The God Gap

What's missing in my life--and the human rights movement.

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OK. I can hear it now. Some will contend that I’m blowing things all out of proportion, I’ve got some axe to grind, or I need to work through my issues by myself and quit making such a big deal out of this. Others might concede my points, but conclude that the price of this religious intolerance is nominal. I, however, beg to differ and think that the costs of allowing our movement to eschew the sacred are much too high. One need only consider how the conservatives and the moderates came for Rev. Jeremiah Wright and accused him of spewing hatred. Those of us within the human rights movement recognized the legitimacy of most of his points. We, however, remained silent as Rev. Wright faced ad hominem attacks from those with ulterior political motives.

The Black Liberation Theology which informs Rev. Wright’s relationship with the Holy Trinity and his church’s social justice ministry is fundamentally a theology of human rights. It is the same type of theology on which many of the struggles for human rights in Latin America are based. It is the same theology that motivated Dr. Ben Chavis, former head of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice, to drive a group of us to Alabama’s Black Belt in the 1980s to educate and mobilize black voters.

That summer, we spent a lot of time in old country churches in which the “thump, thump, thump” of feet keeping time on worn wooden floors was the only musical accompaniment to hymns whose page numbers were posted on tablets hung on sanctuary walls. Here, there was no need for either a piano or a bulletin outlining the order of service. We learned that churches, like barber shops and beauty parlors, were where real organizing took place. These churches were in the same part of Alabama originally named for its fertile black soil but eventually marked by its black majority.

The systemic disfranchisement of black voters in the Black Belt was the same condition targeted by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee in 1965. The Black Belt was the birthplace of the Lowndes County Freedom Organization which is known to most as the Black Panther Party. It was here that human rights and Christianity framed the legal and moral claims of citizenship too long denied to those church-going, God-loving black people.

Just as I am searching to fill a void in my personal spiritual life, the human rights movement must search to determine how deeply it believes in the values on which its work are based. We must break our silence, even at the risk of being dismissed by many we consider to be our allies. As much as I am committed to this movement, I am more committed to finding a way to bring God back into our movement.

While my silence can be forgiven, I am prepared to declare that I do this work because I love God, and I believe we can build a movement that is openly engaged in creating a beloved community based on principles such as equality, dignity, justice and freedom. If my colleagues prove too intolerant to deal with this simple fact, then I’ll end up searching not just for a church but another movement, a more spiritually-centered space in which to fight this fight.

Lisa Crooms is a professor at Howard University School of Law.