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Memory, #BlackLivesMatter, and Theologians — M. Shawn Copeland

This piece is from the Political Theology Network archives originally posted on March 17th 2016.

[The following Guest Editorial by Shawn Copeland appears in journal issue 17.1, available at politicaltheology.com]

The deaths of the young Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Andy Lopez, and Aiyana Stanley-Jones; the shootings by police of unarmed, uncharged, untried, and unconvicted black and brown men and women; and the martyrdom of nine black women and men in Charleston, South Carolina’s Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church defy all intelligibility. The troubling circumstances of these and too many other deaths of black and brown human persons, the increased privatization of the U.S. prison industrial complex along with massive rates of incarceration, particularly, of black and brown men and women, the criminalization of poverty, the crude dissolution of labor unions, and our cruel responses to migrant, refugee, homeless, mentally ill, abused, differently-abled, paroled and released poor-white and -dark children, women, and men uncover the social ‘surd,’ the racial and racist irrationality within which we have come to live and move, think and feel, love and act, write and pray. Have we Christian theologians “reasoned away”[1] those black bodies “piling up”[2] throughout our nation through force and expropriation, coercion and cruelty? Have we forgotten the racialized, shattered, and lynched body that lies at the heart of our religious belief and practice?

The social surd that is our nation is the product of structural historical amnesia. The massacre of indigenous peoples, expropriation of their lands, trampling on treaty after treaty, and centuries of black enslavement, segregation, and discrimination compose the “tough stuff of American memory.”[3] We conspire to not remember; we choose to forget. We repress and erase; we edit and delete. The result is a peculiar and unsettling, even puerile, ignorance that seeks to pass as political innocence. Christian exercise of memory purports to be radically different: We pledge to remember, we are obliged to do so. We are marked with a sign that neither can be erased nor easily forgotten. The cross of the Crucified Jew traced on our bodies at Baptism initiates us into a promise of new life and reminds us of our intimate and irrevocable relatedness to all creatures in the here-and-now through His name. Christian exercise of memory feeds us and slakes our thirst, challenges us and transforms our perspectives, practices, and daily lives; memory and love require us to act and live in history in imitation of the gracious and healing presence of Jesus of Nazareth, who loved human beings and loved being human to the end and loves still.

We do political theology because we want to collaborate in a most fundamental way in healing and creating relations in history and society. We want to coax forward a different sociality. Our contribution is to think and rethink, in light of the divine promise of an eschatological future, the manner and effects of the fragile yet resilient webs of relations that constitute the reality in which we live. Our work is to open that sociality to the desire, hope, and loving expectation of something (even Someone) transcendent.

If we who purport to teach and do political theology have been slow to join in the vanguard resistance to the impunity with which black bodies have been subjected—and even if we have not—it is imperative that we learn from and think with the children women, and men of #BlackLivesMatter. This movement emerged from the radical love, hope, and risky collaboration of Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Their instigation of #BlackLivesMatter represents a sorely needed option for marginalized, dispossessed, despised, and excluded black human persons. BlackLivesMatters is a fierce political and spiritual cry: a cry of presence from a position of invisibility, a cry of justice from within a site of injustice, a cry for freedom in a condition of absurdity. Garza, Cullors, and Tometi define BlackLivesMatter as an “ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”[4]

The movement’s innovative grass roots organizing style builds upon and supports self-empowerment, decision-making, and liberatory action by black people and those allied with them against anti-black racist oppression. The principles of the BlackLivesMatters movement constitute a kind of platform for renewed black humanism (or a natural theology) that struggles for the survival, liberation, and flourishing of the black human being as self and as subject. Briefly summarized, these principles include

  • diversity as respect and celebration of differences and commonalities;
  • recognition of a global African-connectedness along with critical sensitivity to the differentiated social locations of black human beings around the world;
  • commitment to demonstrate actively human regard and respect for all, and intentionally naming and embracing the presence and collaboration of transgender persons, gay and lesbian and queer persons, families, and persons of different ages and different systems of belief or religions;
  • commitment to work to dismantle sexism, heterosexism, cis-gender privilege, ageism, abelism;
  • commitment to practices of restorative justice;
  • commitment to embody and practice justice, liberation, and peace as well as empathy in all dealings with all others; and
  • an “unapologetic” commitment to black people, their freedom and right to live in justice.[5]

These principles and the critical interruptive performances they inspire have engaged the moral imagination and courage of women and men across the country, especially young people of all races, of differing economic classes, cultural-ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, physical-ableness, religious beliefs, education and work experience. The principles of BlackLivesMatter resonate with political theology’s efforts to interrogate and repair, reweave and restore the fraying webs of relations that comprise the U.S. cultural and social (i.e., the political, economic, technological) matrices.

The “beautiful impatience”[6] of the women and men and children who are the faces and bodies of BlackLivesMatters teaches us all what authentic human being means—to love self, to free ourselves from the bondage of stifling and negating images, to take joyful possession of our subjectivity, to love other blacks and all the others. Their beautiful impatience is the most potent ‘sign of our time,’ working out in their bodies a new agenda of critical attentiveness and analysis, of risky solidarity and active engagement to create a just and renewed future for us all.

[1] Patricia J. Williams, “Reasoning away Murder,” The Nation (November 2, 2015), 10.

[2] Johann Baptist Metz, Faith in History and Society: Toward a Practical Fundamental Theology, trans. J. Matthew Ashley (1992; New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2007), 101.

[3] James Oliver and Lois E. Horton, eds. Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[4] BlackLivesMatter, “The Creation of a Movement,” http://blacklivesmatter.com/herstory/

[5] BlackLivesMatter, “Guiding Principles,” http://blacklivesmatter.com/guiding-principles/

[6] I borrow the phrase from Prof. Willie James Jennings, who used it with me in private conversation.


M. Shawn Copeland teaches theology at Boston College.

One thought on “Memory, #BlackLivesMatter, and Theologians — M. Shawn Copeland


    Is there a way
    For a comfortable
    White heterosexual male
    To participate in such thinking
    From “below”?
    From amongst the opressed?
    From amongst the marginalized?
    From amongst the vulnerable grassroots?

    Post Imperial

    Listening might be the foundation

    But possibly
    Working on questions to ask
    Liberated from patriarchy
    Maybe the second first step
    After a begining awareness

    Focusing thought and spirit
    in preparation for a time of participating
    in a two-day reflection on Feminist Theology

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