The Black Church and Black Lives Matter: A Tricky Relationship

This modern-day Black Lives Matter movement is helmed, in large part, by progressive young people, far less connected to the church and its conservative ideals. Is there still room for faith in the fight for freedom?

Black lives matter

If you didn’t know by now or perhaps forgot, Black Lives Matter is a global movement with a local focus. Each branch – from tiny towns to big cities – targets different areas, practices and organizations for reform and has done so since the murders of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

The creed on the BLM Detroit website reads, in part: “We are the living representation of the struggle our ancestors have endured. We are their legacy, and we embody the victories of our future. We are the living record.”

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Throughout BLM’s lifespan, one collective voice has been noticeably sluggish to offer support on the whole – our Black church. Reactions to BLM vary from congregation to congregation, with some pastors keeping it cute in public remarks and others outright condemning BLM as harmful. In response, many young Black activists are finding different ways to connect to their spirituality or cutting ties with organized religion outright.

Where is the disconnect, and why are two groups dedicated to uplifting Black people butting heads so badly? The answer has to do with changing activism tactics, the general attitude and reverence toward tradition, and hard questions about certain realities in the church that need to be addressed.

We shall … overcome?

There’s no question that the church played a huge role in rallying for Black liberation. When I’m told to think of the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, my mind goes to a sepia-tinted scene in an old gym or church basement, shiny black shoes and paper fans, men with deep voices preaching about deliverance and justice – while gospel music plays in the background.

“When the church applies their faith in its praxis, it can benefit the Black community in real substantive ways,” says Troy Stinnett, chairman of the board of deacons at Second Baptist Church in Detroit, the oldest Black church still operating in the Midwest.

“Our congregation was involved in the underground railroad, the abolitionist movement, the civil rights movement, and the struggle for racial equality in Detroit and America since 1836.”

That’s the view of Black history we’re most familiar with and told to emulate in the new struggle. But Tristan Taylor, co-founder and organizer for Detroit Will Breathe, says today’s BLM agenda isn’t your grandmother’s civil rights march.

“Back in the day, agendas and attitudes regarding protests, safety and faith were a lot more aligned. The church supported nonviolence and some people went with that as pacifists. But the majority just knew it was safer that way. It wasn’t ideal, but the whites were nastier and we couldn’t fight back. If you got hurt, you might get some sympathy on the national stage and that was the best you could hope for,” Taylor says.

But today? “Today, we can fight back. We, as a people, feel like if the cops are going to keep treating us like this no matter what we do, then they’re ready to drop the Bibles and start metaphorically swinging,” he says. The exasperation with strict pacifist and nonviolent codes of conduct is only part of it.

History repeats itself and while the church did eventually take up the reins in the most recent fight against discrimination, quite a few of them were slow to speak on political issues and even slower to commit to action.

On Black millennials’ and Gen Zers’ relationship with the Black church, Watson Jones III, senior pastor of Compassion Baptist Church in Chicago, told Christianity Today at the height of the BLM protests: “I think the struggle may come when they don’t hear churches talking about justice. I remember when I was in Philadelphia, I’m preaching sermons that I thought were good sermons, but the question that came from one of my members was, ‘What does God have to say about this? We have been in this same boat since 1619, so what does God have to say about this?’ So I think the frustration that many younger people will feel in the Black church is when their churches have nothing to say about this.”

They weren’t always unified in their rhetoric, either. According to the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford, there were many Black churches in King’s day who were against what he was doing and wanted no part of the movement.

Several prominent pastors called him a “mastermind of turmoil” and their arguments over how best to serve the community led to a fracture in Baptist society – and this was over nonviolent tactics. Imagine what they said about Mr. Malcom X.

“I had a young man tell me he stopped attending his congregation because his pastor refused to say anything about George Floyd,” Taylor says. “Detroit is full of pastors and deacons, but very few of them have reached out to us or spoken about these issues. I’ve spoken with one pastor who told me the rest were too frightened to try.” The message from new activists to the church is clear: Speak up for us. Support us.

Problems in the pulpit

The goal here is not to bash the basic tenants of church, religion or the impact those things have had on the community. But if the drift between Black millennials, the movement and the church is ever going to be fixed, certain splinters might need to be removed from eyes. Essentially, hard conversations need to occur about who and what is welcome in our houses of worship.

John Sloan III, BLM Detroit co-founder and organizer, says, “Religion itself can be such a positive thing. It’s how a lot of people find peace, understanding, and uplift themselves and their families. The church was a place of meeting, safety and fellowship for us – and we should honor that. But, when we don’t recognize that organized religion is inherently flawed and we frame today’s context with outdated or harmful doctrines, that’s where we go wrong.”

Sloan says BLM was created and has been sustained primarily by Black women and queer individuals, which forms the second barrier between the two institutions. Lingering conservative attitudes in church culture can sometimes clash horribly with new ideals of blind, equitable acceptance and progressive expression that range from embarrassing and unsightly (Pastor Ellis and the Ariana Grande fiasco, anyone?) to downright abysmal treatment of and teachings regarding LGBTQ people.

“There’s a lot of misinformation about what we stand for. Some religious people are convinced that we’re anti-men and similar things,” Sloan says. “What Black Lives Matter is is inclusive and progressive. We pulled away from that arcane, heteronormative toxicity and we focus on uplifting and protecting the most disenfranchised. I had a pastor once who started preaching about the tenants of being a man, and without missing a beat he said ‘not those sissy men though … real men.’ It erased everything good he was telling us.”

Organizations like BLM and Detroit Will Breathe take the phrase “All lives can’t matter until all Black lives matter” deeply to heart, as well as their promises to foster queer and feminist affirming networks. This explains the pushback from more conservative or neutral-minded congregations.

“I consider myself bisexual, and I’ve sat through many a sermon that made me squirm and feel uncomfortable. You can’t exclude people with your words and ideas and then expect them to come running to support you when you need tithing,” says Taylor of Detroit Will Breathe.  

African Americans are, for the most part, a pretty religious people. According to Pew study, 83% of us believe in God and an almighty. In many ways, how we treat and exemplify religion in Detroit is directly related to the formation and history of the city, and the sensibilities of the times.

Sloan says, “Detroiters are used to a unique struggle. We get up at 3 a.m., shovel three yards of snow, then go break our backs at work until the sun goes down, and we don’t complain. We’ve been nationally maligned, screwed over, pandered to. Believing in a reward at the end of all that makes sense. But ideology shouldn’t be valued over people in exchange.” 

Taylor believes that the true disconnect from the community began when the church started adopting, in his opinion, the bad habits from traditionally white or oppressive systems.

“When a lot of the funding started coming from state and federal institutions, you saw bits of those institutions creeping in. The ‘other’ became an enemy. Material things mattered more. That shuck and jive mentality, that if you’re just a good quiet Black you’ll be rewarded through pain, got amplified. The church was a place of relaxation, but it also became a place of stress and struggle for a lot of people when white Jesus showed up,” Taylor says.

Offering the olive branch

Whether religion plays an important role in your life, it needs to be repeated that the importance of the Black church in our communities has been and continues to be monumental to our history. Bad energy and miscommunication between the leaders of liberation and the leaders of faith can only spell bad news for a cohesive movement.

And while it might seem that one side is more willing to reach out than the other, consider what we as Black people yell at the world all the time: We are not a monolithic people – but we are a collective.

In honor of Juneteenth, The Positive Community – a faith-based lifestyle magazine geared toward Black Americans – affirmed Black Lives Matter and the new movement, repented for and rebuked toxic behavior, and pledged to stand in solidarity with activists’ efforts.

The piece read, in part: “We, a collective of interdenominational Black pastors and Black theologians representing the prophetic tradition of Black churches in the United States of America, lift our voices to emphatically repudiate the evil beast of white racism, white supremacy, white superiority and its concomitant and abiding anti-Black violence.”

It continues: “It is no secret that the Black Church has been imperfect in its approximation of this moral claim. Self-reflexively, Black Church commitments to the patriarchy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, queerphobia, class fragmentation and Christian triumphalism indicate moral failure and a stronghold of anti-Blackness in our own communities that compel us to despise ourselves and our mirror image in the world.”

Second Baptist is set to announce a new pastor soon, and Stinnett says he’s excited for future discussions of activism and culture in the church. “He is deeply committed to faith in action,” he says of the new pastor.

“He believes in self-determination but also speaking truth to error, even when harbored by the powerful. He believes that white supremacy’s doctrines have caused many in the Black community to internalize self-hatred, and the church is one of the few places where Black people are encouraged to see the imago Dei (the image of God) upon their being. I have been a deacon at Second Baptist Church of Detroit for more than 15 years, and I am excited about our next chapter in our long, rich history.” 

Taylor, an atheist, thinks the community at-large is ready to move on from organized religion and the darkness entrenched in it. “Personally, I believe if we’re fighting for real freedom, then the whole system needs to be reborn anew. We can move on from waiting for a single entity to deliver us from our struggle and force us to act right. We need to build agency and better institutions that serve everyone,” he says.

Sloan has a slightly more optimistic outlook, but he says it will take real work, as with everything else. He says, “I do want to build more bridges with that side of our identity as Black folk. The gospel shaped our music, food, communities. But there are a lot of hurdles, both perceived and real. I deal with people based on morality. We need to have some tough conversations with ourselves about how much power we give the harmful parts of belief, and when it’s necessary to trim those parts completely.”    

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