Rahiel Tesfamariam is a social activist and former columnist for The Washington Post.
On Aug. 10, the day after the one-year anniversary of Mike Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Mo., I was arrested with nearly 60 other faith leaders for blocking the entrance of a St. Louis federal courthouse in an act of civil disobedience. On my shirt was a quote from Hands Up United co-founder Tef Poe: “This Ain’t Yo Mama’s Civil Rights Movement.” The phrase has resonated with many young activists who reject the identity politics, conservative rules and traditional tactics of the church-led movement of the 1960s.
In the streets of Ferguson and Baltimore, the new movement for black lives was radicalized by legions of poor and working-class youth who forced the nation to grapple with black rage. They fearlessly confronted a militarized police force, tear gas, snipers and tanks designed for warfare while Americans watched on their television screens. These young people, including countless women and LGBTQ people who have organized many of the movement’s most powerful acts of resistance, have changed the predominant image of black activism in America.
The front lines of the fight for civil rights are no longer “manned” by the traditional leaders of the black community: well-dressed, respectable clergymen. From Emanuel AME Church’s historical fight against slavery in Charleston, S.C., to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s leadership in the 1960s, the church was the control center in black America’s struggle for civil rights for generations. Its authority infused the civil rights movement with traditional values — hierarchical leadership, respectability politics and the guiding principles of reconciliation and nonviolence.
Today’s movement has dismissed these criteria, operating without centralized leadership and accepting as many straight women and LGBTQ people on the front lines as straight men. Last winter, young activists rejected the leadership of the Rev. Al Sharpton when they stormed the stage of his “Justice for All” march in Washington and demanded an equal voice. Instead, the movement chants a phrase coined by three women, two of them queer: “Black lives matter.”
For this generation, there’s no need to hide behind a veil of purity or wear a suit to have an authoritative seat at the table. This is a movement that encourages all to “come as you are.” Natural. Bohemian. Rebellious. Tatted up. Provocative. Ratchet. It seems everything is acceptable — except the constraining rules of our elders’ day.
Historically, Christian fundamentalism has created hierarchies that place higher value on some lives and alienate others. Churches are often led by charismatic, straight men. Women, in contrast, typically have been forbidden from ordination and the pulpit under long-debated biblical passages calling for them to remain “silent in the churches.” Similarly, scriptural references have been used to keep the LGBTQ community on the margins of church life. The church’s common rejection of homosexuality has granted permission for the rejection of an entire community.
This is inherently at odds with a movement that chants “black lives matter,” leaving no room for footnotes about who is included in that declaration and who is left out. The movement’s decentralized structure has ensured that the concerns of subgroups are not sidelined. After women in the movement pointed out that it had become exclusively focused on police brutality against black men, targeted hashtags such as #SayHerName emerged. Those efforts kept national attention on cases of women and girls, including Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd. And last month, movement organizers held rallies across the country to bring awareness to the high rate of murder of black transgender women.
This movement’s tactics, as well, have challenged the church’s influence. While the civil rights movement of the 1960s was characterized by nonviolent resistance strategies, this movement has been much more confrontational. Demonstrators have disrupted morning commutes, theatrical performances and athletic events. In Ferguson and Baltimore, where many young people insisted on aggressive direct action such as throwing back tear-gas canisters and casting rocks at police, many clergy members encouraged them to instead “go inside” and negotiate around a table.
If there is a model of revolution that these young people have mirrored most, it’s not King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, but rather the radical and countercultural beliefs of the Black Panther Party. Like the Panthers, they have unapologetically celebrated blackness, raising “black power” fists, sporting afros and wearing T-shirts with African imagery. In contrast, the church hasn’t typically been as radical in its rhetoric and tactics. King, for example, opposed the militant arm of the civil rights movement, noting that “black power” carried “connotations of violence and separatism.”
The black church isn’t unique in its disconnect from young people. Millennials are broadly disaffected with organized religion, driven by their progressive views on homosexuality and a general skepticism of traditional institutions. More than 1 in 3 millennials say they are religiously unaffiliated.
But black millennials are more connected to the church than their peers — about 76 percent of black adults under age 30 affiliate with the church (compared with 64 percent of all young adults in that age group), according to a 2009 Pew study. Likewise, the movement isn’t devoid of religion. Preachers such as Traci Blackmon of Florissant, Mo., Osagyefo Sekou of St. Louis and Michael McBride of Berkeley, Calif., have stood alongside youth in street protests and mentored young activists. And Bree Newsome quoted scripture when she climbed the South Carolina statehouse flagpole in June to remove the Confederate flag.
Still, critiques of the black church’s declining influence have been building for years. In 2010, Princeton professor Eddie Glaude wrote an essay in the Huffington Post titled “The Black Church Is Dead.” Glaude argued that “the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.” He blamed the church’s deeply conservative dimension and its disconnect from social issues. Saying the church’s social currency is “memory” was a hurtful and harsh critique for many within the black faith community.
But others, including myself, saw the essay as a challenge and an opportunity to rededicate the black church to its liberation-centered legacy. Even though black liberation theology wasn’t formalized as a school of thought until the 1960s, its practice in the U.S. could be seen as long ago as the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, who said his acts were driven by the Bible.
For churches already rooted in black liberation theology — the spiritual philosophy that Christianity is a tool of empowerment for the oppressed — this movement is an opportunity to reclaim a generation that needs to see Jesus as a freedom fighter, liberator, community organizer and revolutionary. Churches like First Corinthian Baptist in Harlem, City of Refuge United Church of Christ in Oakland and Community of Hope AME in Temple Hills, Md., do not see this moment as a crisis of relevancy, because they have been working at the intersection of Jesus and justice every day. Ministries like these not only preach the “good news” of Christ but also address the school-to-prison pipeline, health disparities in low-income communities and urban gun violence. Churches like these participated in “Hoodie Sunday” after Trayvon Martin’s killing; they lifted up the “Seven Last Words” of black people killed by police; and they supported my #NotOneDime campaign calling for economic resistance in the aftermath of the Ferguson grand jury’s decision not to indict the officer who killed Brown. These churches understand that Jesus came and died for the purpose of liberation, and his followers should be equally committed to putting their lives on the line for it.
This month, McBride, who heads the progressive, faith-based Live Free Campaign, was among 1,000 clergy members and people of faith who met in Sacramento to call on California Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a bill to combat racial profiling and improve police accountability. “While not every church has been involved, we know historically this has never been the case,” McBride said. “There have always been a faith-filled minority which has leaned into moments of social crisis and transformation.”
But in large part, the masses are not turning to churches for their social justice marching orders. The ideological and strategic differences between conservative church leadership and this movement have led to a generational wrestling match. While many elders have insisted that the movement assign leaders, tone down its rhetoric and use less-confrontational tactics, young activists have resisted in the spirit of self-determination.
To find their place in black America’s latest uprising, church and faith leaders will have to assess their theological values. A theology that addresses only freedom from sin is incomplete. There’s no way to talk about the story of Jesus without also addressing freedom from oppression.
Every generation should look to its elders for guidance and to the past for inspiration. The struggle for freedom is ongoing, and our fight is intergenerational. But young people must answer their calling and live out their purpose in ways that feel authentic. They must stand at the turbulent intersection of the world as it is and the world as it should be, pushing society out of its comfort zone. It’s an inevitable shift toward a civil rights movement reflective of this new era.