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How Black faith leaders use the Bible to attack white Christian racism

Radically progressive Black church leaders have always used history and scripture to fight anti-Black racism. And the legacy lives on today.

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Today, my colleague Zahara Hill and I are launching “The Reconstruction,” a series that celebrates historians and other experts who’ve committed themselves to rebuilding the public’s historical memory at a time when many conservatives are trying their hardest to destroy it.

This is an homage to the authors, lawyers, medical professionals, sports historians, chefs, religious leaders, business people and others who’ve documented the experiences of Black people in their respective fields to ensure that those voices make it into the historical record — and stay there.

And I’m starting today with Black faith leaders.

In Black churches, the “Black radical tradition” refers sometimes to the legacy of church leaders and parishioners who use their faith and their position within the community to push for social justice.

Martin Luther King Jr. is a prime example. Although whitewashed portrayals of King tend to paint him as a docile peacemaker, the reality is that his faith motivated him to espouse views that many people at the time considered too radically progressive.

Other church leaders are like him in that regard. The Black radical churchgoing tradition extends back to leaders like Reverdy Ransom in the 19th century and includes leaders like Bishop William Barber and the Rev. Yvonne Delk in the present day.

This tradition also stands in righteous opposition to the rise of Christian nationalism that weve seen in the U.S. over the last year. As white Christian nationalists attempt to claim the mantle of religiosity for themselves with their particular conservative spin, it’s useful to have radical Black church leaders preaching against their bigotry.

Author and religion professor Julia Robinson Moore explained that tension back in 2022 when she wrote:

Resistance to racial oppression was carried out through sacred rituals of prayer and praise that transcended the walls of the Black Church and entered the American streets in the form of freedom songs, marches, sit-ins, and prayer vigils. The radicalness of such actions completely challenged the authority of the white-dominated Christian Church by defining the intentionality of Jesus toward people of color. As a result, the Black Church has always created a counterculture within American Christianity that re-imagines the racial expressions of the Gospel message and positions Black people’s experiences of the divine as the central purveyor of the Gospel.

Moore said this framing has helped to show Black people how they “can subvert the weapons of their oppressors into tools of empowerment.” That seems apt: Today, church leaders who practice in the Black radical tradition are functionally scriptural historians who use their knowledge of religious texts as the foundation of a larger political freedom — and often as a rebuke to white Christians who’ve historically used the same texts to justify taking those freedoms away.

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