I received a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

If I could get every white person to read just one thing about the work of anti-racism, particularly related to policing and prison abolition, it would the “Tension” chapter of Elle Dowd’s Baptized in Tear Gas: From White Moderate to Abolitionist. Smack in the middle of the book, this chapter strikes at the roadblock of discomfort that sits in many hearts and minds, preventing real, honest, and supportive work. Most of us do not like to live with tension. We want it to resolve and to do so quickly. As Dowd eloquently points out, tension diffuses to the side of the oppressor and to the history of oppression if specific steps are not taken to avoid that.

Furthermore, the tension that is experienced when people fight against systemic racism and capitalistic oppression is not new tension, it is a redistribution of tensions that have long existed but which were carried by people of color. Dowd writes,

This is the key strategy of direct action. It redistributes tension by taking the risk of telling the truth out loud and in public. It is honest about things we would rather avoid.”

Baptized in Tear Gas is the story of a nice, white Lutheran (ELCA) girl who learned to turn away from the idolatry of nice, use the privilege of white, and was radicalized by the promises of her baptism to be part of making the good trouble of dismantling unjust systems. Dowd writes about what she learned during her witness of and participation in the work of the Fergusson Uprising in 2014. This book is not a humble brag, but a chronicle of mistakes she made, lessons learned the hard way, and the cost of discipleship.

In each chapter, Dowd explains the shape of her experience, what that experience was like- in part- for others, and what it means to stop propping up the things God wills to be torn down. The chapters close with reflection questions and potential action items. Dowd’s identity and writing is grounded in her Lutheran theology, but the book is accessible to readers across denominations.

How would I use this book? I admit with frustration that the congregation I serve couldn’t process this book, but if we had a church library, I would put this book in there. It would make a great gift for interns, especially for a read-along with the supervisor. It is exactly appropriate for a study among clergy, particularly to help one another learn to live with tension. It is definitely useful for conversation in Lutheran Campus Ministries or in community-organizing groups.

The most important aspect of Baptized, though, is that it resists intellectualizing. Dowd’s proclamation is clear- we must be hearers AND doers of this word. Anything less is permitting the poison of injustice to continue to wreck the lives of our neighbors, our communities, and our country. Dowd tells the truth,

“…There is nothing in this system worth saving. It has to be destroyed so we can build something new.”

TL:DR: Go out, buy, and read Baptized in Tear Gas today. And, tomorrow, act on what you learned.


The Reverend Julia Seymour serves Big Timber Lutheran Church (ELCA)  in Big Timber, MT. She blogs at lutheranjulia.blogspot.com and readsallthethings.com. She contributed to There’s A Woman in the Pulpit and is President of the board of RevGalBlogPals, Inc.


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