What is required of humanity to address the issues of mass incarceration, police brutality, and so many more?
#BlackLivesMatter! A growing global movement of the same Twitter hashtag name addressing the civil and human rights of a new generation has been born. The new movement has been forming for centuries on the shoulders of prior movements, uprisings and rebellions. #BlackLivesMatter has been revered as the new civil rights/black power movement.
With a focus on equality for blacks and poor people, between 1954 and 1968 the Civil Rights Movement came alive in the United States. It inspired and was inspired by social movements and leaders in black communities around the world, representing the voices and concerns of marginalized, oppressed young people of African descent from the Student Nonviolent (National) Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Black Panthers, amongst a number of organizations.
The movement has always been a fluid, non-centralized opposition against oppression and systematic racism through uprisings and protests that were sometimes peaceful and sometimes violent. It continued in the vein of previous movements like the Pan-African movement of the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), the abolitionist movement against chattel slavery including uprisings of enslaved bodies, liberation movements of Africans against colonization by Europeans including the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Mau Mau uprisings of South Africa and Kenya, respectively, and movements, uprisings and rebellions too numerous to count. People who believed that basic human rights, equality and dignity must be afforded for all individuals regardless of race and class led these movements.
On the heels of the civil rights movement came the end of apartheid, the beginning of the womanist/black feminist movement as well as the era of hip-hop in the 1980s, the 2000s LGBTQ movement and an overall resurgence in social justice activity. The impetus for the modern day #BlackLivesMatter movement started with the insidious control, through systemic racism, of black people whose humanity had been treated as insignificant nobodies.
The tension that the current movement addresses is the same tension that its predecessor movements stood against — state violence in any form against black people. The #BlackLivesMatter movement is a spiritual matter that expands beyond issues of race and class and includes gender, xenophobia, sexuality and disability as hegemonic discriminatory factors.
The church has always played a pivotal role in the movement. Since the church is not a monolithic entity but comprised of the black church, the white church, the Asian church, the Hispanic/Latino(a) church, and the multicultural church as constructs that mirror the world in which we live, different churches and denominations have had varying spiritual responses to the movement. Likewise, the roles of theologies from liberal gospel to liberation and fundamentalism to charisma have been different toward the movement!
Historically a dominant institution in the world, the church has shaped much of the thinking of what it means to be a Christian with a strong tension between conservative and liberal theologies. For some, a mother’s choice to birth a child is a spiritual decision, yet for others the choice as to whether or not that child is brought into a world of poverty is a spiritual decision. For some, the greatest spiritual issues for poor communities are the crime rate and government assistance, while for others the greatest spiritual issues for the impoverished are a living wage, access to food and health care, education equity and reduced recidivism rates. All of these choices and issues are heavily influenced by how we see ourselves and others as spiritual beings.
In the Bible, the Gospel of Luke 4: 18-19, Jesus Christ states:
“18 The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
19 and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
This scripture, read by Jesus from the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible while he preached in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth, serves as the mission for Jesus’ ministry on earth, the original social justice mandate for all Christians to follow.
In similar fashion, all people of the Bible — Christians, Jews and Muslims — are to follow the mandate from Micah 6:8 of the Hebrew Bible:
“[God] has told you, human one, what is good and
what the Lord requires from you:
to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.”
These scriptures speak to the requirement of humanity that to be human is to love justice, which means to restore what is wrong in society to the right balance, to be compassionate with one another, and to remember God’s awesomeness throughout creation in our daily journey. These spiritual actions are how all human beings, regardless of differences, are to treat each other. When we allow our actions to be spiritually driven, poor people receive good news, prisoners are no longer held captive, the blind have insight, oppression ceases, and our proclamation is a testimony of God’s blessing for a new age.
A spiritually driven social justice mandate reaches beyond what is right or wrong for individual and business interests in a consumerist society. A spiritually driven social justice movement is concerned with the good of all of society, those who have financial means and those who do not, and it is not exclusive of race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, ability or other discriminatory factors. The #BlackLivesMatter movement exemplifies spiritually driven social justice that applies a hermeneutic from the eyes of oppressed black bodies but remains inclusive of other forms of discrimination.
If Christians, like Jesus in the scripture, are spirit-driven, then black lives should have mattered to Christians who used scripture to validate the human trafficking of the Transatlantic/European slave trade of Africans to the Americas, even splitting church denominations over the issue. Black lives should have mattered to Christians at every insurrection, rebellion or uprising against oppressive forces. Black lives should have mattered to Christians who claimed indigenous lands as their own through genocide.
Black lives should matter to Christians who prefer the socially constrained mobility of black bodies unjustly incarcerated by a society continuously seeking a new form of free, enslaved labor. Black lives should matter to Christians even when the orientation of those lives stands out against socially constructed norms. Black lives should matter to Christians when black bodies are limited in physical and mental ability.
Black lives should matter to Christians who pledged to serve and protect yet murdered the bodies of black children as if they were insignificant. From bodies murdered on the transport from Africa to the Americas; from bodies sold for little to nothing only to build the greatest nation on Earth with no recourse for their progeny; from bodies incarcerated unjustly without due process because of race; from bodies experimented on for expediency without consent; from bodies which died for the right to exercise the vote; from bodies of victims of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina who are citizens but were treated as if refugees; from bodies of those who were murdered by a self-proclaimed vigilante named George Zimmerman, who was later acquitted (which spurred the #BlackLivesMatter Movement); and from nine bodies of those who were murdered by a white supremacist named Dylann Roof; from bodies of black children in Flint, Michigan, poisoned by water authorized safe by an environmentally racist governor named Rick Snyder; to the deaths of the Mother Emanuel Nine, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, many others and the bodies of black men and women who were lynched with public fanfare like Jesus was crucified on the cross, Black lives should matter to Christians!
In spite of it all, #BlackLivesMatter, thank God!
This story was written by Rev. D. Anthony Everett and originally published on UMC.org on January 29, 2016.