Killing unarmed Black men is an American sport. Black and Brown bodies are under assault walking down the street carrying skittles, driving in cars, listening to music, and yes even minding their own business in their apartments. From the dehumanizing chattel slave trade to the demoralizing institution of slavery, and from the era of lynching to contemporary police brutality the most dangerous thing one can be in America is Black. Without a serious response to this reality religion ceases to be of any real usefulness in our current cultural reality. For any spiritual people to ignore this fact or downplay the insidious evil visited upon Black and Brown bodies is to make that religious group complicit in each death. For me, as a constructive theologian with a liberative lens, Christian theology is language about God’s liberating activity in the world on behalf of the oppressed. Any talk about God that fails to make God’s liberation of the oppressed its starting point is not Christian (Cone 1999). That is not to let any religious group off the hook, rather it situates me particularly in my own religious sensibilities. This however extends to all faith traditions in that authentic religious engagement is that which leads to human flourishing through relationship with Mystery.
The task of theology is to critique and revise the language of the church. This includes not only the language of uttered speech, but also the language of radical involvement in the world (Cone 1997). Theology is always political, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement is one of the most important theopolitical movements of our time. Politics is the ancient and honorable endeavor to create a community in which the weak as well as the strong can flourish, where love and power can collaborate, and justice and mercy can have their day (Palmer 2011). By its nature, which includes its social engagement and praxis, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is both a political and theological movement. It is a movement of radical solidarity not born from political theory, but rather out of a shared, lived experience and circumstance. #BlackLivesMatter is more than a slogan; it is indeed a movement because—based on its tenets—it seeks action. Movements are not mere intellectual pursuits; they are primarily concerned with how one changes the system (Fromm 1994). It is our task, as practitioners of the sacred, to assist people in plumbing the depths of their own humanity, where transcendence, mystery, being, and even love are discovered, and then to bring those qualities found in the center of life into the world (Spong 1998).
The ethos of the ministry of Christ was constantly befriending the friendless and identifying himself with the underprivileged. According to the New Testament (Luke 4:18-19), Jesus’ self-proclaimed mission is inexplicable apart from others. Others, of course, are all people, particularly the oppressed and unwanted of society. Here is God coming into the depths of human existence for the sole purpose of striking off the chains of slavery, thereby freeing humanity from the ungodly principalities and powers that hinder people’s relationship with God (Cone 1997). As Jesus becomes a friend to outcasts (Matt. 11:19), inviting them to eat with him, he epitomizes the scandal of inclusiveness for his time. What is manifested in his healing of the sick is pushed to an extreme in Luke 11 by his invitation to the ritually unclean to dine with him (McFague 1987). Even the crucifixion of Christ models the praxis of his ministry in that it most clearly and radically identifies Jesus with the slave community. It forged an inextricable bond between the two. Through the cross, Jesus’ suffering and the slaves’ suffering of his era and all times become one (Douglas 1994). The life and praxis of Jesus then does three things: (1) reflects an intimate relationship between Jesus and the oppressed; (2) radicalizes the oppressed to fight for their freedom; and (3) highlights the contradiction between the Divine and the oppressor.
#BlackLivesMatter is an important social transformation movement, not only for Black people but for the whole of U.S. society. It echoes the themes of dignity of the Black Power movement for the Black community and speaks truth to the power of the dominant culture. It is true that talk about liberation becomes hard to justify where freedom appears as nothing more than defiant self-assertion of a revolutionary racial consciousness that requires for its legitimacy the opposition of white racism. However, it is also true that we are in a historical moment that demands opposition to imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, heteropatriarchy (Sanders 1998). What the church must do in this era of police brutality and the worthlessness of Black bodies is more than chant #BlackLivesMatter. The church must center Black and Brown bodies and their survival as paramount to its message and mission. We must respond.
Ask yourself in what ways is my church intentionally centering Black and Brown bodies in our message and mission through each liturgical exercise and budget decision?
Please feel free to comment below.
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Cone, James. 1997. Black Theology and Black Power. Maryknoll: Orbis Books.
—. 1999. Speaking the Truth:Ecumenism, Liberation, and Black Theology. MaryKnoll: Orbis Press.
Douglas, Kelly Brown. 1994. The Black Christ. MaryKnoll: Orbis Books.
Fromm, Erich. 1994. On Being Human. New York: Continuum.
McFague, Sallie. 1987. Models of God: Theology for an Ecological, Nuclear Age. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Palmer, Parker J. 2011. Healing The Heart of Democracy. SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass.
Sanders, Cheryl J. 1998. “The Problem of Irrelavance in Black and Womanist Theologies.” In What Does it Mean to Be Black and Christian: Pulpit, Pew, and Academy in Dialogue, Volume 2, edited by Forest E. Harris Sr, 73-82. Nashville: Townsend Press.
Spong, John Shelby. 1998. Why Christianity Must Change or Die. New York: HarperSanFrancisco.