Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin made national news recently when he invited clergy from all over the city of Louisville to gather at a local school and hear his solution to bring an end to the violence that plagues our city. More people were murdered in Louisville last year than ever before. We are on pace this year to surpass last year’s record. The school where the governor asked us to gather was in Louisville’s West End — the predominantly African-American section of town that has been historically marginalized and underserved. It is (not coincidentally) the location of the majority of our city’s homicides.
I went to hear what the governor had to say. And I was among those who were both confused and offended by Gov. Bevin’s solution: prayer walks. He encouraged people to get a group together, pick a West End block, and pray there once a week. As much as I (and every other pastor there) believe in the power of prayer, this did not seem like a satisfactory or sufficient solution from the governor of our state. We’ve all been praying. The black pastors who live and work in the West End have been praying without ceasing.
Facing mounting criticism, Gov. Bevin then took to Facebook, not to mend fences, but to malign his critics. In a video published on his Facebook page recently, he attacked (though not by name) the Revs. Clay Calloway and Kevin Cosby of St. Stephen Baptist Church and Joe Phelps of Highland Baptist Church, all members of Empower West Louisville. Empower West Louisville (I am also an active participant) seeks solutions to systemic and generational issues of violence, poverty and lack of educational and vocational opportunities in West Louisville.
The governor and Empower West have fundamentally different perspectives on this issue. Empower West believes the people of the West End have the solutions to change their neighborhoods. What they lack are transforming resources to bring those solutions to bear. White clergy take a second chair to black clergy who live in the community.
Gov. Bevin, on the other hand, did not inquire of West Louisville ministers (except those on board with charter schools) what actions are already occurring in West Louisville. He simply came to us with his silver-bullet solution. But we have been praying, walking, listening, talking, planning and implementing real solutions for a long time.
Gov. Bevin then flipped the script by feigning that since he was talking to clergy, spiritual solutions were the only item on the agenda. As if clergy are only concerned with a community’s spiritual health, rather than all issues our people face every day. A lack of access to good jobs, the continued legacy of systemic racism, decreasing educational outcomes, drug addiction, rampant violence, and soul-crushing poverty are spiritual issues that demand our response.
Why didn’t Gov. Bevin reach out to those who felt hoodwinked and consider their point of view? Instead, he chose to go on the attack. Apparently it’s now acceptable for a governor who wears his religion on his sleeve to castigate critics (journalists, politicians and clergy alike) as “losers” and people who “hate God.” Was Gov. Bevin truly offering a heartfelt, if naïve, solution, or was he scoring political points with his fan base? Surely this was not a Christian response from the same governor who spent the better part of an hour quoting scripture to a group of pastors not so many days ago.
In his most recent video he went so far as to state that agreeing or disagreeing with him is a test for separating “the sheep from the goats.” This is a reference to a parable told by Jesus in the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. In this story, Jesus depicts himself sitting on the Great Judgment Seat at the end of time judging the actions of all the nations. The “sheep” he sends to his right, to eternal life. The “goats” he sends to his left, to eternal punishment. So it seems Matt Bevin is putting himself and not Jesus on the Judgment Seat (to disagree with him is to “hate God”, remember) and he is condemning pastors and anyone else who disagrees with him to hell. This kind rhetoric is divisive, destructive and dangerous.
His use of this particular biblical reference also offers those who understand the Bible a deep irony: Gov. Bevin is condemning us for disagreeing with his suggestion that prayer is the answer to all of our problems. But in the parable of the sheep and the goats Jesus specifically says that the way to separate those who deserve punishment or reward is not how much they prayed for people in need, but whether someone actually fed the hungry, gave the thirsty something to drink, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, and cared for those who are sick and in prison. In fact, Jesus cares so much for those in need, he asserts that the people needing help were truly Jesus himself. If Gov. Bevin wants to talk about sheep and goats, he would do well to first consider which side he finds himself on given the criteria actually laid out by Jesus.
As a Christian minister, I believe that change is possible. And perhaps the governor has actually seen the light. Contrary to his prior statements that there are “no government, no money, no law enforcement solutions” to the problem of violence in the West End, he has now defended himself repeatedly by saying that there are actually other kinds solutions available. These ideas are, however, as yet undefined. The people of Louisville are ready for those solutions to be disclosed.
I hope Gov. Bevin will meet with Empower West Louisville and other organizations working and making a difference in the West End. I welcome him to play a part in seeking real solutions to the real problems that exist. If our governor has good ideas and both the political will and capital to bring those ideas to fruition, we would all welcome him as a partner in rebuilding this vital part of our city.
But if Gov. Bevin simply wants to take to Facebook and other forums to air his petty grievances, if he wants to hurl divisive rhetoric at all who fail to march in lockstep with his every whim, we will not be joining him in the gutter. The people who are actually trying to make a difference simply don’t have time for those kinds of political games. We’re all prayed up and we’re ready for action. People’s lives are at stake and there is too much work to do.