How to Live out Your Faith in the Public Sphere

How to Live out Your Faith in the Public Sphere

As a Christian, you may ask yourself at times how to live out your faith in the public sphere. Injustices are occurring in the world around us every day. Because your faith doesn’t allow you to ignore these happenings, you feel a strong desire from within to take productive action. Some people choose to take harmful action but your desire is to take action that heals, that works towards justice and that shows God’s love for humanity. This is what we should aim to do, and my goal is to help you begin to think of ways you can live out your faith while having a positive impact on the world around you.

We are called to live out our faith and have an impact on society. A verse in the scriptures that reiterates this calling is Micah 6:8, which says “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” In this verse Micah points out what God requires of us. We are to do Justice. How are we “to do Justice”? What does that mean for us? Justice comes in different forms. We can do Justice by lending help to the parent who is struggling to put food on the table and is earning just enough to put a roof over their children’s heads. We can lend our help by offering to buy them groceries, maybe filling up their car with gas or connecting them to resources that can give them financial assistance and build their credit. We can do justice by assisting the homeless in our community to find shelter and get them connected to resources that will supply them with food and daily necessities. We can do justice by giving our time, talent and treasure to community organizations that give back to youth, those who are less fortunate and those who are struggling to make it each day.

Help for Homeless

These are some ways we can do justice on an individual basis. To those who already do such acts regularly, I commend you. Continue this good work. However, there’s also a need for justice on a systemic level within our society. As Christians, we are to follow the example of Christ, and stand beside those who are looked down on and mistreated by society. We have the capability to do justice on a systemic level by advocating for changes within our systems. We should advocate for opportunities for disadvantaged youth. Whether that be through mentorship programs, academic tutoring, pouring more resources into historically underfunded schools and giving families more choices as to where their child can attend. We should advocate for those who are battling unfair sentences in the justice system and creating opportunities for those who have paid their debt to society, in an effort to reduce recidivism rates. We should aim to provide more accessible opportunities for employment, educational opportunities, and programs for financial and civic literacy once they are released. More people should focus on advocating for those struggling with mental health issues and substance abuse. These are initiatives that would exhibit justice as Micah 6:8 led us to do.

Our participation in advocating for policy and systemic change in the public sphere is crucial. Many people believe their voice doesn’t matter, and as a result they don’t bother to vote or advocate for change. I can understand why many feel this way. However, inaction by good hearted people doesn’t get us further towards justice at all. Our government is supposed to be by and for the people. That means we the people of the United States have a voice and can move our government through civic engagement to reform laws and systems to deliver true justice. We can have a great impact especially on a local level. For example, after the terrible deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor many cities across the country were pressed by citizens to take action against not only police brutality but racial injustice on a broad systemic level. That means in education, voting, criminal justice, and especially public health as the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the inequities in our health care system. With much to be addressed U.S. cities and state governments passed their own policies in an attempt to tackle racial injustice. In my home City of Middletown, CT where I am a member of the City Council, we decided to establish a Task Force on Anti-Racism. This Task Force was given the charge to find policy solutions to systemic racism wherever it exists under our jurisdiction. My colleagues and I received numerous emails from residents calling for change. The establishment of the Task Force was a response to residents’ call to action and would be the beginning of furthering justice within our own community. This is one example of how people can make a difference and move our government from stagnation and lip service to action and moving in the right direction. I encourage you to believe that your voice matters. Someone is waiting for you to stand up for the cause of justice.

With myriad issues that need to be addressed it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. You don’t have to figure out how you will be an advocate for all of them. I encourage you to look at the example of Christ. He advocated for those who were hungry, sick, outcasts and shamed. He even advocated for you before you were born so that you may have life more abundantly. If you use your time and energy each day advocating for justice, you are advocating for those who are facing current circumstances as well as generations to come. Remember, to do justice is to take action that creates a society where everyone has the opportunities, tools and resources to fulfill their God-given potential. Justice can be restorative instead of further tearing individuals down.

I focused in the previous passages on how we “do justice.” However, those actions are to love kindness and walk humbly as well. When we reach out our hand to help and advocate for others who society would rather turn their backs on, we extend kindness. When we set aside our pride and consider the circumstances of others instead of solely focusing on our own, we begin to walk humbly. I challenge you to think about what issues in your community you can begin to advocate for that would further the cause of justice. What Town Hall meetings can you attend to advocate for justice? What issues can you write your Legislator or Mayor about? If you don’t know who these individuals are, I encourage you to research them. As you begin to walk in the requirements of Micah 6:8, you will be living out your faith in the public sphere.

 

From Freedom to Freedom: Memory & The Space Between

From Freedom to Freedom: Memory & The Space Between

“Liminal” is defined as the space between. It is the no-longer before, and the not-yet other. It is the space where we find ourselves caught between the light of Juneteenth and the shadow of July 4th. We are caught in the space between. No longer enslaved on plantations, but not yet with a freedom fully realized. It’s an imaginative space; an emergent space; and a space for reflection.

It is in this space that I am reminded of the Statue of Liberty, and the broken chains at her feet. I first learned about the chains in 2017, at a training in Chicago led by Dr. Joy DeGruy. She told the story of how the chains were part of the original vision of the statue, how American financiers insisted that the chains be removed, and how the sculptor still managed to sneak the chains in under Lady Liberty’s garments, lying broken at her feet. She told the story how the National Park Services didn’t talk about the chains unless someone happened to ask. The chains were not part of the Park Services’ narrative about the Statue. In the Statue’s 135-year history, information about the chains have only officially been included in the park service’s literature and website for about the past six years.

Yasmin Sabina Khan goes even deeper in her work, “Enlightening the World: The Creation of the Statue of Liberty.” Conceived in 1865 by Édouard de Laboulaye, sculpted by Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi over the course of approximately 20 years, the Statue of Liberty was unveiled at New York’s Ellis Island as “Liberty Enlightening the World” in October of 1886. At the base of the Statue, out of view from anyone looking from ground level, lie the broken chains of slavery. Visible only from helicopter or drone, the chains weren’t spoken of. Laboulaye was an ardent abolitionist. With the end of the US Civil War in 1865, Laboulaye imagined a gift that would embody the significance of the liberation of those who were enslaved. Bartholdi’s original model placed the torch of liberty in one hand, and broken chains in the other. The Statue of Liberty’s entire visual and artistic vocabulary was meant to both celebrate and honor the freedom of those enslaved in America. But financiers balked at the idea of chains placed anywhere on the Statue, and after profuse opposition by Bartholdi, the chains were removed, replaced by a tablet emblazoned with the Roman numerals for July 4, 1776. Since they aren’t easily visible, and since there was no concerted public effort to connect the statue with the narrative of the abolition of chattel slavery, the memory of it’s connections faded. And for the past 135 years, barely anyone remembered the chains.

For Black people within this liminal march of history, the Statue has long sat as a symbol of hypocrisy—celebrating a freedom that became connected to a honoring of ideals that have yet to be realized. There’s much to unpack about our historical reactions to the unveiling of the Statue, but there’s also much to be said about the loss of memory. The obscuring and loss of communal memory around the presence, history, and meaning of the chains at the feet of the Statue of Liberty is important because it reminds us that  memory is important.  And not only is memory important, memory is crucial in this liminal space between freedom and freedom. Memory is what helps us imagine. Memory is what helps us create. It’s something we can use to construct and define a new world, a new freedom, a new way of being.  We must tap into it. 

In his book, “Something Torn and New: An African Renaissance” Ngugi wa Thiong’o writes, “creative imagination is one of the greatest of re-membering practices…” and that “memory is the link between the past and the present, between space and time, and it is the base of our dreams.” Harnessing memory is our work.  These broken chains at our feet, the light of Juneteenth, the long shadow of July 4th—this liminal space—all of it is here to remind us that we have worlds to build. We have a freedom to define—to make clear and meaningful. It is within this creative tension where we have the possibility to gain a clear-eyed view of what a full realization of freedom could look like, both collectively as a community and a country, and particularly in the living out of our individual lives and individual situations. But understand, there can be no clear expression  of freedom without integrating communal memory into the foundation of work. 

If memory is the base of our dreams, what are our dreams of freedom? What if we could transform freedom in the same ways that we’ve always transformed culture? In this liminal space of history, we’ve seen Black creativity, Black genius, Black art, and Black joy shift and drive culture (and economies) around the world. Have we fired that same ingenuity in our definitions of freedom? What would the world look like, if we defined and constructed freedom based on our criteria, our imaginations, our memory? It might look something like a society built on the idea of thriving rather than destruction.  It might look something like a society built around dignity—of humans, animals, and the earth. It might look something like systems built to nourish and sustain life rather than profit. Freedom could look like so many different visions of more and better. The dreaming is up to us. 

We have work to do. We have worlds to build. We have a freedom to create. And as we go about protesting and advocating for our lives, here in this liminal space between freedom that was and freedom that might yet be, may we remember that the work we have to do, the worlds we are building, and the freedom we are creating, cannot reach their fullest expression without our communal memory. 

Let us remember the chains broken at our feet, so that we may creatively continue in our generation’s leg of the journey toward the light of freedom fully realized.

Hundreds arrested at Capitol while protesting for voting rights, minimum wage

Hundreds arrested at Capitol while protesting for voting rights, minimum wage

The Rev. William Barber, center, flanked by the Rev. Liz Theoharis, left, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, right, speaks during a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

WASHINGTON (RNS) — As police escorted a demonstrator in a wheelchair away from the chanting throng descending on the Capitol Monday (Aug. 2), fellow protesters turned to watch the person go. The group paused for a moment, then altered their call.

They screamed in unison: “Thank you! We love you!”

The lone protester nodded, fist raised. The crowd erupted in applause.

It was a moment that played out again and again over the course of the afternoon. According to Capitol police, more than 200 faith-led demonstrators were arrested while praying, singing and protesting in the street, hoping to draw attention to voting rights and a slate of other issues participants argued impact the poor and low-wage workers.

The sprawling demonstration was organized by the Poor People’s Campaign, an advocacy group led by the Rev. William Barber II and the Rev. Liz Theoharis that tends to support left-leaning policies. Monday’s action on the Hill constituted one of the largest mass-arrest nonviolent protests at the Capitol in recent memory and attracted an array of prominent voices, including civil rights icon the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Luci Baines Johnson, the daughter of late President Lyndon B. Johnson.

At a rally near the Capitol immediately before the march, leaders laid out what they insisted were interconnected issues driving their protest, which centered on voting rights, immigration reform, a $15 an hour federal minimum wage and eliminating the Senate filibuster that has stymied passage of related federal legislation.

“Filibuster is a sin!” Barber declared. “Making essential workers work during a pandemic — and risk their lives to save this country — and then not give them a living wage is sin.”

The event also featured music. Singers led the crowd in belting: “Somebody’s hurting my brother, and it’s gone on far too long. And we won’t be silent anymore!” The singers changed the lyrics as the song progressed, inserting lines such as “Somebody’s stealing our wages!” and “Somebody’s blocking our voting rights!”

The song echoes the sweeping, evolving agenda articulated by a variety of faith leaders across the country in recent months, particularly those who operate within religious communities of color.

The Poor People’s Campaign took a leading role in propelling that agenda this summer in the wake of Republican-led efforts to pass state-level elections bills many activists decry as restrictive. Indeed, Monday’s march follows what organizers called a “season” of similar demonstrations organized by the PPC over the past two months in Washington, Arizona and most recently Texas, where activists mimicked the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. The group walked 27 miles from Georgetown to Austin, Texas, in late July to oppose voting restrictions.

Texas pastor the Rev. Frederick Haynes III, who joined the Texas march and has vigorously opposed state elections bills, was among the speakers at the Washington rally.

Activists are arrested during a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

“President Biden, Democrats and Republicans, the culture will put it like this: If you come for us and we didn’t send for you, you don’t want this smoke,” said the Progressive National Baptist, whose denominational convention is happening this week. “You don’t want this smoke because we are fighting for the soul of this nation.”

The activists’ efforts have hit roadblocks with some Democrats at the national level, particularly Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona. Both opposed efforts to pass minimum wage increases and eliminate the filibuster this year — in Manchin’s case, despite a meeting with Barber and low-wage workers.  The Poor People’s Campaign has since targeted bothlawmakers with protests.

Barber was quick to harangue members of both parties during the rally, accusing some Democrats of heaping praise on late civil rights icon Rep. John Lewis but failing to support his vision for voting rights.

“Some Democrats told us: ‘If y’all organize, don’t connect wages to voting rights,'” Barber said. “I’m too old to play that.”

He added: “The same people suppressing the votes suppress your wages, won’t fix your utility grids, suppress your health care, cut public education, block living wages — you’ve got to make the connection.”

Barber also offered his own adaptation of the Scripture passage from Isaiah 10:1-3:

“Woe unto you hypocrites who pay attention to all of Robert’s Rules (of order), all the made up rules of the Senate and the House, but you filibuster justice. And filibuster mercy. And you filibuster faithfully.”

Barber was briefly joined at the rally by Sen. Raphael Warnock, himself a prominent Georgia pastor. However, Barber explained Warnock would not speak because the campaign generally does not let politicians address their protests. Warnock is a champion of the For the People Act, a federal voting rights legislation Barber and others praised but Manchin opposed.

The Rev. Rev. Liz Theoharis, center left, and the Rev. William Barber lead a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration march in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

Among the clergy milling about the crowd — which also included many red-shirted members of the labor union Unite Here! — were the Rev. Patrick Messer, a United Church of Christ pastor who just left a church in Nebraska, and the Rev. Deana Oliva, a Unitarian Universalist minister from Kentucky.

Asked what spurred them to be part of the protest, Oliva was aghast at the thought of not participating — “Where else would we be?” — and Messer pointed to Jesus.

“I’m here because in Jesus’ first sermon he said the spirit is upon me to bring good news to the poor, and to bring deliverance to the captive,” Messer said. “We’re here to bring a $15 minimum wage to all workers, restore the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and pass all the provisions of the For the People Act and end the filibuster.”

The daughter of President Lyndon B. Johnson — who signed the Voting Rights Act into law — also addressed the crowd at the event. Luci Baines Johnson noted she could not speak for her father, but insisted he would have wanted her to be with activists “in the fight for social justice and voting rights.” After voicing support for the For the People Act and the John Lewis Act, another voting rights bill, she invoked Scripture while calling for bipartisanship.

“In the 1960s, Democrats and Republicans stood up together for social justice,” she said. “It was the right thing then, and it’s the right thing now. Now more than ever before, we need to — in the words of Isaiah — come and reason together to get a more just America for everybody.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson also addressed the crowd, bemoaning what he called a nation “in crisis” and voicing a willingness to go to jail for the cause.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson, center, speaks during a Poor People’s Campaign demonstration in Washington, Monday, Aug. 2, 2021. RNS photo by Jack Jenkins

He led the group in a call-and-response chant: “I am! Somebody! I may be poor! But I am! Somebody! I may be unemployed! But I am! Somebody! I may not have health care! But I am! Somebody! Respect me! Protect me! Elect me! I am! God’s child!”

Others who delivered either speeches or prayers at the event included prominent Muslim American activist Linda Sarsour, National Council of Churches President Jim Winkler, Simple Way founder Shane Claiborne, activist and former chairman of the San Carlos Apache Tribe Wendsler Nosie and several low-wage workers or people impacted by poverty.

After the speeches, the activists massed into a column and marched toward the Capitol, with clergy walking alongside low-wage workers and those impacted by poverty. Tensions briefly flared with police when they insisted demonstrators stay on the sidewalk for one stretch of their march. Protesters initially refused, walking past police before a wave of new officers arrived and corralled the group off the street.

Demonstrators took to the street a short time later after processing past the Supreme Court toward the Hart Senate building. One column of protesters stayed on the sidewalk, but a separate group — including Barber, Theoharis, Jackson and what appeared to be Messer and Oliva — positioned themselves in the middle of the road, refusing to move. Some briefly requested entry to the Hart building at Barber’s urging, but police rebuffed them, and they returned to the street.

As demonstrators sang and chanted (“What do we want? Voting rights! When do we want them? Now!”), officers began arresting those in the road one by one, carefully leading them away. Cheers rose up as Theoharis, Barber and Jackson were arrested, and they were followed by hundreds more: clergy of multiple faiths, low-wage workers, young activists and elderly people in walkers or wheelchairs were all among those arrested.

When each one arrived at the area where other arrestees were waiting to be processed, shouts and applause rang out.

It remains to be seen how lawmakers will react to the growing protest movement. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio was spotted walking quickly past the protest. When demonstrators shouted for the end of the filibuster, he quickly replied, “I agree with you,” a reference to his public willingness to end the filibuster if Republicans continue to use it to block liberal legislation.

The mixture of religious and labor demonstrators appeared to be clear in their cause on Monday and dedicated to convincing Congress to support it. They sang many songs, but one favorite seemed to be aimed directly at lawmakers: It simply asked, over and over, “Which side are you on?”

 

Rev. Al Sharpton, families of police shooting victims join march on Washington

Rev. Al Sharpton, families of police shooting victims join march on Washington

Video Courtesy of NAACP


Preachers, politicians and family members of Black people who had been killed or shot by police gathered on the National Mall on the anniversary of the March on Washington.

They called for new legislation to address racial inequities in the country.

And they urged people to vote.

Among the speakers Friday (Aug. 28) was a son of Martin Luther King Jr.

He urged participants — who watched on television, online and in-person — to continue the work of the 1960s with what his father called the “coalition of conscience” by seeking a country that seeks love and health and dispels fear and hate.

“To achieve that America, we need to raise our voices and cast our votes,” King said. “There’s a knee upon the neck of democracy and our nation can only live so long without the oxygen of freedom.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network, and other speakers echoed some of the same themes enunciated by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the first march in 1963.

“We come in the same spiritual lineage,” said Sharpton, organizer of the Commitment March, after members of King’s family addressed the crowd. “’cause I want this country to know that even with your brutality you can’t rob us of our dreams.”

Sharpton announced the event — also called the “Get Your Knee Off Our Necks” march — as he preached at the funeral for George Floyd, a Black man who died in May under the knee of a white police officer.

Standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial before thousands, Sharpton said that Black people have long fought bigotry. But he noted that members of the interracial crowd that gathered in the same spot where others marched in 1963 have the power to move beyond their circumstances.

“We are the dream keepers, which is why we come today — black and white and all races and religions and sexual orientations — to say that this dream is still alive. You might have killed the dreamer but you can’t kill the dream.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, left center, makes his way to the podium to speak during the March on Washington, Friday Aug. 28, 2020, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, on the 57th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Before the throngs of people started marching to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the granddaughter and a son of the famous civil rights leader took turns at the microphone to speak where their predecessor had appeared 57 years before.

“Americans are marching together — many for the first time — and we’re demanding real, lasting structural change,” said Martin Luther King III. “We are socially distanced but spiritually united. We are masking our faces but not our faith in freedom.”

The crowd was addressed by speakers mostly in person and some, including Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, by video. Gospel singer BeBe Winans sang an original composition that he wrote to his then-15-year-old son after Freddie Gray died in the custody of Baltimore police in 2015.

“In one moment, dreams are scattered,” he sang. “Our sons and daughters matter. Black lives matter.”

Winans performed in between brief remarks by family members and lawyers of Black people who had been killed. They recalled their loved ones, thanked the crowd for their support and urged the marchers to vote. Many wore masks or T-shirts with names or images of their relatives.

“There are two systems of justice in the United States,” said the father and namesake of Jacob Blake, the man who was shot seven times in the back by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Sunday. “There’s a white system and there’s a Black system. The Black system ain’t doing so well. But we’re going to stand up.”

While the elder Blake cited Allah, the Muslim name for God, in his remarks, other parents mentioned Bible verses as they urged continuing advocacy.

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, whose killing in 2012 led to the Black Lives Matter movement, said her favorite passage is Proverbs 3:5-6, which begins: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart; lean not unto your own understanding.”

“Even though it looks dark, I want to tell you to be encouraged,” she said. “Don’t stop saying Black Lives Matter. Don’t stop peaceful protesting. Don’t stop praying. Don’t stop unifying. Stand together.”

In the pause between speeches, many of which called for legislation to improve voting rights and reform police agencies, the crowds and speakers often engaged in a call-and-response recitation of the names of people who had been killed over the years.

Event co-host Mark Thompson, a radio show host who was helping introduce the various speakers, acknowledged that many of the people representing those names didn’t have a chance to come to the microphone before it was time to march.

“Sisters and brothers,” he said, “the problem is the police have killed so many of us there’s not even enough time for us to hear from every family.”

Black religious leaders are up front and central in US protests – as they have been for the last 200 years

Black religious leaders are up front and central in US protests – as they have been for the last 200 years

The late John Lewis links arms with religious leaders, including Dr Martin Luther King, in 1965 Selma to Montgomery march. William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lawrence Burnley, University of Dayton

When the Rev. Al Sharpton implored white America to “get your knee off our necks” at the memorial of George Floyd, his words were carried by news outlets across the globe. Meanwhile in the U.S., the Rev. William J. Barber II has been an ever-present voice in the protests, prompting some to place him as the successor to past civil rights greats.

That people of the cloth are at the forefront of the current protests over police brutality should not be a surprise.

From the earliest times of the United States’ history, religious leaders have led the struggle for liberation and racial justice for Black Americans. As an ordained minister and a historian, I see it as a common thread running through the history of the United States, from Black resistance in the earliest periods of slavery in the antebellum South, through the civil rights movement of the 1960s and up to the Black Lives Matter movement today.

As Patrisse Cullors, one of the founders of Black Lives Matters, says: “The fight to save your life is a spiritual fight.”

Sojourner Truth was driven to anti-slavery activism by spiritual visions. GHI Vintage/Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Spiritual calling

For many Black religious leaders in the United States, civil rights and social justice are central to their spiritual calling. Informed by their respective faith traditions, it places religion within the Black American experience while also being informed by African culture and the traumatic experience of the Transatlantic trade of African people.

We see this in Malcolm X’s 1964 exhortation that Black Americans should form bonds with African nations and “migrate to Africa culturally, philosophically and spiritually.” Malcolm X’s desire to internationalize the struggle in the U.S. after his 1964 pilgrimage to Mecca also speaks to the role he saw Islam having in the civil rights movement.

“America needs to understand Islam, because this is the one religion that erases from its society the race problem,” he wrote in a letter during his visit to Saudi Arabia. The struggle of Black Americans informed Malcolm X’s reading of the Quran.

Similarly, the interaction between religious text and real-world struggle informed earlier Black civil rights and anti-slavery leaders. Slave revolt leader Nat Turner, for example, saw rebellion as the work of God, and drew upon biblical texts to inspire his actions.

As the historian and Turner biographer Patrick Breen noted in an article for Smithsonian Magazine, “Turner readily placed his revolt in a biblical context, comparing himself at some times to the Old Testament prophets, at another point to Jesus Christ.” In his “Confessions,” dictated to a white lawyer after his 1831 arrest, Turner quoted the Gospel of Luke and alluded to numerous other passages from the Bible.

Turner had visions he interpreted as signs from God encouraging him to revolt.

Visions

Such prophetic visions were not uncommon to early anti-slavery leaders – Sojourner Truth and Jarena Lee were both spurred to action after God revealed himself to them. Lee’s anti-slavery preaching is also an early example of the important role that black religious female leaders would have in the civil rights struggle.

In arguing for her right to spread God’s message, Lee asked: “If the man may preach, because the Saviour died for him, why not the woman? Seeing he died for her also. Is he not a whole Saviour, instead of a half one?”

These early anti-slavery activists rejected the “otherworld” theology taught to enslaved Africans by their white captors, which sought to deflect attention away from their condition in “this world” with promises of a better afterlife.

Instead, they affirmed God’s intention for freedom and liberation in both this world and the next, identifying strongly with biblical stories of freedom, such as the exodus of the Hebrew community from Egyptian enslavement and Jesus’ proclamation to “set the oppressed free.”

Incorporating religion into the Black anti-slavery movement sowed the seeds for faith being central to the struggle for racial justice to come. As the church historian James Washington observed, the “very disorientation of their slavery and the persistent impact of systemic racism and other forms of oppression provided the opportunity – indeed the necessity – of a new religious synthesis.”

At heart, a preacher

The synthesis continued into the 20th century, with religious civil rights leaders who clearly felt compelled to make the struggle for justice central part of the role of a spiritual leader.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preaching in Chicago. Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

“In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher,” the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in a 1965 article for Ebony Magazine.

Racial justice remains integral to Black Christian leadership in the 21st century. In an interview earlier this year, Rev. Barber said: “There is not some separation between Jesus and justice; to be Christian is to be concerned with what’s going on in the world.”

Recognizing the rich legacy of Black religious leadership in the struggle of racial justice in the United States in no way diminishes the role of historic and contemporary secular leadership. From W.E.B. DuBois to A. Philip Randolph, who helped organize 1963’s March on Washington, and up to the current day the civil rights movement has also benefited from those who would classify themselves as freethinkers or atheists.

But given the history of religion in the Black protest movement, it should be no surprise that the killing of George Floyd has unleashed an outpouring of activism from Black religious leaders – backed by supporters from different faith traditions.

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Lawrence Burnley, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion, University of Dayton

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.