That’s me, 14 years ago, washing the feet of an elderly church lady at a Love Feast service during my Brethren Volunteer Service orientation in Kansas City. For years, this framed photo sat on my desk. I love it. I love Love Feast, I love foot washing, and even though I do not know the woman in this photo – a stranger who welcomed me to her church’s meal that fall – the picture reminded me that what I was choosing a life of service. Every day, while I attended Zoom meetings and worked on databases and sent emails, this photo reminded me that what I was doing was actually serving the church.
I took that photo off of my desk last year. I still love Love Feast, and foot washing is still a big part of how I understand following Jesus. But I don’t believe, anymore, that serving the church is a worthwhile way to spend my life.
The Queen’s death this week brought out all kinds of feelings from all over the world. I recommend, especially if you are a white person from the United States, seeking out the responses from people who live in nations colonized by the British Empire. Those responses comes in all shapes and sizes, and especially for people who’ve been colonized and oppressed by the monarchy to which Elizabeth willingly and repeatedly sacrificed her humanity, they don’t necessarily include mourning.
I cannot imagine the pressure that Elizabeth endured as Queen, the expectation that she would live up to the circumstances of her birth and family and subsume her humanity into a role of power stretching back centuries and undergirding global empire. That she was so young when she was coronated compounds the pressure, I’m sure. And yet, decade after decade, she continued to decide to serve the institution and present a facade of stability cloaking centuries of violence, murder, oppression, and dysfunction. There’s no way the Queen was unaware of the harm her reign imposed – her own uncle abdicated the throne because of its restrictions on relationship, her daughter-in-law was killed by intrusive paparazzi, her grandson left public life because of the white supremacy baked into the whole thing. And that’s just her family, not to mention the constant clamor for relief from people of nations her crown colonized and invaded and held under her thumb. You can read historical accounts of all the horrific things the Queen refused to acknowledge or address – a simple Google will get you all you need to know.
I’m not British, and I am not the subject of any royal, so I don’t know what it’s like to have my Queen die. And I wasn’t born into a royal family, so I have no idea what it’s like to ascend to the crown and live a life with the attendant expectations. But I do know a little about the pressure to serve an institution, to maintain institutional stability, to pretend to be a “bridge-builder” or “peace-maker.” I know a little about being expected to ignore and paper over violence and harm for the sake of “unity.”
There is a wily idea that loyalty to institution, that spending an entire life in service to an organization or structure or system is laudable. In institutional life, loyalty, stability, and consistency are held up as the greatest good. “Keep calm and carry on,” right? But what happens when you learn that the institution, organization or system to which you’ve pledged your loyalty is consistently doing harm to people, and refusing to acknowledge or repair it? What does “stability” mean when it maintains violent practices and structures?
When I started listening to people who were being harmed by the institution, the virtue of loyalty came into question. Those folks were being hurt and harmed repeatedly, and the church had zero mechanism for hearing their cries, much less acknowledging or addressing them. Forget about repentance and repair – not even on the table. I was getting praise left and right for being a “church leader,” maintaining the institution for another generation. Someone even said to me “you know, I used to worry about the survival of the church, but then I listen to young people like you and I’m much less concerned.” I heard that, then, as a deep compliment – and that’s how it was meant. I hear it now as a horrifying prediction: that I could have continued sacrificing own humanity and that of others to a harmful institution indefinitely.
Tressie McMillan Cottom says, over and over, “the institution cannot love you.” Institutions are not people. They are systems and structures built with the express purpose of maintaining themselves from generation to generation. Institutions do not take into account the well-being of individuals. They do not contend with power dynamics. They do not CARE who they hurt or harm: they exist in order to exist. Only human beings are capable of love. Only human beings can grapple with the complexities of human relationship. Only human beings can participate in repentance and repair.
So, I stopped expecting the institution to love me back. I stopped sacrificing my own humanity for the sake of institutional stability. I stopped willfully ignoring people in pain in order to keep systems and structures viable. I would much, much, much rather hold on to that part of my humanity and the humanity of people I love, even if it means witnessing structural and institutional collapse. Because the institution cannot love us. But we can love one another.
Who knows how much grappling the Queen of England did with these questions. She had access, after all, to unlimited distraction and immense amounts of power. Plenty of opportunity to ignore the deep ethical questions of a human life, just like all of us. Her death mostly makes me sad – not for England or the Commonwealth, but for her. Sad that she decided, over and over again, in the current of incredible global and ancestral pressure, to sacrifice her humanity for the sake of a violent, inhumane and evil institution that repeatedly and unapologetically harmed human beings across the globe.
It seems like a good occasion for us to reflect on our own willingness to do the same.