“I prayed with head bowed on my bosom, as though I grieved for a friend or a brother; I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning” (Psalm 35:13b-14, New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition).
Our prayers are with the family of Jayland Walker as they laid him to rest on Wednesday in Akron, Ohio, a place I know well and a community dear to my heart. We join all who gathered to mourn the brutal killing of their loved one. We remember also Daunte Wright, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile and Patrick Lyoya — just a handful of the multitude of other cases where a “routine” traffic stop ended with the death of a Black person. As we mourn, remember and await justice, so also must we act.
As people of hope, we must ask, when will such killings end? When will we no longer have to mourn the death of another like Jayland Walker, Breonna Taylor, Daunte Wright or George Floyd? As a church, we have acknowledged that “rooted in slavery, racism is manifested through the history of Jim Crow policies, racial segregation, the terror of lynching, extrajudicial killings by law enforcement, and the disproportionate incarceration of people of color” (“Declaration of the ELCA to People of African Descent,” p. 2).
Sadly, we know this will not end until the system is reformed. Police forces throughout this nation are designed to protect and serve, but clearly the system does not protect and serve everybody. Police departments, like many institutions, including the church, sustain structural racism. We cannot fault the individual officer for their racist actions without also faulting the overall system for enabling, and even encouraging, those actions. Structural racism is the reason that, since 2017, nearly 600 people have been killed by police after routine traffic stops (MappingPoliceViolence.us). In 2021, 28% of innocent people whose deaths were caused by police were Black, despite being only 13% of the U.S. population.
We must continue to educate ourselves about problems in policing and the police system today. Resources such as Campaign Zero show us that there are obstacles to effective reform but also that meaningful reform is possible and even necessary. For example, in Lansing, Michigan, changing the reasons for traffic stops reduces the chances of violence, but there is still a massive disparity between the number of Black and white drivers pulled over. In other words, the work must continue beyond learning about the problem, lamenting the problem and taking small steps toward reducing the problem. Long-term, meaningful action must be initiated and sustained.
We, as a church, must join in the call to reform our police forces to ensure that they not only continue to serve and protect but also serve everyone in our communities, regardless of skin color, ethnic background, gender identity, sexuality or creed. We call on the U.S. Senate, following the action already taken by the House, to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and for the enactment of similar police reform proposals under consideration at the state level, such as HB 1267, passed into law in 2021 in Washington state.
Jayland Walker’s death could have been prevented if we had a police system that acted without prejudice in every instance, respecting each person’s dignity.
The Rev. Elizabeth A. Eaton
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
- ELCA criminal justice statement: download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/Criminal_JusticeSS.pdf?_ga=2.162188796.1369034546.1656974946-639310046.1558039579
- “Now Is the Time” study guide: download.elca.org/ELCA%20Resource%20Repository/DECLARATION_OF_PEOPLE_OF_AFRICAN_DESCENT_Study_Guide.pdf
- Legal Defense Fund statement: naacpldf.org/press-release/ldf-issues-statement-on-video-footage-of-police-shooting-of-jayland-walker/
- Mapping Police Violence website: mappingpoliceviolence.us/
- Campaign Zero: campaignzero.org
About the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America:
The ELCA is one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States, with more than 3.3 million members in more than 8,900 congregations across the 50 states and in the Caribbean region. Known as the church of “God’s work. Our hands,” the ELCA emphasizes the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, unity among Christians and service in the world. The ELCA’s roots are in the writings of the German church reformer Martin Luther.
Candice Hill Buchbinder
Public Relations Manager