By Rev. Earle J. Fisher
It has happened yet again. Another hashtag. Another black man slain by law enforcement, unjustly. Alton Sterling was apprehended for selling CD’s (that’s compact discs not certificates of deposit) in Baton Rouge, La. During the apprehension, while he was on the ground, he was shot multiple times and killed.
Nothing new here. In fact, change the name, rinse, repeat and you’ll more than likely have the headline for the October 2016 news cycle. It’s all too common. What is equally common is the negligence and silence of so many people of faith as it relates to matters of social justice and the realities of black liberation.
Each time social media begins to buzz with the critical and comprehensive issues facing us, the black faith community sprinkles in a few comments, critiques and challenges (usually centered on personal morality and not structural injustice). I’ll glance down my timeline and hone in on the ministerial leaders and church attendees who conveniently chime in and acknowledge what happened but do nothing substantial to prevent it from happening again. We want to pray it away but it won’t leave. We want to shout it out but it won’t subside.
We are also unwilling to see how close to home this really is – for all of us.
I cannot help but reflect on the Darrius Stewart killing (in Memphis) each time another hashtag emerges. I know far too well what it’s like to be fighting for justice on the homefront when it’s unpopular. Be clear, I applaud those who show up to the social justice struggle, whenever they show up, as long as they stay. What I’m weary of is the cameos that so many people make while the platform of Christian consciousness is popularized.
I’m longing for a more sustained engagement from the black faith community in general and the black church in particular. When will we reclaim social justice as a cornerstone of our Christianity and not as a cosmetic church growth strategy? We want people to affirm that we are well informed and engaged when the overwhelming majority of our faith leaders have absolutely no concrete social justice receipts. We preach, pray and practice a faith that has little to no impact on the structural and systemic oppression that plagues our people. We “save souls” but allow bodies to remain subjugated to brutality and violence.
I understand that everyone is not equipped or compelled to weave black liberation into their theological presentation. But some of us have the capacity; we just lack the courage. We’d rather be a priest than a prophet. It’s more convenient.
There’s a reason why the church has lost its revolutionary zeal. Not only have we ignored the revolutionary foundations upon which the faith was founded, we have settled for a business ethic that compromises our ministerial ethics. There’s not much money or fame in the fight for social justice.
To see how Alton Sterling is connected to Darrius Stewart and Sandra Bland and the fight for educational equity, livable wages and other critical causes requires a price many don’t want to pay. We have a commitment to a theology of prosperity, glitz and glamour that is incompatible with the mandate of the Gospel of Liberation. But we can’t have it both ways. Justice work is costly. It costs time, money and may make some of our members leave (and others never show up). If we are sincere about wanting our people to be free, to obtain salvation and liberation, we have to have a revolutionary theology that supports these desires.
The need for social justice ministry is not going anywhere anytime soon. Regretfully, they will keep killing us. At the same time, those who seek to peek into the war on black lives (all of them) but never engage in the battlefield will become more and more irrelevant (regardless of the number of people who might pack their pews on Sundays).
The black church remains at a breaking point. We’ll either embrace the inconvenience of the black liberation struggle in our theology and practice or we’ll be left with crumbs of carnage of what should have been an institution of black revolution. Then we will have to explain to our children how and why we failed them. Simply, because the truest expressions of our faith – a cross of sacrifice in the name of black liberation – was too inconvenient for us to embrace.
(The Rev. Earle J. Fisher is senior pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, co-spokesperson for the Memphis Grassroots Organizations Coalition and adjunct instructor of Contemporary Theology Religious Studies Dept. Rhodes College)