What's missing in my life--and the human rights movement.
I was raised Baptist and spent more time in church than I thought any normal adolescent should. As soon as I left Atlanta and landed in Washington, D.C., I was determined to take full advantage of my new-found freedom. One of the first choices I made as a freshman at Howard University was choosing not to go to church. Although this would not turn out to be a permanent separation, the infrequency of my church attendance made it feel like I was always a visitor and never a member.
After finishing at Howard, I got wrapped up in the heady days of the Free South Africa Movement. There were daily demonstrations and arrests at the South African Embassy, and economic sanctions against the apartheid regime. I worked at both the Washington Office on Africa and the American Committee on Africa. The faith community was absolutely essential to these organizations and their work. I studied James H. Cones' Black Theology and Black Power.
I delivered activist Sunday sermons in pulpits no less renowned than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. I snuck into South Africa to attend meetings at the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches and learned invaluable lessons from the likes of Rev. Frank Chikane at his house in Soweto. I was living my life in the midst of a loving ecumenical community that was unwavering in its support for human rights, both at home and abroad.
Now that I have an 8-year-old son and love a man who makes his spiritual practice a priority, I am reassessing my relationship with organized religion. As I move from one who manages to make it to church on at least the Christian high holy days to one who attends church more regularly, I've concluded that my Sunday morning yoga classes aren't enough. While I find immeasurable peace with this weekly ritual, I am at a point where I want to make more explicit the link between the human rights work to which I've committed my life and an institutionalized spiritual practice honed by regular church attendance. Simply put, I need more.
Part of this desire has to do with a gap in the human rights movement of which I am a part. Many of the more visible and vocal people with whom I do human rights work view religion with disdain. The tolerance at the root of human rights principles gives way to absolute intolerance for those who choose to take a moment just to bless their food before they eat. Perhaps this is because many of us are concerned about how religion is often used to justify human rights violations.
Maybe it's because some of us were raised by parents who just weren't into the church thing. Maybe it stems from the mistaken belief that opposition to all things mainstream and institutionalized is inherently radical. Maybe it's a function of the rise of the Religious Right and the erroneous belief that all Christians are conservative. Whatever the reasons might be, it's clear that this attitude marginalizes those of us who are neither agnostics nor atheists, but rather have been drawn to human rights because it jibes with our Christianity – it provides an answer to the question, "What would Jesus do?"
Those of us who have no problem with God have remained silent for much too long in the face of this intolerance of the faithful. The truth is, if the kind of disregard we face from our activist peers was expressed by those with whom we shared no common secular agenda, we would be out on the streets protesting and boycotting. This religious intolerance is not part of the history of the most successful human rights movements in this country.
From abolition to Black Liberation, the church has played an important role in providing not only a spiritual basis for larger movement agendas and objectives, but also an important site for organizing. Without a similar type of religious mooring, this current iteration of the U.S. human rights movement risks being a movement without foot soldiers drawn from the pews of churches regularly attended by many of the most dispossessed.
Today's movement is one that is increasingly alien to many within black communities. It is a movement disconnected from the grassroots folks the religiously intolerant claim to support as long as their faith remains closeted. It is a movement that is often too arrogant to accept people where they are, without belittling spiritual succor and the concept of church as home.
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.