The Zimmerman Verdict and the Black Religious Left

zimmerman not guilty

Unlike many of my African American brothers and sisters, I did not attend church (with or without my “hoodie”) the day after the Zimmerman verdict. Although I admit that I’m not a regular church attender anyway, something about that rush of black people to the church altar after yet another tragedy and travesty of justice in our community seemed “same old, same old” and very much a part of the problem.

Now, I’m not against church and I’m certainly not against praying, but both appeared to me as weak and impotent responses at best to the Zimmerman verdict. George Zimmerman didn’t care that black people went to church and prayed the day after his acquittal. He was counting on it. So while many black Americans were taking refuge in the comforting and cultural spaces of black churches, I sat at home frustrated by the inability of those spaces – deeply conservative as many of them are – to truly bring about social and political change.

Some relief came from where I should have expected it to in the first place – progressive black theologians and historians of religion. Indeed, if there is a bright spot in the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict it is the reemergence and new clarity of voice of African American intellectuals who have called for a reexamination of our histories, our religious institutional alliances, and our religion. Anthea Butler led the way with her brilliant and provocative editorial, “The Zimmerman Acquittal: America’s Racist God.” Professor Butler revived the question raised by William R. Jones in the early 1970s with his now-classic text, Is God a White Racist? Careful to clarify that she means “America’s God” rather than “God”, she contends that the answer is, as it always has been, “yes”. “God ain’t good all the time,” she writes. “In fact, sometimes, God is not for us.” The brilliance of the editorial is found in the way Professor Butler implicates this “American God” in the construction and perpetuation of a culture that is at war with black bodies and protects the interests of the white Christians who senselessly fear them. Racism in America has its roots in our “Christian history” and is continually given life by the forces of hate, nationalism, capitalism, the prison industrial complex, and religious conservatism.

What should be our response to this racist “American God”? “Christian Atheism” argues J. Kameron Carter. Rising in defense of Anthea Butler, who has taken a great deal of flack for her claims, Professor Carter penned an equally provocative editorial in the aftermath of the acquittal. Given the rightness of Professor Butler’s contentions, he states, “the only moral, ethical, and religious response worth its salt to the Zimmerman verdict is to be atheist.” One of the brightest minds currently working in the fields of theology and black church studies, Professor Carter is at his very best in this piece. He not only affirms Butler’s (and Jones’s) identification of the problem as “America’s God,” he ups the ante by suggesting that black Americans should reject belief in “this particular god: the American god. “ This is not a call to reject America or Christianity, he is careful to assert, and he deliberately distinguishes capital “G” from small “g”. It is a call, however, to reject the idolatrous notion of a God that is more tied to “whiteness”, class interests, and national identity than to the causes of justice, compassion, and equality. “The idol of the “American god,” he concludes, has been found “religiously wanting . . . and ultimately wanting in humanity.”

These powerful statements from the black religious left come at a time of renewed attention being given to American religious liberalism, and it is in that context that they should be viewed. Recent studies by Matthew Hedstrom, David Hollinger, Leigh Schmidt and Sally Promey remind us that there has long been a robust religious liberalism in the US despite the inordinate amount of emphasis placed on the Religious Right. Indeed, religious liberalism has been the true source of transformation in American society. One would be hard pressed to think of a far-reaching initiative launched from the Religious Right that has actually worked for the betterment of society. And vocal opposition to all social change doesn’t count.

Anthea Butler, J. Kameron Carter (among others) walk in the tradition of black historians, educators, theologians, ethicists, and artists who were religious liberals that raised the spotlight of scrutiny on our most sacred ideals, institutions, and texts. They were also fearless in their complaints and critique. Indeed, religious liberalism has been central to black religious history, but this aspect of the history has gone unrecognized, dismissed, or ignored. Or, it has simply not been recognized as “liberal”, faced with the powerful narratives of Christian conservatism that have cast a shadow over African American religious history. In other words, we’ve been too busy celebrating the “shouting churches” to hear the voices of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Howard Thurman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Langston Hughes crying in the wilderness. They all longed for a better world and for a better church to serve it.

A few years ago, my colleague, Eddie Glaude pronounced, “The Black Church is Dead.” The firestorm that quickly followed pleased me to no end. Not only because he was exactly right, but also because his claim was born squarely from the black religious liberal tradition. It was a recovery of the culture of complaint and critique. Reminding us that “memory” has too often become the “currency” of black churches and black religion, Professor Glaude longed for opportunities “to breath new life into what it means to be black and Christian.” Perhaps the Zimmerman verdict has provided just such an opportunity. The powerful words of Anthea Butler and J. Kameron Carter would suggest so.

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