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Op-Ed: Radical Black Christians in the New Civil Rights Movement

"Many Christians in the black liberation movement are informed by an understanding of Christ as a table-turning, freedom-loving, social justice radical.
Rahiel Tesfamariam arrested in Ferguson, Missouri wearing a Hands Up United shirt.
Rahiel Tesfamariam arrested in Ferguson, Missouri wearing a Hands Up United shirt.Heather Wilson

“This aint yo mama’s civil rights movement.”

Those were the words emblazoned on activist and public theologian Rahiel Tesfamariam’s T-shirt as she was arrested in Ferguson, Missouri during protests marking the 1-year anniversary of police killing unarmed black teenager Michael Brown and the Ferguson Uprising that continues today.

In the three years since neighborhood watch vigilante George Zimmerman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, black millenials across the country have taken to the streets, demanding justice for black men, women and children killed by police with impunity in what has become the Black Lives Matter movement.

Unlike the leaders of the 1960s, who dismissed victims like teenage mom Claudette Colvin in order to champion the cause of the more sympathetic victim Rosa Parks, the Black Lives Matter movement seeks to highlight, defend and affirm all black lives. At the forefront of this movement, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, are radical activists at every intersection of blackness—including the two queer women and one Nigerian American woman who together founded #BlackLivesMatter, celebrities like singer Janelle Monáe and trans activist and MSNBC host Janet Mock.

Rahiel Tesfamariam arrested in Ferguson, Missouri wearing a Hands Up United shirt.
Rahiel Tesfamariam arrested in Ferguson, Missouri wearing a Hands Up United shirt.Heather Wilson

Shunning the emphasis on the cisgender heterosexual “respectability” and perfection of victims and leaders of the past, this generation’s protests are loud, angry, rude and intentionally inconvenient for the beneficiaries of institutionalized racism, shutting down highways and interrupting everything from political rallies to brunch to demand that the humanity of black people be recognized and respected.

But at least one tie remains between the movements of the past and today—many protestors and movement leaders are Christians.

A far cry from the right-wing Coalition of African American Pastors that vowed civil disobedience in response to the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the constitutionality of marriage equality in June, many Christians in the black liberation movement are informed by an understanding of Christ as a table-turning, women-empowering, government-overthrowing, freedom-loving, social justice radical.

Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, an ordained elder in the Church of God in Christ and a self-described “queer ally” would certainly count himself among that number. Rev. Sekou—who was just arrested in Ferguson after storming a police barricade with Cornel West and many others during protests for Brown—tells NBCBLK that his decision to fight for black liberation begins with Christ’s example.

“God chose to become flesh in the body of an unwed, unimportant teenage mother in an unimportant part of the world. Then, after living a life dedicated to serving the least of these, He was killed by the State. That’s how I understand Jesus.”

Rev. Sekou also understands Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as far more radical than the sanitized and romanticized caricature he is often reduced to in death. But the idea of Christians as docile, forgiving and long-suffering in the face of oppression—i.e., respectable and moralistic—is pervasive.

Activist Marissa Johnson defies this idea. The evangelical Christian made national news when she led her Seattle chapter of the Black Lives Matter organization in a protest during a rally for popular democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, taking the mic from him and demanding he release a plan to reform policing.

Johnson, who was attacked by Sanders supporters with bottles and boos at the rally, tells NBCBLK that her radical activism is informed by Matthew 10:5-42, a passage where Christ speaks with aggressive urgency to his 12 disciples, instructing them to care for, heal, protect and lay down their lives for others.

She and the other organization members putting themselves in harms way at the rally sparked a nationwide discussion on racism within white democratic and progressive spaces. Sanders has since released a comprehensive criminal justice reform plan, has hired a Black press secretary and has reached out to the organization, as well as other leaders in the movement, to meet and discuss policy. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton has done the same as the result of the protests—clear evidence that radical activism can demand the attention of policy makers.

Though Tesfamariam differentiates between Christian respectability and self-respect, she tells NBC BLK, “Respectability will not prevent us from becoming the next hashtag. There must always be a space in Christian theology, particularly for communities of color, for righteous anger and holy impatience."

Bree Newsome displayed both when the courageous activist climbed the flagpole at the South Carolina State House and removed the confederate flag “in the name of God.”

In an interview with NBCBLK, Newsome describes her decision to remove the confederate flag as a “spiritual battle”:

“[When Dylann Roof killed 9 Black people at Mother Emanuel], it was an attack on the black community, on black organization, on the black church and on black faith, in a space where we have spiritual solace. So on that level, it was a spiritual battle to go up and take the flag down.”

She had intended to remove the flag in reflective silence and to wait and pray quietly until the police showed up to arrest her. However, the police arrived as she was halfway up the pole.

“A cop was talking to me, saying it was not the right thing to do, so I started quoting the Scripture I had been meditating on in the days leading up to the action, just to center myself. In the moment, it was the automatic thought that came to my mind just to say the Scripture out loud and stay focused on the task,” she says.

The words David spoke before he defeated Goliath inspired Newsome’s bold declaration as she clutched the flag in her right hand,

“You come against me with hatred and oppression and violence. I come against you in the name of God.”

Newsome, who quoted Psalm 27 as she climbed down the pole and Psalm 23 as she was being arrested, says that like the Pharisees and Sadducees of Christ’s day, Christians can miss the point of the Gospel if they only remain inside the church building while the community is being oppressed.

“Part of [Christ’s] whole message was not to become so fixated on religion that you lose the spirit of God. If you're taking money from the community to build the church but you don’t feel like you have time or it’s within your purpose to liberate the people, what is this endless church building [fund] for?”

Rev. Sekou echoes this message to anyone who identifies as a Christian:

“For young, poor black single mothers, kids with tattoos sagging their pants—anything less than putting your body on the line for them and being willing to pick up your cross in the case of state violence against them is heresy. You betray Christ if you do anything less.”