Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics

Justice

The contributors to the edited volume Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics have crafted brief reflections on the 2020 uprisings

In 2016, two years after the Ferguson uprising that followed the police killing of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, Andrew Prevot and Vincent Lloyd convened a group of scholars to explore the relationship between Christianity and anti-Blackness. We met at Boston College’s retreat center, and we spent time together sharing our research, discussing the relationship between activism and scholarship, eating, and ritual-making. A year later, Orbis published Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics, showcasing some of the research that emerged from that meeting. 

Several of the contributors have crafted brief reflections on the 2020 uprisings, developing the ideas they shared in the published book:

Bryan Massingale | James and Nancy Buckman Chair in Applied Christian Ethics, Fordham University

In the midst of crushing grief and numbing pain, of outraged imprecations and existential fatigue; in the midst of the struggle to remain “professional” while explaining – yet again – why the lynching of Black bodies should come as no surprise in a nation relentlessly committed to white advantage and Black detriment; in the midst of it all, in moments of stillness, I find my thoughts turning to love.  Black love.  Black radical love.  Love of, for, and by Black people.  Because eliminating the scourge of anti-Blackness – creating that utopian “freedom dream” where Black Lives Matter – will not come about because of police body cameras, blacked out Instagram squares, marches and chants, tweeting and mobilizing, or even defunding the police.  We need all that, and more.  Far more.  Anti-Blackness is a spiritual malady, a soul sickness, an interior malformation of a magnitude for which we lack words.  An affliction that can only be healed when we learn how to love Blackness.  Black bodies.  Black people.  Not in a sentimental sense.  Not with corporate neoliberal Benetton/Hallmark “there’s-only-one-race-I-don’t-see-color-deep-down-we’re-all-the-same” superficiality. Rather:  with the profundity of Toni Morrison’s exhortation: “Love your flesh.”  With the courage of James Baldwin’s injunction: “Hold your nakedness as sacred.  And the nakedness of the other as sacred.”  With the passion of a Christian sacrificial love so committed to the Black self and Black neighbor with one’s whole heart, whole soul, whole mind, and whole strength that one is willing “to lay down one’s life” for the full realization of their well-being.  Only this kind of love – a radical love of, for, by, and with Black people – can make of this old world a new world.  A world where Black Lives Matter.  Where Black lives are sacred.  Where Black lives breathe free.

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Andrew Prevot | Associate Professor of Theology, Boston College

There is a certain eroticized fear of the dark, the opaque, the foreign, and the black that shapes American cultures, organizations, and power relations in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. This pervasive “anti-blackness” reflects a generally maladaptive response to the vulnerability of the human condition (its flesh, its uncertainty, its mortality, etc.), as well as a more particular failure to address the trauma, guilt, and injustice that have accumulated over centuries of American slavery and racial discrimination. These forces have long found an outlet in the murderous policing of darkly colored men, women, and children. A litany of the slain starting with George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery could go back for months, years, decades, and centuries. We are fed up with this violence. The cry, “Black Lives Matter”—voiced by variously colored bodies; expressed through marches, vigils, altercations, statements, and think pieces; and gradually fortified through material changes in institutional policies, capital flows, and affective allegiances—aims to shift the powerful signifying practices of America’s entire social and psychosomatic fabric. At its best, it takes energy away from the construct of blackness as a dangerous object of excitement and fear (an image that much coverage of the protests nevertheless manages to reproduce) and redirects energy toward the real, complex human lives of black people, while demanding that they—that we—be treated with love and respect.

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Kelly Brown Douglas | Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary

George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are the latest names in a long list of black life lost to the spectacle lynching of white supremacist violence. To call their names is to recognize that the realities of white supremacy which ended their lives is about more than white privilege. It is also about a lethal anti-black narrative. While white supremacy privileges “whiteness,” even as it penalizes people of color, such privileging alone does not account for the sometimes fatally visceral attacks upon black bodies. These attacks reflect an anti-black narrative intrinsic to white supremacy. This narrative, rooted in Europeans’ first encounter with the African continent, negates the very humanity of black people. It regards black people as thoroughly uncivilized, thereby, in need of being controlled and patrolled so to protect civilized humanity—most notably white people. Essentially, according to the anti-black narrative, blackness signals a people so barbaric that they are more beastly than human. This narrative understanding of blackness has penetrated the American imagination and collective consciousness. An almost instinctive fatal response to black bodies, therefore, is virtually inevitable. And so, if the lives of the Georges, Breonnas and Ahmauds in our society are really to matter—then America must reckon with the lethal anti-black narrative that defines white supremacy.

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Elias Ortega | President of Meadville Lombard Theological School

The American Democratic Experiment got off the ground by the transubstantiation of Black Humanity into commodities to be sold for profit, reduced to tools of labor and capital extraction, and to add ignominy to injury, the macabre lynching spectacle of broken lives for the consumption of white audiences. Arduous and bloodied has been the road to refute, refuse, and reclaim the full dignity of Black Humanity against the dehumanization brought about by this experiment. Time and again the path forward has been paved by contestation in the streets. This moment is one in a long series of uprisings seeking to dislodge the grip of systematic racism in the possible futures of Black Lives. In our times, when the Office of the President has shifted from Commander in Chief, an aspirational role that POTUS receives in trust for the task of safeguarding the common good, to the Grand Provocateur, inciting violence and calling for brutalization and exclusion of people of color, particularly Black Lives, it is key to be grounded in the legacy of the Black Freedom Movement and hold the American Democratic Experiment accountable for its death-dealing failures. Today it is critical to affirm and keep pushing for the transformation of current structures into humane and just ones, where Black humanity can be preserved and nurtured, and is able to fully flourish. Only then can the hopes and dreams of the American Democratic Experiment become a reality.

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Santiago Slabodsky | Robert and Florence Kaufman Chair in Jewish Studies, Hofstra University

“If a white man wants to lynch me, that is his problem,” Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Ture once asserted. “If he has the power to lynch me, that is my problem.” Racism for the Africana intellectual was not a problem of “attitude” that can be destabilized with individual good-will and a call for multicultural inclusiveness. It was a problem of “power” emanating from a global system of accumulation that was born only by making racism and sexism key axes of the structure. The power of the contemporary BLM uprising resides precisely in their contextual response to the call of ancestors such as Carmichael/Ture. Following the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and many (many) others, the movement has broken with the narratives of common-good that inundated the US during the pandemia when some of us were staying at home and many others, largely black and brown bodies, were deemed essential (i.e. disposable) and silently annihilated to satisfy the reproduction of a system based on consumption. The movement is reclaiming the streets for those who waited centuries for justice and not for those who waited days for a haircut. They are not asking for a gentler oppression. They learned from Angela Davis that “prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings.” So they are not asking for better conditions for the disproportionally imprisoned, or for more black policeman, or for better jobs in Wall Street. The movement is demanding a complete systemic change: it is a fight for abolition in the US and across the world. In this way they are breaking the frameworks of what is possible to think. For some of us in academia, religious studies, and Christian and Jewish ethics, it is an invitation to participate. But participation does not mean sanitizing the movement, but contesting our own complicity with a world that is indefensible. Recently, Cornel West concluded that he considered the US “a failed social experiment.” For the imagination of BLM, this failure may very well prove to be a true opportunity. 

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Vincent Lloyd | Associate Professor and Director of Africana Studies, Villanova University

The era of multiculturalism is over. Anti-Blackness is not just one more species of racism. It is qualitatively different than other forms of domination. This claim began in the academy but it has now migrated to the streets – and evenmade its way to The New York Times. The appropriate response to what ails the land is not more “diversity,” now a codeword for the bureaucratic apparatus that insulates white supremacy from critique and enriches the multiethnic bourgeoisie. What we need is abolition: of the moral abominations that are prisons and police, and of every instrument of domination that dehumanizes Black folks. Happily, Christian theologians need not invent an abolition theology from scratch. Black theology is abolition theology. As James Cone wrote a half century ago, Black theology aligns with the Black power movement in calling for the “full emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary.” This means pulling down but also building up: Black theologians must embrace the new moral vocabulary circulating in movement spaces, in person and online. This is what the rapper D Smoke calls “Black Habits”: Black love, Black hugs, Black magic, Black excellence, Black pride, Black lives. Black Jesus and Black Moses. Everything Black.

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M. Shawn Copeland | Professor of Theology, emerita, Boston College

For more than 400 years on the North American continent, anti-blackness held black children, women, and men at the bottommost rung of the human ladder. This protracted system of racialized oppression is founded on lies and sustained by violence. The first lie insists that black human beings do not belong to the species of humankind. The second lie slithers from the first: black bodies are fungible market commodities––made to serve, made to use, made to be used. In order to expand the market, a third lie constructs and ranks preferences of color and gender, trumping up illusory hierarchies at the bottom of the ladder to nowhere. The gratuitous and relentless violence that promotes and sustains these lies takes many forms, including the physical, legal, psychological, cultural, religious, societal, political, economic, and technological. As a practicing Catholic Christian and theologian, I single out the violence that Christianity foments and perpetrates. Christianity––even if liberated through the sweat and toil, blood and prayers, suffering and torture of enslaved blackhuman beings––sunders itself in order to prop up anti-black violence. Christianity has and continues to conspire with the ideology and practices of anti-blackness by blessing and promoting socially constructed racial and gender hierarchies; by drenching doctrine in blinkered propaganda; by sundering its moral conscience; by yielding to self-serving idolatry. Christianity shares much responsibility for the ongoing blight of anti-blackness, for the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and for the deaths of hundreds of thousands more blackhuman persons.

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To learn more about what the other contributors to Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics think about current events: You can follow Eboni Marshall-Turman’s reflections on her podcast hereKatie Walker Grimes shares her thoughts on TwitterAshon Crawley also tweets.

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In 2016, the contributors drafted a statement, reprinted in the opening pages of Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics, which expresses many of their abiding convictions:  

We are angry. We see gross racial injustice in the United States today. We see the anti-Black violence committed by the police, by the prison system, by poverty, by environmental racism, by racial bias, and by hateful words and deeds. We know that this violence is pervasive and connected, and we know that it results from this nation’s deep, longstanding commitment to denying Black humanity. Many of us, as people of color, have not only observed this violence at a distance; we have felt it on our own bodies and souls.

We are heartened by grassroots organizing demanding racial justice, and we join in the affirmation that Black Lives Matter. We seek to learn from activists and to struggle together with them, both to challenge the white supremacy that infects this nation and to envision what racial justice may look like. We are grateful to movement organizers for crafting an inspiring platform that calls for an end to the war on Black people, reparations, investment in Black communities, economic justice, community control of police, and Black political power. We are inspired by the movement’s deep analysis of anti-Black racism and by the connections that the movement makes with other struggles for justice.

We acknowledge the complicity of religious communities in perpetuating anti-Black racism, and we acknowledge the deafening silence of many religious communities in the face of racial injustice. But we also remember the long, inspiring tradition of religious organizing and analysis aimed at challenging anti-Black racism. We remember the invitation to believe in a God who is Black. We remember the ideals of love and nonviolence, and we remember how these ideals have been perverted by those who privilege hollow peace over justice. We learn from the movement that advancing justice requires disrupting ordinary life.

Affirming that Black lives matter is necessary, but it is not enough. We call on our fellow theologians and scholars of religion to articulate how religious traditions speak to anti-Black racism in their research and teaching. We also call on our colleagues to personally join the movement, in the streets. We call on religious leaders to interrogate the ways their institutions have been complicit in anti-Black racism and to mobilize institutional resources in support of the struggle for racial justice – and to personally join the movement, in the streets. Finally, we call on religious practitioners to discern the resources in their faith traditions to struggle against anti-Black racism – and, as well, to personally join the movement, in the streets.

3 thoughts on “Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics

  1. Thank each of you for your proactive moral reflections! I will forward them to my e-mail listings. The American Public and others need to be reminded that anti-Blackness (Racism) is a sin that denies our common origin in a God who created and loves all human beings and creation ! Your colleague, Sr. Jamie T. Phelps, OP PhD

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