The Theological Culture of Black Lives Matter

             Air is a ubiquitous substance. Walking around a house, running through a park, or sitting outside air billows through our lungs without notice or cause. This air, however, has been slowly heating up. Like a lobster before dinner, the soft simmer has become a deadly boil. Coronavirus has choked the lungs of over 13,000 Americans. Visuals of police brutality have boiled over into the American consciousness, and “I Can’t Breathe,” has become a painful slogan for our reality. The fresh air we once breathed has become toxic.   

            The predominant cultural narrative of 2020 is the toxic air of racism and inequality. In the United States, a global pandemic with the potential to infect every American has disproportionately been more deadly to communities of color.[1] While all of America witnessed the highest unemployment in history, Black Americans experienced the highest unemployment rate.[2] After months of physical isolation and economic instability, the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd ignited a cultural movement that inspired Black Lives Matter protests around the world. For this paper, I will examine the Black Lives Matter Movement, its influence on culture, and the theological fruits growing from this movement. 

            “Culture is like air,” writes Clive Marsh, “We live within it and need it constantly, but forget it’s there.”[3] The toxic air has seeped into the cultural narrative. Activist infographics, memes, and protest live-streams cover social media. Anti-Racist books span the best-sellers list. Civil rights movies, like Just Mercy, are free for digital streaming. Apple Music and Spotify feature Black artists and protest songs on their main landing page. The reality of the once seemingly innocuous air has shifted. The fog that prevented much of White America from seeing the reality of racism has lifted. We can no longer breathe the air of ignorance as a torrent of injustice rushes through society.

    To be human is to live in a society and to be influenced by the culture society creates. This culture is continuously evolving, shaping, and being shaped by every moment and every individual. Culture is acting on humanity. Humanity is acting on culture. As Christians, we are called to go out to all the world and engage it fully; our faith does not allow us to exist alone.[4] It is this acting and engagement in the world that shapes our reality and establishes our role in society. As Cardinal Karol Wojtyła wrote before he was elected Pope John Paul II and then later canonized a saint:

“The commandment of love is also the measure of the tasks and demands that have to faced by all [people] — all persons and all communities — if the whole good contained in the acting and being ‘together with others’ is to become a reality.”[5]

The air we breathe in our world has become toxic and unjust for our broader community, and it is a requirement of faith for the “acting person” to dawn a face-mask, breath the toxic air of our world, and work to establish a loving and just community.

            As the face-mask filters the invisible toxins of our world, I am more aware of my responsibility to filter the cultural milieu that surrounds me through a theological mask. Just as natural light streams through a stain glass window and illuminates new depths of meaning, theologians ought to see the stain glass reality of our world and imagine how the cultural light shining forth might display new depths. Reflecting on the parables and teachings of Jesus, it is clear that Christ used his culture—farming, fishing, walking, trade, city, and rural life—as a touchpoint for his metaphors and examples. With Jesus no longer walking on Earth, and the agrarian lifestyle mostly changed to an industrial entertainment lifestyle, new metaphors are necessary for understanding how God is speaking in, through, and to our world.

            What is the theological imperative at root of Black Lives Matter? 
           How might the protest signs reimagine the Beatitudes?
           Are the protest songs a retelling of the Psalms?

            When nationwide protests began around May 29, 2020, the air was thick with a novel virus and racial toxicity. For nearly a month, people around the world have taken to the streets. “From the hood to the holler,”[6] people of all ages, genders, and races have shouted: “Black Lives Matter!” In the wake of a man who was suffocated to death, a new breathe of air has rushed forth, inspiring artists and activists to express truth to power.

            One of the most visible markers of the movement has been the people carrying a multitude of handmade signs that speak to the broader narrative. These signs have inspired new hashtags, created new cultural markers, and signaled one’s solidarity and ally-ship with the movement. Rolling Stones magazine cultural reporter Ryan Bort and photographer Eva Woolridge took to the streets of New York City to document the signs and interview their creators. These signs are but a small example of the larger rallying cries for justice.

            Annika Samuels, pictured with her hands raised and a picture frame around her neck, told the reporters:

Annika Samuels, Eva Woolridge for Rolling Stone

“I’m expressing through the blood tears that what happened to George Floyd is not right… This is so you can see him and so you can hear him, and so you can respect us and love us. We do have a voice. We do have an opinion. We want to be treated like equals… The dots behind him represent us. We’re standing here and having his back in these times, because we need to be heard… Just love and peace and that’s it.”[7]

Like Simon of Cyrene, Annika Samuels carries the burden of a stranger through her handmaid sign and artwork.[8] Her artistic witness and activist stance echos Jesus’s instructions for his disciples to carry the lovingly support and attend to others’ needs.[9]

            Amanda Etienne, dressed in her Wycoff Hospital nurse uniform, shared:

Amanda Etienne, Eva Woolridge for Rolling Stone

“COVID was the worst three months I’ve ever experienced in health care… When I go to work every day I don’t discriminate. We have combative patients. We have psych patients. We have people with mental illnesses. We restrain people without having to harm them or kill them.”[10]

Her desire to heal others without discrimination is a Christ-like act.[11] Moreover, Amanda Etienne is a reminder of our Christian responsibility. Christians are called to be attentive and gracious to God’s gifts and generously help the world.[12]

            Finally, Nicole Beauchaine, pictured with her partner Chad Douglas, holding a sign reading, “WHITE SILENCE = VIOLENCE!” reminds people to definitively take a stand[13] with the people of the world who are “persecuted because of righteousness.”[14]

Chad Douglas and Nicole Beauchaine, Eva Woolridge for Rolling Stone [15]

While not citing chapter nor verse, these cultural banners bear profound Biblical truth. By nature of the incarnation, Christians believe that the very essence of God, “reaches into the roots of material and biological existence as well as into the darker sides of creation.”[16] As the “Word became flesh” and lived among the world, “the sarx of John 1:14,” as Elizabeth Johnson writes, “reaches beyond the person of Jesus” and encompasses all aspects of our creative and living humanity and extends to the “cosmic dust of which they were composed.”[17]

            The Black Lives Matter protesters parallel the prophetic witness of the life of Jesus. Like the protestors, Jesus supported those who were oppressed,[18] befriended outcasts,[19] worked with those who society did not support,[20] and praised those who fought for justice.[21] Just as the Black Lives Matters blocks traffic and “unlawfully assembles,” Jesus too broke laws,[22] challenged political authority,[23] questioned the love people have for financial dominance,[24] rebuked religious piety for the sake of humanity,[25] and violently looted a marketplace after people failed to listen to his cries for justice.[26] The Black Live Matter movement’s radical nature takes the faith of Christianity and puts it into action.[27]

            Culture does not just confine itself to one sphere; it seeps into all aspects of life. The Black Lives Matter movement has moved from a hashtag, to protests, and to art. Grammy award-winning artist Anderson.Paak released “Lockdown” on June 18, 2020. The music video and song provided intense lyrical and visual motifs to the nationwide protests.[28] Louisville rapper, Jack Harlow, produced a freestyle rap in honor of Breonna Taylor and the people who have taken the streets to beg for her justice.[29] “A young Black man,” named Keedron Bryant, became a viral sensation when he released his song, “I Just Wanna Live.”[30] His prayerful plea asking for God’s protection over his life and the lives of his Black brothers and sisters is a reminder of the Old Testament’s inspirational, youthful prophets.

            Inspired by the cultural momentum of Black Lives Matter, these new songs, seemingly placed into the mouths of the artists by God,[31] harkens back to the Psalms. Begging for God’s protection,[32] these songs rally support for the weak,[33] and encourage the listeners to continue to their fight for justice.[34] In a time when people are being murdered by the police and dying in large numbers from Coronavirus, these songs provide a communal lament for a world in need.[35]

            The Bible is alive. Its words might be centuries old, but truth and wisdom are not confined by time. From the moments the words were spoken aloud, carved on stone, and etched on papyrus, it was written into the hearts of all humanity. The Word of God is a living Word. The air we breathe reverberates with timeless wisdom, hope, and love. By the very act of being human, we partake in the Creation of the Kingdom of God. As we march through the streets, create signs of hope, and sing with justice in our hearts, we create a culture of love that cleanses the air we breathe.


[1] AMP Research Staff, “The Color of Coronavirus: COVID-19 Deaths by Race and Ethnicity in the U.S.,” APM Research Lab, June 24, 2020, https://www.apmresearchlab.org/covid/deaths-by-race.

[2] “E-16. Unemployment Rates by Age, Sex, Race, and Hispanic or Latino Ethnicity” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 3, 2020), https://www.bls.gov/web/empsit/cpsee_e16.htm.

[3] Clive Marsh, “‘High Theology’/‘Popular Theology’? The Arts, Popular Culture and the Contemporary Theological Task,” The Expository Times 117, no. 11 (2006): pp. 447-451, https://doi.org/10.1177/0014524606067944, 447.

[4] Mark 15:16; Matthew 10; Mark 10.

[5] Karol Wojtyła, The Acting Person, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka, The Yearbook of Phenomenological Research, vol. X (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1979), 299.

[6] Buddy Forbes, “Black Lives Matter ‘from the Hood to the Holler’ at Prestonsburg Demonstration,” WYMT Mountain News, June 13, 2020, https://www.wymt.com/2020/06/14/black-lives-matter-rally-underway-in-prestonsburg/.

[7] Ryan Bort and Eva Woolridge, “The Signs Protesters Carry,” Rolling Stone (Rolling Stone, June 15, 2020), https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/george-floyd-protest-signs-photos-1012560/.

[8] Matthew 27:32; Mark 15:21; Luke 23:26.

[9] Luke 14:27.

[10] “The Signs Protesters Carry.”

[11] Matthew 8.

[12] Luke 17:11-19.

[13] Revelations 3:16.

[14] Matthew 5:10.

[15] “The Signs Protesters Carry.”

[16] Niels Henrik Gregersen, “The Extended Body of Christ: Three Dimensions of Deep Incarnation,” in Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, ed. Niels Henrik Gregersen (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), pp. 225-252, 226.

[17] Elizabeth A. Johnson, “Jesus and the Cosmos: Soundings in Deep Christology,” in Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology, ed. Niels Henrik Gregersen (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015), pp. 133-156, 138.

[18] John 8:1-11.

[19] Luke 15:2.

[20] John 4: 1-26.

[21] Matthew 5:3–12.

[22] Luke 13:10-17.

[23] John 18:33-38.

[24] Mark 12:17.

[25] Matthew 12: 1-14.

[26] John 2:13-16; Matthew 21: 12-13.

[27] James 2:14-26.

[28] Anderson .Paak, “Lockdown,” YouTube, June 18, 2020, https://youtu.be/TgItkJCm09c.

[29] Jack Harlow, “Only Way Freestyle,” Twitter (Twitter, June 11, 2020), https://twitter.com/jackharlow/status/1271155113848119302?s=20.

[30] Keedron Bryant, “I Just Wanna Live,” YouTube, June 18, 2020, https://youtu.be/NbF_jwUtxsE.

[31] Psalm 40: 1-3.

[32] Psalm 7; Psalm 27; Psalm 31; Psalm 34.

[33] Psalm 82.

[34] Psalm 43.

[35] Psalm 44; Psalm 60; Psalm 74; Psalm 79; Psalm 80; Psalm 85; Psalm 90.

2 Comments

  1. Once more you have provided us with keen insight into our current “state of affairs”. I remain optimistic that we will emerge from this racial turmoil recognizing everyone as brother and sister because we are blessed with a younger generation like you challenging us and leading the way.

    Like

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