Cheryl J. Sanders is professor of Christian ethics at Howard University and senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, DC. Her several books include Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People, Ministry at the Margins, and Saints in Exile: The Holiness-Pentecostal Experience in African American Religion and Culture. Her current research is centered on past and present black Christian public intellectual discourses. She is president of the American Theological Society.
Do Black Lives Matter to God? Reflections on History, Theology, and Hope Amid the Flames of Outrage
June 17, 2020
Faith-based opposition to racial injustice, especially as manifested by police violence, comprises a prominent feature of recent protests throughout the nation and the world in response to the widely publicized video recording of the murder of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis. Many pastors and faith leaders have organized themselves and their constituents to participate in mass demonstrations in cities where police killings have occurred, including Minneapolis, Louisville, Atlanta, and Washington, DC. Their direct involvement in the protests has included organizing participants and presenting speeches, prayers, and gestures signifying worship, lament, and resistance. Some faith leaders have worn clergy vestments to clearly identify themselves with particular religious traditions. Prominent black public intellectuals and activists have been interviewed by major news outlets to offer interpretative commentaries from the vantage point of black religion and spirituality.
Beyond the power of the spoken word, practices of pastoral care, religious ethics, and theology figure prominently in the shape of religious activism for racial justice. Pastoral care providers are among the first responders in the social crisis brought to bear by the police killings. Their role is to heal, console, intercede, and intervene, not only for the individuals and families most directly affected by these incidents, but also to act on behalf of communities, cities, and nations as harbingers of salvation and hope. Religious leaders stand in the gap to promote peaceful protest on the one hand, but also to cry aloud in lament of the pain and tragedy of injustice on the other. Under these peculiar circumstances, the faith-based activist who offers pastoral care to bereaved and outraged citizens must also engage the soul of a divided nation as flames of outrage erupt in our cities and communities.
Religious ethics has an immediate and obvious impact in situations where the focus is on social justice. The abiding template of nonviolent resistance to racial injustice was stamped upon the American psyche more than 50 years ago by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His methods of protest still dominate the thought and action of today's religious activists, including some who actually marched with him in the 1950s and 60s. While it is fitting and proper to honor his legacy and mimic his methodology, more can be done to garner a fuller appreciation of Dr. King as a theologically educated, organic intellectual. He gave great speeches and sermons, but more attention needs to be given to emulation of his Christian social ethics, legislative acumen, and strategic influence of public policy.
Dr. King earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology at the Boston University School of Theology. In his first book Stride Toward Freedom, he described his pilgrimage to nonviolence as an intellectual journey influenced by theologians whose work was foundational in the formulation of his own theological vocation as an agent of social change engaged in the analysis and dismantling of systems of segregation and racial injustice. In his "Letter from Birmingham Jail," Dr. King subjected white segregationists to serious theological and ethical scrutiny on the grounds of Christian faith. Dr. King's homiletical skill as a black Baptist preacher enabled him to harness major media outlets to promote his social gospel to the world. Today's activists remain in his debt for the nonviolent methodology of the protest march, but there is a lot more to be learned from his legacy than can be captured by a few sentences and sound bites from one storied speech about a dream.
There are three kinds of steps faith leaders and religious practitioners can take now to chart a course toward the realization of the American ideals of freedom, justice, and equality for all: (1) historical; (2) eschatological; and (3) theological.
There can be no racial reconciliation and healing going forward in the absence of frank and accurate accounting of the history of white supremacy as a national and global phenomenon. Since its 2016 opening, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture has become one of the most popular tourist sites in Washington. Visitors who enter on the street level have a choice: descend to the lower floors to view exhibits that depict African-American suffering through the horrors of slavery and racial terrorism, or ascend to the upper floors to view exhibits that celebrate African-American cultural achievement in the arts, athletics, media, and the military. A considerable amount of time and emotional energy is required to engage both areas. A balanced view of our current situation necessitates acknowledgment of the history of black suffering in addition to celebration of black achievement. Religious leaders and scholars have an important role to play as stewards of the complexity of this African-American narrative as told from the vantage point of religion and spirituality.
This is an opportune time for people and communities of faith to promote an eschatology of thriving and hope. June 1 marks the ninety-ninth anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa, Oklahoma race riots, when angry white mobs targeted a thriving black community known as "The Black Wall Street," destroying people's lives, homes, churches, businesses, and hope. Yet, even this sordid history stands as a reminder that black thriving—signifying a synergy of healthy individuals, institutions, and initiatives—can be uplifted as a meaningful measure of social justice. In this light, religious leaders and faith communities can seize the moment by initiating difficult but necessary public conversations about reparations, reconciliation, and hope.
Perhaps the most urgent theological question to be addressed at this critical moment is this: Do black lives matter to God? If the answer is "yes," then we are obliged to affirm black thriving and hope, to renounce the idolatry of white supremacy, and to commit ourselves to theological realignment in faith communities, theological institutions, and ecumenical organizations that will support the advancement of black people without apology or contradiction, and with justice for all.