Activism As Prayer: Three Calls to Action for Black Christians to Embrace Biblical Justice

A close friend of Dr. King, Jewish theologian and scholar Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (far right) marched alongside King in numerous marches. A faculty member of Cincinnati’s Hebrew Union College, Heschel’s faith compelled him to get involved with anti-racist and anti-war activist movements. Religious Action Committee.

As protests against the shootings of unarmed Black Americans sweep the nation, I have observed an uptick in well-meaning social media posts by Black Christians about the urgent need for prayer. While I, too, value the power of faith and spiritual guidance during turbulent times, I have also sensed in several of these posts an undertone of judgement directed toward protesters who are––to invoke Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel––“praying with their feet”. Activist theologians such as King and Heschel approached social problems not just with prayer for divine intervention, but with action, explicit stances that defended the marginalized, and an understanding that social change often works by God working through us.

Notably, they didn’t require others to first believe as they did to listen and learn from them. They empathized with the suffering that drove activists to speak out, without a prosetlyzing agenda. And they also didn’t traffic in conspiracy theories or stereotypes about those who carry out their commitment to ethical living and justice through secular channels like political lobbying.

There was no back-and-forth about the legitimacy of approaches that didn’t center theology, because they actually heard the desperation and sense of urgency in the voices of those risking their lives on the frontlines of the Civil Rights Movement. Black people’s exhaustion — exhaustion from a society that often perpetuates harm through empty words and values, passivity, and silence, under the guises of civility, enlightenment, and peace — was loud and clear. And this is what compelled activist theologians like Heschel and King, as well as many monks and nuns, to join the Movement. When you’re truly listening empathetically, it’s impossible to focus on filtering people’s words through ideology.

Many of the posts I’m seeing from Black Christians right now, when juxtaposed against this long history of believers and religious leaders standing in solidarity with community organizers, are truly baffling. Instead of lending activists the support they’ve earned, I see dismissive comments pathologizing and stereotyping activists as attention-seeking, bitter, delusional, depressed, destructive, pretentious, rebellious and disobedient toward God, and even vengeful. I also see posts about prayer that don’t include activists who are risking their health and safety, or mention the generational grief, rage, and trauma that young Black Americans are inheriting, for the 5th century now. And overall, I’ve heard of hardly any actionable plans to join the movement for justice, or even just support the struggle from the sidelines, like tuning into yesterday’s Interfaith Townhall on Policing.

Ironically, the kind of prayer purported to be the panacea for our societal ills seems wholly depoliticized and detached from social change efforts. No talk of funding bailouts, feeding protesters, or passing the mic to young people who possess the language and social justice toolbox to articulate the complex realities of anti-Black policing and the prison-industrial complex.

But there is staunch, anti-intellectual pushback toward activists who, thus far, have been successful in amplifying updates about George Floyd’s death, when the media proved less reliable. The work of activists, for example, has also led to several K-12 school districts partnering with mental health agencies — a major shift away from the school-to-prison pipeline, toward trauma-informed, school-based mental health services. The Minneapolis City Council is also considering how community oversight programs could handle crises without guns. Rarely ever do people credit activists for the vision behind such major milestones, but they’ll still sigh, “Thank God!”, as they reap the benefits.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addressing his own congregation, at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. Donald Uhrbrock, The Life Images Collection, Getty.

The gulf between the majority of Black churches and social movements of the day seems only to widen with time, and I’m convinced that the disconnect accounts for the dwindling numbers of young Black believers who regularly attend church. It’s true, of course, that younger generations tend to be more critical of the church. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean they devalue or reject faith. The only plausible explanation, then, is that fewer young folks find church relatable and stimulating. I’ve heard from so many young, Black Christians that they could no longer tolerate the church’s pervasive apathy about social injustice, nor the social pressure to compartmentalize or shrink themselves in what is supposed to be an affirming safe space.

It’s not uncommon for older Black Christians to deter young Black believers from integrating faith and activism, preaching that the two are diametrically opposed and incompatible, and that activism is a departure from God. Don’t you dare think critically about social problems, or support solutions that don’t revolve around the Church, or seek understanding beyond the Bible, or use the word ‘revolution’, or interrogate or call out the church’s complicity in others’ oppression. This compulsion to shutdown perfectly constitutional, constructive, and safe forms of active citizenship and self-inquiry has led to my concern that many Black folks’ reliance on doctrine and prayer borders on avoidance, escapism, and self-sabotaging denial––a resignation to repressing consciousness, instead of mustering the courage to confront reality.

The reality is, despair and hopelessness don’t necessarily have to go hand in hand. Despair can also radicalize you to stand up for integrity, and prompt you to imagine new possibilities and worlds. Activist Fannie Lou Hamer famously said, “You can pray until you faint, but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” And that’s what Biblical justice is about — the dogged, tireless pursuit of “making individuals, communities, and the cosmos whole, by upholding both goodness and impartiality”.

In its truest essence, Biblical justice — the generative, liberating kind that affirms and defends the dignity of all beings, and centers healing and truth, not fear, punishment, and shame — offers a societal foundation that promotes community, empowerment, ethical relationships, and human rights. It molds liberated, not oppressive, cultures. It condones the courageous acts of critiquing injustice pointedly, and leveling plain truths at corrupt and unethical leaders, so as not to permit evil to fester unchecked. It also grapples with questions of accountability and redemption, and considers how to reallocate hoarded opportunities and resources to the most needy.

But most importantly, Biblical justice doesn’t allow us to side-step. Biblical justice assumes that non-answers to simple, direct questions about ethics are still stances that enable oppression through passivity. Moreover, it reminds us that innocent neutrality doesn’t exist, and pushes us to grapple with the way we allow harm to happen with our empty words and values, silence, and people-pleasing.

As Arundhati Roy stated so eloquently, “The trouble is that once you see it, you can’t unsee it. And once you’ve seen it, keeping quiet, saying nothing, becomes as political an act as speaking out. There’s no innocence. Either way, you’re accountable.”

Biblical justice demands that we develop enough character to resist dismissing problematic prejudices as “differences of opinion”, and “agreeing to disagree” about issues that cost human lives. Biblical justice impresses upon us the notion that issues don’t go away, simply because we put them out of sight or mind, and that either ourselves or our loved ones could be the next targets of the injustices we remain silent about. Biblical justice also matures our perspective on conflict enough to see that neutrality is not civil or peaceful at all, whenever it requires avoiding healthy, necessary confrontation, or pretending we don’t see the injustice right in front of our faces. Avoidance only delays the inevitable. Biblical justice helps us realize that, in fact, it’s the lack of definitive clarity about the parameters of evil that enable people to pretend more indignant, truthful and vocal people are just overreacting about how urgent the need to redress brutality and exploitation really is.

“Nuns and Civil Rights,” March 1965. Catholic nuns joined the march to Montgomery on the third attempt, from March 21 to March 25, 1965. Steve Schapiro.

My first call to action for Black Christians is to destigmatize and reframe the anger and moral indignation that you feel about unfairness. Anger is not a ‘bad’ emotion. It’s actually one of the most illuminating, as it clues us into what we see as worthy of defending and protecting as sacred. We’ve only been conditioned to believe that anger is always and only ‘bad’, because numbing and repressing our anger serves the best interests of elites who control our society’s dominant power structures. So, I urge you to consider what it looks like to channel anger constructively into social change. Could you bring yourself to actually acknowledge that you’re also fed up, instead of glorifying one-dimensional depictions of Jesus as a martyr who always turned the other cheek, when he also flipped tables for economic justice?

I also urge you to rebuke complacent denial, political disengagement, and non-action, in a time when we should all be actively engaged in this global movement for equity, justice and liberation. That starts with balancing the idea that God is in control, with the idea that God also has vested power in us to transform our lives and society for the better. Moreover, be mindful of talking yourself out of proactive-ness, by not owning your own choices or inaction, and instead leaving everything up to “God’s plan” or “God’s will”. What acts of tikkun olam––the Jewish principle of “repairing the world”––can you contribute to society, or even do to empower yourself and propel your life forward? How can you strive to couple prayer with informed, purposeful action, instead of settling for the world’s wickedness, just because the afterlife promises you paradise?

And most importantly, understand that your theological commitment to justice will sometimes look like disrupting the peace, as a means to an end, which may also entail pushing yourself to get comfortable with assertiveness and healthy, constructive confrontation. You will feel out of your element at first, and you will want to quit, but as the Talmud so wisely advises, “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”

It has never been more urgent that Black Christians embrace Biblical justice as an integral part of faith. If you have yet to unlearn the cognitive dissonance between activism and faith, start by reframing active citizenship and political engagement, as spiritually-fulfilling duties, not secular, worldly paths away from God. Rethink activism as a holy pursuit, instead of an ulterior motive. Indeed, many of the “personal issues” which we pray about are actually political issues that activists work on tirelessly. Thus, championing equity, justice, and liberation, sometimes fiercely––and not just waiting for divine intervention — is the epitome of being moved by the Spirit.

Catholic nuns and priests march in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr.

Araya Baker is an educator, therapist & writer who promotes disability, education & health equity, across borders, faiths, generations, identities & movements.