Remembering Who the Real Super-Predators Are

This week we have passed two closely related anniversaries. On November 22, 2014, Officer Timothy Loehmann shot twelve-year-old Tamir Rice as the boy played with a toy gun. On November 27, 1995, John DiIulio published an hysterical summary of his “super-predator” scholarship in the opinion section of the Washington Examiner. There is a direct line from the earlier event to the later and on into the present. And that line runs right through my own ignorant failures.

It is worth remembering a chilling paragraph from DiIulio’s piece.

On the horizon, therefore, are tens of thousands of severely morally impoverished juvenile super-predators. They are perfectly capable of committing the most heinous acts of physical violence for the most trivial reasons (for example, a perception of slight disrespect or the accident of being in their path). They fear neither the stigma of arrest nor the pain of imprisonment. They live by the meanest code of the meanest streets, a code that reinforces rather than restrains their violent, hair-trigger mentality. In prison or out, the things that super-predators get by their criminal behavior — sex, drugs, money — are their own immediate rewards. Nothing else matters to them. So for as long as their youthful energies hold out, they will do what comes “naturally”: murder, rape, rob, assault, burglarize, deal deadly drugs, and get high.

The results of this work were, among other things, mass incarceration, militarization of local police departments, draconian federal and state legislation, and the highest number of children incarcerated by any nation on the planet — the overwhelming majority of them children of color and some sentenced to die in prison after a lifetime behind the walls. DiIulio has sought to distance himself from his conclusions over the years and has expressed regret for their impact. But as Kim Taylor-Thompson points out, the disparate treatment given to Kyle Rittenhouse and Tamir Rice illustrates the damage done.

In 1995 I believed DiIulio (and then Bill Clinton and all the other tough on crime folks — including Joe Biden). Here was an apparent expert, armed with data and theory and method and credentials. His work (he had co-authors but bears the burden of responsibility in the public mind) was published in a peer-reviewed journal, and he was interviewed by really smart people. He was even on public radio and television, after all. I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t do any research. I hardly even noticed.

I hardly even noticed, even though I was working in racial reconciliation projects through the Church. DiIulio’s work, in fact, was a source of theoretical and academic support for those projects. After all, his solution to the problem — such as it was — was…the Church! “If we are to have a prayer of stopping any significant fraction of the super-predators short of the prison gates,” he wrote with an irreverent pun, “then we had better say ‘Amen,’ and fast.” So churches had a vested interest in this theoretical and legislative framework. And we launched into the work with enthusiasm.

Photo by Frans Van Heerden on

Of course, we failed. And I moved on. Wow, I am disgustingly white…but more on that in a bit. How could that be? “The answer is simple and damning,” notes Kim Taylor-Thompson. “The superpredator myth glommed onto a deeper lie rooted in American soil and in the American psyche. A lie that insists that Black children do not deserve the care we reflexively offer white children. All that was needed was the barest of information,” she observes, “and our worst beliefs filled out the contours of the story.” Yes, that was — and is — correct. We dominant culture white people were, and are, the real super-predators. Or perhaps carrion feeders would be a better image.

I’m in a book group, and we’re reading Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson. One of the big stories in the book (that didn’t make it into the film version) is his work with incarcerated children. We’re just getting to that part of the book in our discussion, so all of this is quite to the point. “It has been a generation since the superpredator myth entered public discourse and we are still living with its pernicious effects,” writes Kim Taylor-Thompson. “The justice system needs to stop referring children into the adult criminal justice system so that Black children get the benefit of the doubt instinctively given to white children.” Taylor-Thompson is chair of the board of the Equal Justice Initiative (the organization Stevenson founded) and thus knows whereof she speaks.

Yes, that’s right. But for me one question is how can I do better than I did? I read yesterday a pointed and conscience-pricking article by Robin Autry on the whiteness of sociology as an academic discipline. She references the work of Tukufu Zuberi and Eduardo Bonilla-Silva who suggest, “there’s a ‘white logic’ to the way methods are deployed, first to help construct people of colour as walking social problems, and then to relentlessly monitor what they think we’re up to at the margins of society.”

White sociologists tend to adopt whiteness as the normative perspective and posture according to which all other life is measured. If only that were limited to white sociologists. It is even more true, I fear, of white theologians. It’s always good to remember that there is no theology without a preceding adjective. We white people tend to think about “black” theology,” “native American” theology, “feminist” theology, “queer” theology, etc. But when we think about “white” theology, the preceding adjective drops away. All the modified theologies are measured against the “standard,” “objective,” “normal” theologizing of us white people.

Yes, once again, I am a white fish discovering the ocean. I must look into the mirror of the Law (to use Lutheran categories) and see my sin. Rather than use sociology (or theology) to diagnose what’s deficient in others compared to me, I can use my discipline to describe my own sin. As a pastor and theologian (and former church bureaucrat) I am, as Autry says, an “implicated subject.” This role “involves moving beyond incredulity and guilt,” Autry writes, “to see the part that they play, directly or indirectly, in reproducing a racist system that ultimately benefits them.”

I can’t help but read and reflect as a racist (even as I strive to be an anti-racist). I think part of the task is to cultivate a white “double consciousness,” both as one doing the striving and one working in precisely the opposite direction all the time. This shouldn’t be so hard for someone whose theological tradition declares that we are all “simultaneously justified and sinner.” I know that I preach, teach, study and pray as both saint and sinner. That knowledge serves to humble me and keep me more honest about myself than I might otherwise be.

So I can not allow my “saintliness” to obscure the sinner in me all the time. I can’t help but read black accounts of racism as a sort of privileged voyeur who can check out of the conversation at any point. The role that does not allow me to withdraw is my whiteness, and I am challenged always to read from and through that place. As Autry writes, it is critical that I don’t forget that the outside world is already inside me (and inside the Church, for that matter).

There’s far too much in these brief articles to take in here. But the caution is so important, for example, in the ELCA’s future plans. Can we, by the Spirit’s power, wrestle the sinner to the ground long enough for us to see others for themselves and not as resources for our own exploitation? I’m not sure, but I hope so.

For now, it’s enough for me to wrestle myself.


Robin Autry. “Sociology’s Race Problem.”

Kim Taylor-Thompson. “Why America is still living with the damage done by the ‘superpredator lie.”


Backwards Again

Did you ever have one of those moments when a thought is out there in the fog of awareness, just beyond any clear vision? That’s my state of consciousness most of the time, but right now it’s a bit more pronounced.

I keep thinking about the ELCA plan for the future and the plan’s identified priorities for restructuring and renewal in the denomination. Just for a review, those priorities are:

  1. Prioritize the engagement of new, young and diverse people.
  2. Unite all expressions of the church (congregations, synods and the churchwide organization) into one church—together.
  3. Align decision-making, accountability and leadership where best suited.
  4. Operate in agile, flexible and speedy ways.
  5. Act based on data and measurable impact.
  6. Eliminate silos and divisions.

The only one that really interests me is the first one. If you play the “one of these things is not like the other” song, then #1 is the answer. Priorities two through six are all management issues. Number one has the potential to be a mission issue. But I think it fails in that regard (I hope I’m as wrong as I usually am). I find myself in a fog because just as this announcement came, so did several pods and articles that speak directly (at least in my little brain) to this issue.

“Throughline on NPR” features an episode called “The Invention of Race.” It’s an excellent and troubling reminder of how race, eugenics and class warfare combined in the early twentieth century to produce deadly consequences and how Franz Boas almost singlehandedly dismantled the “scientific” basis of structural racism.


Of course, whiteness was invented long before the early twentieth century. In 1619 in Jamestown African and Irish laborers were treated as indentured servants. There was an immediate distinction between the “less white” Irish and the “black” Africans, but legislation took time to develop. The original system did not guarantee a steady flow of cheap and malleable labor for the wealthy landowners in Virginia.

By 1691, slave laws had been enacted in several of the colonies to remedy the situation. The slave laws had a dual impact. They insured a permanent supply of slave bodies to provide free labor to the wealthy. And they established a racial caste system that gave poor whites just enough status to keep them mollified. So rich people had plenty of free labor to hand and a cheap police force to keep the slaves in their place.

It was genius level social engineering through policy. That social engineering persists to this day. It has been one of the most significant factors in national elections in America since 1964 and Barry Goldwater. I would recommend the recent Code Switch podcast, “The White Elephants in the Room” for some background in this regard.


In 1619 the division is between landowners and indentured servants. It is a class division. By 1691, whiteness has been invented to accomplish two agendas — manage white peasants by promoting them to white and suppressing black peasants by rendering them subhuman. The strategy was to use the rage of the white peasants to police the slaves and to protect the wealth and privilege of the upper class.

I was introduced yesterday to the work of Ian Haney Lopez in this regard yesterday on Ezra Klein’s podcast (I feel so late to the party on almost everything important). The Ezra Klein podcast focused on what the Democrats got wrong with Hispanic voters. This leads into a conversation about Lopez’ fuller work. I would recommend the podcast. However, a talk by Lopez gives a fuller exposition of the subject that really interests me — how the 1691 strategy continues to work today.


I will be interested to read his book, Merge Left. He argues convincingly that wealth and privilege use race as the wedge to divide lower economic classes who might otherwise unite around shared interests. So people of color and lower income whites are used to support the maintenance and expansion of concentrated wealth. Welcome to 1691…and 1876…and 1964…and 1984…and 2016.

Now to the church stuff. Jemar Tisby (author of The Color of Compromise), wrote a post entitled “Why Multiracial Churches Fail.” He comments on a Washington Post article. The article reports that the number of multiracial congregations has increased recently but that the price of that increase appears to be the continued suppression of black people within a dominant white church culture.

Here’s Tisby’s post:

A few lines are most salient. “Multiracial churches fail,” Tisby writes, “because they make diversity the aim while leaving issues of justice and equity virtually unaddressed.” I now refer to ELCA reorganization priority #1: “Prioritize the engagement of new, young and diverse people.”

Multi-racial churches fail in large part because they’re just white churches with spice. The only ones that succeed in becoming multi-racial do so as a byproduct of the struggle for social justice. “Churches that prioritize justice and equity for Black people and other people of color demonstrate their solidarity with those communities, “Tisby notes. This solidarity is not a recruitment strategy but rather a values commitment. “Yet when churches demonstrate a commitment to the dignity of an oppressed people by pursuing their uplift through policy and systemic changes,” he observes, “those congregations become sites of refuge and may see more racial and ethnic diversity in the process.”

If Tisby is correct (and I believe he is), then priority one may be getting it backwards. Seeking “new, young, diverse people” as a goal will result in replicating the pain of our own white privilege and systemic racism. Diversity is a byproduct of working for justice. But justice is precisely the language that is avoided in the restructuring proposal because such language will alienate politically conservative pew-sitters in the ELCA. If this is the case, then that priority will land on the same trash heap as the goal for the ELCA to be 10 percent people of color by…well, whenever that was.

Is it perhaps the case that embracing peasant solidarity is always central to the mission of the church? Jesus tells the rich man to join the peasants in order to be part of the reign of God. It seems that Zacchaeus makes a similar pledge to bankrupt himself in order to set things right. The Magnificat turns the great economic reversal into a hit song. Jesus makes it the game plan in Luke 4. Social solidarity in economic terms across class and ethnic divisions seems to be the plan in the New Testament.

I can see that in political terms. But what can it mean for being church? That’s the thought out there in the fog for me. Diagnosis is always the easy part…

Reorganizing the ELCA…Again

The ELCA Church Council has approved a new design for the future work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. You can read about it in the official news release here — I’m quite curious about this latest effort and deeply skeptical of its usefulness, given the history of past reorganizations. The initial information is going to receive a fair bit of critique — much of it justified, I suspect. In fairness, I must applaud up front the proposal to have innovation (research and development) as a major focus on the revised structure. I find that encouraging.

This post will have a sort of “inside baseball” flavor for non-ELCA folks, so I apologize in advance for that. I’ve spent my adult life loving and hating and loving this institution. I’d like to think I was part of something that matters. Of course, I don’t equate the “Church” with the ELCA. I have no worries about whether the church of Jesus Christ will continue. That’s not up to us. My home denomination — that’s another matter entirely.

The ELCA was conceived in the “original sin” of reorganization in 1988. I use that language humorously, because I don’t think the merger of the three predecessor church bodies (The Association of Evangelical Lutheran Churches, the Lutheran Church in America, and the American Lutheran Church, for those who may not quite remember) was more or less sinful than any actions taken by the institutional church as a human organization. It was, in fact, a necessary and prudent action taken by faithful leaders.

I do remember what I found most troubling in that experience — the absolute prohibition on calling this union a “merger.” After all, we were to be a “new” church, like nothing we Lutherans in North America had seen before. Even to mention any of the predecessor church bodies in certain settings was to feel like one had passed gas at the prom. Having committed all of the above transgressions, I know whereof I speak.

We got over the conceit of “newness” after a while. Even those in charge of the denomination could eventually refer to the union of 1988 as a merger. In fact, it was the first reorganization in a long line of reshufflings, realignments, reboots and re-starts. The reorganizing began almost before the ELCA hit the ground, as those in charge realized that the funding for all the grand plans was simply not going to materialize. The descending curve in denominational funding had driven the original merger. It has continued to drive the cycle of reorganization throughout the past thirty years.

I want to say clearly that in spite of downward trends in attendance, membership, participation and funding, the ELCA as denomination, judicatories, congregations and social ministry organizations has done some magnificent ministry. The creativity, the drive, the faithfulness, and the expertise offered in service of the gospel through this church has been and continues to be admirable and impressive. But none of that has interrupted the organizational descent and decline.

The ELCA is not an outlier in this regard. Christian denominations of every stripe have suffered humiliation and decay in North America in the last thirty years. The brief flourishing of some so-called “conservative” denominations was simply a re-circulation of disaffected members from so-called “mainline” denominations. That re-circulation has ceased to matter.

The various denominations have made policy and practice decisions that accelerated these trends. For the ELCA, intercommunion agreements were the first excuse for abandoning ship. The 2009 vote for inclusivity of LGBTQA+ people (in my book, absolutely the right decision) provided another excuse for the disaffected. In our current time, the racist (and other “-ist”) histories and agendas of many denominations are creating further rationales for leaving those institutional churches. Reorganization is, to coin a phrase, “pandemic” among American Protestant denominations.

For the ELCA, the concern is acute. Our own Office of Research and Evaluation (in my view, one of the unsung heroes of our denominational life — thank you, Ken Inskeep) projected in 2019 that the ELCA would for all intents and purposes cease to exist by 2050 (See “Will the ELCA Be Gone in 30 Years?” at The author of the article, Dwight J. Zscheile, notes that efforts at more effective ministry have not succeeded in addressing the issue — not because they were bad efforts but because they tend to address the wrong problems. He writes,

For all the energy spent on trying to turn things around over the past 40 years, there is little to show. That is because the cultural shifts underpinning this decline are largely beyond our control. To the extent to which we’ve tried to fix the church, we’ve failed. I know a lot of really smart, faithful leaders who have poured their lives into this effort. It’s not their fault. The forces dismantling the established congregational and denominational system are much bigger. Something deeper is at stake.

The “something deeper” is the essential de-Christianization of North America and Western Europe that has been taking place for at least the last one hundred years. Some may protest that the United States does not currently look de-Christianized, given the political power of certain “Christian” groups and leaders. I would suggest that these elements represent a Gnostic, white-supremacist, neo-liberal last gasp of established Christianity in this country. This pathological nostalgia will not go quietly. But in the end it will go.

Dwight Zscheile concludes that reorganization, revitalization, and renewal are not going to derail this descending train.

The dismantling of the inherited congregational and denominational structures may be the work of the Holy Spirit, the work of the devil, or just the byproduct of the end of the Age of Mobilization (when Americans organized themselves into voluntary societies to get things done) and the rise of the Age of Authenticity (when Americans looked inward to discover and express their true self). Trying to reverse it is pointless. It is better to get clear on what God’s promises in Christ are for us and for our neighbors and find simple ways to make those promises come alive for ordinary people in ways they can understand and embody.

I don’t know if his proposed solutions make any sense, but they are worth reading. Diagnosis is infinitely easier than either treatment or “cure.” I do believe that reorganization is a necessary and perhaps even faithful action in the short run for the ELCA. But it will not have much long-term effect.

I don’t think the current proposal goes far enough, even in the short run. I would encourage the reduction of the number of ELCA synods by half, for example. I would encourage the merger of ELCA seminaries with other seminaries or colleges until we have no more than three free-standing seminaries. I would encourage that we assist congregations in divesting themselves of expensive physical plants before the last member dies and forgets to turn out the lights. I would encourage us to see bi-vocational ministry as the norm for congregational leadership rather than a concession to necessity. But those are easy ideas, just rearranging the deck chairs after the iceberg has gashed the hull.

The ELCA may be on a glide path to oblivion. In the meantime, I hope realizing that fact might free us to do the things that would have made a difference forty years ago. If our congregations won’t serve the neighborhoods where they live, then some of us will move to congregations that do — led by BIPOC pastors. We will sit in the back rows and be good, supportive members. If we divest ourselves of our aging physical assets, a third of the proceeds should go toward reparations to the Black community in this country and a third of the proceeds should go toward reparations to the Native American communities whose lands we have stolen. The balance can pay off debts and fund hunger and disaster relief efforts.

Freed from maintaining institutions in order to pay the utilities, let us then focus on the ministry of reconciliation. That means racial reconciliation. That means class reconciliation. That means serving the underserved in our increasingly stratified and feudal economy. And it means serving the function for which Lutherans were designed — to be a movement in the church catholic that brings all Christians together in a common confession of Jesus as Lord in a world hostile to such a confession. The theology of Martin Luther is the perfect vehicle for such reconciliation — if only we’d give it a try some time.

Well, what do I know? Typing is easy. But there you have it.