A Movement with a Theology
Churches take many paths to address Black Lives Matter.
Protesters march against police shootings and racism during a rally in Washington, DC, on December 13, 2014. Photo by Rena Schild/Shutterstock
By Adelle M. Banks
As a religion reporter and as a journalist in general, I’m a big believer in expanding people’s religious literacy and, when possible, bashing specific stereotypes.
I have been interested in the question of the role, or lack thereof, of the so-called black church in the Black Lives Matter movement. I moderated a panel on that topic at the Religion News Association meeting in September, and I have reflected on Emma Green’s article in The Atlantic on just this topic.1
In general, I think it’s important to ask questions about Black Lives Matter that haven’t been asked, or to highlight answers that clarify it more fully so that people might understand the extent of religious reaction to it or involvement in it.
What I have seen is that there is not one approach, but many, to the movement on the part of black churches.
There is a general assumption out there that black churches have shunned, ignored, or even disrespected the Black Lives Matter movement. There certainly are instances where there has been some distance, as reported by Angel Jennings in the Los Angeles Times.2 There have also been statements and special emphases, such as Black Lives Matter Sunday in 2014, in some circles. And, as Emma Green pointed out in her Atlantic piece, there have been some charges of exploitation where some ministers have used the movement to their advantage.
Just because the church has not been in the lead does not mean the Black Lives Matter movement is free of religion or spirituality.
But as the movement has gained stature since the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, some black church leaders have acknowledged they have been grappling with how to address it. Now there are some church leaders that are supportive. Last weekend in Long Island, there was an incident where a black former corrections officer was reported to have been beaten by white police officers who mistook him for a thief, and one of the protesters you saw on the news was a minister with a megaphone. So there definitely are clergy who are involved in the movement.
Leaders of historically black churches, some of whom were involved, or whose forebears were involved, in the civil rights movement, say they’ve long been about “black lives matter.” The history of historically black churches include black congregants being lifted from their knees when praying, or otherwise disrespected or segregated from white congregants, which is what led to many of them leaving denominations and starting their own churches. The African Methodist Episcopal Church is an example of that.3 A little bit of a history lesson can be key to connecting the past with the present—and such historical context is important for religion journalism, as well as other newswriting.
In a story I wrote recently about the involvement of seminarians in studying Black Lives Matter, I was able to point out that there is not always an intergenerational disconnect between the protesters of today and their elders in the civil rights movement.4
In an interview with Dean Emilie Townes of Vanderbilt Divinity School earlier this year, I learned that an alumna of her school was instrumental in starting the Nashville chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement. And that alumna, D. J. Hudson, in turn, told me that it was a civil rights veteran—the Reverend James Lawson—who instructed her and inspired her as she prepared for that Black Lives Matter activism in Tennessee. Lawson was integrally involved in instructing students who led the sit-ins of the 1960s.
Another assumption is that the Black Lives Matter movement is not religious but is solely secular. Just because the church has not been in the lead does not mean the Black Lives Matter movement is free of religion or spirituality.
Those involved and supporting the movement may not be in the church, but many consider themselves spiritual.
People of a variety of religious expressions found themselves looking to their faith, leaning on their faith to determine what can be considered a Black Lives Matter theology. The Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a St. Louis–born theologian, succinctly stated during a 2015 panel discussion, “Ferguson & Faith in the 21st Century”: “If ‘Black Lives Matters’ is a word, then Ferguson is a word made flesh.”
Inspired by the Bible’s story of David and Goliath, Christian activist Bree Newsome felt moved to climb up a flagpole and take down the Confederate flag after the deaths of nine people at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Jan Willis, a religious studies professor at Agnes Scott College, drew on Buddhist meditations that focus on compassion and equality.
As Hebah Farrag pointed out in a Religion Dispatches article, one of the founders of the movement, Patrisse Cullors-Brignac, grew up a Jehovah’s Witness but is now a practitioner of Ifa, a religious tradition from Nigeria.
Leah Gunning Francis, dean at Christian Theological Seminary, has written a book called Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, which looks at how clergy of a variety of faiths realized they had to step out and join young protesters rather than wait for the protesters to darken their doors. That book is part of a curriculum this semester at New York Theological Seminary, whose course offerings include a Black Lives Matter class.
One of the frequent responses we hear to “Black Lives Matter” is the retort “All lives matter.” Some of my sources would say that those two statements are not mutually exclusive. One seminarian I recently interviewed said she engages in a debate about those two phrases with her colleagues. And, as a number of us—including Ellen Ishkanian of The Boston Globe—reported, sometimes that debate extends to the physical destruction or defacing of church signs that say “Black Lives Matter.”
Whether they use those specific three words or not, some denominations, as pointed out in Rachel Zoll’s AP story, have in recent years issued statements rejecting racism. Her report also drew connections from the past to the present, such as the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island’s plans to house a museum inside its now-closed cathedral about the church’s involvement in the slave trade.
While some religiously affiliated people are considering whether to use the words “Black Lives Matter,” others are moving even further and using the phrase “white privilege.”
Like the New York Theological Seminary class that is looking at the country’s history of slavery, brutality against African Americans, and “white privilege,” others are looking back and finding and unearthing the truth of the past.
While some religiously affiliated people are considering whether to use the words “Black Lives Matter,” others are moving even further and using the phrase “white privilege,” which is something I did not hear many churches talking about in the past. Some church communities are making sure that people understand what that term means—not experiencing or not knowing the unfair treatment that has been endured by nonwhites. There are examples of a church in Washington, DC, that had a “white ally” class, a church in the middle of the country that focused on the topic “Cracking the Shell of Whiteness,” and conferences where people have held discussions about white privilege, white power, and racism.
In general, there are more instances of churches deciding that they can’t just check off their racial justice to-do list by saying that they’ve had a Black History Month event.
Others, who fully acknowledge the country’s fraught history on race relations, say that using the term “white privilege” will stop rather than start discussions.
One minister I have interviewed, Alan Cross, said: “In the South, amongst conservative evangelicals, that would be a nonstarter to use that language.” Cross has written a book on racism and Southern evangelicals.5 He told me, “If you step back, a lot of people would agree if we talk about what we mean instead of just using the term.”
As we explore the issue of religious literacy and journalism, especially as it relates to African Americans, I think it’s important for us to look back even as we look ahead. And it’s important to explore which words people use, which they won’t use, and what all of the terms really mean.
As a footnote—which I don’t usually get to do in journalism—I wanted to point out that to do this kind of substantive coverage takes a lot of time, it takes a lot of money, and, if possible, it takes travel, which a lot of journalists can’t afford to do anymore. That’s a big challenge for journalism in general right now, and for religion journalism.
I want to reiterate what Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times said [in this symposium’s keynote address] about the importance of scholars talking with us. Reporters do not know everything. We need to talk to the people who know more than us to write good stories. So I implore scholars to return our calls—please.
I also want to stress the need for there to be a variety of resources out there for reporters; one model is ReligionLink, put out by the Religion News Foundation. It includes a source guide on Black Lives Matter that lists links for reporters—and other interested people—to get background on this subject and to learn about scholars across the country doing work on this topic.
- Emma Green, “Black Activism, Unchurched,” The Atlantic, March 22, 2016.
- Angel Jennings, “Why the Bedrocks of L.A.’s Civil Rights Movements Won’t Embrace Black Lives Matter,” Los Angeles Times, August 29, 2016.
- The official website of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) explains: “The AMEC grew out of the Free African Society (FAS) which Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others established in Philadelphia in 1787. When officials at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church pulled blacks off their knees while praying, FAS members discovered just how far American Methodists would go to enforce racial discrimination against African Americans. Hence, these members of St. George’s made plans to transform their mutual aid society into an African congregation.”
- Adelle M. Banks, “Seminaries Start Black Lives Matter Courses,” Religion News Service, December 7, 2016.
- Alan Cross, When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus (NewSouth Books, 2014).
Adelle M. Banks is production editor and a national reporter for Religion News Service. This is an edited version of a presentation she delivered in a “Black Lives Matter” panel during the “Religious Literacy and Journalism Symposium” held December 8-9, 2016, at HDS.