op-ed: is it time to re-evaluate the church’s role in the civil rights movement?

July 13, 2015

I am not a religious person, however, I definitely identify as spiritual. I believe that one’s relationship with God should be personal, and if that relationship happens to align with the ideology of a religion, then that’s just fine. Religion gives us a sense of belonging and community, something desperately needed in recent times. With that said, I do feel that there are some serious conversations we need to be having in the black community about the place of religion and prayer in activism, especially with the recent events that have occurred in Charleston, SC.

By Robin Blake, AFROPUNK Contributor

“As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.”
-James 2:26 (NIV)


Faith is a tenant of the Black community, but has been used against us in the past. Black people have become complacent and reliant upon a deity to solve real world issues which require true effort and solidarity. Religion divides people just as easily as it brings them together, and its place in social progress needs to be evaluated. 

I was raised in a devout Christian home, and that’s why I personally feel infuriated when people insist that we need to pray and rely on a higher power in these situations. I was brought up to believe that faith without work is dead. Prayer is great; it has mental and spiritual benefits and brings people closer together. Where do we draw the line?

Not long ago, I attended one of many protests for Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy shot by Cleveland police at a park in November of 2014. Local churches came out to show their support for the cause, which I initially thought was a lovely gesture. However, they came bearing white flags – the universal symbol of surrender – and that struck a chord with me. Did no one stop to think that maybe we were sending mixed signals to everyone? Does the appearance of submission really lend validity to the cause? Placing a flower in the barrel will not stop the bullet, regardless of the message sent. It doesn’t particularly matter how righteous you are if, in the end, you’re killed. I do believe Malcolm X said it best:

“The greatest miracle Christianity has achieved in America is that the black man in white Christian hands has not grown violent. It is a miracle that 22 million black people have not risen up against their oppressors – in which they would have been justified by all moral criteria, and even by the democratic tradition! It is a miracle that a nation of black people has so fervently continued to believe in a turn-the-other-cheek and heaven-for-you-after-you-die philosophy! It is a miracle that the American black people have remained a peaceful people, while catching all the centuries of hell that they have caught, here in white man’s heaven!”

This quote makes me think about the recent events in Charleston, SC. A group of people welcomed a young, seemingly offbeat man into their congregation, only to be slaughtered by him, ending up 9 members short after all was said and done. With enough of these circumstances, it won’t take much effort for white supremacy to wipe us out in great numbers. While it won’t work to sew in paranoia and live in constant distrust of anyone who isn’t Black, it’s critical to note that open arms were met with a hail of gunpowder, fueled by hatred. We also cannot forget that initially, the image of Jesus was created in that of a white man so that slaves worshipping him would simultaneously conceive of whiteness as purity and salvation.

Oppressive institutions overlap, and cannot be evaluated separately from one another. As a queer man of color, I find that I receive harsh judgement and stigmatization due to my membership in both of those groups. Sometimes, it even comes to be that I face aggression from black folks for identifying as queer, and vice versa. One major issue with the church being involved in the #BlackLivesMatter movement is that if the church is going to continue to impress a homo/transphobic dialogue into the ever going conversation on race and white supremacy, then the movement is doomed to fail because it absolutely needs to be intersectional. Internalized homo/transphobia and destructive ideas divide us. Young black men especially are raised with a hyper masculine dogma that manifests a way of thinking that sabotages us from the inside. It’s interesting to note that, on average, people from the church are the first ones arguing respectability politics and saying that we need to “stop black on black violence” without realizing that a great deal of these issues are created in their own personal circles and that most of this aforementioned black on black violence is often against members of the LGBT community, especially our trans brothers and sisters. #AllBlackLivesMatter needs to be weighed heavily against #BlackLivesMatter because there is a problem if we’re allowing systems of privilege and inequality to perpetrate our own safe houses. One of the main beliefs of Christianity is that we are all created in the image of God, and are perfect as we are; how can we use that justification when it suits our own personal political narrative and conveniently forget it when it doesn’t? Let it be noted that white pastors used to use the Bible to justify slavery, beatings, and oppression. As interpretations of the Word change with the times, so should the viewpoints of our community. The first step is definitely to uplift each other and strengthen our own bonds, but this will never be achieved if we allow black people to suffer based on their divergence from hetero and cisnormative standards, whether a personal choice or not.

Do I believe that religion is a valuable tool in revolution and an important part of humanity? I do. The black church has established itself as potentially the greatest source for religious enrichment and secular development. But it has its place. The church should be a place of reflection and reverence, where the faithful can come lay down their burdens and religious leaders can reinforce the community with faith, hope, and unconditional love. It should be a place where Black people can speak out about their woes and struggles in a place of unconditional love and understanding. It does not need to act as a complete representation of the people, nor does it need to be an institution at the forefront of the wave, until this internal dissonance is worked out, or at least widely acknowledged.

No one is coming to save us from this.

* Robin is a queer Jamaican-American who is currently a senior at Cleveland State University, where he studies Music (saxophone/vocal) and Communications. He loves meditation, deep conversation, and black clothing. He’d rather write about any other possible topic than himself.