Can The Protest Movement Reform The Church?

Yesterday, on Easter Sunday, protest leaders from Millenial Activists United held a very quiet and peaceful demonstration outside of a church in St. Louis. There was no chanting, just humming and signs being held. Signs that carried messages such as, "crucifixion = lynching" and "Mike Brown was the least of these." Their goal was to remind Black Christians of the radical message of Christ and the implications his death and resurrection have for the today's world. Some church members greeted the demonstrators with support and love. Others felt the demonstration was disrespectful. In the end, apparently, the church went as far as to call the police on the demonstrators. The demonstration was live tweeted using the hashtag #BlackChurch.

This action reminded me of a piece I wrote not too long ago but never got to share. Like those demonstrators I too wonder why many congregants of Black churches have been silent on the issue of police brutality, especially considering the parrellels that can be drawn between the cross, the lynching tree, and police brutality as it exists today. It would seem that the revolutionary life that Jesus lived and the history of activism that exists within many Black church traditions would be enough to garner support across denominations. However, this has not been the case and many young people involved in the nationwide movement to change the culture of police and bring justice to the victims of state sponsored violence have felt abandoned by their local churches.

The questions being raised and the pressure being put on the church can bring nothing but positive change. As more churches respond to the criticism from protesters the more likely it will become that the church will be an even better transformative force in society.

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Historically, the church, especially the Black church, has been credited with being at the heart of the fight for liberation, justice, and equality here in the United States of America. Throughout this history many great prophetic leaders haven emerged from the Black church such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer, and Martin Luther King Jr. These leaders, and others like them, were not only critical of American society but were also critical of the very religious tradition that was the foundation of their activism. If the church is to live out Jesus’s radical call for justice and love and have relevancy in the current social movement in the continued fight against racism and police brutality, it must maintain this prophetic tradition and also recapture a theology that both articulates the present struggle of Black Americans and reflects the needs of the community it has been called to serve.
Since its inception the Black church has done this almost instinctively. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, professor of religion at Goucher College, notes that even the earliest of proselytized enslaved Africans recognized the “major shortcoming of an interpretation of Christianity that emphasized the incarnation at the expense of Jesus’s earthly ministry.” What would later be labeled as “slaveholding Christianity” was the theological understanding in America that produced the “White Christ.” According to Douglas, “Evangelists were able to spiritualize the themes of Christian freedom and equality. They essentially reasoned that what Jesus did in human history was disconnected from the salvation that he offered. Subsequently, the salvation that he offered was unrelated to what took place in human history. According to this version of Christianity, the only freedom Jesus offered was in ‘heaven’ not on earth.” While some enslaved Africans accepted this version of Christianity many others rejected it. Hidden services were conducted where another understanding was developed. This understanding produced the “Black Christ which reflected an “intimate relationship between Jesus and the slaves, radicalized the slaves to fight for their freedom, and illuminated the contradiction between Christianity and the cruelty of slavery.”
This type of critical analysis that exposes how harmful Eurocentric theologies were and are to Black Americans is essential to creating a theological response to the racism and white supremacy that is pervasive in the church and American society. In 1969, with the backdrop of the Black Power movement, James Cone sat down to carry on this tradition by writing a theology that would go on to transform the landscape of American Christian thought. Black Liberation Theology provides a systematic analysis of the social climate that exists for Blacks in America from a theological perspective. Over the past 45 years many other Black theologians such as Dwight Hopkins, Jacquelyn Grant, Albert Cleage, Delores Williams, Katie Cannon, and J. Deotis Roberts have done the work of rejecting the Western notion that theology, specifically White theology, is universal. It is dangerous when theology is seen as universal in a society dominated by one culture. Theologians from the dominant culture often ignore the conditions of marginalized people which leads to versions of Christianity that are violent and oppressive.
The question that the Black church must answer today is, “What is its primary mission?” History tells us that the Black church has always been concerned with both saving souls and saving bodies. But when we lessen our own prophetic voices and idolize hegemonic theologies and preach/teach them as normative and universal, the church loses its identity and mission. The current social climate is ripe for the kind of prophetic and radical leadership that was integral to past social movementsWill Black Christians respond in a way, similar to their ancestors, that makes the church pertinent in the fight against state-sponsored violence toward their community? Or will they accept a version of Christianity that sustains an unjust status quo?
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1 comment:

  1. "However, this has not been the case and many young people involved in the nationwide movement to change the culture of police and bring justice to the victims of state sponsored violence have felt abandoned by their local churches." This was (and even is, currently) my struggle and frustration. This whole piece is such an insightful and refreshing reflection. Thank you!

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