Theology and Black Lives Matter

As a requirement for the junior Social Justice course, the students complete a project (semester long) on a social justice issue they would like to explore in greater depth and/or they are deeply passionate about. It was not surprising that many students were compelled to write about police brutality, racism, or poverty and homelessness in Los Angeles. For the young men of Verb, these realities have shaped the horizon of their being, their identities forged at each crucible of injustice. Yet, they are often afforded little to no opportunities to reflect upon these experiences and find their concerns underrepresented or completely neglected. Unfortunately, this is also the case within the Church, which often lodges concerns for the life and dignity of each human person within narrow arguments about artificial methods of contraception or abortion, the result of which is a neglect of life issues related to dehumanization: state sanctioned murder, and the incessant individual and systemic violences, both material and ideological, that affect persons of color.

Recently, a local parish advertised a “Respect for Life” mass, which clearly indicated that “Black Lives Matter” would be the focus. Needless to say, I was thrilled, and hardly had the patience to wait for the date of the mass to arrive! I told my juniors that this mass may be a wonderful resource for them, particularly those researching and writing about racism and police brutality, who may benefit from a sermon on the theological implications of what it means to say that “Black Lives Matter.” Unfortunately, the homilist neglected to mention how, or whether, “Black Lives Matter.” The homily began with a heavy focus upon personal sexual morality, particularly pre-marital sex and concluded with a reflection on the ills of divorce, and how the family is being destroyed by these practices. Nevermind that, as one of my colleagues noted, his audience may have been through situations where the dissolution of marriage was necessary to keep their very selves intact (situations of intimate partner violence would function as prime examples here), and therefore, they may have been left wondering if the broad brush stroke of the social ill of divorce applied to them. What immediately sank in for me was that issues of respecting life were yet again couched within issues of sex, marriage, and divorce. At times the homilist made borderline vulgar statements with sexual implications, you know, to really drive the point home. All I could think of is that this “vulgarity” was not vulgar at all—it was rather safe. It is safe to talk about premarital sex, about marriage, divorce, and vocation. It would be much more vulgar to have actually spoken about the broken and murdered black and brown bodies in society. It would have been much more vulgar because we may need to face our collective indictment for complicity in such social sin. So, instead of scandalizing the audience with the possibility that black lives do indeed matter and that we must do what we can to act in solidarity, the homilist opted for the easy and cheap grace that comes along with nestling issues of life into sexual morality. In his neglect of addressing the real issues surrounding the “Black Lives Matter” movement, he also refused to acknowledge just how well a theo-ethical analysis of this movement coincides with the core of our own Christian faith, and therefore rejected how theological discourse can prove prophetic in times of tremendous suffering.

They are crucifying again the Son of God’(Heb 6:6).

Both Jesus and blacks were the ‘strange fruit’ (that Billie Holiday sung of). Theologically            speaking, Jesus was the ‘first lynchee,’ who foreshadowed all the lynched black bodies on         American soil. He was crucified by the same principalities and powers that lynched black (and             brown) people in America. Because God was present with Jesus on the cross and thereby refused        to let Satan and death have the last word about his meaning, God was also present at every lynching in the United States. God saw what whites did to innocent and helpless blacks and             claimed their suffering as God’s own. God transformed lynched black bodies into the recrucified          body of            Christ. Every time a white mob lynched a black person, they lynched Jesus. They lynching   tree is the cross in America. When American Christians realize that they can meet Jesus only in the crucified bodies in our midst, they will encounter the real scandal of the cross (J. Cone, The            Cross and the Lynching Tree)

The above quote taken from black liberation theologian James Cone truly does reveal the scandal of the cross. We cannot see or know God until we lament and act in solidarity with the brutalized and broken black and brown communities. The lynching tree and the indiscriminate violence meted out against persons of color, often leading to their deaths, evokes the memory and tragedy of the cross. This is part of the challenge of the Black Lives Matter movement—we must recognize how we continue to crucify persons of color. By refusing to engage in the vulgarities of such violence, particularly in our Church, we forget our executed God, and his complete identification with those who suffer. Additionally, we fail to evidence how theology can be meaningful to the young men of Verb. It is time that we get vulgar. I invite teachers in all disciplines to accompany me on this journey. I certainly did when I offered my classes the homily that our theological tradition lends itself to—one that says loudly and clearly that Black Lives DO Matter. The young men of Verb desire this, they have a right to reflect on their own experiences, and to hear their advocates, mentors, teachers and clergy members provide insights that resonate with their own horizons of understanding.

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