The Black Church Has Always Resisted Anti-Blackness | Sojourners

The Black Church Has Always Resisted Anti-Blackness

The Reverend Eboni Marshall Turman preaches at High Point University in North Carolina. Photo courtesy of 

On the 155th observance of Juneteenth, a collective of Black church pastors and theologians released a theological statement to “emphatically repudiate the evil beast of white racism, white supremacy, white superiority and its concomitant and abiding anti-Black violence.”

“Although we have been temporarily severed from our respective chancels due to the global effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the doors of the Black Church are still open as we congregate on one accord in the Spirit and by the power of a God of freedom, justice, and love, who was with us in the beginning (Jn.1:1) and has brought us this far by faith,” the statement read.

More than 1,000 Black pastors, clergy, and theologians representing over 400 Black churches in the U.S. signed the statement, rejecting police brutality and militarism and calling for direct action and activism. The full statement can be read here.

Sojourners’ Christina Colón spoke to Rev. Eboni Marshall Turman, assistant professor of theology and African American religion at Yale University Divinity School and author of the statement about the origin of the statement, church activism, and Black joy.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Christina Colón, Sojourners: You are the author of “A Theological Statement From the Black Church on Juneteenth,” which is a powerful call from and for the Black church. How did this statement come to be?

The Reverend Eboni Marshall Turman: Rev. Dr. Adolphus Lacey, who is the pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Brooklyn, convened this small group to discuss plans for Juneteenth: what we would do as a Black church community to commemorate, of course, the occasion and also what we needed to be in light of President Trump's endeavor at that time to hold a rally on Juneteenth in Tulsa, which ultimately was changed to the day after. The group of us began to just reflect on Juneteenth and its meaning, its significance for our communities and just the striking anti-Black violence of the moment. Given the collision of COVID-19 as a global pandemic and the onslaught of anti-Black violence, that we name as kind of a white plague in the context of the statement, the intersection of these realities just became, I felt, a defining moment for who we are as the Black church, as Black churches who were born out of resistance to, and in spite of, the overwhelming ethos of anti-Blackness in this nation.

And so, I said, this is a defining moment for us. Where do we stand? Who are we in this moment? I said that’s what we need to say in light of essentially the utter disrespect and disregard and just flat out racism that has been deployed by the current presidential administration, and the racism, anti-Blackness being demonstrated by the rash of state-sanctioned violence against Black people, you know, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks. We needed to make a statement. We needed to say who we actually are and what we believe as a moral community and how what we believe would guide our actions and propel us into action in the days ahead. We want to say unequivocally that, yes, we are the Black church, but we are a Black church that knows unequivocally that Black lives matter. What distinguishes us is that we make a theological argument for why Black lives matter and why that is important for us to be able to say as a church that claims Jesus Christ as our Lord and savior.

Colón: You say in the statement, you “will engage direct action, political, economic, intellectual and digital activisms.” What are some of the action steps or ways that you would like to see those actions embodied?

Turman: Black churches have historically, at least prophetic Black churches, have historically been at the forefront of nonviolent direct action. So, we will continue with that because of its criticality in the way that it signals a certain kind of embodied commitment to the cause and in this moment, the saving of Black lives. But we will do other things.

We’re going to be asking churches to commit to an educational paradigm. We're still developing that, but it will include a Black church syllabus that will encourage pastors and leaders in the community to think about Black history, Black church history, and educate their congregation through preaching and through a variety of teaching avenues in the church on specific texts that have been critical to the development of Black theology, to the development of Black religion, to the development of a Black thought about who we are and how we are in the United States specifically. There will be an educational paradigm because the Black church serves proximally, for the most part, as the only continuing education that much of our community has access to. I teach at Yale University. Because of a number of structural injustices, most of the people who I understand to constitute the Black church, to be committed to the Black church, will never sit in my classroom, at least in any proportionate numbers. Recognizing the Black church as kind of the heartbeat of our educational landscape as Black people, we want to help our people understand who we are. We’re not taught about the moral arbiters, the domain of towering thinkers, and activists, and freedom fighters who are our foremothers and forefathers, our forebears in the struggle for freedom. We’re not taught about that. Our history in this nation is so robust and it is so complex that we really need to unpack it, and understand it, and offer it to our communities, and learn it ourselves.

We’re also building out an economic self-determination aspect that is going to include thinking about Black wealth. What does it mean to share Black wealth? What does it mean to buy Black? What does it mean to support Black businesses? Part of what we're going to be doing along those lines is creating a contemporary “Green Book” where we list Black businesses throughout the nation where we can engage either digitally or in person to support our own economic self-determination. It will also include teach-ins around things like debt, economic discrimination, ways that we can avoid being suckered into another mortgage scam — all of the tools that have been used against Black people's economic flourishing over the last century.

Then the last aspect is directly about anti-Black violence and protecting the Black body. We’re going to be unrolling a platform to think about different kinds of violence against Black people. Not only police brutality and the violence within the criminal justice system and mass incarceration, but also conversations around what to do when you’re stopped by the police. Knowing what your rights are. Conversations about bail funding, bail reform, being arrested beyond being just stopped and frisked. We’re going to be talking about safety while marching. We're going to be talking about other kinds of violences — the psychological and emotional tolls that anti-Blackness takes on our community. We're going to be talking about violence against our queer kin. What does it mean that so many Black trans women have been killed? And how is that functioning within our communities and how you can combat that, which goes back to our statement about self-loathing and how we’ve actually been taught to despise ourselves.

And we are really being intentional about bridging the gap between the Black church and the Black theological or religious academy. We want our Black religious scholars and our Black pastors to be thinking together about these issues. The intellectual activism will come from Black religious scholars being invited into our church communities in leadership capacities to help think with our communities about what’s going on and the devastation that we face as a people.

Colón: One thing that really struck me about the statement was that it took a historical approach, detailing actions and events against the Black community. Why was it important to capture that history as part of this statement and not just reflect on the current moment, but really think about and emphasize that history?

Turman : We want people to know that what is happening now does not stand in a vacuum. What’s happening now to Black people is connected to 1619. Anti-Blackness has been a cornerstone of this nation’s emergence. There’s a long arc to our struggle as Black people for justice, and for freedom, and for equality in this nation. American heritage is very much anti-Black, white supremacist. The Black church was born out of and in spite of American slavocracy. There’s this move to become a very pious project, a project that is focused on the interior, very personal and individual. But at its root, the Black church has always been resisting the very external project of anti-Blackness. We have to tell that history for people who think that it doesn't exist, for people who think that their heritage is something that’s disassociated from the current moment. We have to tell it for our children. In fact, to tell our children and to remember our biblical precepts, their Deuteronomical precepts, so we attach ourselves to a larger struggle for freedom. We know that we don’t stand alone in this moment. And then finally, we have to tell it for the folks who actually would charge us with being crazy, for being mad. The fact of the matter is, if you've been fighting for your freedom for over 400 years, you’d be mad too. And you’d want someone to hear that your life matters, too. It’s definitely not an apologetic, but it is a story that has to be told in defense of our lives. We have to tell this story because our lives depend on it.

Colón You conclude the statement with repentance. Specifically, you write, “we repent for how anti-Black self-loathing has bolstered our repudiation of and violence toward Black women, Black queer people and Black non-Christian theisms (especially our African traditional, Black Muslim and Black Jewish kindred), humanism and atheism.” Why conclude with repentance?

Turman: The fact of the matter is that the Black church has been the moral arbiter of racial justice in the U.S. at least throughout the 20th century and into the 21st century. And we’ve gotten that right. The Black church has gotten that right. Many Black churches continue to espouse a strong commitment to and robust rhetoric around racial justice. But we can't claim perfection in our approximation of justice for marginalized bodies because the Black church has participated in sexism against Black women. It’s participated in heterosexism and homophobia and transphobia. Our communities have been affected by class fragmentation. We have wrestled with colorism in our communities historically. And that’s never talked about. We do all this race stuff, but we’ll never talking about gender. We’ll never talk about sexuality. And it’s like, no, Black people are women, too. Black people are gay, too. Black people are trans, too. We are intersectional. In order for us to be real about our commitment to justice, we have to be committed to justice for every Black body, not just some of them. We have to believe that all Black lives matter. And if they don't matter to us, we have to believe that they matter to God. Which means that they must matter.

Colón: The final sentence of the statement is a pledge to secure “the welfare of the diversity of Black lives, Black freedom, and Black joy.” What does Black joy mean or look like for you?

Turman: Through it all, through the Middle Passage and American slavocracy and Jim Crow and Black criminalization and the new form of Jim Crow in this 21st century scourge of lynching, I find it remarkable that Black people have still created a culture of joy. That Black people can still dance while protesting. That Black people sing, and laugh, and build community, and adorn their bodies in all kinds of sartorial elegance. We are a creative people. We are people who have stared down the barrel of the gun of white supremacy and we still can dance while protesting. I think that is a testament to an abiding joy. In the Black church, we would say it like this: “This joy I have, the world didn't give it to me, and the world can't take it away.” It’s this something deep within that propels us to keep on, to keep fighting and to keep finding beauty and laughter and love in the world in spite of. That's really the Christian story. The Christian story is that despite the coming of death, there is resurrection, there is life. There is an afterword. There is joy. That is the Black joy. We don't want to be overcome or overwhelmed by the tentacles of white violence and white superiority. But we want to, in spite of that, as we resist, as we fight it, we want to remember the joy that we have. The rhythm of the spirit that is down deep in our soul. And we pledge to do whatever we can by any means necessary to continue to nurture Black joy in spite of.