Should I join a protest? No simple answer about Black Lives Matter

Protest movements look simple in the rear-view mirror. Many Christians, especially those suspicious of the Black Lives Matter protests, look back at the US Civil Rights movement of the sixties. Led by Christian ministers and often mobilised out of Black churches, many Christians can wish that was the story of today’s movement.

But back then, white Christians – even very liberal ones – refused to back Martin Luther King Jr. That’s what his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is all about – it is an appeal to white bishops and other clergy to stop sitting on the fence. “Not this protest, but after reasonable discussion we might join in something,” the bishops had been saying.

“The unpalatable truth is that we inhabit a political reality that transcends our comprehension.” – Jonathan Cole

Sounds like much of today’s Christian response to the Black Lives Movement.

King was rejected by some because he attended the relatively liberal Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania. But as acknowledged by Albert Mohler who heads the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, evangelical theological colleges were not welcoming places for Black students then. It took moral courage to accept Black students when it was against the law, courage that evangelicals lacked in the case of MLK.

But that is an example of how rose-coloured history keeps things simple.

Current day politics invariably are more complicated and Jonathan Cole, Assistant Director of the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology in Canberra, helps us see why.

“Political reality is multivariate, although you would never know it based on news reporting, political commentary and the rhetoric of politicians and activists alike,” he writes in a recent essay in The New Polis journal. “This is because we all, consciously or unconsciously, refract the multivariate political reality we live, or more often observe, through political filters …”

“The recent ‘episodes’ in the United States precipitated by the senseless and callous killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer on 26 May offer a perfect illustration of political filters at work. I employ the somewhat vague term ‘episodes’ deliberately, because the obviously multivariate nature of both the killing’s fallout and its precipitating causes defy easy lexical description.

“Are the ‘episodes’ best characterised as protests, riots, rebellion, insurrection, revolution, criminal behaviour, or the spontaneous collective expression of righteous anger, frustration and solidarity? More subtle still, are they an expression of democracy functioning at its best or symptomatic of its failure?”

Cole concludes that political filters always will be with us but “the unpalatable truth is that we inhabit a political reality that transcends our comprehension.”

The desire for a simple formula to work out whether to support BLM has led some to investigate the site.

For example, blogger David Robertson reports checking out that website before deciding not to attend a BLM rally.

It is a natural “go to” site because it was founded by the three women who came up with the #blacklivesmatter hashtag and slogan.

Robertson accurately quotes the site’s statement of purpose: “We’re guided by a commitment to dismantle imperialism, capitalism, white-supremacy, patriarchy and the state structures that disproportionately harm black people in Britain and around the world.”

“The Movement for Black Lives … was formed in 2014 and has 150 constituent parts.” – The Economist

Yet in an example of the complexity Jonathan Cole points to, The Economist reports on the US demonstrations in these terms: “In big cities such as Washington, DC, Black activist groups have played a significant organising role. Many are members of a national coalition, the Movement for Black Lives, which was formed in 2014 and has 150 constituent parts.” It describes Black Lives Matter as the best known and most influential of these.

So checking out the site – “The Movement for Black Lives” – we find a mix of radical (but not revolutionary) and pragmatic policies. These seek to improve society and require careful reading.

So when the site says “the time has come to defund the police,” we find the vision includes these comment: “We know the safest communities in America are places that don’t centre the police. What we’re looking for already exists, and we already know it works. We need look no further than neighbourhoods where the wealthy, well-connected, and well-off live, or anywhere there is easy access to living wages, healthcare, quality public education and freedom from police terror …”

“We can’t stand by while our city, state, and federal governments continue to fund an excessive, brutal, and discriminatory system of policing …”

“When we talk about defunding the police, we’re talking about making a major pivot in national priorities. We need to see a shift from massive spending on police that don’t keep us safe to a massive investment in a shared vision of community safety that actually works. We know this won’t happen overnight. We’re tired of quick fixes and piecemeal reforms. Ending police violence will require a thoughtful, deliberate, and participatory approach that has already begun …”

In other words, a demand for the same light touch policing that wealthier communities have.

There is a complicated intersection of the effects of segregated housing, inherited poverty and rates of violence to be taken into account here.

The conservative Christian leader Denny Burk (who heads the complementarian organisation Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW)), argues against a simple reading of the stats about black on black violence to dismiss BLM concerns. Many Chrisitan commentators, including some in Australia, have pointed to stats compiled by Heather MacDonald in a Wall Street Journal op-ed “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism” to dismiss concerns of police bias.

The number of unarmed people shot by police in the US is actually quite low, as MacDonald establishes But to Burk’s credit, he looks deeper, finding that non-lethal interactions by police do show racial imbalance.

As Burk writes: “This morning I just read the gut-wrenching, personal account of Shai Linne, a brother in Christ, who explains what this is all about for him personally: [Linne] It’s about being handcuffed and thrown into the back of a police car while walking down the street during college, and then waiting for a white couple to come identify whether or not I was the one who’d committed a crime against them, knowing that if they said I was the one, I would be immediately taken to jail, no questions asked …”

“It’s about taking a road trip with my sons … and my greatest fear being getting pulled over for no reason other than driving while Black, told to get out of the car, cuffed, and sat down on the side of the road, utterly emasculated and humiliated with my young boys looking out the window, terrified, which is exactly what happened to a good friend of mine when he took his family on a road trip.

“You don’t have to affirm Critical Race Theory … in order to recognise how these experiences create resentments and mistrust …” – Denny Burk

Following these personal experiences shared by Linne, Burk continues: “If you talk to almost any Black man in your community, they will describe similar experiences. You don’t have to affirm Critical Race Theory or any other false narrative in order to recognise how these experiences create resentments and mistrust and despair between the Black community and law enforcement.”

We’ll return to Critical Theory later. To take another m4bl policy platform – “economic justice”-  there is a call for “Black communities to have collective ownership”. But this is not a call for nationalised industry or collective farms.

Rather, in a nation that has flattened taxes, there’s a call for “a progressive restructuring of tax codes at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure a radical and sustainable redistribution of wealth.”

And in a country that invented the gig economy, a call for “the right for workers to organise in public and private sectors especially in ‘On Demand Economy’ jobs.”

Some Christians will possibly struggle with another part of the m4bl site: “We believe in centring the experiences and leadership of the most marginalised Black people, including but not limited to those who are trans and queer, women and femmes, currently and formerly incarcerated, immigrants, disabled, working class, and poor.”

But this needs to be read against a society in which, until a recent Supreme Court case, it was legal to sack people for being same-sex attracted. (The case was about the general economy, not about religious organisations).

Closer to home, the Australian #BLM protests have been organised by different organisations; Warriors of the Aboriginal Resistance links locally organised protests. This group describes itself as “a collective of young Aboriginal people committed to the cause of decolonization and the philosophy of Aboriginal nationalism – resistance and revival.”

Love of neighbour implies a radical egalitarianism.

The same careful reading suggested earlier also needs to be taken with regard to Critical Theory.

It is not difficult to establish the foundations of the Frankfurt School – who originated Critical Theory – as building on Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud. Leaders of the Frankfurt School adopted Marx’s political economy – his critique of inequality and alienation under capitalism. But they became skeptical of Marxism’s ability to predict the future. They moved away from Marxism’s revolutionary program, and the idea of proletarian revolution – towards seeking a democratic capitalism.

There is a complex series of theorists involved in Critical Theory – some, like Herbert Marcuse, identifying with Marxian revolution, while others moved away from that sort of politics. Context is important – many of the earlier leaders of Critical Theory were German exiles from Nazism.

What they share is a desire to examine power and seek human liberation.

Leading Critical Theorist Jurgen Habermas, who led the Frankfurt School through a second period, can be seen as having moved from being a critic of religion – influenced by Marx – to seeing a role for Judeo-Christian ethics. Here’s an oft-misquoted statement that Christians should ponder.

“For the normative self-understanding of modernity, Christianity has functioned as more than just a precursor or catalyst. Universalistic egalitarianism, from which sprang the ideals of freedom and a collective life in solidarity, the autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights and democracy, is the direct legacy of the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of a continual critical reappropriation and reinterpretation. Up to this very day there is no alternative to it. And in light of the current challenges of a post-national constellation, we must draw sustenance now, as in the past, from this substance. Everything else is idle postmodern talk.”

Love of neighbour implies a radical egalitarianism. While opposing some projects inspired by Critical Theory, Christians should be aware that Jesus’ teachings are in part the reason for it.

The complexity of whether Christians should take part in the broad movement of BLM protests alrady is contained in 1 Peter 2: 11-12: Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Christians are foreigners and exiles – we don’t quite fit in anywhere and this applies to protest movements too. As an example of this, many of us will not be able to endorse every plank in the platforms of a protest movement.

Many Christians will see part of some platform as “sinful desires.” But there’s also the need to “live such good lives” with regard to racial justice – and to live that good life “among the pagans.”

Christians will take different approaches as we balance these things, and we will need to be gentle with each other.