In his blog last week, the Rev. John H. Thomas, formerly General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ and now a professor and administrator at Chicago Theological Seminary, sharply challenges the choice of mainline Protestant churches to remain silent about the injustices of today’s raging attack on urban public education in America. “How is it,” he wonders, “that the growing privatization of one of this country’s most venerable public institutions, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of school children due to public school closures, inadequate public financing, alleged ‘turn around’ strategies, or the growth of charter networks, and now pervasive influence of private wealth through foundations controlled by money from places like Microsoft and Walmart has not awakened mainline churches to the plight and peril faced by public education?”
Rev. Thomas poses his challenge to the church: “…a foundational debate in this country over the role of the public in the education of our young people, the responsibility to defend democratic institutions like the public schools, and the influence of wealth in our common life, is taking place largely without the voice of the progressive mainline church. This relative silence may reflect the growing marginalization of the mainline church in the American religious landscape. It may also be part of the reason for that very marginalization.”
Why the silence? Rev. Thomas’s critique lists seven likely reasons for the silence of the churches. Even if you are not affiliated with a church, I believe Rev. Thomas’s theories may also speak to you, for he identifies a much broader dilemma that has come to pervade our increasingly unequal and segregated society. Can we extend our empathy to our neighbors across the jurisdictional borders of our suburbs—to other parts of our state—to cities all the way across the country?
Here (in shortened form) are Rev. Thomas’s theories about why we are not paying enough attention to the destruction of the institution of public education across America’s big cities. I urge you to consider them, whether or not you are a member of a mainline Protestant church.
- “The primary impact of the school privatization and ‘reform’ movement—so far—is in urban school districts populated largely by black and Hispanic families living at or below the poverty level. This is definitely not the demographic of most Protestant mainline churches.”
- “Most of the children and grandchildren of mainline church members are still relatively well-served by our public schools. Either they live in suburbs where public schools are well financed and privatization is not yet an issue, or their parents are affluent and experienced enough to navigate large urban systems by accessing either private schools or the few high performing selective enrollment or magnet schools….”
- “Mainline churches have not typically been supporters of unions…. tend to be suspicious of union leadership, and uncritically accept the ‘reform’ narrative of teachers’ unions as defenders of overpaid, underworked, and inept teachers.”
- “Mainline church members are, like many middle and upper middle class Americans, mesmerized by private wealth and business success. If you can build a software empire, create Facebook, oversee the world’s largest retail operation, run a hedge fund, get yourself hired by McKinsey, or graduate near the top of an elite private college, you must be much smarter than professional teachers and principals or struggling inner city parents.”
- “Black mainline church members, and white members committed to progressive agendas and grass roots democracy are reluctant to acknowledge that the Obama administration has embraced and encouraged the school privatization movement with its support for charters, its hostility to unions, its embrace of high stakes testing, and its deference to valued philanthropic friends with money to lavish on its agenda and its campaigns.”
- “Progressive mainline church members who do want to be engaged in the struggle to defend public schools have a hard time finding other religious allies….”
- “It’s all so complicated, and the public school mess just seems hopeless…. We can imagine as individuals volunteering to tutor children…. Beyond that, well it’s just beyond us.”
Rev. Thomas directs his critique to the churches, but what he is really writing about is much broader: the inequality and separation that increasingly dominate our lives in today’s America. The lawyer’s question—right out of the Gospels—seems especially pertinent these days: “And who is my neighbor?” You may remember that Jesus answers the question with the story of the Good Samaritan. (Luke 10: 29-37)