Amid Phantoms of Death: A Call for New Paradigms of Religious Response to Uprisings for Black Lives

By: Cleve V. Tinsley IV

June 18, 2020

Religion and Racial Justice: The George Floyd Protests

At this writing, it’s been 21 days of what Robin D. G. Kelley labels, perhaps presciently in his upcoming book Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem, the great rebellion of summer 2020. Young activists and organizers are risking life and limb in all 50 U.S. states and at least 12 different countries, leading protests in response to the glaring lack of moral leadership and political will in the face of a historic global pandemic, a crippling economic recession, and growing social unrest at the spate of police violence enacted against black Americans. We can’t ignore how this confluence of factors shapes the magnitude and significance of what we see happening now. The death—the brutal murder—of George Floyd is the unquestionable galvanizing event for the uprisings we see taking place. The egregious nature of Floyd’s murder—the contemptuous and merciless knee to Floyd's neck, Floyd's calling out for his mother, and Floyd's uttering of the now-too-common refrain “I can’t breathe”— recalls, even signifies, a disturbing and ritual character to the management of Blackness and black bodies in America. Floyd’s lynching erupted a dormant yet already bubbling volcano of rage and radical resistance. 

There were already rumblings of an eruption and broad uprising at the senseless killings of Ahmaud, Breonna, and Nina. And just two days following Floyd’s death, Tony McDade’s killing by police in Florida sparked activist furor all the more. As if we hadn’t already seen enough black death, we collectively sighed when learning of the murder of 19-year-old Oluwatoyin Salau; we cringed at the news about blacks being found mysteriously hung; we were enraged at the public spectacle and mowing down of Rayshard Brooks. Against this backdrop, under the constant threat and reality of black death, many, rightfully, wonder about the role and utility of religion in today’s movements for racial justice.

A palpable tension exists between the nature of current uprisings for black life and the traditional approaches religious practitioners have employed in their past participation in human rights struggles. While many point to the historical legacy that churches have played as critical contributors in pushes for social change during civil rights movements, for example, younger activists today tend to reject the inherited tactics of respectability they recommend in favor of a new cultural politics of difference. With an array of desires and unique sensibilities for expressing them, today’s young activists present a challenge to religious practitioners

For one, this moment calls upon faith communities and practitioners to contribute fresh interpretations to discursive conversations about the nature and meaning of black life in America today. There have always been interminable debates in this regard. Yet there is more to be understood about how the degradations to Blackness in this country, along with centuries of attendant anti-black inequality, have configured unique experiences for black Americans from which this nation can learn. As I see it, thoughtful religious practitioners can offer influential perspectives about the inherent integrity of all human life. They certainly possess the cultural power to do so. The sinister side of this power was recently evinced when popular Christian rap artist Lecrae found himself embroiled in controversy over a recent conversation with Louie Giglio about race and privilege. Many feel he didn’t adequately address the white supremacist logic the evangelical pastor extended when suggesting his white privilege was analogous to divine blessing. Such cases point to the potential pitfalls of religious rhetoric and its constructive work. 

As James Baldwin suggests, language (de)construction is indeed political: One must disentangle and correct, if possible, the inherent presumptions within a language community that dubiously symbolizes as “other” those with less power in the community. This constructive work is exceedingly difficult. It will be impossible for many religious practitioners to do this effectively if they are not open to moving past some of the inherent dogmatism and moral superiority in their traditions that have come to define and bind them in community. Here there are many black thinkers one can research and to whom faith practitioners might look to for help in this task. There are the influential sages like Katie Canon and James Cone, to be sure. Still, there are also many other theologians and ethicists doing phenomenal work (Eboni Marshall Turman and Keri Day, for example), exposing how white supremacist and neoliberal powers work to snuff out black life chances and how black feminist and womanist perspectives are powerful alternatives that press religious institutions and practitioners toward more just realities.

This moment also calls for faith practitioners to adapt and craft more effective strategies for community building and organizing that fit the new cultural zeitgeist. As former president Obama noted recently, current resistance movements can be touchpoints for us to create real change. Yet faith communities must be open to learning from a new generation of activists. The radical resistance strategies they employ now are not new; instead, they build upon a long history of black freedom struggle. We can learn not only from their robust collaborative and coalitional approach to addressing racial injustice issues, but we can also learn from how they deliberately push against toxic power arrangements in their organizing and movement building work—against hierarchy, patriarchy, sexism, and homophobia, as examples. Young activists also have a lot to teach faith communities about sharing and redistributing organizing power back to vulnerable populations most affected by racial injustice and inequity. These activists cut against the grain of traditional religious leadership and organizing. As Barbara Ransby illumines, these kinds of strategies resonate with and build on the stellar work of organizers and activists like Ella Baker, who is rightfully lauded for how she instilled confidence in black communities to advocate and organize for themselves. 

Faith communities and practitioners mustn’t under-utilize their rich traditions of community mobilizing and convening, however. Now, more than ever, we need faith communities to organize for critical intellectual exchange. Faith communities that do so might build more community trust and relationships toward collaboration and coalition for justice. Building trust requires that faith communities take up some of their stakes. They will have let go of the need to control what moral and political action frameworks are centered. Finally, the purpose of critical engagement must explicitly seek to construct theologies and praxes that address anti-black racism. Religious communities can no longer gloss over the reality that white supremacist hetero-patriarchy and racial capitalism, along with all of the menacing effects entrained with them, is founded upon a virulent, death-dealing anti-Blackness. The salient reality of black death and the rage and fear it engenders among blacks at this moment demands religious responses to injustice and inequality that unequivocally regard black lives mattering.

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