The leadership in the fight against racial injustice is shifting, and social media plays a massive role in mobilizing activism.
The legacy of generations of injustice lays thick upon the United States.
Those who want to work for change – including churches and people of faith – need to think big about complicated issues contributing to institutional racism, such as land use and banking policy, access to jobs, and educational inequities.
Addressing issues of racial injustice in the United States, a series of speakers at the “Race, Faith and Community” consultation convened by Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary Oct. 12-13 pushed hard on the problems, and on the responsibility Christians and those of other faiths have to respond to racial injustice. The event was held to mark the 30th anniversary of the Grawemeyer Awards and as part of the annual fall consultation of the seminary’s Black Church Studies program.
Barbara D. Savage, a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania and winner of the 2012 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, traced the complexities of the relationship between President Barack Obama and his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago – and the many lessons that Obama’s personal faith journey and the rise of black church activism have to teach about injustice and racial identity in America.
Oversimplifications “still have so much traction,” she said, because African American religion is a source of both mystery and manipulation, particularly by the mass media on the hunt to to highlight conflict.
Savage said she sometimes refers to the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a “religious rebellion,” even though its leaders don’t come from the ranks of traditional black church leadership. She described it as a movement of radical inclusion that is “spirit-filled, with rituals and talk of healing and wholeness, outside the confines of organized religion.”
Many of those leaders come from religious backgrounds. In his presentation, #BlackLivesMatter organizer DeRay Mckesson said that “Jesus was a protestor,” and “the Jesus I learned to love would have been there” on the streets in Ferguson, protesting the police killing of Michael Brown.
These young activists may “have rejected the religions in which they were raised” – not seeing the churches as inclusive or committed enough – but retained “a deep spirituality…It is there and it is powerful,” Savage said.
“This is a movement for liberation, releasing us from traditions and habits, of hierarchies and powers all around us,” she said. “It aims to liberate us, so we might also experience freedom here before we take to our graves.”
Theologian Willie James Jennings, winner of the 2015 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, spoke of “racialized geography,” and how segregated spaces continue the legacy and patterns of colonialism, violence and exploitation. “We have performed our faith right on top of those developments, often presenting them as natural and normal ways of forming life and living in the world, when in fact they have never been natural and normal,” Jennings said. “The way space is divided isn’t normal.”
James recounted, for example, the history of “sundown towns” in the U.S., where people of color were forbidden to live or to be after dark. “Sundown towns gave rise to sundown suburbs,” he said, and to neighborhoods subdivided by race and income. Sundown Christianity, James said, “lives in the violent geographic inertia of segregation, and does little to address that history.”
He told of visiting his daughter at college in Maryland, and driving all the way down a certain street in town, from the upscale eateries on one end to dilapidation on the other, “one street connecting poverty and wealth,” with people of vastly disproportionate means living parallel lives. “This is not by accident,” Jennings said. “Space and place for us are always designed.” Policies that institutionalize and support racial and economic segregation create spaces “that normalize white dominance.”
He described the “theology of extraction,” the view that “the land can be turned into money,” and that “we may take from the land whatever we wish, and use the land to produce whatever we want.” That leads to displacement, to environmental degradation, to the idea that possession of the land is far more important than relationships with the people who live on the land, Jennings said.
In all of this, churches are complicit, he contends. “We have been the high priests of segregated places, segregated spaces” and of “the economic driver of that violent geography.”
People of faith need to get involved, Jennings said –need to have a voice in the setting of zoning and land-use regulations and other policy issues that affect how land gets used. “The answer is not a few more mixed neighborhoods,” he said.
Churches need to “learn the truth and tell the truth,” knowing who lived on the land before that church took possession, and understanding the geographic story of people of color in their communities – where did they live, and why? Native Americans and indigenous peoples around the world lead the way, Jennings said, in teaching that land matters.
When police get involved – when there are confrontations between the police and people of color – “they are policing not the safety of bodies, but the safety of space,” Jennings said.
And when churches get involved in public policy – in issues of how land gets used and why – they teach Christians “a wider and deeper sense of what discipleship can look like.”