Four Things Evangelicals Should Know About Black Lives Matter

By Lisa Sharon Harper 1-15-2016 | Series:
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Africa.

There are leagues of meaning in that one word.

Motherland of all humanity, for African-Americans it is our ancestors’ birthplace. Africa is uncle and aunty, and Grandmom who passed down the family's recipes for Collards, Yams, and Hoecake.

It is the family that taught us to bump and crump before Soul Train and before a single riot-scorched a block in Compton. It is our birth family — the family we were torn from and sold from. It is both the family left behind and the family carried to the far corners of Earth — all chained, murdered, raped, and exploited.

We found others chained, murdered, raped, and exploited by the spirit called colonization: Indigenous peoples and later our mixed progeny; Latinos sharecropped in sugarcane, coffee, and cocoa fields owned by European masters. And colonization claimed our Eden as its own and commanded Grandmother to bow to her knees. Head to floor, she submitted to the power of guns, cannons, and church-backed proclamations of Satan’s lie: "black" people do not bear the image of God.

But leadership requires us to say “No!” to lies — regardless of the cost. That is what Fredrick Douglass did. That is what Sojourner Truth did. That is what Abraham Lincoln did. And that is why we celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He said “No!” to that rancid lie. He, and thousands of others, said “No!” with their mouths, their feet, and their votes.

Today, a new generation has risen up in the wake of the police-involved deaths of #TrayvonMartin, #MichaelBrown, #EricGarner, #JohnCrawford, #RenishaMcBride, #SandraBland, #NatashaMcKenna, #IndiaKrager, #JamarClark, and #LaquanMcDonald. A new generation of Grandmother's descendants has reclaimed space over the past year — the right to take it and the right to resist the crushing of the image of God within it. They taught us the hashtag and chant, “Black Lives Matter!”

After more than a year of conversations and discernment, unexpected allies within the evangelical world are beginning to step forward. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship proclaimed support for the message of Black Lives Matter at its recent Urbana Missions Conference. Within days, Sojourners organized a sign on letter thanking Intervarsity for taking a stand. Sixty-two national evangelical leaders signed onto the statement and nearly 1,000 other evangelical leaders joined them. You can sign the letter here. In addition, conservative Christian parachurch agencies, Cru-Inner City and World Impact have issued statements of thanks.

This week, Jim Wallis will begin a nationwide journey helping communities to enter into transformative dialogue and grasp the depth of America’s Original Sin of racism and white privilege. In this week’s Faith in Action newsletter, we feature an excerpt from his book. You can read it here and find out when he’ll be in a town near you here.

This week, I will travel to Grandmother, Africa, for the first time in my life — for a gathering of Christian leaders of color from around the world. We will sleep on Robben Island inside the jail cells reserved for those who resisted apartheid. We will seek to discern the state of the colonized around the world and we will learn lessons from Nelson Mandela’s journey.

As I reflect on the current state of Grandmother’s progeny in the U.S. and around the world and on the new support of white evangelical leaders, I am struck by the opportunity of this moment.

Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s 2,000 study of racism in the U.S., Divided by Faith, located the center of the racial divide in the U.S. squarely in the evangelical church. The crux of that divide can be boiled down to the lack of capacity or willingness of white evangelicals to acknowledge structural racism and its impacts. As a result, white evangelicals were adversaries of the civil rights movement and continue to be among the most vocal adversaries of the Black Lives Matter movement, which demands structural change in the ways police municipalities engage black communities.

But evangelical leaders are stepping forward. They are voicing support for the structural and systemic protection of the image of God in black people. And as in the days of MLK and Mandela, it is essential that allies understand the movement and its operating principles.

The Black Lives Matter movement is the most recent phase of the 500-year global struggle for black freedom. It is not random. It is not disorganized. It is intentionally decentralized and has strict operating principles. The principles of this secular movement are not founded by Christian teachings, but the scriptures do champion them. They include:

1) Rejection of “respectability politics.” To support #BlackLivesMatter means to support the reality that ALL black life matters, including those who would be seen by white power structures as the least respectable in society. The principle is very much in line with the principle of biblical shalom — the belief that until all of us have peace, then none of us has peace. It is also directly in line with Jesus' Matthew 25 call to do justice for "the least of these." This will challenge evangelicals, especially those who already struggle with the doctrine of grace. If one believes the call of the gospel is to be perfect, then "the least respectable" will disrupt comfortability. But we are called to consider another interpretation of Matthew 5's call to "be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect."—the call to LOVE perfectly.

2) Promotion of young black leaders. Biblically, it is a call to listen to the words of Isaiah 61:1-4 and know it is the oppressed, the weeping ones, the ones with inequitable interactions with the prison system who will be the Oaks of Righteousness (Justice). They will be the ones who rebuild the devastations of many generations. To do this white evangelicals will need to confront the very thing in themselves that Michelle Higgins called out in her speech at Urbana15— the need to be in control. They will need to renounce another of Satan’s lies; that God ordained white people to lead the world.

3) Fundamental focus on structural/systemic change. This is in line with Jesus' own declaration of his mission statement in Luke 4, which harkens back to The Year of Jubilee (a year of legal and economic freedom and provision.) This will be a challenge to us evangelicals because, according to Emerson and Smith's study, evangelicals have a hard time seeing and grasping the reality and impact of systems and structures on the lives and livelihoods of whole people groups. For this we need to pray for eyes to see and ears to hear. And pray for hearts that will do as our sister, Erna Hackett, who led the Urbana worship team said: "When our black brothers and sisters tell us their story, we need to believe them."

4) Nonviolent resistance of unjust systems. In every town where BLM responds to violence against black bodies, the movement has responded with creative ways to resist and confront the violence through nonviolent means. There are trainings in nonviolent resistance that take place before every BLM action. Thousands of trainings have taken place across the country just in the past year. Assumptions and rhetoric that claim BLM espouses or condones violence are 100 percent false. There are many who join marches, but never receive the training. There are others who talk about the issues being addressed by BLM, but have never committed to abide by the principles. Being black doesn't make someone a member of the movement. Nor does marching with or talking about BLM make someone a spokesperson for the movement.

Movement members and allies covenant to abide by the principles.

We are standing in the heartbeat of a moment when those who have benefited most from the spirit called colonization have an opportunity. They can defend it as the very thing that has made America great. They can remain silent. They can voice support, then do nothing. Or they can voice support, then act.

Lisa Sharon Harper (@lisasharper) is a speaker, trainer, writer, activist, and author. Her newest book, The Very Good Gospel: How Everything Wrong Can Be Made Right, was published in June 2016.

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