Josef Sorett is professor of religion and African American and African diaspora studies at Columbia University, where he is also chair of the Department of Religion and directs the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics, and Social Justice. His first book, Spirit in the Dark: A Religious History of Racial Aesthetics (2016), illumines how religion has figured in debates about Black art and culture across the twentieth century. He co-curated a Berkley Forum on "The Black Church in American Public Life," published in April 2021.
The Movement for Black Lives has earned this moniker, in part, because social media has been key to both the content and form of its organizing practices. Hashtags are made both to stage demonstrations and perform the work of memorialization (i.e. #SayHerName). Its novelty is also associated with a strident critique of what Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham named as the “politics of respectability.” This disavowal signals alienation from traditional black institutions, even as it advances a vision of racial justice that embraces class, gender, and sexual difference.
On each of these counts, #BlackLivesMatter is cast as a break from the black past and, specifically, a full departure from “the black church.” Yet the movement is not as far removed from the traditions of Afro-Protestantism as it is often thought to be. It is well known that engaging the media was central to social change strategy in the 1960s; and, frankly, church leadership has always been a bit more “queer” than public commitments to hetero-masculinity would suggest.
On theological terms, many have noted the “unorthodox” backgrounds of the three women often cited as movement founders. Patrisse Cullors is an Ifa practitioner. Alicia Garza claims Marxist ideology. Opal Tometi identifies with liberation theology. Individually, their respective spiritual commitments are presented as aberrations from an American Christian norm. Together, #BlackLivesMatter is figured as a fall from true faith.
To the contrary, rather than heresy or decline, this heterodoxy is in keeping with the long history of Afro-Protestantism. Before (and since) “the black church” emerged as a singular construct, the network of congregations, theologies, and political orientations located under this banner shared much in common with the organizing logics attributed to #BlackLivesMatter. Black churches began with decentralized structural arrangements and doctrinal diversity, and they are still comprised by an uneven ensemble of local agendas, actors, ideas, and organizations.
To be sure, today’s Civil Rights Movement has decentered churches, but it has also made a claim for a different kind of church. In this regard, #BlackLivesMatter strikes me as an effort to reclaim, reconstitute, and reimagine a religious tradition born in the midst of a struggle for freedom. Afro-Protestantism was informed by (but never to be conflated with) Christian orthodoxy and institutional life. Black life—in all its quotidian beauty and splendid contradictions—was the measure of good religion and the ultimate prize. Church, if nothing else, has been and remains a sign of that prize.
#BlackLivesMatter, in truth, is more akin to a platform update than a full system reboot. And on closer inspection, the Movement for Black Lives bears the marks of something very “church” in the making.
This article was originally published on the Immanent Frame. An expanded and revised version of this reflection will be published in the January 2017 issue of Public Culture, as “A Fantastic Church? Literature, Politics, and the Afterlives of Afro-Protestantism.”