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History has its eyes on you: Calling 'the church' to radical political protest

searching for canaan

“The church” often and consistently stands on the wrong side of history. “The church,” in this instance, represents and describes most mainline Protestant Christian denominations, specifically those which are composed of and led by a majority of white clergy and laity. This body has historically and presently failed to do the radical work to “defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!"(Psalms 72:4). Instead, “the church” has often been, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “ a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound” and “so often the arch-supporter of the status quo.”  It is for this reason that I do not believe it can truly be called The Church but rather must be seen as “the church.”

During a space and time in which the United States is awakening to the urgency of abolishing white power and privilege, coupled with calls for the unseating of white privilege; the institutional church must be held accountable for its role in its perpetuation of oppression upon Black Bodies and spirits. While this piece calls for those who identify as white and hold positions of power in “the church” to be attentive to their calling, it is not absolving those church denominations and leaders who identify as or are predominantly Black. However, these Black communities have historically done most of the labor for Black rights and equity, and it is far past time the rest of “the church” offered support, allyship and action. 

Slavery. The Civil Rights Movement. Apartheid. All of these major moments and movements mark a period of time or a social issue where large portions of “the church” stood on the wrong side of history by actively and passively supporting the suppression of the rights of various Black communities. 

Slaveholders used the Bible not only to convert slaves to Christianity but also to justify slavery as God’s seemingly pre-ordained will. In the 1950s and 60s as Black Americans fought for their rights to equality, “the church” vehemently opposed their fight for rights, in some cases going so far as to have Black protesters arrested for trying to integrate worship services. When it came to apartheid, “the (American) church”—with a few notable exceptions—did little more than offer empty words of condemnation and condolences, while continuing to function as if millions were not being denied basic human rights. Decades later, “the church” keeps having “come to Jesus" moments where it offers its most profuse and deepest apologies, cites a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote and promises that next time it will do better to raise its voice against injustice. Well, this is “next time”…. and “the church” is still standing on the wrong side of history.

Over the past several months, the United States has seen demands for justice and equity for the Black community as protests have arisen following the senseless murders of multiple unarmed Black bodies. Unlike past calls for justice and moments of Black outcry, it seems that not only the nation but the whole world is finally listening and rallying behind the rightful assertion that BLACK LIVES MATTER.  Yet as various institutions begin to support and ally with the call for the affirmation and equity of Black people in America, “the church” is once again all too silent, falling short of its charge to be a place of radical political protest. It is failing to live into the call of true Christianity to stand with the oppressed and the silenced. “The church” has forgotten that it is meant to “stoop down and reach out to those who are oppressed. Share their burdens, and so complete Christ’s law,” and that “if you think you are too good for that, you are badly deceived." (Galatians 6:1-3). If this continues, “the church” is once again going to find itself on the wrong side of history.

Sure, individual clergy and the occasional congregation serve as allies to the Black Lives Matter movement, but by and large “the church” is once again offering nothing more than pro forma support, passively watching as the Black Lives Matter movement and others begin the reconciliation that this country is in dire need of.  In order not to repeat the past, “the church” must offer more than articles on websites or messages from one of its few Black identifying pastors calling “the church” to action.

Nothing short of “the church'' actively encouraging, supporting and attending protests is an acceptable form of justice. Even these actions are only a start. They must accompany sermons, Bible studies, community meetings and the permeation of every other part of church practice and function with teachings and discussions of anti-racist work and support of Black bodies and spirits. 

This support cannot just come from the Black parts of “the church'' or congregations who have Black clergy and Black parishioners. Rather, the most important place that this support to be found is in the spaces that are wholly white. Of course, this call to lean into justice work requires “the church'' to confront, address and begin dismantling the racism and white normativity that it historically—and presently—perpetuates. Either “the church” will step up and be reminded of its call to do “what is good and what is required of us: 'To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.'" (Micah 6:8); or several decades from now it will find itself once again backpedaling and reflecting on a lot of “shoulda, coulda, wouldas.”

And should the “the church”  once again prove itself too weak and ineffectual to stand on the right side of history, perhaps it will need to admit it is not the true religion and movement of Jesus Christ, nor does it truly understand the message and life of Jesus. 

Tatayana Richardson is a Trinity senior who thinks everybody should read Assata by Assata Shakur at least once in their lives. Her column, “Searching for Canaan,” runs on alternate Mondays. 

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