Musical legend Beyoncé released the video for her new song "Formation" on the eve of her Super Bowl performance last weekend. With images of a police car floating in a flooded post-Katrina New Orleans to a small black boy in a hoodie raising his hands in front of a squadron of police officers to a spray-painted wall reading “Stop shooting us,” “Formation” has an unapologetically pro-black message that was unexpected from the mainstream pop singer. “Formation” has taken the world by storm and has been met with very strong reactions, both positive and negative. While most black people and social justice allies reacted with resounding support for Beyoncé’s bold statement piece, many people immediately protested the song calling the commentary racist and anti-police. The week following the Super Bowl, Beyoncé released an 8-minute documentary entitled “Take My Hand, Precious Lord: The Voices,” which shows us that Beyoncé’s “Formation” is a carefully considered and purposeful statement.
Rev. Michael Piazza is well known for developing Dallas’s Cathedral of Hope, the first predominantly LGBT church in the country. The Cathedral of Hope grew from a store-front church into a megachurch with a message of inclusivity, love, and justice. I am taking a class taught by Rev. Piazza this semester, and with us he recently shared a compelling insight. Rev. Piazza believes that America will have another Great Awakening.
I think that the time for that awakening could be right now, and Beyoncé’s documentary does a stellar job of showing us why.
American society has experienced three swells of religious growth known as Great Awakenings. These range from the First Great Awakening in colonial times through the Second Great Awakening as exploration of the frontier made way for traveling revivals and the temperance movement. The Third Great Awakening gave us new religious ideas and denominations like Christian Science and the Pentecostal “Holy Ghost” movement.
However, we have all heard the statistics that today the American church is in a state of steady decline. Mainline, liberal denominations are most notably shrinking, but more conservative denominations and evangelical churches are also on the decline. Americans are increasingly embracing a rhetoric of being “Spiritual, but not religious.” This leads us to a sizeable group of religious “nones,” young people with no particular religious belief or affiliation. The nones are not a group of people who have made a strong ideological commitment to an atheist worldview. Instead, this is a group of people who do not feel at home in the church as it exists today, and have not found a religious belief that resonates with them.
The Black Lives Matter movement has opened our eyes to the continuing systemic injustices that exist in America. With reports of police shootings of unarmed black people on the rise, many black Americans are feeling sorrow and anger. During slavery, the black American faith experience focused on relation to the suffering of Jesus on the cross. Blacks have also maintained a deep reverence for Christ’s sacrifice because it results in a chance for restitution in the afterlife. As of late, there has also been a greater focus on the social justice ministry of the Living Christ.
In the 21st century, American society still has a race problem. When you add in discrimination against LGBT people, physical violence against transgender people, and environmental injustices like the Flint water crisis, there are plenty of reasons that people need a Great Awakening right now.
Beyoncé’s documentary focuses on the traditional black hymn “Take My Hand, Precious Lord.” The song was featured in the civil rights drama Selma, and Beyoncé explains the song’s significance to her own family’s history with racial injustice and participation in the civil rights era of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The black men featured in the video talked about their experiences; one man shares that he was stopped and assaulted having broken no law. The men talk about religion and the need to call on God for support in the face of injustice. One man shared a saying: “The best way to assist the devil is to pretend he’s not there.”
Americans can no longer ignore the evil that exists in our society. Racism is hurting people and taking innocent lives — like 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot while playing with a toy gun in Cleveland, Ohio. We need God, more now than ever, to take our hands and guide us through these treacherous times. Just as faith brought Americans through difficult times like slavery, the Civil War, and traveling the rugged frontier, faith can guide Americans through this age of postmodern injustice. While young Americans may not be religious, I believe that they are a people of justice and love. When the nones realize that the gospel of Jesus Christ offers a compelling depiction of a divine quest for social justice, I believe that there will indeed be a Great Awakening of American faith.
Only this Great Awakening won’t be led by a white Anabaptist preacher at a tent revival; it will be led by a woman of a rich and unequivocally American heritage marching powerfully onto the Super Bowl stage.