Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter

April 23, 2018

Students and scholars gathered in historic Riggs Library on April 10 to listen to panelists investigate the interaction between racial and religious groups in response to issues of injustice and ensuing protest movements at the Berkley Center event “Race, Religion, and Black Lives Matter.”

Georgetown professor Terrence Johnson moderated the event, which featured speakers Rev. Yolanda Pierce, activist and professor Jalane Schmidt, and Rev. Jim Wallis.

BLM and the Black Church

Pierce, who serves as dean of Howard University School of Divinity, described how much tension exists between black churches and the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, though she observed that there were exceptions to this pattern, such as in the protests that occurred after civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014. 

“It was actually churches that opened up their doors and allowed busloads of people to come and sleep as they were protesting,” Pierce said. 

In noting that the primary actors in the Black Lives Matter were not religious leaders, Pierce raised the question of whether religious leaders were still necessary for the movement.

“I think the larger conversation has to do with whether or not we need religious bodies to be leaders and whether or not we’re still stuck on a model of religious leadership in which we expect a singular figure, like a pastor, to be on the front line,” Pierce said. 

New Faces of Change

Black Lives Matter activist Schmidt concurred with Pierce that the nature of leadership structure in the Black Lives Matter movement presents a contrast that can be uncomfortable for advocates of the clergy-led Civil Rights Movement of the mid-twentieth century. 

“Black Lives Matter was founded by three queer black women,” Schmidt said. “It’s explicitly rejecting this hetero-patriarchal model of black male preachers leading the charge and everyone filing in behind them.” 

Generational Differences

She also asserted that the tension between the black church and a younger, less religious activist movement were partly generational.

The panel explored the motivations of this generation of activists, who as, Rev. Wallis observed, are much less likely to be religiously affiliated. Still, that does not necessarily mean they are irreligious. 

Pierce agreed that religious and moral principles still influence modern-day protest movements, even as society shifts away from religious institutions. 

“I’m encountering people—it’s not that they don’t believe in God—but they simply reject some of the hypocrisy that so many churches have embodied, and they’re trying to find a different way,” Pierce said.

Racism in White America

Wallis reflected on the ways white Christian congregations fail to acknowledge the effects of racism. He noted that racism is rarely spoken of as a sin, despite its infringement upon human dignity. 

“We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness. Racial bigotry is a brutal denial of the image of God,” Wallis said. 

He noted that the discussion about race, religion, racism needs to address systemic issues within religious organizations and society at large: “Until we see this as really something that has the soul of our nation and the integrity of our faith, we’re just having academic and political conversations.”

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