Last winter a cohort of students and two MORSL staff members, including myself, participated in a movement chaplaincy course in which we studied the role of black folk religion in the Civil Rights Movement. I found stories about this grass roots, audacious theology first conceived of by enslaved individuals moving and remarkable. A brand new system of belief and spiritual practices, independent of institutions and authorities and formal theological training, helped generations of people to transcend oppressive circumstances and access hope, meaning, wisdom and profound love. As civil rights activist Ruby Sales describes:
“When I say black folk religion, I’m talking about a religion that came out of ordinary folk. And I’m also talking about a religion that began during enslavement, in the fields of America. It was a religion that offered an alternative view of God from the view of God that empire gave us. It was that kind of Beloved Community vision; it was a vision of justice. And it was also a vision that predicated itself on a very strong sense of agape…When you look at black spirituals, you hear a theology and a philosophy of nonviolence, and so that this was an essential part of black folk religion. It was not a retaliatory religion. It was a religion predicated on right relations and love and nonviolence.”
Ruby Sales believes this historic theology could help inspire and direct the theological work that needs to be done today. She explains, “[On]e of the things that we’ve got to deal with is that — how is it that we develop a theology or theologies in a 21st-century capitalist technocracy where only a few lives matter? How do we raise people up from disposability to essentiality?” We live in "a very exciting moment in theology, because we can expand our understanding — not only our understanding, but the reality of a global Beloved Community”-- a community in which we can see worth, divinity, meaning and purpose in all human lives. Ruby explains, “I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them, rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational" (from her interview with Krista Tippett in 2020). I too believe that principles of black folk theology-- that people of all walks of life are worthy of justice, fulfillment, dignity and love-- can strengthen us in the challenges we face today.
Happy Black History Month! Check out McGill's Black History Month Community Events.
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