The impact of race, religion and justice on the nation’s social consciousness

Faith in Conversation

 

By DIANE XAVIER

The Dallas Examiner

 

Dallas is known as a diverse city filled with people of different races, nationalities, religions and socio-economic backgrounds.

In an effort to educate the community, celebrate the rich attributes of its residents and help the community and nation heal from racial and political unrest, several religious organizations joined together to present Faiths in Conversation: Religion, Race and Justice, a conference on how race and religion impacts one’s thoughts and actions in life.

The Interfaith Council of Thanks-Giving Square, the Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum and the SMU Perkins School of Theology in collaboration with the The SMU Office of the Chaplain and Religious Life, The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Cultures, and Dallas Bar Association Equality Committee hosted the virtual webinar on Jan. 10.

This session was part five of a six-part monthly online series that focuses on the diverse religious practices found in North Texas.

The event featured Dr. R. Khari Brown, associate professor of Sociology at Wayne State University and president of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and Dr. Maurice Pugh, adjunct professor in Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary.

Brown began the discussion focusing on the connections between the Black Lives Matter movement and how race and religion have played a role in people’s views of this topic.

Four months after the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, Americans marched in over 4,000 cities in the U.S. to protest the police killings of unarmed Black men, he recalled.

“Like other human rights movements of this nation’s past, religious groups are also among the demonstrators,” Brown said. “For example, on June 4, 2020, people marched with hundreds of others in Detroit to demand an end to police brutality. The march began with Christian and Jewish and Muslim leaders praying for guidance. It ended with religious leaders and elected officials calling legislators to support policies aimed at reducing police violence and encouraging marchers to vote their conscience for the 2020 general election. At the March, Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Huntington Woods, Michigan, stated the following, ‘We should not just talk the talk, but walk the walk, and have an impact and influence on their congregants and we have to use that to make a difference.’”

Brown then asked those listening in two questions:

  • Are there religious beliefs that talk and walk in line with racial justice?
  • Do clergy have an impact and influence on their congregants?

In his presentation, he tested a certain assertion by examining two central research questions.

“One, how do religious beliefs and clergy race talks associate with the point for Black Lives Matter and racial justice work?” he asked. “And second, is this relationship between religion and Black Lives Matter similar or different across race groups?

Brown summarized that on a practical level, for the past 50 years, African Americans and Hispanics have made enormous gains in educational attainment, political representation, occupational prestige, income and wealth and nearly all other qualities of life but at the same time, racial hierarchies, political power and access to economic opportunities still exists.

“African Americans, followed by Hispanics, remain on the bottom of nearly all quality of life indicators, from poverty to incarceration to violence to negative health outcomes – like COVID – and in part because of the gerrymandering of congressional districts and the racial, racially segregated nature of our communities, elected officials representing African Americans and Hispanics have a more difficult time passing legislation to address the concerns,” he said. “The continued salience of racial hierarchies means the racial minority initiated and led movements are very likely to need support of a dominant group – Whites – to achieve their goals.”

He said this study should enhance one’s understanding about why and how religion shapes the support for human rights movements, specifically, Black Lives Matter.

He gave the example of one of the Black Lives Matter organization co-founders.

“Patrice Cullors, BLM co-founder argues that religious rituals and spirituality provides activists such as herself with the strength to do the work on activism,” Brown said. “At a virtual religious service held at UCLA, she shredded sheets of paper with the words police and White racism, while the recorded prayer for Ahmaud Arbery and Breanna Taylor played on repeat, sanctifying the names of the victims and clarifying their obligation to do race work.

In describing the political failings, she stated it literally almost resurrected spirit. “They can work through us to get the work that we need to get done. Now over the past 50 years, between 40% and 50% of worship goers attend worship services that are in some ways not too different from that UCLA service where clergy encourage congregants to think about race and racism. Unlike the UCLA service, most clergy do not clearly state their support or opposition to racial issues.”

Brown said that instead, many clergy are likely to emphasize that God created all humans in all their luck.

“But few go the next step in encouraging the congregants to oppose policies that exploit different classes and races of human beings,” he said. “But when clergy do take that next step, and take a very clear position on race, they very often support racial justice.”

 

Race relations in Southern America

Brown showed a study he conducted on race relations.

“In 1951, the participation study, a survey of Southern Americans – African Americans and Whites – the vast individuals were really five times more likely to say that their clergy favored racial integration. And roughly six decades later, you see roughly a similar pattern among individuals in 2020. Following the summer protest, nearly four in 10 clergy said they supported Black Lives Matter during sermons and roughly a quarter said their clergy opposed their sermons,” he revealed.

Brown said clergy that challenge racial oppression often emphasize a social justice-oriented faith.

“They want to stay in solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and oppressed, and they also call one to choose a God that abhors human suffering and exploitation,” Brown said. “This type of theology frames faithfulness, its commitment to doing God’s will, of enhancing human flourishing and ending suffering from this perspective of loving the creator which involves holding the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting prisoners and caring for the immigrant and refugee.”

The second research question that Brown conducted focused on why spiritual goers trusted their leaders.

“Congregants tend to believe the clergy are experts in interpreting and applying sacred text,” he said. “In some ways, racial justice is a theological or philosophical question about one’s obligation to share power in the group that economically, politically and culturally benefited the most from their position in this nation’s racial hierarchy.”

Brown’s studies explored the extent to which people see a different relationship between religion and support for the BLM among interracial organizations. He also looked at the relationship between religion and civil activism across race groups.

“In the study, the majority of Blacks, Hispanics and Whites said they approved of Black Lives Matter,” he said. “We do, however, see racial differences here. African Americans are most likely to approved of Black Lives Matter, followed by Hispanics and Whites. We also feel that African Americans were most likely to say that those demonstrations were protests, as opposed to lawlessness and riots followed by Hispanics and Whites. African Americans were more likely than Hispanics and Whites to benefit and to engage and protest and participate in activism.”

He then examined the connection between race and sermons about race relations and policing.

“We find here that African Americans and Hispanics are more likely to say that they identified with the religious left, and the vast majority said that social justice was at the core of their religious beliefs,” Brown said. African Americans are more likely than Hispanics and Whites to say that they heard a sermon relevant to Black Lives Matter and to identify with believing progressive religious ideals. African Americans, Hispanics and Whites that say that they identify with the religious left were more likely to say that they supported Black Lives Matter than those individuals that did not identify with the religious left. We’ve in some ways viewed racial justice as a theological quandary.

“In congregations where they’re challenged to live out the faith that requires sacrifice, human rights, and also to adhere to the same ideals themselves, they seemingly take a very different approach to racial justice. In contrast, racial justice could be a logical, practical necessity I would argue for racial groups that suffer from racial discrimination. This is likely the case because regardless of whether or not African Americans or Hispanics hear sermons about race, are identified with the religious left, many recognize that violence is a serious problem and don’t want to fall victim to it.”

Brown said his study suggests that the potential exists for members of the religious left and the attendees to push elected officials to support legislation that enhances the quality of Black life.

“Racial justice sermons have the potential to alienate White congregants and or limit their ability to attract others,” Brown said. “Some scholars argue that Civil Rights work of White mainline and Catholic churches during the 1950s and 1960s contributed to the groups losing members and financial strength in the subsequent decades. Today, among White congregations, theologically liberal congregations have fewer regular attendees than your theologically moderate and conservative congregation. But I would say all is not lost. Organizations will likely continue their human rights work because they tend not to judge the outcome of their activism in temporal terms. Having faith in a God that works through people to bend the moral arc of the universe, even slightly towards racial justice, likely sustains many to believe that activism has meaning.”

 

Theologies of King and Malcolm X

Pugh then presented his theories on race relations by focusing on the similarities between the theologies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. He explained that liberation theology is a Christian based theology that is concerned with the plight of the poor, the marginalized and those seeking economic or social equality or justice.

He focused on Black liberation theology.

“I’ve spent a lot of my time looking through the lens of Dr. James Cone,” Pugh said. “I wholeheartedly would argue that Dr. Cone represents one of America’s most important and controversial theologians of the 20th century, primarily because he spoke specifically and prophetically to the ideas of race, religion and justice. I suggest that there can be no modern day or contemporary study of Christianity in the Black experience or critique, or what I say would be called from that terminology, white supremacy and Christian America that does not interact with James Cone. I refer to him as a theologically, creative genius because one of the ways in which he shapes or constructs his theology to speak to race, religion and justice is by merging together two figures that we would normally say are diametrically in opposition to one another and that is Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.”

Pugh said Cone noted that King and Malcolm X came from different educational training, family backgrounds and different parts of the country. Cone merged the social consciousness of King and the Black consciousness ideology of Malcolm X to offer Black America faith that spoke to race, justice and religion.

To understand Black theology, one must reflect on the context of 1960s: the protests and marches, as well as the assassinations Malcolm X in 1965 and King in 1968, Pugh illustrated.

“Once again, policing segregation for Dr. Cone is that this context of the birth of theology – that I would say comes out of an attitude of anger, of frustration, of trying to construct a theology that addresses the social ills of the day,” he stated.

“And so, some of the things that we see even today with the issues of Ferguson, the murder of George Floyd and the mass marches and the mass protests, if you take what we saw with the last year to three years, that’s the context of the ‘60s. So, Dr. Cone’s theology and in his groundbreaking book, Black Theology and Black Power, he writes that Black theology is written with the definite attitude of an angry Black man disgusted with the oppression of Black people in America. And too many people are on the verge of death. He says that this theology is birthed out of anger and frustration, which demands a religion of action.”

Pugh said Cone concluded that one needs to take action instead of just preaching.

“In other words, Dr. Cone said that he ‘can no longer sit in my office, I can no longer sit in classrooms. I can no longer sit in the ivory tower and have discussions disconnected from bombings and policing and riots and have to have a theology to address the conditions of life,’” he continued. “So from his perspective, Black America can no longer accept systemic injustice, but must reject segregation and discrimination, unprosecuted racial violence and second class citizenship as a status quo.”

Pugh discussed Cone’s approach to make theological change using the context of the ‘60s.

“Because he’s asking the question now, … ‘What does the Christian gospel have to say to a powerlesss Black man whose existence is threatened daily by an ainsidious typical White power?’ Is there a message from Christ to the countless number of Blacks whose lives are smothered under White society? And unless theology can become ghetto theology – and what I mean by that is theology that speaks to life; theology that addresses the situations and real life theology, theology which speaks to Black people – that gospel message has not promised life. For the Black man, it is a lifeless message,” Pugh expressed.

Pugh said that Cone was wrestling with this relationship between faith, religion, race and the conditions of systemic injustice or the systemic racism that he sees in the country in which people live.

“So he creates a theology that rejects systemic racism,” Pugh explained. “Injustice now is an important thing, while at the same time affirming Black identity.”

 

Black consciousness

Pugh talked about the influence of Malcolm X during the ‘60s and how it compared to the BLM movement of today.

“The context of the ‘60s was the Black Power movement and the Black power movement gave rise to this idea of Black consciousness, Black identity,” he said. “This promoted the sentiment of being proud to be Black. The reason that’s so important is you think hundreds of years of dehumanizing, demeaning and humiliating and providing a negative connotation for all things Black, then the Black power movement comes along, and it makes us proud of Black culture, Black Heritage, Black history, Back tradition – and let’s be proud of that. The Nation of Islam at the same time is proposing themselves as the religion that was specifically sensitive to Black people or the religion for Black people.”

At the time there was a Black awareness of Black affirmation, according to Pugh.

“There was an intentional effort to build up the consciousness of Black people towards themselves, while at the same time, providing what I call a scathing critique of American Christianity,” he said. “Because, ironically and unfortunately, American Christianity was viewed by the Nation of Islam as a religion for the majority of the religion for Whites. There was so much atrocity that was done in the name of Christianity towards Blacks. The Nation of Islam provides an alternative to Christianity that was to speak or that was to appeal to Black America.”

Pugh pointed out that Cone was ademant about being a Christian. And while he didn’t want to leave his Christian faith, he also had to understand how it played a part in his Black identity.

“What he does is he also integrates now, what I call the ‘Christian theology of Martin Luther King.’ That’s where we get our protests, our social awareness, the theology …” Pugh explained. “That is where our race and our theology comes together because it is shaped by our experience. Dr. King socially and consciously advanced two ideas: protest and social justice. He argued that the ideas of civil rights and integration were compatible with Christianity. In other words, if we are to remain true to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we cannot rest until segregation and discrimination are banished from every form of American life.”

Pugh said he wrote in his dissertation that King was the academic, intellectual, educated Black Baptists who, like Moses and the prophets from the Old Testament spoke against societal evils in the attempt to get Black people out of bondage. While Malcolm X believed in a more radical movement and taking more military stance to elevate Black culture.

He said Cone’s newly discovered theological method provided the language to speak to those being economically exploited and politically marginalized because of their skin color.

“What is the role of a social conscience and what is the role of the social consciousness of Christianity?” Pugh asked. “And once again, 50 years later, Black liberation is still having a discussion as it relates to religion, race and justice.”

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