Black Lives Matter, the Sacred, and the Secular
In an interview with Krista Tippet’s theology podcast On Being, prominent civil rights activist and public theologian Ruby Sales considers the role of Black Christianity and Black folk religion in her community organizing. Despite being reared in the Black Baptist tradition, Sales explains that she “lost her religion” during her first protest. When God failed to intervene as mounted police surrounded her, she disowned Christianity and committed herself to seemingly secular activism and political ideology. However, Sales also describes a complicated process by which she rediscovered “Black folk religion,” a countercultural Black spirituality that “combined the ideals of American democracy with a theological sense of justice.”
At first glance it would appear as though the Movement for Black Lives, or the more general “Black Lives Matter” movement, has also lost its religion. Whereas history associates the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s with Black middle-class congregations and church leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Lives Matter movement models itself after the more populist and less religious organizing frameworks of Ella Baker and the Black Panthers. Like Sales, many of the Millennial and Gen Z members of the movement struggle to reconcile the inactivity of the Judeo-Christian God of the Exodus with the realities of police brutality, mass incarceration, and systemic racism. For the many Black women, queer people, and trans people who constitute the majority of the Movement for Black Lives, the movement is also a refuge from Black churches and the accompanying theologies that marginalize or outright reject them. These activists stand at odds with the Black Church’s predominantly reformist stances on incarceration and policing and the institutional culture of respectability politics and cisheterosexism. From the outside looking in, this troubled relationship between young Black activists and the church suggests that the “new” iteration of the Black freedom struggle is completely secular.
But the Movement for Black Lives, its theories of liberation, and the social and political actions for which it is responsible are far from purely secular or atheistic. Though the movement claims no religious affiliation, most organizers would own that there is a spiritual foundation to their work and describe protest as akin to religious experience. Between the “Sunday School” political education forums hosted by the Dream Defenders, the altars and healing vigils to honor Black women killed by police violence, and innovations such as the anti-capitalist, womanist Nap Ministry that provides space for organizers to rest, there is no lack of religious symbolism or content. Activists and organizers draw from Black church culture, Black indigenous traditions (e.g., Yoruba, Vodou, rootwork), and the Black freedom struggle to create an eclectic and adaptive Black spirituality that merges, or defies, the sacred and the secular.
This historical and contemporary expression of Black (non)religious thought goes by several names. Some scholars have called it “secular spirituality;’ Cornel West might term it “prophetic religion.” Sales calls it Black folk religion. Originating in what Albert Raboteau calls “slave religion” and “the invisible institution,” Black folk religion is a de-institutional — or even anti-institutional — faith tradition that unites Black religiosity and Black social and political thought. It is a religion predicated on justice and right relations that claims “that people who were considered property and disposable [are] essential.” Sales traces it in the gathering of enslaved people in hush harbors, the liberation theology that animated the Civil Rights Movement, and the seemingly secular activities of the Black Power movement and contemporary Movement for Black Lives. Black folk religion is negro-spirituals. It is the religious songs that became protest chants in the Civil Rights Movement. It is the current movement’s altars, healing rituals, nap ministries and practices of ancestral reverence. Challenging the colonial binary of “religion” and “politics,” or the “sacred” and “secular,” Black folk religion maintains that Black spirituality and Black resistance, and their practices, are co-constitutive.
As important as folk religion’s transgression of the divide between religion and secularism is the way it enables Black Millennial activists to contest the state and the institutional church. The movement is both a counterpublic and, in many ways, a “counterchurch.” Composed largely of Black women and LGBTQ activists harmed by state policy and Christian theologies, the Black Lives Matter movement recognizes the church as a product of Black resilience and Black colonization. To many organizers the institutional Black Church is an unsafe space, and yet the tradition’s worship culture and liberation theologies still influence their work. Black folk religion enables these organizers to draw from the Black Christian tradition — alongside other Black religious traditions and Black queer, feminist, and womanist ethics — to forge alternative sacred sites and a more inclusive community. In doing so it challenges hierarchical, elitist institutions like the Black Church that concentrate power in the hands of predominantly cisheterosexual male leadership. As Sales explains, Black folk religion ensures that “everybody in the community [has] access to the theological microphone.” It equips non-clergy, and even non-laity, to challenge the colonial discourses in church practice and theology, as well as to call into question the Black Church’s oft-professed role as the vanguard of Black religion and Black resistance.
Though Sales, West, and others obviously use the term “religion” to describe the interplay between resistance, ritual, and spirituality, most activists in the Movement for Black Lives would still maintain that they are non-religious. (Some call for the abolition of religion as a colonial category altogether.) Ultimately Black folk ‘religion’ is less about deities, doctrine, or even theology, and more about the identification of the sacred. In the way that activists in the southern freedom movement turned hymns to protest songs in order to make sacred space out of jail cells, the Movement for Black Lives makes use of liturgy, ritual, and religious materials to sanctify discarded people in seemingly “secular” locations. Through protest and Black folk “religion,” Black activists — especially Black queer and trans people — claim sacred political, spiritual, and ontological worth for all Black lives. The synthesis of protest and spiritual practice in public spaces, and outside church and political procedure, communicates the need for institutions of government and religion to expand their conceptions of sacred value. To the state, the movement contends that the “sacred” has everything to do with policy because human life is sacred and Black lives do, in fact, matter. To the church, on the other hand, it sends the message that what is sacred is not always (or ever) religious. Rather, Black Lives Matter and Black folk religion claim, over and against oppressive practices of the state and the Black Church, that the seemingly “secular,” or nonreligious, is in fact sacred. ♦
Ari Colston is a J.D. and M.Div student at Emory Law and Candler School of Theology and a licentiate in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Her research interests include law and religion, critical geography, and African American religion and culture.