Rev. Jennifer S. Leath, Ph.D., is Queens National Scholar and assistant professor of Black religions at Queen's University, Canada. Her research concentrates on the intersection of sexualities and religions in sacred communities and spaces of African diaspora.
Justice is a moving target, and with each victory justice claims there is a “however.” The Emancipation Proclamation was declared in 1863; however, those enslaved in Galveston did not receive word of liberation until 1865. We have celebrated Juneteenth since June 19, 1865; however, the pronouncement did not block the course of racism into the present day. However, . . .
A generous interpretation might suggest that religion attracts and sustains our attention to a righteous way of life through a liberating belief system—if not also a civil society. Yet, a fundamental paradox of modern religion is this: that scholars of religion have complied with the axiom “[t]hou shalt not quest for the origin of religion” while holding fast to premise that “religion itself, whether ‘primitive’ or ‘highly developed,’ is preeminently concerned with origins” . Then too, as Tomoko Masuzawa observes: “The modern discourse on religion and religions was from the very beginning—that is to say, inherently, if also ironically—a discourse of secularization; at the same time, it was clearly a discourse of othering” . Accordingly, we might redefine religion as that which binds communities for the systemic deployment of creeds, codes, and cultus that veil, confuse, depress, and retire extraordinary and everyday holiness .
Consequently, three points surface that I believe are worth mentioning in this present discourse on racial justice: There is nothing new about “fake news”—and religion is as susceptible as secular journalism; quests for origins are necessary if impossible pursuits; it is unclear that any type or degree of religious awakening will dislodge the othering and disciplining work of religion. With these points in mind, it is no surprise that religious communities and practitioners are still finding their bearings in the wake of 2020 protests for racial justice. After all, COVID-19 invites forms of ritual and protest without public presence; this requires unprecedented strategic creativity.
There is also a glorification of fake news about material details of global and local affairs—and such news is increasingly weaponized to serve personal and parochial political interests and obfuscate religious responsibility; this requires greater humility and deeper study both with respect to what we know about world and with respect to what is elevated to the category of divine revelation or “natural law.”
There is a fight over historical record, time, and origins—and the traditional victors maintain the terms of the fight to perpetuate their religious and civic hegemony (even affirming diversity when it suits their domination power); this requires uncovering other origins; the toppling of the statues of Confederate soldiers; the renaming of sites honoring those who have proudly promoted white supremacy; the building of memorials and institutions honoring justice fighters lynched, massacred, and martyred as a result of white nationalism; and the establishment of holy days marking disruptions to violence and xenophobia.
There is a need to be woke when religion—including many expressions of Black religiosity—has been placating people, convincing communities of the normality of their suffering and their relative righteousness and civility vis-à-vis others; this requires a street faith operating according to a post-institutional, soul-sense of morality where the relentless demands of justice constantly haunt those who preach love; the embarrassment, conviction, and transformation of religious institutions that reflect predominantly white leadership and membership; the destruction of prisons, precincts, and halls of (in)justice erected to maintain Black inferiority and suffering in the name of white superiority through pseudo-meritocracies. However, . . .
There is so much more that must be dismantled with respect to religion and society for the sake of racial justice, for a just society to emerge. The possible interventions that have been named are incomplete and cosmetic at best. And for religious practitioners, few things are more terrible than this knowledge: The quest for racial justice and the dissolution of all forms of xenophobia is a soul struggle—and, considering its origins, religion cannot help.
Sadly, historical records of diverse religious institutions reflect the ambivalence of religious institutions when it comes to racial (and other forms of social) justice. The best that pastoral care, religious ethics, and theology have to offer right now is a persistent, activating, practicable, and survival-oriented critique of religiosities and societies that perpetuate domination power models, othering, origin veiling, and unacknowledged subjectivity. Religious practitioners can sit at the feet of the leaderful streets: Listen, learn, and act to end the injustice of sinful sufferings that result from social organizations and relationships built with primordial premises of person(s)-over-person(s). However, . . .
The perpetual cycle of “however” when it comes to racial justice originates in the soul. And what do we know about our souls? Do we have an adequate appreciation of the intangible, immaterial aspect of humanity qua “soul”? What cures soul dis-ease—perpetually defaulting to biases and imbalances of inequality and inequity? What balm is there for the soul? How tragic it is to conclude that the fight for racial justice is a soul fight—and that religion is most unprepared to equip those unable to breathe through the suffocating force of knee on neck!
It is our sacred duty and call to constantly (re)habituate our souls—through sanctified imaginations—to holy demonstrations of pluriversal equity. “However” can signal the process, the habituation.
However (that is, by whatever means necessary), we must now exercise the commitment, focus, discipline, and perseverance to do this—because the souls of Black folks continue to moan and groan under deadweight of the color line .
- Tomoko Masuzawa, In Search of Dreamtime: The Quest for the Origin of Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), 2–3.
- Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions, or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 20.
- Contra Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion, 4th ed. (Wadsworth Publishing, 2006).
- W. E. B. DuBois, Henry Louis Gates, and Terri Hume Oliver, The Souls of Black Folk: A Norton Critical Edition (New York: W. W. Norton, 1999).