Critical Interfaith and the Struggle for Truth: Racism, Religion, and Black Liberty

Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

Issac M. Carter, Ph.D., is a Critical Educator, EDI Strategist, Black Male Feminist, Certified EQ Practitioner, and Founder of the Coaching Imperative. Dr. Carter is the co-editor of the forthcoming volume Unhooking from Whiteness, Sense, 2021 and a contributor, In Remixed and Reimagined: Innovations in Religion, Spirituality, and (Inter)Faith in Higher Education. Myers Education Press/Stylus Publishing, 2020. Join us on February 25 at 1:00 pm central for Welcome Home: Using Critical Interfaith Praxis to Transform Space and Place on Campus. 

The year 2020 is headlined by a global pandemic and a nationally metastasized spread of racism and national discord. Fueling the friction between opposing segments of our society is the inability to have an honest dialogue about our country's most long-standing problem, racism, which continues to be the most critical question for our democracy, the race question. The race question requires truth in the highest forms. At the start of the new decade, January 6, 2021, our nation witnessed the consequences of propagating racially and politically charged lies, fear-mongering, and public distrust. The Insurrection shined a light on the deep-seated hate permeating throughout the country, including amongst Congress members, law enforcement, former military, and hate groups all the while the Trump Administration, Religious Right, and fringe groups such as Q'Anon and Proud Boys consistently deny racism’s persistence and prevalence in our society. The lies that enlisted our fellow citizens to lay siege on the Capitol, carrying crosses and confederate flags, brandishing images of Trump as Jesus, and calling for the execution of congress members cut to the core of the nation’s festering wound of racism. The forces assembled on the day of the Insurrection are a threat to Black liberty, defined as the state of Blacks being free within society from systematic oppression, religious persecution, and discrimination because of faith, culture, political views, or resistance efforts. 

The weaponizing of dishonest public rhetoric while professing love for God and appreciation of the grace he sheds on the US is not a new strategy- racism and religion unite segments of conservatives, domestic terrorist, conspiracy groups. Our nation's very foundation is built on mendacity hermeneutics of scripture and intentional omission of women, indigenous populations, and enslaved Africans from the protection under any of its laws, whether created by Man or divinely inspired. In the film "12 Years a Slave," based on Solomon Northup's memoir of a New York State-born free African-American sold into slavery, the slave owner character quoted Luke 12:47 to justify slavery and its brutal enforcement. Luke 12:47 reads, “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.” Christians paired racism with scripture to articulate a divine right to slavery and to condone its brutal enforcement. Moreover, any attempt to affirm the rights and freedoms of those enslaved are censored or condemned through social death, state-sponsored acts of violence, and systematic incarceration or killing. 

There were several events during 2020 that highlight the connections between religion and racism. On June 2, 2020, a group of peaceful protestors were tear-gassed and violently dispersed to escort President Trump to St. John's Church across from the White House for a photoshoot with him holding the Bible and delivering these words, "We have the greatest country in the world, "Keep it nice and safe.” The acts of violence against the peaceful protesters, to clear a path for the photo op invoked both a material and symbolic pose of racism alongside religion. Before the photo op-ed, POTUS stated to the press assembled in the Rose Garden that he is the president of law and order, which was also part of his presidential campaign as the law and order candidate. The smoke, flash grenades, and chemical spray used by shield-bearing riot officers and mounted police to make for Trump on that day affirmed his assertion. The optic created by POTUS on that day illustrates the connections between violence against Blacks in the US and religion's role in the public discourse on Black liberty. 

Later in June 2020, Jenna Ellis, Former Senior Legal Advisor for Donald Trump, and Anti-racism scholar Ibram X. Kendi exchanged tweets. Jenna Ellis, @JennaEllisEsq tweeted in response to an activist’s demand that “white European” Jesus monuments needed to come down, "I’m going on record now: If they try to cancel Christianity, if they try to force me to apologize or recant my Faith, I will not bend, I will not waiver, I will not break. On Christ, the solid Rock I stand. And I’m proud to be an American." Ibram X. Kendi @DrIbram responded to Ellis's tweet, sharing that, "This is not about Christianity. Replace "Christianity" with "racism." Replace "Faith" with "racist ideas." Replace "Christ" with "Whiteness." And replace "an American" with "a White supremacist. Read again." Kendi's response to Ellis asserted a clear link between professed Christianity and practiced racism. In the United States, racism and religion are familiar bedfellows. Kendi’s tweet removes the camouflage of faith in God and Country to reveal the unspoken truth of Christianity's racism in practice. 

In September of 2020, executive order 13950, The Executive Order on Combatting Race and Sex Stereotyping, was signed into law attempting to censor American citizens' ability to talk about the historically accurate United States racist sexist history and the systems of advantages created by these forms of oppression. Executive Order 13950 also specifically critiqued a graphic displayed in a Smithsonian Institution that asserted that the idea of a single god is a form of "objective rationale linear thinking," based on the assumptive logic of Whiteness. A federal district court later placed a temporary ban on the order, and President Biden recently revoked it. Executive Order 13950 was an act of censorship directly aimed at people of color and women to suppress their freedom of speech and explore truths about US history and oppression. 

The 2020 year ended with false claims of voter fraud, failed lawsuits, and egregious attempts at nepotism to change the election outcomes and claims that God has informed a portion of the citizenry that Trump was victorious and would still prevail. On December 16, 2020, televangelist Pat Robertson shared that the Lord would make sure that Donald Trump is president for another four years. In January of 2021, Texas Pastor Brandon Burden claimed he received an Executive Order from God that Trump will remain president, and it’s up to Christians to execute that order. To summarily dismiss these statements by labeling these individuals as spiritually impaired or a religious zealot is unwise, as the assault on the Capitol exposed. The individuals who assaulted the Capitol did not have any substantive evidence to support their claims but believed they did have the power of their Christian faith and conviction. 

In his revolutionary work, Dr. James Cone, "God of the Oppressed," stated, “Indeed our survival and liberation depend upon our recognition of the truth when it is spoken and lived by the people. If we cannot recognize the truth, then it cannot liberate us from untruth. To know the truth is to appropriate it, for it is not mainly reflection and theory. Truth is divine action entering our lives and creating the human action of liberation.” Our nation needs a profound encounter with the truth of racism and religion, its entanglement, and its relentless pursuit of power. The divide we saw in the treatment of BLM protesters in June compared to the "Stop the Steal" protestors in January is the same divide we see every election cycle and every Sunday morning, as Dr. King famously observed in 1963. A critical interfaith practice explores the intersections of religious beliefs, power relations, and cultural identities. Critical interfaith explores history and systems of oppression to foster shared understandings, promote collective action, and develop a shared vision for our future. Critical interfaith seeks the truth, and as the good book, the Bible, states in John 8:32, “And the truth shall set you free.” 

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.