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  • Writer's pictureDr. Jess

The Church and Black Activism

"God of our weary years, God of our silent tears..."

"To The God of Harriet Tubman, Nat Turner, Martin Luther King Jr..."

"The lynching of black bodies, 'strange fruit hanging from a tree,' is symbolic to the Jesus dying on the Cross.."

These statements -the Negro National Anthem, preludes to prayers, or theological frameworks- are commonly heard within the black church community. As a people, we are spiritual in nature, as Howard Thurman described us as "spiritual beings having a human experience." We understand that our purpose on Earth is much deeper than our surface understanding, which is deeply important to the survival and resilience of black bodies. Further, our history of oppression causes us to have a different outlook in how we engage our faith. Although raised in a Black Baptist church, my time in Seminary, really helped me to begin developing and shaping my own theological framework from which I view the world; I must declare, this is a journey and not a final arrival. Personally, I believe that anyone who "arrives" at their faith destination, as if it is a one stop journey has missed the mark. Believing in God, requires us to persistently study, think, pray, reflect, and grow. If Jesus' power knows no limits, how can our faith be limited?

It is no secret that I have been posting a great deal on social media about the racism pandemic we are experiencing, which some are calling the '1619 pandemic.' (1619, being the year African slaves arrived to the U.S.). Recently, I was asked my "stance" on the Black Lives Matter movement, as the person posing the question expressed sentiments about their mission being antithetical to Christianity. I will refrain from sharing my initial gut response to that question, but did respond and state that I found the question to be problematic, divisive, and critical of the black experience.

Before I say more about my response, I will provide a brief history. During slavery in the U.S., the Bible was often used as a weapon to justify and enable the act of slavery. It was used as a weapon against black people to justify violence, abuse, and disempowerment, limiting black bodies to mere currency. Week after week, black slaves endured the toxic experience of hearing about a God who supposedly endorsed their experience of pure hell on Earth. Although slaves were able to have church on their own, their sermons were even monitored by white slave masters as if to control the narrative they were receiving was not antithetical to their perceived privilege and power.

When that question was posed to me, I said something to the effect of not seeing the benefit during a time of black life and death, to criticize the way in which a black person chooses to protest in honor of their livelihood. I also stated that I stood for anyone black who is actively engaged in activism, whether marching, challenging institutional systems, tirelessly posting literature or expertise about dismantling racism, or creating new boundaries against structural racism in their daily lives. Ultimately, I did not find it helpful to criticize anyone who is taking an active stance to advocate for the livelihood of themselves, family members, and friends. I always find it deeply concerning when white people struggle so much to make the connection that we are fighting for our livelihoods. We are protesting again and again after all of these years because we still die at significantly disproportionate rates at the hands of white people who have a false sense of emboldened authority, which truthfully must be deeply rooted in a sense of inadequacy.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been critical of the church, that is no secret. They have created this movement, in summary, based on a collaborative opinion that more is needed in the realm of advocacy for black lives. The movement makes it no secret that they will use a variety of tactics to protest and advocate for the rights of black lives. They are an inclusive movement that has a specific set of values, policy demands, and strategies to ensure their voices are heard in the defense of black bodies across the span of sexuality, gender identity, disabilities, and nationalities. Ultimately, they seek justice for the violence that continues to be allowed towards black bodies.

I would argue that justice is one of the core beliefs of the Christian faith, not specific to racial composition or denomination. However, it is an essential component to the black church. Black people have long identified with Jesus for His love for the oppressed, fierce advocacy for the 'underdog,' and His experience of an unjust suffering on the cross. The problem with many white churches, is their lack of explicitly making this connection and for not adamantly dismantling supremacist values that remain embedded in their theological framework. To condemn the anger and outrage of protesting for black lives, is to fundamentally overlook a significant part of the identity of Jesus. If we are all created equal in the eyes of God, we must asked ourselves, why we are not all created equal in the church? If white Christians truly believe that black lives matter, they must stop and reflect on how their churches are enabling the violence against black lives as observed by white silence, criticizing black protests, and not holding the body accountable to dismantle racism that is embedded in their communities.

I recognize that I taken a broad view in this post; my goal is to continue to push this conversation in ways that will make people uncomfortable; growth often comes with the courage to face deep discomfort. As a psychologist, I have learned that in order to be effective, I must be okay with the discomfort and variety of emotions of others. Perhaps, I learned this first by being black in this country. Our individual faith and believe systems are extremely important to us and are sensitive topics. If the work of dismantling racism is being called out in the education system, corporate world, and levels of government, how can we neglect the church? The Bible may not be explicitly used as it was by slave masters in 1619, but perhaps some of those messages have yet to be completely uprooted from various pulpits across this country. As long as the church is either silent or critical of black outrage and protest, the church remains just as dangerous as the rest of America to black bodies.

(Artist of image unknown)

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