Self-Help Individualism Helps. It Cannot Stop the State From Murdering Black People.

by Chris Dela Cruz

At the end of August, the New York Times published a lengthy article on Breonna Taylor piecing together her biography, relationships, and the events of the police shooting. The second half of the article presents biographical details of Taylor’s life favorable to her character as a “new arc that the young woman’s life had taken” that the police spying on her had missed, an “oversight that would have calamitous consequences.” 

According to family and friends, Taylor was always the “responsible one.” She was a “go-getter,” always on time, a “motivator” who inspired the people around her to do better. A friend remembers Taylor sending a screenshot of a money saving system she found on social media.

“At home, Ms. Taylor began writing goals on every scrap of paper – junk mail, napkins, envelopes – her mother said. ‘She would just make these bullet points – I want to have this done by this time – she recalled.”

These reported details jumped out at me because they exemplify the sort of self-help, go-getter individualism taught and embedded in American life as intuitive, conventional wisdom. Regardless of ideology, most Americans hold in high regard these sort of self-help mantras and attitudes.

This is particularly true in the American church. If you looked at a random page from a popular American Christian book and a popular American self-help book, I suspect they might read very similarly. 

The reason I bring all this up is that, by the characterization of the article, Breonna Taylor was doing everything in her self-actualization journey to live the American dream, to earn the American living, to use self-help techniques to empower herself. And, by all accounts, she was doing them well and always had that hard-working, American self-empowerment ethic. Which is great.

But none of that stopped at least eight police officers from smashing a battering ram into Taylor’s residence without a warrant or the proper verbal warning that they were law enforcement. None of that stopped officers from firing bullets both inside and outside her own apartment indiscriminately. None of that prevented her dying in her own apartment in her boyfriend’s arms, a boyfriend who had to call 911 because the police that shot her didn’t give her any medical care for many critical minutes.

I titled this post “Self-Help Individualism Helps. It Cannot Stop the State From Murdering Black People.” A reasonable reader could respond, “Of course, self-help never promises to fix everything.”

But that’s not how we teach it or live it out in America.

We evangelize self-help as salvation. The much quoted/much maligned “pick-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps” is the end result of a culture that places heavy expectations on what you can do on your own, and specifically as a means to explicitly call against systemic change that may dare to entitle someone to something they may or may not deserve. 

Here’s a self-help meets systemic failure parable: Chase Bank’s Twitter account tweeted some #MondayMotivation self-help chastising customers to grow their bank accounts by making their coffee at home and not eating out. Meanwhile, many critics noted, Chase received billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded bailout money while everyday workers struggle with living costs up while wages stay stagnant. 

In the American church, this self-help means-of-grace leads us down a path where our preaching and teaching becomes so narrow that it carries no real power or risk. 

I’ve sat through multiple sermons about how the power of Jesus Christ, the Alpha and Omega, Lord and Savior, helps you not yell at drivers on the road. I mean, road rage is real, and our lives would better if we learned self-help techniques concerning this. But why do our sermons concentrate on these moments, and specifically on these moments in lieu of speaking to our gravest, relevant problems on earth, in ways beyond echoing our preferred news talking heads? Or does the One To Whom Every Knee Shall Bend have nothing unique to say about this? Can our churches offer more than glorified self-help seminars to make sure we become well-balanced good middle-class consumers who know how to make good motivational lists?

I want to be clear. I’m not against self-help motivation or financial literacy or focusing on individual self-help. I as a pastor have preached as such, and helped build programs in churches that do as much. I know people who aspire to teach, for example, financial literacy in black and brown neighborhoods as part of their calling. 

And certainly, none of this is at all a knock on Breonna Taylor herself and her use and execution of these self-help, self-motivating techniques. It is great she made those lists, they do help your mind focus, they do empower her to make good choices in her life. But Breonna Taylor should also be alive because the people and leaders around her were “motivated” enough to see her as a human being not deserving of a death sentence for sleeping in her own bedroom.

And, as Anand Giridharadas points out, when you read the Times article in full, you see that it “details the way multiple system failures – in policing but also in our economy, drug laws, and beyond – conspire to constrict and steal Black lives.” Any self-help guru could try to sell the Breonna Taylors of the world that if only they made lists on their napkins, they could finally defeat the war on drugs and mass incarceration and the complexities of gentrification that engulfed her father and her mother and her ex-boyfriend and her neighborhood, all while being an EMT essential worker. But just read the article itself, which literally depicts Taylor’s brave, noble self-help efforts being met by the battering ram of the failing, oppressive systems around her.

Now, it is possible some of the white progressive Next Church audience may have been nodding their heads up to this point saying to themselves, “yeah! No individualized preaching! Systemic structural problems! We don’t preach and teach like that! Woo!”

So, first off, it’s not as simple as that. I suspect some of you could actually use some “Jesus helps you with road rage” individualistic sermons, because the church language you swim in is so generalized and so out of touch with the lives of ordinary, real, suffering lives that all you can do is be “political” – not in the true holistic sense of the word, but political in the sense of “this sermon sounds like you listened to NPR last night” or, perhaps more radically, “a nice paraphrase of the one paragraph of the Ibram X. Kendi article not behind The Atlantic paywall.”

More importantly, it is possible to do all this and still end up offering a pseudo-antiracist form of self-help individualism, where people have enough knowledge to self-actualize into a not-too-racist buzzword-wielding woke individual, but not enough wisdom to actually equip churches and congregants to make a communal impact and change racist policies and systems.

It turns out, then, we may all need a little self-help. But not in the ways we have been taught.

Reverend Chris Dela Cruz is the new Associate Pastor of Youth, Young Adults, and Community Engagement at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon. He has written for Next Church, Presbyterian Outlook, and other outlets. Prior to being an ordained pastor, he was a journalist for the Star-Ledger in New Jersey.

Chris writes about the intersection of faith, cultural trends, and American life.