A pastoral colleague finds it "Orwellian." He is describing the proposal before the church council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) to appoint "racial justice monitors" for its meetings, according to an ELCA press release.
"Racial justice monitors" for the church council was presented "as a mechanism for accountability" in the council's ongoing commitment to address "scandalous realities."
The ELCA's council has been working very hard indeed on the entire subject of how to suppress racism and sexism within its own membership. In point of fact, the proposal for "racial justice monitors" is the result of a specific assignment the council gave to its Board Development Committee way back in November. Now, finally, at the April meeting, the council has at last voted to begin planning for its own "continuous education, reflection and training on the issue of sexism, just as the church council has committed itself to continuous education, reflection and training on the issue of racism." "Racial justice monitors" at future meetings is part of that endeavor.
There is no word from the press release on the appointment of "sexism monitors," nor monitors of any other kind for the array of issues cited in the release for which the council assumes responsibility¯barriers to inclusion that are "ethnic, cultural, religious, age, gender, familial, sexual, physical, personal and class" in nature. The absence of monitors in these areas is an oversight that one may hope will be addressed shortly.
Meanwhile, as described in the press release, a "racial justice monitor" will "provide observations on the process of deliberations of the council." That, as the ELCA presiding bishop, the Rev. Mark S. Hanson, elaborated, means a "racial justice monitor" is "not a judge that sits and issues a verdict" but acts as a "mirror," raising "provocative questions" at the end of each meeting about how "the role of white privilege," clearly enjoyed by the white members of the council, may have affected "the context of the meeting." I'm only speculating here¯the press release did not offer many specific details¯but "observations on the process" may include counting the number of times white people speak as compared with the frequency of minority speakers.
The probable appointment of "racial justice monitors" was greeted joyfully by council members. More than one was eager to offer enhancements to the plan.
Council member Allan Thomas, of Yeadon, Pennsylvania, suggested that "one or two council members" themselves could be "trained to serve as monitors for the council."
I would think two monitors, minimum; one to monitor the other. This is a not unreasonable precaution, and perhaps even a necessary one. While two may go through training, there is no guarantee that both will return equally skilled in ferreting out the role that white privilege plays in the church council's deliberative processes. The council simply cannot be too careful in these things.
Council member Gary Wipperman, from Waverly, Iowa, noted the neglect that sexism will suffer if monitors are limited only to racial justice. He suggested that "racial justice monitors" also serve as "mirrors" for the council "on matters of sexism."
Personally, I'm not sure this would be wise. I would argue, instead, that there should be separate monitors for separate ism's. The "mirroring" might otherwise become too blurry if only one set of monitors had to monitor all the many areas of concern that require monitoring. Ignore one area and the council might miss the point of being monitored in the first place¯for white privilege, male dominance, and so forth. If there were only one set of monitors to cover all of it, something surely would go unmonitored, so the more monitors the better. That way, everybody is certain of being monitored by everyone for something, lessening the possibility of any unmonitored slip-ups.
According to the press release, one council member¯a certain Grieg Anderson from Portland, Oregon¯did raise a worry, wondering if the presence of "racial justice monitors" might "have a stifling effect on a full and healthy debate on a number of issues, simply out of fear of having it misconstrued in some way." Anderson cautioned that he did not want something that might be "viewed as stifling different views and different reflections."
Hmm. Here obviously is a council member who has failed to grasp the many benefits of groupthink. Doubtless this is an example of the very thing the council must carefully monitor in the future.
Allow me to venture my own suggestion. There is a class of monitors (besides sex) missing from the church council's proposal. It is all well and good for the council to appoint monitors for its formal meetings, held in a conference room at the ELCA headquarters building in Chicago. But what about those inevitable periods in the building when the council is in recess and some of these folks decide go off on their own, say, to the restrooms. I don't think it is a very good idea to let ELCA council members roam the building unmonitored. So, yes¯and I see some of you are way ahead of me here¯I think the proposal should be expanded to include hallway monitors.
As for my colleague's use of the word Orwellian as a pejorative description of the proposal¯what can I say? He has clearly misconstrued things. Besides, can't Orwellian ever be used positively? Oh, sure, I know most commentators regard George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four as a dystopian novel. But let us remember, the story really is about how protagonist Winston Smith came to love Big Brother. A happy ending if ever there was.
Russell E. Saltzman is pastor of Ruskin Heights Lutheran Church, Kansas City, Missouri, and editor of Forum Letter, where this article, adapted with permission, first appeared.