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Condemning Drag Shows is not an aberration: Spiritual Violence as a foundational part of West MI

September 16, 2019

“Normally I’d never put myself in such a spiritually toxic environment. But I wanted to do my due diligence so my reporting on it would be accurate. I asked my guardian angel for protection and some of the Christian protestors outside the event were kind enough to pray that God would keep me safe. So I went in.”

The above quote is the opening comments of an article written by Stephen Kokx, an article entitled, I went to a Down syndrome drag show. What I saw horrified me. Kokx is the Assistant Director of Digital Marketing for LifeSite, a Christian non-profit organization that promotes homophobia, transphobia, patriarchy, anti-choice and anti-immigrant values.

The article by Kokx is instructive on so many levels, plus it wreaks of white saviorism, along with a smug pompousness that is all too familiar with religious zealots, as is evidenced by a video that accompanies the article by Kokx.  However, what the LifeSite contributor had to say was nothing out of the ordinary in West Michigan. For as much as we like to think that Grand Rapids and West Michigan are becoming more and more tolerant, the truth is that this area is rooted in spiritual violence.

In the book, Gathered at the River: Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Its People of Faith, written by James D. Bratt, it begins with the Protestant and Catholic Missions that were both established along the Grand River in the early 1820’s. These early missions were used to manipulate the Indigenous people who inhabited West Michigan, so that White Settlers could move in and take over the land. 

This type of spiritual violence is repeated and normalized through the past 200 years in West Michigan, whether it was used to repress African Americans, women who didn’t buy into the patriarchy, the LGBTQ community that would not submit to heteronormativity or workers who didn’t comply with the capitalist robber barons. Hell, lets face it, the brand of Christianity that is practiced in West Michigan by a lot of people, particularly those with power, has caused a great deal of harm in this area.

Now, I know that there are people resisting the intolerance, but the fact is that West Michigan is still greatly impacted by a Christian Spiritual Violence that is so normalized, we often don’t even recognize it. Sure, the Christians who were protesting the drag show at Wealthy Theater are often seen as extremists, but therein lies the problem. There are likely thousands of people in West Michigan who agreed with those who protested the drag show at Wealthy Theater, even if they stayed at home or only commented on social media. Those protesting the drag show were not some rogue group, rather a microcosm of the ethos that many in West Michigan embrace.

Let’s stop and think about how normalized Christian Spiritual Violence is in the Greater Grand Rapids area. Here is a short list of the ways in which it is practiced:

  • Most of the Christian Churches in West Michigan are not welcoming to the LGBTQ community.
  • Most Christian Churches in West Michigan do not actively oppose White Supremacy.
  • Most Christian Churches in this area have not resisted US Wars, nor are they opposed to US militarism.
  • Most Christian Churches do not oppose the Prison Industrial Complex, which disproportionately impact black and brown communities.
  • Most Christian Churches embrace some form of charity, but do not condemn the economic system of capitalism.
  • Most Christian Churches in West Michigan do not practice the biblical imperative of welcoming immigrants to this community, especially those who are undocumented.
  • Most Christian Churches are silent on domestic violence, sexual assault and rape.
  • Most Christian Churches in West Michigan are complicit in ongoing environmental destruction and climate change.
  • Most Christian Churches in West Michigan are not involved in promoting housing justice, offering hospitality to those who face eviction, those who cannot afford the cost of rent and those who are homeless.

Another problem with thinking that the people who protested the drag show at Wealthy Theater are just marginalized extremists, is that it takes away our ability to see how institutionalized Christian Spiritual Violence is in this community. Think about the influence of the most powerful families in West Michigan, what I have identified as the Grand Rapids Power Structure – DeVos, Van Andel, Kennedy, Secchia, Jandernoa, etc. These families overtly identify with a Christian denomination, some CRC and some Catholic. They all have contributed millions to the Republican Party, which means they support policies that do tremendous harm to communities of color, working class families and the LGBT community. At the same time, they all have foundations that providing funding to non-profit organizations that promote charity or serve individual family needs. What we rarely see is any criticism of the fact that these wealthy families are creating the very inequities that exist, all in the name of God, then turn around and fund programs which are designed to take attention away from these inequities, so we don’t see these wealthy families as major contributors to harm (spiritual violence).

Then there are entities like the Grand Rapids-based Acton Institute, which has global reach within the Catholic community, which provides theological justification for the same kinds of policies that the Grand Rapids Power Structure promotes. In a sense, the Acton Institute acts as an apologist for those within the local power structure to continue to do harm and perpetuate spiritual violence.

What we have are the most powerful families who use Christianity to justify their spiritual violence, which then involves numerous non-profit Christian agencies to acts as a cover for the various types of spiritual violence, justified by groups like Acton Institute, with lots of complicity by the Christian Churches in the area that either take an active role in promoting this process or are silent in the face of all of this.

For anyone who is involved in doing organizing work to challenge systems of power and oppression in West Michigan, it is impossible to effective do this work without acknowledging the role that Christian Churches play in perpetuating the various forms of injustice that plague this area. This is not to say that there are no Christian Churches who do the important work of fighting systems of power and oppression, but they are the exception and not the norm. 

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