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Grand Rapids Power Structure: Part VIII – Religious Institutions as Buffers against systemic change

July 3, 2018

Over the past several weeks we have been investigating the Grand Rapids Power Structure, beginning with a discussion about its framework in Part I; the most powerful family in Grand Rapids, the DeVos Family, in Part II and in Part III we looked at other members of the most powerful members of the private sector. In Part IV, we looked at the private sector organizations that have power and which individuals sit on the boards of those organizations. 

Three weeks ago, we looked at the next level of the Grand Rapids Power Structure, the local government, in Part V, and two weeks ago we investigated the role and function of the media, within Grand Rapids and how it serves power in Part VI

Last week we began to look at how various institutions act as a buffer for systems of power against systemic change, first looking at institutions of higher learning in Part VII. Today, in Part VIII, we will look at how Religious Institutions act as a buffer against systemic change in Grand Rapids.

Historically, the three monotheistic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism have caused more harm than good. Christianity, especially since the Roman Empire adopted it in the 4th Century, has been the religion of empires, colonialism and settler colonialism. Sure there have been small enclaves of Christians that have adhered to a radical form of love, justice and mercy, but religious historians often refer to these groups as the faithful remnant. Since Christianity is the dominant religion in Grand Rapids, we will limit our analysis to that religion.

Grand Rapids is built on settler colonialism, with indigenous populations inhabiting this area for centuries, only to be forced or coerced into submission in the early part of the 19th Century. Various Protestant denominations and Catholicism have played a critical role in the formation of Grand Rapids, since those who have made up and continue to make up the local power structure identify as Christians. However, for the purpose of this article is to focus on how religious institutions, specifically Christianity, acts as a buffer against systemic change.

Grand Rapids is sometimes referred to as the City of Churches, with an estimated 800 churches. Hundreds of thousands of people in Grand Rapids belong to churches, yet very few of them take an active role in promoting systemic change. There are the ultra-conservative churches, which embraces and supports the concentrated wealth of a few over the many, but they are not the focus of this article. We want to look at the mainstream churches that ultimately acts as a buffer for the Grand Rapids Power Structure, rarely calling into question the systems of power and oppression that exist in this city.

There are several ways that churches act as a buffer against systemic change in Grand Rapids. One of the most common ways, is to remain passive or distracted from the injustices that occur every day in this city. This is what Karl Marx meant by religion being the opiate of the people. In Grand Rapids, Christianity is certainly a distraction for thousands of Christians, so that they don’t have to even acknowledge the suffering, exploitation and oppression that exist in this community on a daily basis.

A Second way that churches act as a buffer against systemic change, are those churches that engage in various forums of charity. Now, I’m not saying that charity, in and of itself is a bad thing, but charity often doesn’t lead to people questioning the larger, systemic problems that lead to things like homelessness, hunger and poverty. Charity is also a easy way to make yourself feel good without having to take any kind of risk that usually accompanies the dismantling of systems of oppression.

For instance, there are food drives that happen all year round in this community. Many churches even have their own food pantry. However, there are only a few churches that practice food justice, where the entire food system is called into question and then challenged through a variety of strategies and tactics.

Churches also engage in charitable acts by visiting prisoners, visiting those that are sick, sponsoring a refugee family or serving fair trade coffee on Sunday mornings. These are all nice things to do and they can provide some temporary relief for those who are suffering, but they do not dismantle the root causes of the social injustices they claim to address.

A Third way that churches act as a buffer against systemic change is to take on causes, without ever taking the necessary risks involved to challenge systems of oppression. Churches might be gay-friendly, but they do not challenge hetero-patriarchy that permeates the Grand Rapids Power Structure. Churches might try to practice being good stewards of the earth by recycling, but they rarely confront the fossil fuel industry or the economic system of capitalism, which is incompatible with environmental justice. Churches might promote some vague notion of peace, without ever taking the hard risks necessary to end war or white supremacy. Churches might even say that immigrants are a blessing, but fail to declare themselves a sanctuary and actually practice the idea that all immigrants are truly welcome in their community.

A Fourth way that churches act as buffer against systemic change is to practice White Savior Politics. Churches often have good intentions in wanting to be good allies, but more often than not they still think that they know what’s best for people experiencing poverty, those in the immigrant community or those in the black community. Good intentions are not only not enough and they often lead to “good people” doing real harm to those they seek to “help.” This is often the case with churches that focus on diversity, instead of racial justice. Diversity proponents rarely have a power analysis and believe that if we just treat each other with respect then we can all get along. Those who practice racial justice are those that recognize historical inequities, are willing to look closely at how they contribute to racial oppression and then develop relationships with communities of color to find out how they can best be in solidarity with them.

If churches in Grand Rapids were not acting as a buffer for the local power structure, what might that look like?

  • Churches would demand the elimination of the wealth gap and practice economic justice, which cannot exist within capitalism.
  • Churches would acknowledge that this community was founded on settler colonialism and ask the Native community what is required of them to undo settler colonialism.
  • Churches would acknowledge that this city was built on and continues to practice White Supremacy. The churches would then ask communities of color what they need to do to not participate in White Supremacy, which is related to the wealth inequality and the need to pay reparations.
  • Churches would stop practicing and condoning violence against women, violence against the LGBTQ community and practice inclusive and horizontal ways of sharing power.
  • Churches would declare themselves a sanctuary and take in members of the immigrant community that are being targeted by ICE.
  • Churches would not support the Prison Industrial Complex, would use their wealth to bail people out, would start seeing the police and the courts as instruments of oppression and work to end the criminalization of poverty and the war on drugs.
  • Churches would stop defending US Imperialism and militarism, by demanding their members to not work for weapons manufacturers, to fight against the Military Industrial Complex, to not send their young members to war and to denounce nationalism.

These are just a few things that churches could do, which would surely scare the shit out of those who are part of the Grand Rapids Power Structure. Unfortunately, it is not likely that churches would even consider practicing justice to end systems of oppression. It is far easier for churches to act as a buffer in service of the power structure.

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