Religion is always mostly about material bodies. Black Lives Matter is in part about the value of Black bodies, and so taps in to and reveals the religious contestations over those bodies in the present, but most assuredly also over the historical narratives about those bodies from the past, and over the freedoms for bodies today into the future.
American religious history is pretty simple, on one level: white Protestant males dominate and control the bodies of those who are not white, Protestant, and male; white Protestant male religious cultures set and still police the rules of the game for religious life in the US, rules often fueled by racist fears and fantasies; and white Protestant males devalue, dehumanize, and demonize others to justify their sacred investments in guns, “law and order,” and white Christian privilege in American society.
As much as the dominant culture would like to try and maintain control over what has sacred value and what does not, on the other hand, countervailing and revolutionary religious forces have been and are now currently at work to destabilize, dismantle, and demystify the power structures and conceptual constraints that keep certain bodies down and disempowered, and ensure egregious freedoms for other bodies.
The racist and anti-Black sentiments and stances in white Protestant religious cultures is the main story and dominant thread in American religious history, not religious freedom, not separation of church and state, not religious diversity. What is truly sacred in the grand narratives of American history is not the flag, not the founding fathers, not Manifest Destiny, but instead ideas about racial superiority, and the concomitant racist ideologies, that emanate from various quarters within white Protestant religious cultures and that now, today, are a clear-cut cornerstone of the Republican Party who follow sheepishly behind their racist leader and current President of the United States.
But that is not the only strand, nor the only story in America’s religious histories, even if it has been and remains quite dominant. Right now, collective energies and effervescences, emanating from the streets and in protests, on social media and via celebrities and forms of entertainment, are generating ritual actions and innovations that are upsetting the sacred standing order and raising possibilities for new sacred social values about how Black bodies matter. Black Lives Matter is a catalyst, for sure, along with other movements and Black leaders who are clearly expressing what is at stake in the current moment–the life, health, and well-being of Black bodies; and what can be done now–confront the past and change the present systemic racism in the USA, which is widespread, embedded, and threaded in the fabric of American society.
The unjust killing of Black men and women by police is the tip of the iceberg, even as we must continue to say the names of so many, so recently and wrongly killed, like Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Atatiana Jefferson, Rayshard Brooks. The country is, we must admit, built on the carnage and destruction of Black people, enslaved and free, whose lives were not valued as sacred, like the living Whites who profited from and were complicit in the profanation of the Black body. We know some of the names and utterly gruesome stories of Black people who were murdered or lynched at the hands of White Protestant men throughout American history. How many do we not know about? The potential powers for social transformation in the rituals of protest and reparations is tied in part to the sacred, religious obligations we have to their memories as Americans whose lives mattered.
Black voices matter, and part of the ritual ripple effects from the protests and the social media engagements is a turn toward reading, education, and efforts to enlighten the American public. Voices from the past, like Sojourner Truth and Fredrick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs and W. E. B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin– as well as more contemporary figures like Angela Davis, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Toni Morrison, Eddie Glaude, and Ibram X. Kendi– are crucial sources for reimagining the lives of Black Americans in ways that run counter to the conventional and often racist representations of found in traditional retellings of American history. Black Lives Matter is not simply a slogan or brand, but captures a profound demand to reorient and recalibrate personal and public consciousnesses about difference and the long-running, deep-seated, often outrageously explicit racism in American society.
One obvious example of the long-running, deep-seated, and outrageously explicit racism abundantly evident in American society is the glorification and celebration of the Confederacy–in its symbols, heroes, and mythologies, but most undeniably in its version of the sacred purity of a white Christian race. The offensive racist presence of the Confederacy in public places like named buildings, or centrally-located statues, and in the more obscure, hard to see places like anonymous hate groups on the internet or secret meetings and communications of racist cells in the police force or military, is hopefully encountering its strongest challenge yet. The symbolic repercussions and real-world political impact of tearing down these statues, removing images of the Confederate flag, and renaming buildings is quite monumental in itself, and seems to signal the start of another form of sacred reorientation and religious subversion, turning dominant values on their head and eradicating public visual imagery of what was– let’s face it–an effort to destroy America and all its supposed ideals and values.
The religious dimensions of this Black Lives Matter moment are profound and multifarious, involving Christian perspectives and actions, but not only; engaging contestations over American Civil Religion, though surely about more than national identity and responsibilities; and identifying new forms of sacred life and empowerment that challenge and can replace the rampant, degrading racism in America that has determined human value for so long. The future of religious life in America will no doubt be shaped by how America responds to the changes in consciousness and actions that are being demanded in this moment of outrage, protest, and tenacious collective calls for dramatic social transformation.