us that “God is love” and that this love is for everyone are the same people who willfully elected a president who breathes violence, hate, slander and greed. Let’s be clear. The constant onslaught of state-sponsored racist violence is no accident. The literal personification of racist hostility holds the highest office, and no small thanks to the votes of affluent, white evangelicals. We were told that God is Love, but we have learned that he is White, he is Male, he is Republican, Anti-Immigration, Tax-Averse, Land-Lording, Gun-Toting, Investment-Hedging, Resource-Extracting, Profiteering, Etc. These are the values that underlie the illusion of American prosperity. I learned, though I was on the beneficiary side of this fact, that Capital, not Love, is the American god, the idol of faith and source of righteous fear that drives this country. And in the profound dissonance between declaring itself “pro-life” while sponsoring murderous politicians that vow to prioritize their tax bracket, the suburban white evangelical church taught me the meaning of moral hypocrisy.

Photo: Patrick Semansky / Associated Press

And now politicians and spokespersons for American civility try to shift the lens, to construe the protestors as reckless rioters aimed at destroying society and interrupting the innocent businesses that took so long to build. Please do not let this seduce you. Please do not focus on the destruction of property when the point is the destruction of black lives. Don’t you see how this completely misses the point? Don’t you see how this plays right into the hands of a reactionary media and racist government? Please do not take the easy way out. This is not an instance of reckless rioting or mindless rage. It is an intentional and literal deconstruction of the historical link between property and oppression. You asked me how I would feel if the protestors burned down my home. The very real truth is that I have no more right to dwell in this property than they do to set it aflame. The very real truth is that whiteness is itself grounded in the act of ownership, the access to wealth and property that produces the violent exclusion of minorities, the displacement of indigenous peoples, the ghettoization of the inner city and the gentrification of neighborhoods that white people will occupy, pushing communities of color further out. This is the work of systemic racism. It is not simply a question of individual acts of hate. Let’s not forget that the history of private property is the history of slavery. Looting is not theft, because you cannot steal what was stolen from you to begin with. The real crime is the violence of the state. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” was the slogan of Miami police chief Walter Headley’s notorious 1967 war against black criminals. It’s no accident that Trump echoed these words in his latest Twitter provocation. This is a racial genocide aimed to devalue and destroy black life in order to safeguard white property and capital. Think about it: the State will arrest thousands of protestors to avoid arresting and convicting four white cops. Just four. They will deploy the national guard and the military and start a civil war but they won’t bring murderous cops to justice. Let’s sit with that for a second.

Why was Eric Garner selling cigarettes on the street in the first place? Or why did George Floyd allegedly forge a 20 dollar bill? The gospel will not explain how racial capitalism produces unemployment disproportionately for people of color, driving them toward economic activities that are deemed illegal by a criminal justice system established by and for the protection of white property owners. The gospel does not explain the loophole in the 13th amendment that essentially allowed for the continuation of slavery through the criminalization of communities of color and their mass incarceration in privately owned, for-profit prisons. The bible will not tell you how these prisoners are exploited for free labor by corporations like McDonalds, Whole Foods, AT&T, and so many others, while we enjoy the products of these companies made “inexpensive” by this system of racial oppression. We need to put down the bible for just a second. It is time to educate ourselves so that we can pursue informed action. The Christian doctrine of a sinful human nature will not suffice to explain these systems. We cannot pin this on the evil actions of a few evil men. This is the time for serious, deep reflection on the configurations of power that support our lives and subjugate others. This is the time for making hard decisions to divest wealth and privilege so that we can truly, for once, make real steps toward social justice. This is about an economic system of racial oppression that directly benefits white people. Theological prescriptions will only get you so far.

Let’s step back even further. We need to start by acknowledging history. Let’s not forget that the settlers came with the gospel in one hand and a sword in the other, that the history of enslavement and colonial genocide goes hand in hand with the history of Christendom. Throughout history the spreading of the gospel and the planting of the flag have been one and the same. Missionaries were the vanguard of indigenous land dispossession. Christian settlers called for the salvation of unbelievers, meanwhile building nations with captive slave labor. The first and quintessential commodity was the black body, sold on the auction blocks of chattel slavery. In a religion more deeply concerned with the soul than the body, white Christians have managed to commit the most horrifically cruel violence against the body, the black body and the body of the earth. When salvation is sought in the next life, it doesn’t matter what happens to this life, or those black lives. White evangelical Americans are trapped in a history that they do not understand. And they don’t understand it because they don’t acknowledge it, because they don’t talk about it. That history is the history of complicity between religion and racial capitalism, between Christianity and power.

“Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you.
Depart from me, you who work iniquity.”

As long as white evangelicals do not go to the trouble of publicly acknowledging this history, publicly denouncing a politics of hate and actively deconstructing structures of racism — of inequality, of segregation, closed borders, separated families, gun violence, mass incarceration, prison labor exploitation and the infringement of civil rights — as long as white evangelicals continue to prioritize their tax bracket at the expense of human lives, my experience and my suspicion only seems to be confirmed: that there really was no love in the church. There was fear, a mask of fear that served to protect a community of privilege built on silence, blindness and self-protection. I don’t want to believe this. But the church has a credibility problem. We need to see love in action.

This is my plea. End the silence.

Begin with acknowledgment. Invite the discomfort of reckoning with historical and present forms of racial violence and our complicity in these systems. This should feel uncomfortable. White folks need to embrace a healthy sense of collective shame. The history of the United States and of Christianity is shameful. But it cannot stop there. This shame can turn to righteous anger, as you described in your video last week, but shame and anger need to be channeled into education and action. “People find it very difficult to act on what they know,” James Baldwin wrote to his young nephew in 1962. “To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.” This is the crucial point. We have to let down our defenses. We have to be willing to loosen our grip on the comfortable anchors of our identity, the privileges of wealth and property and power. We have to be willing to make real sacrifices. And Christianity teaches nothing if not the value of selfless sacrifice in defense of the oppressed and marginalized.

I’m sorry for breaking my promise. But I need this cigarette. Maybe this is my way of making tangible that slow suffocation of our brothers and sisters, of my generation, of this planet. This is my way of managing the anxiety of responsibility, and the distance between my values and the actual state of the world. This is my way of staving off the slow death of nihilistic depression that grows like a cancer amongst my peers, the torpor and spiritual malaise that spreads like a frost over the eyes after each new revelation of police brutality, racist violence, school shootings, the constant renewal of misogynist aggression or the onslaught of bigoted tweets from a toddler of a president.

So I will make you a new promise. I will quit smoking when black people stop getting murdered. I will quit smoking when white Christians stop voting for murderous bigots like Trump. I will quit smoking when justice is served for George Floyd.

This is the decisive moment. If you want to help us get there, here is a list of practical things you can do in your community right now:

1. First of all, your congregation is wealthy. It is time to align this wealth with the New Testament’s call for social justice. Redistributing wealth in the fight for the oppressed and marginalized is a profound gesture of faith and sacrifice, and is ultimately Christlike. Urge your congregation to donate money to organizations that are actively fighting against systemic racism in your city. Here are some ideas: your local Black Lives Matter chapter, the National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls, the NAACP, Southern Poverty Law Center, United Negro College Fund, Black Youth Project 100, Color of Change, The Sentencing Project, Families against Mandatory Minimums, A New Way of Life, and Dream Defenders.

2. Bring black speakers into your community to speak to your congregation who will call them up to an active engagement with their city’s systems of racism. Use your platform to center black voices.

3. Ask the people of color in your community what they need from you. Ask how you can support them. Listen. Respond. Let them define the program.

4. Educate yourself and your community about black history and systemic racism. Organize reading groups to read books by black authors, for example: Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad, or How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. Hold a public screening of the documentary I Am Not Your Negro to learn more about the civil rights movement and its ongoing struggle, or the film 13th that documents the history of criminalization and mass incarceration of people of color in the US. Talk publicly about the historical links between racism, colonialism and Christianity.

5. Are all of your elders white? What about other key leadership positions? Insist on having a meaningful number of minorities in leadership positions. Not just one or two.

6. Rethink the $5 million extension that you are planning to build onto your church facility. How does your planning accommodate communities of color? Have you consulted with members and leaders from communities of color? What do they need? Can this money be used to create a facility that would provide opportunities for minorities, job training, tutoring, etc.?

Here is a list of things not to do, absolutely, under any circumstances (I’m serious):

1. Do not reproduce the narrative that violent protestors are the problem. The violence of this uprising is equal to the magnitude of the oppression it protests. The fact is some of the people destroying property and looting stores are white people, and the police and racist media would love to have them do it, even egg them on, so that they can twist the narrative and shift the spotlight to the rioting, away from police brutality and systemic racism. Do not participate in this narrative. It is not your place to decide when, where and how black people should protest their systemic oppression.

2. Don’t refer to the retaliation of protesters as “discrimination against whites.” The dominant class in a system of oppression cannot be discriminated against. There may be acts of violence against white property or white people, but they are often a matter of survival in the face of state violence, and these acts are not accompanied by privilege. When we are talking about systemic racism, there is no such thing as discrimination against whites.

3. Don’t simply seek out black voices that confirm and reiterate the positions you already adhere to. By doing this you practice a form of tokenizing in which you take one black person as a representative for all people of color. Instead, listen broadly to a diversity of communities and voices in your city. Reach beyond the limits of religious communities and create links between activists, organizers, politicians and business owners of color in Detroit. Listen broadly. Ask questions. Be curious. Don’t ask easy questions to which you think you already have the answer. Ask difficult questions to people who don’t already share your creed. Be prepared to be wrong.

4. Whatever you do, do NOT vote for Trump in November. This is not a joke. There is a name for the type of politics that would designate an activist group called “Antifa” (which simply stands for “Anti-Fascist”) as a terrorist organization. It’s called: fascism. We are at this point: it is no longer morally defensible to profess Christianity and vote Republican. It has become a contradiction in terms. DO NOT VOTE FOR TRUMP. (To those who commented upset by this point. I am not telling you who to vote for. I am telling you who not to vote for. Please don’t talk to me about abortion: people are being murdered in the streets. You want to be pro-life? Address that. This is exactly the credibility problem I am talking about. If this is your first reflex, please go back to the top. Reread).

“Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.”

All my love,

Your son

“Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world. If we do not now dare everything, the fulfillment of that prophecy, re-created from the Bible in song by a slave, is upon us: God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”
James Baldwin, 1962

Photo: AFP