Eric B. Watkins
In the aftermath of the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, a movement known as Black Lives Matter (BLM) has taken the spotlight. BLM now has the power, financial backing, and widespread influence to rival any current political party. The movement has united people across racial, ethnic, and gender barriers in a remarkable way. An overwhelming number of white millennials have been drawn to the movement, but perhaps what has been most noteworthy is the number of evangelical Christians and churches who have begun supporting BLM. This article will attempt to explain the sudden surge of interest in BLM, the theology and ideology of BLM, and finally the doctrine of the church in the context of BLM.
The day George Floyd died, he immediately became the symbol of the movement. His death at the hands of a police officer was tragic, gut-wrenching, and unforgettable. There have been many instances of alleged police brutality in recent years. When, in particular, the officer involved was white and the suspect was black, media outlets immediately rushed to label these events as a part of “systemic racial injustice.” In many, if not most, of these cases, juries would later find the police officer innocent and acting in self-defense. But in the case of George Floyd, a black man was slowly “choked out” over the span of more than eight minutes—and it was all caught on video. This last point is key: the fact that George Floyd’s death was recorded on video not only made it possible for the world to become witness and jury; it sent a flash of emotional fire through the veins of millions of people. George Floyd became the instant symbol of BLM and brought the conflict to a world stage like never before.
It is important, however, to note that there has been no actual evidence offered to prove that George Floyd’s death was racially motivated, nor have the full investigation and trial been completed. But Floyd was black, and the officer was white; and for many people that is enough. The media and BLM almost immediately imputed racial motives to the officer, and most of the world embraced the racially charged rhetoric. As a person and pastor of mixed ethnicity, I find it troubling that every time a black person is arrested or killed by an officer in the line of duty, it is almost immediately assumed to be an instance of “systemic racial injustice.” Who can know another person’s heart, and whether all these instances were racially motivated? Perhaps they were, but perhaps they were not. Perhaps the event had nothing to do with skin color at all. Racism is a sin of the heart, but that does not mean that racism is in the heart of every person who commits certain sins.
In an effort to fairly represent BLM sympathizers, we should note the troubling statistics that while black people make up about 13% of the American population, they account for a disproportionately high number of police-incident related deaths (“Deaths Due to Use of Lethal Force by Law Enforcement,” American Journal of Preventative Medicine 51 ). In addition, blacks are disproportionately stopped or arrested by police—more than whites and more than any other ethnicity (“Deaths from Police,” US News, June 3, 2020). This data underlies the perspective that black people are disproportionately profiled, arrested, and mistreated. If this is seen against the broader historical narrative of the Civil Rights Era, and the even more difficult history of antebellum slavery in America, we can better understand the perspective of BLM sympathizers, and why the death of George Floyd galvanized the movement.
Yet, while grieving and decrying what blacks have endured (and some still endure), it is still troubling to see evangelical Christians embrace a movement that is at odds with Christianity at several points.
BLM has a far wider scope than addressing incidents of perceived racial injustice and discrimination. According to the “herstory” page of their website (a play on “history”), the movement specifically gives center stage not just to black people but to black queer and trans people. BLM stands diametrically opposed to the biblical doctrines of creation, gender, and the Christian definition of the family. Many black leaders (pastors, politicians, etc.) have strongly criticized BLM for not advocating for unborn black children. In their view, if black lives matter, the lives of unborn black babies should matter most (see “Three Reasons Why Planned Parenthood Does Not Support Black Lives,” Illinoisrighttolife.org). To be fair, not all BLM supporters have a good relationship with Planned Parenthood.
The underlying theology of BLM is rather synthetic, building on the ideologies of radical feminism, West African spiritualism (divination), as well as Liberation Theology. In many ways, BLM is the epitome of secular postmodernism wedded to the story of the black experience in America. Postmodernism resists clear definition and embodies a defiant relationship to the authoritative and historical institutions that are perceived to hold people captive to unwanted definitions and social structures. BLM embodies this postmodern ethos well, including its elastic, “decentralized” leadership structure (according to their website).
To the extent that Jesus is positively referenced by BLM leaders, it is done so through the lens of Liberation Theology. As Hawk Newsom, the New York City BLM president, said in a June 2020 interview with FOX, “Jesus Christ is the most famous black radical revolutionary in history. And he was treated just like Dr. King. He was arrested on occasion and he was also crucified or assassinated. This is what happens to black activists. We are killed by the government.” The tendency to reduce Jesus to a social liberator, a “radical revolutionary,” is a regrettable perversion of the gospel story because it makes Jesus little more than a political activist with a horizontal mission (social justice) rather than a vertical one (redemptive salvation).
BLM is often accused of promoting violence. A word of caution is urged here, as the BLM website is very clear that it does not. In fact, it attempts to police media outlets, writers, and others that represent BLM as advocating for violence. That said, its leaders are not always clear or consistent. On this point, Hawk Newsom said in the same interview, “If this country doesn’t give us what we want, then we will burn down this system and replace it. All right? And I could be speaking figuratively. I could be speaking literally . . . I just want black liberation and black sovereignty, by any means necessary.” Those are strong words, especially given the number of buildings and businesses that have literally been burned down by rioters during BLM protests. So while the BLM website insists upon non-violent actions (including protests), some of their leaders sound more physically threatening. The greatest concern is what is actually happening on the streets, where too often protests have turned into violent riots in which property has been destroyed and lives have been lost—all while BLM signs, flags, and t-shirts are seen throughout the crowds.
In his wonderful 1966 book The Church, Edmund Clowney wrote as though he were living in our day and watching current events. He observed that the World Council of Churches was suggesting that “the mission of the church was to support revolutionary movements by participating in them and bearing witness from within” (156). Driven by its infatuation with Liberation Theology, the World Council of Churches had surrendered to a worldly gospel—the social gospel—and reinterpreted the cross of Christ in the light of Marxist social ideals. Liberation Theology then, in a manner very similar to BLM advocates now, co-opted the cross as its “sign of revolution” but reduced its agenda to racial and gender issues, environmentalism, and other social concerns. The gospel had been flattened. In the light of the Civil Rights movement, a World Council of Churches report concluded, “A reconciled and renewed creation is the goal of the church’s mission” (156). In that view, our eschatology is here on earth and would be achieved by the social gospel.
To be clear, Clowney condemned racism and prayed for true justice in the world as an outworking of loving God and loving our neighbor. He believed that “the heart of the gospel moves the church to mission and to deeds of mercy which have always been part of the Christian mission” (161). But he also warned, “To accommodate its mission to the underlying assumption of multiculturalism and radical feminism or even ecclesiastical ritualism is to repeat the mistake of the older liberalism by turning to another gospel” (165). Never have Clowney’s words been more relevant and helpful than today. The church, especially broad evangelicalism, for all its interest in social justice, stands on the slippery slope that descends into the political abyss of the social gospel. We need to fix our eyes again on Christ, the gospel, and a biblically Reformed doctrine of the church and its mission. Nothing demonstrates the justice and mercy of God like the cross of Jesus Christ. Protests and riots cannot ultimately change hearts, but the gospel always does, and that is why the church’s mission is to proclaim it.
The author is pastor of Covenant OPC in St. Augustine, Florida. New Horizons, September 2020.