[The following essay is excerpted from Lisa M. Bowens and Dennis R. Edwards, eds., Do Black Lives Matter?: How Christian Scriptures Speak to Black Empowerment (Cascade, 2023). Pick up a copy of the book here.]
All travelers to my city should ride the elevated trains that race along the back ways of Chicago. The lives you can look into! I think you could find the tempo of my people on their back porches. The honesty of their living is there in the shabbiness, scrubbed porches that sag and look their danger. Dirty gray wood steps. And always a line of white and pink clothes. Waving in the dirty wind of the city. My people are poor. And they are tired. And they are determined to live. Our Southside is a place apart: each piece of our living is a protest.
In an arresting passage in her 1963 autobiographical work, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, Lorraine Hansberry recounts her early years of growing up in a black neighborhood on the South Side of the (still) segregated city of Chicago. In closely observing Hansberry’s passionate account in the above epigraph, we can identify a dialectical tension in her description of the status of black life in the American nation. On one hand, she portrays black folk as living at a “place apart” from whites, socially sequestered and beholden to poor and hazardous material conditions that left her people “tired,” thereby spotlighting the rigid racial and economic lines that existed during this time, and, for that matter, continue to exist between blacks and whites in American society. On the other hand, despite carrying the weight of economic constraints as well as bearing the coercions of white social/political power and cultural capital, all aimed to sever their human core, Hansberry’s remarks exemplify a “nostalgic valorization” that rivals Nietzsche’s more popular portrayal of the Greeks’ ability to overcome “death, disease, and despair” in the ways that black people have confronted their reality with a determination to live, to continue to inhale and exhale in a world that designates their being as one of suffering.
However, beyond admirable determination, Hansberry attributes black living as one of “protest.” That the very essence of living, a vital human function, is an act of protest itself, suggests that Hansberry’s merger of protest with living signals the always-already impending threat of extermination, disposability, and expendability against blackness, that which disallows black people to live—that is, black people are left to die. Hansberry’s description of black life is existential in nature in that it encapsulates the dire status of black human existence as one that hinges on society’s clinging to black subjugation; hence, we hear the chants, cries, and yells of protestors proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter.”
I have argued elsewhere, along with others, that racism, in all of its cultural, social, and political nuances, is undergirded by the power to dictate who may/should live and die in this necropolitical era. This menacing, death-dealing reign of racism has yet to be dethroned in the United States; rather, it has flourished like a bed of poisonous flowers. We need only refer to the epidemiological malaise incited by COVID-19, which disproportionately impacted black people in harrowing ways, the stunning forms/compositions of state-allowed violence against black lives, like that of George Floyd, whose asphyxiation was caused by a state representee’s knee stamped upon his neck, uncannily reminding us of James Baldwin’s forewarning that “It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck.” Further, the white mob uprising that created insurgent, civil unrest, which erupted in the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency, displays the ongoing state of emergency concerning white rage and fear of losing a sense of fascist control. Ultimately, while historically blacks have been forcefully distanced from the nation’s democratic ideals of freedom, justice, and equality, we have not had the privilege of distancing from the ceaseless conditions of poverty, dehumanization, bigotry, and bias undermining black life. In other words, black bodies have not been historically quarantined from zones of racist danger.
Rather, the pandemonium incited by these supremacist terrors is naturally consistent with an empire bolstered by the economic and social power of whiteness, that is, white supremacy, which is harvested in “racialized social systems.” Philosopher Charles Mills categorizes white supremacy as an unnamed political system, a basic one, which has shaped the world for several centuries and that “not only privileges whites but is run by whites, for white benefit.” For Mills, deploying the term “white supremacy” moves our thinking from primarily attending to the interpersonal dynamics of race or defining racism as a purely ideological phenomenon to its relation to systems and power, the inhibited capacity for whiteness to push its agenda and interests in relation to other races as well as its capacity to refashion and reorient the system, in a sense pivot, to preserve white advantage even amid society’s shifting legal and social dynamics and realities. This systemic racism, dynamized by white supremacy and anti-blackness, infiltrates everyday American living and manifests disparities and disadvantages for blacks, establishing what Eddie S. Glaude calls the value gap, the notion that society values white people over black people, resulting in a distorted American democracy. Indeed, the long-standing zeitgeist of racism in the American nation, where white lives are valued more than black lives, has been produced and maintained by systems, institutions, and structures. Processes, policies, and procedures, which are powered by white dominance, entitlement, and privilege, aim to sustain a racial hierarchy created to exclude black bodies from attaining God-ordained livelihoods that fully flourish. From the dawn of the American nation, black people were never included in its fictional dream.
Within this context, the root of this essay grapples with the theological significance and relevance of Christianity to confront the tragedy of the nation’s ongoing racial pandemonium and the systems and structures that support its repressive apparatuses of human alienation. Systemic racism has created unnatural communities, that is communities that God did not ordain, which are designed to exclude black people from the necessary resources to maintain human well-being. To maintain this politics of exemption necessitates the violation of racialized bodies in every way possible—dehumanizing conditions, violence, inequitable policies and structures, which excludes black people from the imago Dei and further grotesquely compromises and mars black people for the upkeep of white supremacy. The practice and discipline of theology must consider whether or not it should base its protest on inclusion into a highly racialized system—an unnatural system distorted by sin—that is designed to be exclusive. This is to say, we must measure the sharp differences between a protest that advocates for inclusion versus a protest that confronts the core problem of power and thus protests for abolition in the service of creating something revolutionary and new that represents a just society.
In what follows, I briefly discuss the merger of Enlightenment philosophy and Christianity, which helped to advance and solidify a universal white identity, providing the setting for imperialist systems of racism and exclusion. Second, I contrast the message of liberation in the Scriptures and the ways that the earthly ministry of Jesus protested against empire and advocated for life-affirming principles established by the kingdom of God with the modern West’s conception of Christianity, in both thought and practice. In doing so, I aim to lay bare the ways that the notion of protest against systemic racism, especially as it pertains to theology, becomes a bit muddied given the ways that the Western Christian enterprise has been blemished and vexed by racist logics in order to establish specific forms of white power and white normativity, namely, American normativity. Finally, I examine the notion of protest stemming from the Protestant Reformation to underscore a principle that might assist adherents to the Christian faith to reconcile its history with racial injustice, which necessitates advocating for something entirely new, something revolutionary, since the life-affirming principles of the kingdom of God may not be fully attained, maintained, or sustained in the present systems as they are wrought by racial currents.
The Tragedy of an “Enlightened” Christianity and the System It Helped to Produce
In La Pensée Sauvage (The Savage Mind), French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss coined the term bricolage to refer to the ways a society reinvents itself by retrieving old sources and redeploying them in new ways. Metaphorically, bricolage refers to the process of bricklayers making do with whatever resources are available around them to advance new stock. To be sure, the resources used could have nothing to do with the bricklayer’s project in the sense that they aren’t necessarily meant to be used in the way the bricklayer uses them, “but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.” However, maintaining the stability or purity of truth of the resources is not the bricklayer’s concern; rather, they use whatever they need to accomplish a specific goal.
The concept of bricolage serves a certain usefulness in naming the ways the European colonial project of conquest and domination used whatever available resources to define “whiteness” and resolve the problems of white angst, insecurity, and the desire for superior power. More specifically, “scientific” theories of race along with Christianity, were among the primary resources used to secure whiteness by establishing a project of “othering.” This project involved distinguishing whiteness by both physical and mental traits as well as utilizing sacred practices in order to fabricate others that were not identified as white. On one hand, Enlightenment philosophies, which put forward a deep emphasis on humanism marked by claims to universal truth in the name of sovereign reason, positioned the rational human creature as separate from the savage one, resulting in binary oppositions of those deemed as rational (i.e., white) and those that were not (i.e., inferior, savage, primitive, non-white, or black). On the other hand, placing a premium on rationality gave rise to the creation of a “rational God” for those crowned as “rational.” As such, while other religions were marked as pagan, whiteness became the sole proprietor of Christianity, exalting its pieties and practices as rightly “religious.” The justification of whiteness, then, through the tools of “science” and “religion” contributed to an ethos of exclusion. This set into motion subordinate notions about blackness while whiteness became attached to a divinized imperialism, which was anchored by racist systems of empire across the globe.
The American nation, specifically as a child of European colonialism, can be viewed as a society that has engaged in bricolage. The invention of the New World required a particular version of Christianity—which does not represent Christian history in its entirety—in order to justify colonization. With the Bible in one hand and a weapon in the other, the Puritan nation became a dedicated disciple of whiteness, shepherding the Enlightenment’s illusion with rationality, while at the same time being involved in the very irrational acts of colonial domination and violence in order to secure economic wealth and sociopolitical privilege. Like the bricklayer who melds whatever he needs, and, while in the process, often loses the potency of his source to achieve the outcome of his desire, the nation melded the truth of the gospel by conflating Christian concepts, metaphors, and ideas with colonial logics of race. This conflation turned into a new world ideology resulting in detrimental social consequences for African Americans in its exclusionary practices and systems. What enslaved Africans encounter in America, then, is a colonial Christianity that is specifically nurtured in America, a settler colonial nation, which relies on occupation, annihilation, and brutal exclusion. Hence, we can more readily understand the American project as continuing the practice of these tenets as the elements of Puritan theology remain embedded in the vision of the American experiment and have never disappeared. Put another way, under the guise of “Manifest Destiny” this religious ethos steadily sustained the American nation at the expense of otherized, raced populations, and functioned as a creed of social unity for whiteness and anti-blackness, which politically indexed physical and psychiatric residues of white superiority and black inferiority that became baked into the racialized systems of the American democratic experiment through the eighteenth century and beyond. Needless to say, this set ablaze a distorted social order in American society that was incompatible with the gospel the nation proclaimed. Naming the settler colonial truth of America helps us to understand why the nation responds to Black Lives Matter with such violence.
“Faith Seeking Understanding?”
Drawing from the scholastic theologian Anselm of Canterbury, this essay is ignited by faith seeking understanding (fides quaerens intellectum), an enlivened faith that pursues an in-depth understanding of the ways that theology protests the persisting distorted social order in America, which is sustained by systemic racism. Admittedly, this theological task of understanding is simultaneously simple and complex. On one hand, the message of the Scriptures is clear as it reflects a God on the side of those that are plagued by various empires from Egypt to Babylon to Rome. Christianity’s central figure, Jesus, who as the Son of God was robed in his Jewishness, critiqued and rejected the domineering forces of the Roman Empire and protested for the poor and the dispossessed, seeking to empower them from the inexorable assault of oppression, exploitation, and violence. We need only refer to the liberation pronouncement of Luke 4:18–21: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me, to preach the gospel to the poor; God has sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus also declared: “You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you” (Mark 10:42). Jesus, who can (and should) be labeled a political figure, puts forward the kingdom of God as running in deep opposition to the kingdom of Caesar and provides an alternative vision for humans to properly order their social world. The politics of Jesus, which were rooted in a dynamic praxis of protest, fatally resulted in his execution endorsed by the rulers of both the synagogue and the state. In this regard, the Scriptures illumine the tragic yet miraculous nature of the Gospels in the way we humans might reconcile the relationship among God choosing a Jew and planting him in a hegemonic empire that resulted in the blood-drenched scene at the cross and the ways of racist empire in our modern context that result in punitive and ruthless conditions for the raced, poor, and oppressed. The Scriptures signify theological notions of the kingdom of God that disavow all such systems that malign and oppress—which frees humans from the wages of human estrangement and death through the power of the gospel’s full revelation of truth, justice, love, and peace.
Nevertheless, despite the obvious messaging of the Scriptures as seen in the example texts cited above, Western Christianity, in its task of “faith seeking understanding” has produced its own canon composed of racist/racial logics, myths, imaginations, ideologies, institutions, and practices, that is tainted by its intimate ties to whiteness. This canon is preserved by a system of empire that performs dominance and violence, especially against those racialized in the modern West. To be sure, the functions of whiteness cannot just be associated with extreme segments of the Christian faith. Western Christianity is a canopy of various historical movements, orientations, and styles of thought, with an assemblage of diverse and often opposing agendas; nevertheless, these articulations all share an offending history of brutal racism. In other words, although there exists white evangelicalism, white Catholicism, and white mainline Protestantism—liberal and conservative Christian traditions—and many other accompanying discursive frameworks, all of them encompass, to borrow J. G. A. Pocock’s term, a “family resemblance” to one another; that is, they are all wedded to a religion that was contoured to be compatible with white supremacy. Some of the most egregious offenses against humanity have occurred in the name of the one crucified on Calvary’s cross.
Further, in the American Protestant context, Christian theological thought in particular, that is, the Christian desire for seeking a deeper knowledge of the transcendent, hidden God as self-revealed in the person of Jesus Christ (Barth) has understood itself in this context of supreme power. This theological framework has held an allegiance to white normativity and modern racist scholarship insofar as its discourses sidelines the subjectivities of those who are gendered, classed, and sexualized and those who are constantly scathed by the processes of racialization. This allows their theological provinces/discourses to form oversimplified judgments (in part due to its preoccupation with human reason and rationality) about social and political matters anterior to race and the ways black subjects have been misused to shape white identity as supreme within the order of things in society. Such misuse weakens theology’s attempts to propose the way towards just and egalitarian communities fused with love, radical inclusivity, and nonviolence.
In addition, like Christian religion, the discipline of Western Christian theology concomitantly encompasses multiple differences to which there have been variegated interpretations of the Scriptures and the Christian faith. Nevertheless, those theologies that critically center white supremacy and systemic racism as the reality by which humans conduct their social ontology have been positioned as outliers or, in my own words, “othered.” These othered theologies need not only be viewed as interventions or correctives but as protests against the ideological superstructure of whiteness steeped in the tenets of white theology and white Christianity in general. Through concrete engagements with Scripture, these theologies displace the white Western subject and center the experiences of those who have been systemically abused. In making judgements about social and political matters, they deploy the doctrine of humanity to throw light on the ways in which racial/racist tides overflow the nation’s sinful systems and structures and how it has functioned to disrupt the God-human relationship as well as human-to human relationships for both the oppressed and oppressor, in at least two ways. On one hand, the dictatorial workings of systemic racism lodge barriers against humans from thriving as whole persons, and God’s will for their wholeness, to be “wholly holy.” On the other hand, systemic racism does not reflect the profound interrelatedness displayed in the character of Jesus’s human relationships as that which is reconciling and life-giving with those in his midst. Ultimately, these othered theologies underscore the nature of how human societies should be organized via a radical socio-political power for the liberation and agency of the poor and oppressed, and vitalized by a Christian praxis that is based on racial justice and economic equity, such that humans can live in harmonious communion with one another.
Nevertheless, at best, trivial nods to these protest theologies are found within white Western theological discourses as its commitment to engaging the white Western theological tradition, and the experiences of its normed subjects run rampant and supreme. What is at issue here is that Christianity has exhibited a religion about the person of Jesus instead of, to borrow from Howard Thurman, a “religion of Jesus.” The question becomes, then, how is one to proclaim that theology protests racism when there is a perpetual marriage between the two entities? Is there a way to revolutionize theology so that it is released from such racist historical trappings and reflect the Jesus tradition that protested empire in a revolutionary way?
 Nemiroff, To Be Young, Gifted and Black, 17.
 Nemiroff, To Be Young, Gifted and Black.
 See Gordon, “Of Tragedy and the Blues,” 78. My reference to Nietzsche is in no way an attempt to validate the inimitable will of black people through his observation and theory; rather, it is to expose always the irony and the absence of the black subject in the European canon in that its underlying scholarship like Nietzsche’s, which had racist tendencies, considers black people as inferior, when in all actuality black people are the prime subjects for their analyses, especially as it pertains to examining exemplars of resilient and sound human subjectivity.
 See Daymond, “Can These Black Bones Live?”
 Baldwin, Fire Next Time, 99.
 Hill carefully assesses this point, especially as it relates to black vulnerability to the COVID-19 crisis. See Hill, We Still Here.
 Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists, 9. See also Bonilla-Silva, “Rethinking Racism.”
 Mills, “Racial Exploitation and the Wages of Whiteness,” 31.
 Robinson, Race and Theology, 23.
 Glaude, Democracy in Black, 29–50. See also Hill, We Still Here, 22.
 I am grateful to my colleague and friend, cultural historian Johari Jabir, for pushing me on this point.
 Lévi-Stauss, Savage Mind.
 Hauerwas and Kenneson, “Flight from Foundationalism, Or, Things Aren’t As Bad As They Seem,” 684.
 Mambrol, “Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Concept of Bricolage.”
 Willis, “Impact of David Hume’s Thoughts,” 214.
 Willis, “Impact of David Hume’s Thoughts.”
 I am grateful to Christian ethicist James S. Logan’s influence here, whose public lectures have at times led from this starting point as one of faith as seeking understanding.
 Pocock, “Re-Description of Enlightenment.” See also Grote, “Religion and Enlightenment,” 145.
 See Barth, Epistle to the Romans.
 Although this list is definitely not exhaustive, I am referring to theologies such as Womanist theology, which, in addition to interrogating the issue of race and theology, brings to fore the intersections of gender, class, sex, and so on as it pertains to power; Black Liberation theology, Latin-American theology, Mujerista and Asian theology, and other theologies that center raced subjectivities and populations.
 See Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, xix. For the most part, the entirety of this text makes the distinction between the religion of Jesus and Christianity.
Antonia Michelle Daymond is adjunct faculty member at McCormick Theological Seminary. Daymond is a constructive theologian working in the areas of systematic and contemporary models of theology as well as critical theory and black studies. She received her PhD in theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School as well as a MDiv from Princeton Theological Seminary and a BBA from Howard University. Her research interests engage in the intersectionalities of theology, race, gender, sexuality, and power. She is also co-editor of the T&T Clark Companion to African American Theology (2019).