Do #BlackLivesMatter to (all) Black Theologians

It is an affront that Black people would even have to ask whether they “mattered” to those with whom they have an invested interest. The collective notion that one has to request whether #BlackLivesMatter to (all) Black theologians beckons at an opaqueness and level of Tupac-ean hypocrisy.[1] Tupac makes a clear distinction about ecclesiological/theological authority in the third verse of Blasphemous.[2] Tupac writes:

The preacher want me buried, why? Cause I know he a liar

Have you ever seen a crackhead, that’s eternal fire

Why you got these kids’ minds thinking that they evil?

While the preacher being freaky you say “honor God’s people”

Should we cry when the Pope die? My request

We should cry if they cried when we buried Malcolm X.[3]

 

This is the rebellious stance of a woke generation. This assertion of Albert Camus’s essays of revolt constitute a means to be engaged in the process and impetus of rebellion; it is the “awareness” – being woke or awakened to the moment.[4] Tupac critiques the theological powers of the Black church with claims of negligence and malfeasance coupled with trickery of young minds. Furthermore, he is re-adjusting the theological lens through which he (and, maybe others) will envision a just God. Tupac is connecting the freakiness of the pastor with the honorability of God: if the pastor is crooked then God must also be captured within the same crookedness for allowing such a person to function. Ultimately, Tupac’s final critique, “We should cry if they cried when we buried Malcolm X,” belies the false piety of the theological/ ecclesial powers residing in the preachers/pastors and the Black theologian. Tupac identified how “papal authority undergirds the exploitation of colonized people, and he contrasts this colonial authority with Malcolm X’s authority, one who fought for the liberation of marginalized peoples.”[5]

What Tupac, other musicians and young activist express through their art and actions is a call to “report and reflect.”[6] It is the urgency of the moment that announces “so precisely the nature of the society, and of [the artist or theologian] in that society, that other [people] will be moved by the exactness of [their] rendering…”[7] These young Black activist are making Black theologians answer the call to re-imagine their theological ethic: to consider the need of those on the outer margin of the margins – Black bodies, queer bodies, disabled bodies, criminals and the poor. It is the rethinking of how to make theology an existential practice that is usable for the everyday believer and not a theological sword fight in the academy between scholars.

#BlackLivesMatter: The Hip Hop Aesthetic  

The voice of Hip Hop is gradually “becoming” a viable stream of conscious that is beginning to register in the minds of Black theologians. The consequence of Hip Hop’s ontic swag, cautions many Black theologians to completely solidify it as an authoritative or persuasive voice within the church. I would claim that Hip Hop “is” the voice of the unheard with the same epistemological intensity that the riot “is” the voice of the unheard. I am deploying “is” as more of a locative term rather than a descriptive term. My attempt is to use it as a way of describing time, context and location in contrast with metaphorical usage. Thus “is” is more indicative of how King’s words were appropriated in the sixties; I am asserting that Hip Hop fuels this generation with the same fierceness. Therefore, Tupac clearly articulates, “I am not saying I will rule the world but I am going to spark the brain that will change the world.”[8] Kendrick Lamar is the product of that spark and his song becomes the soundtrack for the movement, We Gon Be Alright.[9]

Hip Hop captures the sensibilities of the #BlackLivesMatter movement through a poetic aesthetic – authenticating itself as a soundtrack for life. But, Hip Hop not only stands as a musical accompaniment to/for the movement; Hip Hop embodies an ontological metaphor of how many young activist enter into the convening space of protest. Their claiming of identity and ability to, genuinely, synthesize with a diverse group is a Hip Hop aesthetic.[10] In Faith and Ferguson, Leah Gunning Francis pens a memoir of what it resembles to engage, theologically, with such a group.[11] She makes the claim: “this was not an ideological movement, but a process in which bodies were taking to the streets to be seen and heard in the quest for justice.” [12] This is #BlackLivesMatter operating within a Hip Hop aesthetic that is calling the church to task, existentially. The calling is through active engagement on the streets, and not simply through sermons, prayers and useless words.

Francis recognizes the synergy that is happening amongst these young people and some Black theologians/preachers. There are “God moments.”[13] But, there are moments when the young activist insist on coming into the space with a Hip Hop aesthetic – doing it our way, protesting without prayer. And, this may be a place of contestation for some clergy, who are trapped in a puritanical Christianity: They can only envision assistance one particular way, and all other forms are wrong. This re-adjusting period is the gap or the fissure where one may propose whether #BlackLivesMatter to Black Theologians or is it indeed just a photo opportunity. Because the appearance is such, that one could assume, that if the Black Theologians cannot speak, they become useless. Retrospectively, for the young Black activist this may signal an inauthentic relationship with (their) God, ultimately, questioning their overall commitment and more importantly, their theology.[14]

Conclusion

Does #BlackLivesMatter to (all) Black Theologians? That is a personal question that each Black theologian and preacher/pastor must answer for themselves. What I have presented in the few pages here was not an answer but more of a complication of the question. This is a process often employed by James Baldwin throughout his speeches. His methodology was to complicate the question, and by doing so, he would – inadvertently, but purposely – answer the question.

I suspect that Francis gets it right in her presentation of Faith and Ferguson: she lets the narrative tell itself. What we find in her work are theologians and pastors who are willing to take a backseat to the young Black activist, who are boots on the ground in Ferguson. They are there for support when needed and soldiering up for the fight at other times. Comprehensively, the end result is:

The fight for justice in this movement is a fight for the freedom to be seen and valued as human beings “just as you are” –not in a prescribed way that renders you acceptable so long as you fit a particular mold, but in an authentic way that makes room for each person to be able to be fully him-or herself.[15]

 

 

[1] I am drawing on the framework of Charles Long’s usage of the “theology of opaqueness.” This thought was introduced to me by Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary Ph.D. student, Bryson White, during a conversation about Tupac. White acknowledges Tupac as opaque theologian that is addressing the sociopolitical ills of Black bodies trapped in a neocolonial project. Charles Long, Signification: Sign, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion, Davis Group Publishing: 1996., 199-213.

[2] I am intending, purposely, to make the pastor/preacher and the theologian to reside in the same existential setting. Though they may function in a slightly different manner, I am situating them in alignment with each other as a (Black) figure that Tupac would be addressing within the church.

[3]Tupac, Blasphemy [Explicit] (Interscope; 1996)

[4] “Awareness, no matter how confused it may be, develops from every act of rebellion.” Albert Camus, The Rebel, Vintage International: New York, 1956.,14.

[5] This was a point of contention that was made from Bryson White in our discussion about Tupac’s critique of the church.

[6] LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Home, New York: William Morrow, 1996., 251.

[7] Ibid.

[8] I Will Spark The Brain That Will Change The World – Tupac [September 14, 2014]. Youtube Video [September, 2014] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uijBebYpoto

[9] Kendrick Lamar, To Pimp a Butterfly, [Interscope, 2015]

[10] Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson makes this clear in the The Hip Hop Church: “You would think that their various takes on truth would make this kind of postmodern freedom march impossible, but it seems as if in the urban community there is a way to bring people of faith together with people of goodwill around issues of social justice. Hip hop culture has an influence as well as a tolerance that brings disparate people groups together… A more liberal political agenda seems to lead to a relative stance on truth, with high regard for multicultural tolerance.” Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. The Hip Hop Church, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005., 110-111.

[11] Leah Gunning Francis, Ferguson and Faith: Sparking Leadership and Awakening Community, Chalice Press, St. Louis, Missouri, 2015.

[12] Ibid., 58.

[13] Ibid., 24.

[14] This is with the theological supposition that theology has the potential to drive practice.

[15] Ibid., 109.

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