In February 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman was initially released on the Stand Your Ground statute in Florida, claiming he had acted in self-defense, and was later acquitted of all charges.
As a call to action in response to this tragedy and the anti-Black racism that permeates society more broadly, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors founded #BlackLivesMatter—a Twitter hashtag against state violence that turned into a larger, in-the-streets movement against the pervasiveness of white supremacy. Black Lives Matter is a movement that declares itself to be “working to (re)build the Black liberation movement.”
But what role does religion play in this movement for Black lives—if any? What are the modern day connections between religion, secularism, and racial justice? Does a justice movement have to be openly religiously affiliated to invoke a sacredness?
In this forum, curated by editorial board member Vincent Lloyd, we have invited scholars, activists, theologians, and social scientists to look at the Black Lives Matter movement as it involves religion and secularism, striving to answer some of these questions and more.
The forum is introduced by Vincent Lloyd (Theology and Religious Studies, Villanova University).
Our respondents are:
Wes Alcenat | History, Columbia University
Ahmad Greene-Hayes | Religion, Princeton University
Su’ad Abdul Khabeer | Anthropology, Purdue University
Pamela Lightsey | Associate Dean, Boston University School of Theology
Jennifer C. Nash | African American Studies and Gender & Sexuality Studies, Northwestern University
Jeremy Posadas | Religious Studies and Gender Studies, Austin College
Melynda Price | Law, University of Kentucky
Cheryl J. Sanders | Christian Ethics, Howard School of Divinity
Peter Slade | Religion, Ashland University
Josef Sorett | Religion and African American Studies, Columbia University
Terrance Wiley | Religion and Africana Studies, Haverford College
Religion, secularism, and Black Lives Matter: An introduction by Vincent Lloyd
Is the Black Lives Matter movement a secularized version of the civil rights movement? Has religion—institutions, beliefs, practices, affects—oriented toward racial justice gone away, transformed, or been “managed” over the past half century? How might this change the political efficacy or ethical resolve of racial justice protests?
In both the civil rights movement and Black Lives Matter, the majority of religious institutions (black, white, and other) remain on the sidelines while a minority of activists invoke the language or practices of their religious traditions. Today, however, the cultural influence of Protestantism has plummeted, and social justice is rarely articulated in distinctively religious terms for a general audience. Yet a generally spiritual language (the religious idiom of the twenty-first century?) pervades Black Lives Matter and the broader social movement to which this hashtag has come to refer. Cofounder Alicia Garza uses the suggestive Twitter handle “Love God Herself,” and the umbrella organization’s guiding principles state a commitment to “intentionally build and nurture a beloved community.”
Do the media characteristic of these movements—television a half century ago, social media today—affect the possibilities for religious expression? Have rapid, porous, and fleeting digital connections displaced brick and mortar religious institutions as the basis for racial justice organizing? Or are there new ways of envisioning church (or mosque, or synagogue, or something else) that are oriented toward justice in our digital age?
Movement activist DeRay Mckesson, lecturing at Yale Divinity School, told his audience, “I’ve been trying to get the church to step up more, hoping the theology of protest will catch up.” While ideas from the secular academy have resonated loudly in the activist community—anti-blackness, white supremacy, and micro-aggression come to mind—ideas from the theological academy have had less influence. Yet theologians have argued that race and religion are inextricable and religious ethicists are addressing anti-black racism in creative ways. How might thickening the religious idiom employed in racial justice organizing advance or hinder the struggle for racial justice?
“Shall it be a woman?”: Black Lives Matter and leadership in the face of Black patriarchy by Wes Alcenat
“My heart aches for those of my race who are being immolated every day on the altar of the white man’s prejudice—hanged, shot, flayed alive and burned; over the widows and orphans made desolate.” –Ida B. Wells-Barnett (suffragist and anti-lynching activist)
To begin, consider the above quote and the following one by women’s rights activist and Black abolitionist, Maria W. Stewart: “These things have fired my soul with a holy indignation, and compelled me thus to come forward.” It was 1833 and Stewart spoke these words to a room of men, many of them religious leaders of the African American community. In this and in an earlier speech deliver at the Franklin Hall, titled “Why Sit Ye Here and Die,” Stewart’s words are notable for addressing the inequality of the sexes in Black leadership. In the latter, she asks, “Shall it be a woman?” In asking this question, Stewart was airing her dissatisfaction with the endemic sexism of Black men’s leadership and its impact on civil rights progress. The exclusion of women from the ranks of Black leaders, especially in church leadership, had long been a sore spot in the community. The gender barrier, she argued, hindered the potential and efficacy of Black social movements:
It is upon you that woman depends; she can do but little besides using her influence; and it is for her sake and yours that I have come forward and made myself a hissing and a reproach among the people; for I am also one of the wretched and miserable daughters of the descendants of fallen Africa. Do you ask, why are you wretched and miserable? I reply, look at many of the most worthy and interesting of us doomed to spend our lives in gentlemen’s kitchens.
She argued that this confinement to second-class and submissive roles had deleterious effects on grooming generations of future leaders. In the process, the diversity and creative synergies of leadership is lost. I invoke Stewart’s words to highlight one of the more remarkable achievements of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement: the fact that women occupy the center of leadership in the most visible social justice campaign of the twenty-first century. These leaders have taken up Stewart’s challenge for stronger leadership. BLM has enriched the visibility of Black women’s activism and expanded the capacity of the Black social struggle. In doing so, it has capitalized on the activism of an entire group whose leadership had been historically vital, but underappreciated.
Despite the secularity of BLM, the spiritual language of Black Liberation Theology pervades some of the rhetoric of the activists and allies. Talk of “Black love,” “beloved community,” and a “belief that everybody’s life is sacred,” is a common refrain. Although BLM is less focused on the moral suasion tactics of generations past, they are asking for something in keeping with the Black liberation theological tradition: a wholesale eradication of racism in institutional life, and the full recognition of Black humanity in its own terms, without apologies or the need to rationalize its existence and value. This confrontational activism is in some ways without precedent. It demands something far more urgent than wedding religion with the politics of civil disobedience. BLM’s ingenuity is also in the fact that it gives attention to causes that are intrinsically identity based-rights issues that were traditionally shunned by the more conservative leaders of the Black past. Activists have been particularly attentive to Black queers, the undocumented, the Black transgendered, and the Black disabled. This one-size-fits-all approach is powerfully religious as it reflects an important cornerstone of Christian ideologies.
By comparison, past radical movements relied on the laborious energies of Black women whose work have not been as lionized in our historical memory as is true of their male peers. Following Stewart’s admonition, it seems to me that if we are to genuinely—and more justly—tell the story of white supremacy and anti-Black racism, we must confront this long history of sexism within movements. In some respects, I wonder whether the blind conservatism of male religious leaders was not itself responsible for some of the shortcomings BLM has had to address.
Why are queer black lives “secular”? by Ahmad Greene-Hayes
In her gospel album Pour My Love On You (2008), self-identified prophetess Juanita Bynum, posits, “the Church ain’t the disco and the disco ain’t the Church.” For Bynum, sacred and secular, holy and unholy, the erotic and the puritanical, do not converge but are distinctly separate. However, a closer examination of the cultural and sexual politics of black churches reveals blurred lines and choreographies of contradiction. Indeed, the lexicon and practices of many Christocentric black religious spaces are much messier than “the Church” professes. For instance, dance, music, ritual, conjure, politics, social justice, and so on are central to black religious life.
Scholars and activists have long wrestled with the binaristic construction of sacred versus secular (See Josef Sorett’s Spirit in the Dark). Debates have recently emerged about the characterization of Black Lives Matter (BLM) as more secular than the civil rights movement. The conversation alone, though, reveals our collective discomfort with messiness, life in the gray, and/or lived experiences that cannot be traditionally qualified.
In her moving text, Pedagogies of Crossing, M. Jacqui Alexander writes, “Pedagogies that are derived from the Crossing fit neither easily nor neatly into those domains that have been imprisoned within modernity’s secularized episteme.” Black Lives Matter, like previous iterations of the black liberation movement, emerges from the Crossing—the place of ancestral, spiritual, trans-Atlantic, nonnormative, and transgressive lived experiences, dialects, and mother tongues. It is a movement led by those who have been discarded from the church, from anti-black, heteropatriarchal state entities, and from movements solely devoted to cisgender males.
At the core of BLM’s courageous outcries against white supremacist state violence is black liberation theology—black queer womanist theology specifically. Pamela Lightsey’s Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology presents a compelling analysis of “queer bodies shaped in the image of God” in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement. In the streets of Ferguson and across this nation, we have seen the queerness of God/Goddess made manifest as Pentecost, or the pouring of the Sacred One “on all flesh” (Joel 2:28), sending activists from their homes to protest anti-black police departments, state attorneys and prosecutors with hands covered in black blood, and vigilantes like George Zimmerman who kill black boys and beat their wives.
Our dominant discourses have shortchanged us, sold us a narrative of ourselves that is not true: a fallacy built on the erasure of women, LGBTQ lives, and those who were not respectable. Alas, as there is Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, Darnell Moore, Elle Hearns, Larry Fellows, and Ashley Yates, there was Pauli Murray, Bayard Rustin, Audre Lorde, Marsha P. Johnson, and James Baldwin. The conflation of queerness (both as political project and sexual identity), then, with “secular” (which more-oft-than-not has a negative connotation within Christocentrism), or the constant coding of queerness as anti-sacred, is a byproduct of the heterosexualization of religion. It is homophobia guised as an intellectual project, and only serves as another means to border queer bodies from the Divine.
Yet, Black Lives Matter is a call to face the dark within ourselves and to denounce “spiritual wickedness” in high places (Ephesians 6). Truly, sacred queer, trans, and gender nonconforming beings who have been demonized as “secular” are the leaders the Divine chooses to cross us over our Red Seas from Egypt land to freedom.
We gon’ be alright: Black Lives Matter and Black religion by Su’ad Abdul Khabeer
In a recent conversation with a racial justice organizer, I asked if religious institutions played a role in their work. The response was “happily, no” because religious folks “don’t come to join but to tell you what to do.” This sentiment reflects the observation that religious groups seem to be, on the whole, on the margins of the movement for Black lives. Their sidelining is particularly pronounced because today’s movement is often compared to civil rights era activism in which the Black Church and Black Islam played central roles. This absence is also intentional insomuch as the principles that guide young Black activists—particularly around issues of hierarchy, respectability, and sexuality—challenge the social norms of some Black religious communities. Nevertheless, the marginalization of particular forms of religiosity does not make Black Lives Matter a secular movement.
As Talal Asad argued, the secular is a formation, which means it is a social phenomenon that forms and is formed by ways of living in the world and, as such, it has its own priorities, exclusions, and preoccupations. One of which is liberalism’s emphasis on personal autonomy as the principle desire and achievement of the individual—who is the center of the secular universe. This emphasis stands in stark contrast to Black Lives Matter organizing, which centers on a notion of community that has a “duty to love one another.” This sense of community encourages a formation of the self that is not grounded in “I think therefore I am” but rather, “I am because we are.”
Critically, when I look at the genealogies that these young Black activists construct, I find that the “we” here includes those who came before—ancestors. Some of these ancestral models, like Malcolm X, had clear religious commitments that were the foundation of their commitment to Black liberation; their selection as an ancestor marks spiritual continuity in Black struggle. Furthermore, I see the very process of calling back and calling on ancestors as a clear and present spiritual practice that shapes contemporary work for Black liberation.
Likewise, what is now considered an anthem for Black Lives Matter, Kendrick Lamar’s hip hop track “Alright,” also marks the significance of spirituality to the movement. The opening stanza of the song identifies the struggle of Black life (“Alls my life I had to fight”), it identifies the challenge of Black life (“I’m fucked up, homie you fucked up”), and it concludes “But if God got us, then we gon’ be alright!”—which asserts a divine preservation of Black life. This song first became a protest anthem during the Movement for Black Lives convening in 2015. After successfully intervening on behalf of a 14-year-old Black child who the police were attempting to arrest, the activists gathered began chanting the refrain “We gon’ be alright!” I have witnessed (and sung along with) this chanting at subsequent protests and it conjures the same effect that is found in spirituals and ring shouts and the movement songs of the civil rights/Black Power eras: It is simultaneously cathartic, inspiring, and celebratory.
Of course “Alright,” with its seamless references to the sacred and the profane, does not look like what is typically identified as “religious,” and the same is true for other ways spirituality shapes this movement, which thus may make it appear to be “secular.” Yet since the movement for Black lives is dedicated to upending the status quo, it is of little surprise that its approach to religion does the same.
Out of the church and into the streets by Pamela Lightsey
“If you stick a knife inches in [sic] my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out, that’s not progress. The progress is healing the wound that the blow made, and they haven’t even begun to pull the knife out much less trying to heal the wound. They won’t even admit the knife is there.”
The knife metaphor, used by Malcolm X to describe the impact of white supremacy and structural racism in America, is a useful inheritance to the progeny of the movement for Black liberation. Both the progeny and the movement represent a steady, unbroken stream of protest against the weapon (the knife) and the consequence of the blow(s) of racism against Black people in this country. The attempt to remove the knife has been met by a twisting of the knife through institutionalized strategies contained in legislative, economic, educational, and police blows. Instead of healing, the wound festers and we have witnessed the puss oozing from our collective body as the lens of the camera hones in on—with compelling clarity—the details of the myths of “isolated incidents.” To the residual quest for healing in this new era of the human rights movement called #BlackLivesMatter, we hear the perennial question: Where is the Church/religion?
I confess (no pun intended): I have longed for an all-out presence of faith communities and their respective leadership protesting on the streets against excessive policing and unjust laws impacting the daily lives of Black people. Not one of my United Methodist bishops participated in #BlackLivesMatter protests in Ferguson or Baltimore and—with notable exceptions—the theological language of love, the sacredness of life and righteousness, has been invoked largely by young activists without any overt religious affiliation. They have shown us that neither the language nor hopeful practices are limited to religion. Yes, religion is pervasive in Black communities, but the movement for Black lives contains activists from a variety of contexts, including atheists, agnostics, and those who identify as spiritual but not religious. This suggests to me that what is really happening in this movement is out of the hands of the Church; it is out of the Church and into the streets to use a modified version of one of our protest chants. This is a Kairos moment empowered by God’s Holy Spirit moving upon whosoever will help usher in the beloved community.
As God’s people, we ought be thankful for what has been accomplished. We are indebted to this movement for Black lives for helping us see the festering wound and to feel the horror in knowing the knife that is still in our backs is inches from our heart. Now seeing, we must believe; and believing, we must do the healing work. Amen.
Black feminism: The promise of Black Lives Matter by Jennifer C. Nash
Black Lives Matter is a political worldview oriented toward a fundamental love for black lives, including a robust sense of black self-love and a willingness to publicly grieve those who have been lost—or, more accurately, those who have been stolen. This sense of love is apparent when, for example, Opal Tometi, a Black Lives Matter organizer, notes that the movement, “was created out of a profound sense of black love. We wanted to affirm to our people that we love one another, and that no matter how many times we hear about the extrajudicial killing of a community member, we would mourn, and affirm the value of their life.” I read this investment in love as evidence of how black feminism’s theoretical and political traditions have touched and shaped the Black Lives Matter movement. What black feminism’s varied intellectual, political, ethical, and creative traditions share is a deep investment in love as a political practice. Black feminists have treated love—whether self-love, love of Spirit, love of women, love of music, love of the earth, or erotic love—in its myriad forms as fundamental to world-making and to what Robin Kelley terms “freedom dreaming.” Black feminist scholar-activists including Alice Walker, June Jordan, Audre Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective, have emphasized that black feminism’s visionary politics is rooted in a love that is fearless in the face of difference, capacious in its sense of community, and vulnerable in its willingness to embrace our interdependency. In other words, rather than locating Black Lives Matter on either side of a sacred/secular divide, I locate the movement in a tradition of black feminism transcending that divide.
Black feminism is also, of course, Black Lives Matter’s promise. It is a tradition that puts pressure on Black Lives Matter to think about the gendered and sexual politics of the movement. Alicia Garza reminds us that “Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women, and all Black lives along the gender spectrum. It centers those that have been marginalized within Black liberation movements. It is a tactic to (re)build the Black liberation movement.” Garza’s plea for a black freedom movement that speaks on behalf of all black lives emphasizes that Black Lives Matter can—and must—refuse the long tradition of black freedom movements that neglect or ignore black women and black queers.
Black Lives Matter: Further provocations by Jeremy Posadas
The Movement for Black Lives (or BLM) has been a success in disrupting white supremacy in multiple ways, particularly in making it impossible for white communities and consciousnesses to pretend that programmed violence upon black bodies is not rampant nor a primary engine of capitalist policing in the United States. Here I want to consider three additional ways BLM provokes new questions about race and religion.
1. Trying to place BLM in the most accurate historical trajectory should lead us to ask, is church-based black insurgency against white supremacy actually the exception rather than the rule? The dominant paradigm (in both popular consciousness and scholarly literature on race) for understanding black communities’ post-World War II resistance to white supremacy analytically privileges the 1950s-60s civil rights movement and (a minority of) black churches as organizing networks and sources of moral legitimacy. But in its organization, strategies, and rhetoric—as well as the demographics of its leaders—BLM more closely resembles the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) than it does the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Moreover, it bears strong similarities with the black labor militancy detailed by Jefferson Cowie in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. What if we understood that tradition (and homologous forms of activism) as the mainstream black political tradition? How would it challenge our understanding of black churches in the civil rights movement and lead us to think about black communities’ political engagements in new ways? In other words, in what ways does the Black Lives Matter movement of today continue the trajectory proposed by Steven Hahn in A Nation Under Our Feet—and in what ways does thinking about BLM add further nuance to the interpretive re-orientation Hahn seeks to induce?
2. What happens when we consider the protest practices of Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, Moral Mondays, and one major strain of the Tea Party as religious practices outside of formal/organized religion, which share a desire to sacralize rejection of elite control and the grave threats to communal well-being that such control has led to? (Although Moral Mondays participants are predominantly religious practitioners, the movement itself works outside the established structures of their religions.) Analyzing political protest as a religious practice is not novel. What I am suggesting is that, inasmuch as political protest is religious practice, these four contemporary protest movements can be interpretively collated as all aiming to achieve a similar kind of religious effect. Although multiple religious effects may be plausibly identified, I propose that the intended religious effect shared by these movements is to create out-in-the-open ritual spaces in which to perform the casting down of a political order where elites destroy the well-being of a particular imagined community. For BLM, the threat is the police systemically violating black bodies; for Occupy Wall Street, it was big banks financially devastating the life-chances of “everyday people”; for Moral Mondays, it is legislators and governors doing the same; and for at least one major segment of the Tea Party, it is liberal cultural elites (who are also racial and sexual others) making it impossible to live the “traditional American” way of life. Whether and in what sense(s) these movements’ protests qualify as religious practices depends, of course, on how one defines religion; but for me, it suffices that each of these movements asks participants to put their bodies at risk in order to stand in a space where a transcendent social ideal is revered—to stand, that is, on holy ground. (Many in the Tea Party imagine that they are putting their bodies at risk by standing up for their vision of America, whether or not they are actually at risk of police violence in the way that communities of color are.)
3. Why is it that, in the representations of big-corporate media, BLM received much wider attention in its early stages than the Moral Mondays at a comparable point of their emergence? Moreover, why was BLM framed from the very beginning as a movement for racial justice while Moral Mondays was not? In asking these, I in no way mean to suggest that one of these movements is more worthy or constitutes a better approach; rather, I think the different levels and kinds of attention each garnered can tell us a lot about implicit racist norms for what a racial justice movement should look and sound like and how it should act. I suggest that, in the consciousness of white supremacy, BLM is what racial justice is supposed to be, because it confirms racist stereotypes of dangerous black bodies that must be controlled. Moral Mondays, by contrast, mobilizes black and white bodies together and integrates demands for justice on multiple fronts, all of them relevant to racial justice but not rhetorically specified as black matters. Moral Mondays enacts common causes shared by white and black bodies—but in white supremacist consciousness, such common cause is not supposed to be possible.
The sacred secular politics of Black Lives Matter by Melynda Price
I was raised to believe that the political was only significant when it was intertwined with the moral authority of the spiritual. My earliest political memory is also a religious one: It is the late 1970s. I am in our white clapboard church in southeast Houston and I am standing in the church hall looking at the large portrait of Martin Luther King, Jr. flanked by Bobby and John Kennedy. This is my most significant image of that church. When I was sixteen, I joined our current family church, which has become the largest United Methodist church in the United States, after the venerable Ann Richards gave the sermon for Women’s Day. The next fall she was elected governor of the state of Texas. These early stories set the tone for a life where the religious and the political coexisted almost seamlessly. This religio-political/politico-religious history is true for many African Americans, and also southerners, whose primary political institution continues to be the church.
The #BlackLivesMatter movement is noteworthy because it has intentionally positioned itself outside of black religious institutions while also utilizing religious spaces, people, and ideologies as part of its transformative work. The rhetoric is not saturated in the Christian tradition of the 1960s civil rights movement, but it is clear they have their eyes on the prize. I make these assertions because I know the difficulty of attempting to divorce yourself from the black church while trying to remain a part of the beloved black political community. The real question is not whether #BlackLivesMatter is a secular civil rights movement, but rather, does a black political movement have to quote scripture and call on Jesus to draw upon the deep well of spiritual connection that linked enslaved Africans to emancipated citizens across the history of the black freedom struggle in America?
#BlackLivesMatter groups end their meetings by holding hands and chanting a quote from Assata Shakur that says: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We have to love and protect each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” If this is not a prayer, I am not sure what is. Religion has long been part of the moral refashioning that African Americans have engaged in as part of their efforts to render themselves cognizable legal and political subjects. Where #BlackLivesMatter may be distinct is in their challenge to the idea that the cloak of religion—or “your pants waist high,” or your “hands up,” or your pleas to not be shot—has ever been an effective tool in making black lives matter.
Who is my neighbor? by Cheryl J. Sanders
Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) in response to a lawyer who asks what is required to attain eternal life. The correct answer from religious tradition is, “to love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” However, the lawyer’s follow-up question is evocative and problematic, shedding light on our comprehension of the Black Lives Matter movement. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” As the story goes, a man is beaten, robbed, and left for dead on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. A priest and a Levite (worship leader) see the man, but keep moving. The only one who stops to help him is someone of a different religion, tradition, and ethnicity—a Samaritan. At the end of the story Jesus turns the lawyer’s query back on him, asking “Who is neighbor to the man who was attacked?”
The Black Lives Matter movement has its origins in a group of concerned citizens refusing to ignore the deaths of unarmed African Americans who were shot by police officers and left for dead in the streets. Their means of protest have involved symbolic gestures, disruption of traffic, and use of social media to publicize their pleas for justice. Pastors and ministers have participated in the Black Lives Matter movement in Ferguson, Missouri and elsewhere, but there remains a clear disconnect between this recent line of protest and tactics favored by modern disciples of Martin Luther King, Jr. Participants in the Black Lives Matter movement have been younger and less “religious” than traditional civil rights advocates. What is at stake is whether or not religious leaders will identify those lying dead in the streets as our neighbors, or instead assume the roles of priests and worshipers who pass by on the other side in sanctimonious apathy.
If Christians remain unwilling to break our stride toward freedom and prosperity in order to administer mercy to those who suffer the consequences of injustice, then we ought to expect caring citizens who organize themselves to respond to human suffering to remain indifferent to our empty pronouncements of faith, hope, and love. It may be that God has raised up the Black Lives Matter movement to awaken the churches to reconsider the relevance and urgency of the mandate Jesus taught from the exemplary ethics of the Samaritan: go and do likewise.
The theological drama of Black Lives Matter by Peter Slade
In an article published in 2002, theologian Charles Marsh encouraged scholars of religion to see the civil rights movement as “theological drama,” to recognize that “the spiritual energies of the movement were born of particular forms of theological expression,” and to consider “how certain theological themes or doctrines may reach an intensification of meaning in social existence.” I think this category of theological drama may still be helpful when considering the contemporary secularized civil rights movement Black Lives Matter—not for religious people to appropriate another’s struggle, but as a way of taking the claims and actions of the participants seriously.
The secular expressions of the current movement have roots deep in theological soil. Black Lives Matter draws on Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian moral vision of an interconnected human community, in which “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Learning from Ella Baker’s Christian socialism and the young Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) organizers, today’s activists reject the elevation of individual charismatic leaders, stressing instead the diversity of participants and the importance of group-centered leadership.
Much opposition to Black Lives Matter also expresses theological themes and doctrines. Countering the challenge of “black lives matter” with a more “Christian” notion of spiritual or national unity, they smugly trump the particularity of solidarity with marginalized and oppressed groups. The Citizens’ Councils circulated this theology in pamphlets of reprinted sermons. Today, the same messages appear in tweets and memes. To give one example: In a screen grab from The Passion of the Christ, Jesus staggers under the weight of the cross surrounded by the text, “I DID THIS BECAUSE ALL LIVES MATTER.”
There is also the new drama of a church ideologically and generationally marginalized in this secularized struggle. Consider this one scene, documented in Leah Gunning Francis’s Ferguson and Faith: On September 29, 2014, in front of the Ferguson police station, Jon Stratton, an Episcopal priest, joined other clergy on their knees between protesters and a line of police in riot gear. Following this symbolic action, Stratton reported a significant exchange. “After the prayer, we got up, and asked the young folks, ‘Do you want us to stand in the street with you now that we’ve done this?’ And they said, ‘No. We appreciate your support, but this is our thing now.’”
At least one minister that evening did not take the cue to step to the side of the stage. Reverend Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou chose to remain in the thick of the protest, gaining attention in the media as the pastor arrested for “praying while black.” Sekou’s theological conviction informed his action: that this was a moment of eschatological crisis in a moral universe whose arc is preordained to bend toward justice. “The revolution has come,” he declares on his album of protest songs, “and we’ve already won.”
#BlackLivesMatter and the heterodox history of Afro-Protestantism by Josef Sorett
Though it is commonly identified as “not your grandfather’s Civil Rights movement,” #BlackLivesMatter is a bit of the old and the new at once.
The Movement for Black Lives has earned this moniker, in part, because social media has been key to both the content and form of its organizing practices. Hashtags are made both to stage demonstrations and perform the work of memorialization (i.e. #SayHerName). Its novelty is also associated with a strident critique of what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham named as the “politics of respectability.” This disavowal signals alienation from traditional black institutions, even as it advances a vision of racial justice that embraces class, gender, and sexual difference.
On each of these counts, #BlackLivesMatter is cast as a break from the black past and, specifically, a full departure from “the black church.” Yet the movement is not as far removed from the traditions of Afro-Protestantism as it is often thought to be. It is well known that engaging the media was central to social change strategy in the 1960s; and, frankly, church leadership has always been a bit more “queer” than public commitments to hetero-masculinity would suggest.
On theological terms, many have noted the “unorthodox” backgrounds of the three women often cited as movement founders. Patrisse Cullors is an Ifa practitioner. Alicia Garza claims Marxist ideology. Opal Tometi identifies with liberation theology. Individually, their respective spiritual commitments are presented as aberrations from an American Christian norm. Together, #BlackLivesMatter is figured as a fall from true faith.
To the contrary, rather than heresy or decline, this heterodoxy is in keeping with the long history of Afro-Protestantism. Before (and since) “the black church” emerged as a singular construct, the network of congregations, theologies, and political orientations located under this banner shared much in common with the organizing logics attributed to #BlackLivesMatter. Black churches began with decentralized structural arrangements and doctrinal diversity, and they are still comprised by an uneven ensemble of local agendas, actors, ideas, and organizations.
To be sure, today’s civil rights movement has decentered churches, but it has also made a claim for a different kind of church. In this regard, #BlackLivesMatter strikes me as an effort to reclaim, reconstitute, and reimagine a religious tradition born in the midst of a struggle for freedom. Afro-Protestantism was informed by (but never to be conflated with) Christian orthodoxy and institutional life. Black life—in all its quotidian beauty and splendid contradictions—was the measure of good religion and the ultimate prize. Church, if nothing else, has been and remains a sign of that prize.
#BlackLivesMatter, in truth, is more akin to a platform update than a full system reboot. And on closer inspection, the Movement for Black Lives bears the marks of something very CHURCH in the making.
(An expanded and revised version of this reflection appears in the January 2017 issue of Public Culture, as “A Fantastic Church? Literature, Politics, and the Afterlives of Afro-Protestantism,” which can be found at http://publicculture.dukejournals.org/content/29/1_81/17.abstract)
Unapologetic black radical resistance by Terrance Wiley
What does Trayvon’s fatal encounter with Zimmerman mean ideologically or symbolically? The event’s complexity makes it difficult to determine where we would need to turn to sketch an answer to that question. However, until we do the required transdisciplinary work—consulting historians, cultural anthropologists, social psychologists, political theologians, and others—not only will we lack the vocabularies and contextual knowledges necessary to understand contemporary social movement activism, but we will also miss political opportunities afforded by the revivalism sweeping American publics into renewed freedom struggling. No doubt, black radicals have been organizing and mobilizing without interruption since at least Emmett Till’s and Martin King’s untimely deaths. We should remember the transnational solidarity movements of the 1970s and 1980s, 1999 in Seattle, 2001 in Cincinnati, Katrina, Oscar Grant, Madison in 2011, and so on.
Nonetheless, something’s happening right now. Black radical activism has been more vibrant since February 2012, and certainly since August 2014, and one wonders why. It likely relates to how Obama’s ascent unleashed transparent white supremacist logics, setting the stage for Zimmerman’s homicidal act and the subsequent acquittal to crystalize the meaning of white supremacist ideology for our moment. Conservative racists have always posited the American state as sacred and identified coloreds as enemies to be sacrificed. So they celebrated Zimmerman’s act and Trayvon’s death. Rarely in recent years has the supremacist logic been so unambiguous. This invited unapologetic black radical resistance.
Alicia Garza’s forceful call in the face of Trayvon’s demise and Zimmerman’s exoneration, like all effective social movement rhetoric, asserted a metaphysical/ontological position and hailed persons and publics, staging a drama that aims to simultaneously expose, reverse, and create realities. Social movement radicalism fastens word to deed, dividing and uniting, exposing divisions, creating division, disclosing unities, and conjuring them in turn. Ain’t I a woman, I am a man, I am somebody, freedom now, black power, black lives matter. (Traditions can be like quilts or tracks—or baskets.) Black radicals insist on the sacredness of black life above the American state, with its institutionalized brutalization, exploitation, and destruction of black lives and communities. The radical posits suffering as normal for the oppressed and marginalized and demands resistance (political suffering) in the name of the sacred— declaring the state and its laws illegitimate. When radical revivalism transforms black institutional life, it is movement time and black bodies mean freedom and the dead will be martyrs.