Disunion of the State
Church, Community & New Power in Flint
Much has been written and said about the Flint Water Crisis. If you haven’t heard about it yet, here’s a brief summary:
In 2011, following the collapse of the auto industry, the city of Flint, a predominantly working-class black community, went broke. Because of the dire financial impact the city was experiencing, Michigan governor Rick Snyder appointed a city manager—a man named Michael Brown—to bring the city out of its financial disaster. In an effort to cut municipal expenses, Brown decided to change Flint’s source of water from water purchased in Detroit to a much cheaper regional source in Lake Huron. As a temporary measure, however, the city began to use the water from the Flint River as it waited to switch over to the new source.
Shortly after Flint began drawing water from its namesake river in 2014, residents complained that the water was filthy. It also smelled. They didn’t even want their pets drinking it. Because of the work of activists, outside investigators were able to test Flint’s water. They determined that it contained highly toxic levels of lead that were poisoning the people of Flint.
Since the story of Flint’s water crisis broke in the mainstream media, support has flooded into the city. People across the country are sending aid, mainly in the form of water and water filters.
But what caught my eye recently was the Justice for Flint benefit concert. Headlining the concert were stars like Janelle Monae, Andra Day, Musiq Soulchild, and the legendary Stevie Wonder, among others. Reflecting on the event, I tweeted:
Bree Newsome, the freedom fighter responsible for removing the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina capitol, tweeted me back her own frustrating, but also hopeful insight:
I think she’s right.
Historically, black people have appeared to be one of the groups most committed to the betterment of government. We’ve dedicated ourselves to improving the State, despite the fact that we’ve had no consistent evidence to support our commitment.
I understand it, though. Black folks have a keen sense of our history, and our collective memory includes the 1960s, when black people engaged in a struggle for civil rights by appealing primarily to the federal government to do something about the pervasive racist laws, customs, and practices in the South. By many accounts, that method worked, and we won: after a long, arduous struggle the federal government passed sweeping legislation that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968—to name but a few of the laws and regulations that arose from the Civil Rights Movement. If we focus upon those particular historical achievements, black folks may have reason to have faith in the State, since it promoted equal protection in the past (however reluctantly).
I’d argue, however, that ever since this country’s founding, all levels of government have sent, at best, mixed signals to black people themselves—as well as to white people—about the status of African Americans and other people of color as citizens.
The State is a fickle, and often downright intemperate, lover. And because of that fact, it’s not something worth putting our faith in. After all, it was the State that codified the enslavement of stolen Africans. It was the State that, after Radical Reconstruction in the South, ushered in an era of Jim Crow by rolling back pivotal gains African Americans had made. It was the State that conspired, through tough-on-crime laws, to incarcerate millions of black and brown people, just when we thought we’d won civil rights. Throughout history, various State-sanctioned entities, agencies and actors—operating at the levels of the federal government, state governments, and/or local governments—have supported policies that have harmed people and communities of color.
Is it any surprise, then, that many activists and organizers in the Movement for Black Lives harbor a growing distrust of the State? We have good reason to doubt that it will offer equal protection to black and brown people. Time and time again, we’ve seen the system do its bidding to the detriment of our lives. No wonder a common refrain in the movement suggests that “The whole damn system is guilty as hell.”
I wholeheartedly believe it. A State that was built on white supremacy, capitalism, and imperialism is operating exactly as it was designed.
But there is a silver lining that has come out of this crisis in Flint. In turning away from the State, many people have turned toward churches to meet not only spiritual needs, but also concrete, material needs. In fact, churches serve as primary locations for disseminating water and water filters in Flint.
The turn toward the church in Flint offers glimpses of what a more sustained turn toward the church could mean for the cause of justice and peace across the nation. In the 21st century, I imagine churches to be places where people find community and purpose, as well as incubators that offer opportunities for collective power to be built. No longer should we have to put our faith in a system that doesn’t have our best interest in mind. As longtime activist Angela Davis put it in her recent book, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement, “I don’t think we can rely on governments, regardless of who is in power, to do the work that only mass movements can do.” Rather, through churches, we can build a community and power base that won’t require us to wait on the State’s intervention to solve our problems.
And I’ve seen models of what that type of community and power-building looks like in faith communities. Nashville Organized For Action and Hope, or NOAH, is just one example. NOAH is “a faith led coalition that is multiracial and interdenominational comprised of congregations, community organizations, and labor unions that work to give voice to traditionally marginalized people.” It fights for affordable housing, economic equity, and criminal justice in Nashville—and its network of member congregations and organizations has been so influential that during Nashville’s last mayoral campaign, candidates were forced to agree to NOAH’s social justice platform before they were able to speak to the group. That’s power. Real power.
Churches in Flint, Nashville, and across this nation can have that kind of power. A turn away from the State to the church has the potential to offer radical alternatives for how we build power and community in the 21st century.