Hannah Ciocco examines Black Lives Matter’s recent overtures among Christian communities, drawing parallels to the role of religion in the Civil Rights Movement. Ciocco draws upon the work of Broadcast Seeding guest, Drew G.I. Hart for insight on the role of religion in social activism and engagement.
“Every 28 hours, a black person is murdered by police”, Black Lives Matter activist Cherno Biko told Fox News during one of their protest, “It feels like we’re at war.” Whether American citizens agree whether or not racial police brutality is a problem in this country, they cannot disagree with the fact that the Black Lives Matter campaign is aiming to shed light on the large amount of unarmed African Americans that have been shot and killed. The origin of the this movement started in 2013 as a result of the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a middle aged man who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an African-American teen. A large portion of the African American population did not believe that Zimmerman had a justified excuse to use force against Martin. They also believe that the United States’ justice system did not serve justice equally to both parties. Black Lives Matter continually became nationally recognized for its street demonstrations following the 2014 deaths of two African Americans: The death of Michael Brown, which resulted in protests and unrest in Ferguson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City.
A glass-enclosed sign outside the First Unitarian Universalist Church promoting a planned sermon Sunday on Black Lives Matter was vandalized Thursday night. (Photo by Jorge Milian)
To increase the number of supporters, the Black Lives Matter campaign has been trying to receive support from Americans, especially, as of late, Christians. The Black Lives Matter campaign wants the support of Christians because religion can positively influence the social, cultural, and political aspects of their campaign. Therefore, the campaign could benefit from the support of the church because they could use it as a platform to recruit new supporters of this important social activism.
The Black Lives Matter campaign has a large following already, but with the help of incorporating Christianity into the social activist movement, more people would join due to shared beliefs and morals. For example, in January, almost 16,000 college students gathered for Urbana, an evangelical conference promoting cross-cultural missions. The most talked about speaker was Michelle Higgins’, who talk about the evangelical church and the Black Lives Matter movement. She is the director of worship and outreach at South City Church in St. Louis. Her speech resulted in some controversy, mainly surrounding her support for the Black Lives Matter campaign. However, Higgins’ speech is important in that it seems to represent the first major evangelical organization to put its support and beliefs behind the Black Lives Matter campaign. Higgins speech called for action, and at the very least, sparked a flame amongst the evangelicals that attended her presentation.
Higgins believes that support from the church is crucial for the Black Lives Matter organization as “the church began to separate justice and reconciliation, and in truth, those two words should be interchangeable” while “true reconciliation” should equate “racial equality.” According to Higgins, the church should embrace the movement because what they are doing is preaching the gospel of life, of hope and of justice. Higgins sums up what she intends to achieve through the support of the church by stating “To really affirm that black lives do matter is to say we all agree that white lives don’t matter more than black lives. If we begin to live that way in our worship space, then it will begin to trickle out outside of them.” She builds upon the idea that if they preach a “fuller” Gospel, in which we are all equal and created in God’s image, then the African American population can relate to all Americans and receive the justice that they deserve.
Because there is a clear link between religion and activism, this current event is a perfect example of how religion can influence activist movements. Numerous examples of the link between religion and activism have occurred throughout history, with the most notable being the Civil Rights protests and acts in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcom X were both African American activists who used religion as an outlet for their reasoning on racial equality. Martin Luther King Jr. was a strong member of the church and a Baptist minister. In most of his speeches he referenced biblical stories, and because “love is the central teaching of Christianity and justice, King sees the possibility of victory in his fight for civil rights.” Malcom X was not Christian but was greatly influenced by his religion, Islam, which he had converted to whilst in prison. The teachings of Muhammad and his own hajj to Mecca gave him the realization that the Muslim brotherhood was one that accepted him and did not judge him on account of his skin color.
In his book, The Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism, Drew G.I. Hart, a modern day activist, writes about the Black Lives Matter movement and how the churches are part of that movement. Hart’s book leads readers toward Christianity and offers practices for churches that are committed to racial justice and seek to help the movement. This is precisely why Higgins believes that religion is key to getting the Black Lives Matter campaign to result in a change and investigation of unjust police killings against African Americans.
In conclusion, this is a direct example of the effect that religion has amongst social activist movements. Religion can influence social, cultural, and political actions throughout the world. The Black Lives Matter campaign was started because of unjust treatment of Africans Americans throughout the United States, and is now using religion as a catalyst for building support with Christian Americans.
 Swasti Bhattacharyya, “Social Activism and Engagement,” in Introduction to Religious Studies (Winona, MN: Anselm Academic, 2009), 119.
 Ibid., 122.