Religion and Race in the African-American Experience

Religion, Race & Culture: 

Religion and Race in the African-American Experience

12045555_10153788322392481_4764301963794941860_oOn Tuesday September 29, The Center for Faith and Vocation and the Desmond Tutu Center launched the first of four seminars to discuss the relationship between religion, race, and culture, sparked from the controversial events that took place in Ferguson, MO and other cities across the nation where racial tension and police brutality have elicited protests, unrest, and the #blacklivesmatter movement. The two keynotes were Dr. Pamela Lightsey, Associate Dean and Professor of Theology at Boston University and Reverend Starsky Wilson, CEO of the Deaconess Foundation and co-chair of the Fergusson Commission.

One particular aspect that makes these seminars unique is that they make religion a focal point within these issues, which has often been overlooked in the national discussion of systemic racism. Dr. Lightsey began her speech with a live stream video clip from August of last year, which was taken in front of the Ferguson police department during the National March on Ferguson. In this clip, Dr. Lightsey called to attention both the ethic and age diversity within the crowd of protesters who travelled from all over the country to show solidarity with the African-American community in Ferguson.

12091185_10153788322727481_3235516186518039903_oThe main subject in Dr. Lightsey’s speech was the role that religion places in social justice activism, and how religion in the African-American community has always placed an emphasis on justice. Having a just God who will liberate the oppressed is crucial regardless of religion, and she uses Malcolm X as an example of the role that not only Christianity places in African-American activism, but also Islam. Religion has played a significant role since mistreatment of the African-American community began about 400 years ago with the start of slavery and continues today with the stress that is placed on liberation, equality, and justice for all of God’s people. However, Dr. Lightsey continues by explaining that a mere belief system is not sufficient and quotes fellow activist, Phillip Agnew, when he states that, “faith without works is dead. You’re not going to fix 400 years in one prayer.”

Dr. Ligthsey concluded her speech by raising thought-provoking questions on how we can begin to move forward and not only merely reach justice for the African-American community, but also how to sustain it. She, herself, does not have a direct solution; however, she knows it can be found somewhere between the two extremes of vengeance and assimilation.

12080344_10153788322582481_5420519448600012401_oThe second speaker was Reverend Starsky Wilson whose focal point was the churches’ response to racialized flashpoints. Rev. Wilson defined a flashpoint as being a “place, event or time when trouble, violence, or anger flares up.” He also identified a primary cause for these flashpoints in Ferguson, in particular, as ‘taxation by citation,’ or the incarceration of an overwhelming majority of African-Americans and having their bails set unreasonably high. For example, 92% of people in Ferguson who are arrested for having a negative encounter with the police are African-American, and one young woman’s bail was set at 2,000 dollars for one such event.

From a theological standpoint, Rev. Wilson established three possible solutions he believes the Bible offers members of the African-American community in order to reach equality. What he referred to as the ‘Three R’s’ include resignation, resistance, or reconciliation. Though the bible legitimizes the use of both resignation and resistance in certain instances, Rev. Wilson explained, he believed it was in reconciliation where the African-American community could transform policy and create reform.

12110031_10153788322397481_8119908583703574953_oFollowing these two thirty-minute presentations, the seminar turned to the audience for an hour-long question and answer session with the two speakers. The audience raised issues, such as the usage of the Confederate Flag as a symbol of racism and what it was like to grow up during the Civil Rights era. Both speakers also clarified that the #blacklivesmatter movement was not simply an anti-police protest, but that it is an ongoing reform process against corrupt policing. By addressing all cases of corruptness in the police, both speakers wish to create a better society not only for African-Americans, but also for this entire nation.


By: Caroline Whang


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