On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, was killed in Minneapolis, during an arrest for allegedly using a counterfeit bill. Following a newly documented rash of police killings of black Americans, this occurrence ignited anew the rage that many across the world felt at the ongoing violent suppression of blacks in the United States. Setting aside even the threat of COVID-19, people of all social locations, religious affiliations, and identities took to the streets to express their exasperation and exhaustion with police brutality. Some of these confrontations with police turned violent, and the police were often the ones escalating the situation to violence. Still, many actions remained peaceful. Car parades, marches, vigils, services, and discussions proliferated. So did rallies of righteous anger, occasions on which many emerged from their homes to distill their feelings of hurt, betrayal, remorse, and grief into screams and tears to be leveled at politicians and police. Members of my family and I joined some of these protests and witnessed those who showed up, driven entirely by communal and historical wounds that are too great in scope to name, just to cry.
People also came out to raise very important, specific, and sophisticated critiques of the system. Calls for the defunding of police departments and the restructuring of communities based on models from other nations where police brutality does not manifest as it does in the U.S. became a national talking point. People started to question what the job of the police really is. Is it to bring retribution on law-breakers? To protect the safety and property of private citizens? To act as a weapon of oppression? Discussions on Charles Mills' idea of the racial contract reemerged. Concrete political demands began to take shape and bonds of solidarity were forged between various justice organizations. An outcry was producing a renewal.
What happens, however, when the outcry is not yet ready to give way to the renewal? What happens when we skip the outcry altogether and try to get right down to brass tacks? And when these two impulses are at odds within a coalition, how do we move forward in unity? In this essay, I will recount a confrontation I witnessed at a #BlackLivesMatter protest in Collier County, FL; attempt to make sense of it; and ask how religion—as a ritual framework for understanding the struggles of human existence and a coordinator of varying levels of human experience—could have aided in making sense of this confrontation and holding these distinct perspectives in creative tension without sowing disunity.
The action I attended was organized by two groups, one an artist collective / talent agency that, in advocating for black artists and black-owned businesses, had become an unlikely leading voice in Southwest Florida's cry for justice. The other was a white-led racial justice ally organization. The event itself was cleanly organized—a demonstration in front of the courthouse featuring a broad slate of public figures who spoke to the intersectionality of the racial justice movement and proclaimed that the era of police brutality was coming to an end. The gathering of several hundred was mostly attentive, responsive, and motivated, but stirred hungrily at times, as if seeking a moment of release. These occasional feelings of uneasiness came to a head about two thirds of the way through the protest.
One of the artist/organizers stood following a particularly intense speaker and addressed the gathered softly and melodically. She explained that we would be embarking on an 8 minute, 46 second guided meditation—the length of time Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd's neck. We were invited to participate spiritually or remain silent as we saw fit. The hundreds of us sat where we were and listened as she asked us to close our eyes and journey into ourselves. I could feel the energies around me conflict, not everyone there was buying this young woman's leadership. Not long after the meditation began, a woman stood on a bench clutching a Haitian flag and began to mutter: "This ain't right. We've been silent long enough." A few people nearby asked her to be quiet. She became more irritated and said it again: "This ain't right. It's not time for yoga." She and two of her friends started to chant: "I can't breathe!" The leader of the meditation faltered, asked them to respect the space, but continued despite their chanting. Palpable awkwardness flooded the gathering, as many deliberately meditated while a few others joined the chant. The awkwardness was inflected with something greater, though: pain, grief, confusion. This confrontation continued for the rest of the 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Inconsistent applause echoed around the courthouse grounds as the meditation leader took her seat.
This confrontation revealed an internal tension in some of the protests I have attended surrounding #BLM, a tension which also hovers around our national dialogue about George Floyd's death. What are we getting together for? Is it to process rage? Is it to memorialize the fallen? Is it to engage in political dialogue? Is it to interrupt the rhythmic workings of the community? Each person, sometimes each different leader in actions I've attended, will have some combination of these goals in mind that they don't seem to share with others and struggle to integrate into the action. None of these impulses are wrong. They're just disparate. The woman leading the meditation was seeking to offer a functional space for grieving in the way she knew how and to contextualize that grief strategically within a coalition with specific, constructive demands. The woman crying out in agony drew spiritually on the deaths of so many documented and undocumented murders of black Americans, and on her own grief and vulnerability, and was seeking to transmute them into action to tear down the structures of evil. Each was articulating an ideal direction for the movement (to establish justice, to undo oppression) and emotional tone (sorrow, rage); neither one seemed to think in that tense moment that it was time for what the other was trying to do. The conflicting visions they embodied, however, are both vital in the transformation of our nation into something resembling a just community. How might we put them in dialogue and, especially, what tool is missing as we seek to do so?
It makes sense at this point to offer a disclaimer. I am an aspiring ally in the movement for racial justice. I lift my voice with whatever platform I have (particularly as a pastor in a local church), but I do not imagine myself to be a leader among racial justice advocates nor someone who should be. My role is to examine whiteness in my own spaces, resist racism in myself and in others when encountered, and serve as a follower of racial justice movements led and organized by people of color. Further, as the above anecdote reveals, I am speaking to my experience of a certain event and my interpretation of it. There is a certain amount of speculation involved and an examination of the event in question within the broader cultural moment. I would not claim to know what these two black women were thinking, how they should or should not grieve, or what their sociopolitical aims should be. That said, as an ordained clergyperson, I do possess a peculiar perspective and will offer what I can in an effort to better understand the kind of communal mourning that I think took place and engage it with intention seeking social transformation. And I would offer that #BLM (at least in my community) and the protesters I joined with are missing a vital tool for combating injustice and processing the existential cost of their struggle.
The tool that is missing is religion. There were no prominent clerical voices at the protest I described—no rabbis storming into the courthouse, no collared pastors offering blessings to the gathered or voicing prophetic imperatives, no publicly visible imams. Spirituality, when invoked, has typically been of a pan-cultural transcendental flavor, like the guided meditation that spurred the confrontation. While a lack of public religious presence at that particular protest is not a problem in itself, it further illustrates the minimal presence that religion has had in the recent #BLM movement, or at least in its most public manifestations. This disconnect is present at a number of junctions, and there really isn't anyone specifically to blame. White protestant and catholic churches, fattened on privilege and scared by the news, tend to distance themselves from #BLM (with a few notable exceptions). Even when certain religious groups raise their voices, like black-led churches and faith-based justice organizations such as T'ruah, our thoroughly secular media environment tends to write them off as merely a spiritual flavor of a secular phenomenon, if they are reported on, at all. And younger millennials and gen z-ers, who are the lifeblood of this last wave of protests, tend to see religion as stagnant, ignorant, and out of touch, and avoid it. This is a shame because white churches are marginalizing a piece of their tradition when they refuse to ritualize and actualize the movement for justice; the media environment is refusing to acknowledge not an aesthetic but a rhetorical and ideological dynamo in the fight for justice; and younger adults are refusing to take advantage of a powerful and important resource for channeling communal grief and rage into action. Each of these issues could be its own essay, but since the two young women I saw at the protest seemed to be around my age, I will comment on what about their interaction could have been aided by personal religious practice and deeper integration of religious voices into the action.
First, as stated above, the protests I attended have been as much a conduit of emotion as they have demonstrations against systemic injustice. On the day described, we witnessed a leader trying to channel fear and grief into mystic silence and then into contemplation on what needs to be built up. We also witnessed a follower seeking to take terror and rage and channel them into action against what needs to be torn down. In either case, the demonstration was forced into the impossible twin purpose of communal emotional management and sociopolitical advocacy. Religion is very effective at working with both of these purposes at different times in an integrated system and tying them together as one process. In his peculiar defense of religion, Why We Need Religion, atheist philosopher Stephen T. Asma considers religion as an evolutionarily selected coping mechanism for dealing with life's hardships, its existential nightmares, its trials and complexities. In his chapter on Fear and Rage, Asma examines the function of adjunctive repetitive behaviors in religion and their role in individual and corporate emotional management. Adjunctive repetitive behaviors are "calming or distracting forms of self-stimulation" which "reduce stress and regulate dopamine" while helping us manage short and long-range "human seeking or the teleological projects that we might generally call hope.'" These kinds of behaviors have been studied widely in pigeons and other lab animals, but Asma and other thinkers see religious practice as a socially evolved manifestation of this kind of behavior.
Religion is filled with ritualized behaviors, including ceremonial body movements, routinized manipulations of prayer beads, talismans, and totems, candle lighting, supplications and prostrations, prayer recitations, collective singing, holy water rites, pilgrimages, sacrifices, and so on… Among other things, religion is a culturally structured set of psychobehavioral perseverations, often providing some return to equilibrium when other resources and consumption activities cannot do the work. When a loved one dies, we feel an overwhelming need to 'do something.' But, really, there is nothing to be done. Religion is helpful in those moments… because it gives us something—usually very precise and elaborate—to do. (177-178)
In a very functional psychosocial capacity, then, religious practice—either in the context of the demonstration or by its individual members in other spaces—could have assisted in mediating the kinds of emotionality we saw collide in the protest. Providing each with an opportunity to physically and symbolically engage sadness, rage, or terror in a group setting would have either served as a more effective and coordinated release in the moment or prevented the conflict entirely by giving each the chance at emotional equilibrium before meeting for the demonstration. This would then turn the participants toward direct dialogue about what needs to be done, built up, or torn down.
While Asma's affective engagement with ritualized emotional management is helpful, it misses something important about ritual lament: that it is often set against sociopolitical reality and cast as part of a transformative process for communal change, and is therefore not only palliative but prophetic and motivating. Here, I draw from a specifically Christian example. In Breaking the Fine Rain of Death, Emilie M. Townes begins with a commentary on the first two chapters of Joel, which mourn a plague of locusts that the prophet sees as punishment for breaking God's covenant. In those chapters, Joel offers a glimpse of what Townes calls (borrowing from Walter Brueggemann), "the formfulness of communal lament." Drawing from contemporary Hebrew Bible scholarship, Townes notes that perhaps the only rite of ancient Hebrew religion that modern day people know anything about is the rite of lament. That is because it is invoked often in the Psalms, prophets, and writings, and follows a set formula. That formula, like much of the Hebrew Bible itself, is a response to the deliverance of the Hebrews from Egypt. "There is a formula for deliverance," Townes writes, "distress, a cry of distress, a promise of deliverance, deliverance, and the praise of God. Therefore, lament is set within the context of an account of deliverance. This deliverance… is the basis of Israel's relationship with God and God's saving acts in the history of the people of Israel" (14). The cry of distress, the coordinated communal lament (often signified publicly in the Hebrew scriptures through weeping, wearing sackcloth, sprinkling ashes on one's head, and other such "adjunctive behaviors") is the first step in an intentional process of change. Townes posits that this change cannot take place authentically without lament. "Communal lament, as a corporate experience of calling for healing, makes suffering bearable and manageable in the community… Communal lament names problems, seeks justice, and hopes for God's deliverance—so that we may not see that terrible Day of the Lord made real in our lives" (24-25). Coordinated, ritualized, intentional emotional management within the community helps us to make evident, make sense of, and ultimately confront more fully the trauma of something like George Floyd's murder. Townes goes further than Asma in identifying religion, or in her case the prophetic religion of the Hebrews and Christian articulations that draw from it, not only as a balm for emotional wounds but as a structure that gives those wounds full recognition, engages them in practice, and then puts the community to work in healing and transformation. In the context of our confrontation, the integration of religious practice (even diverse religious practice, maintaining that the #BLM movement draws a diverse coalition of communities and organizations in solidarity with one another) would make possible emotional release in the context of deliverance, establish emotionality as a clear part of liberation, and tie together emotional release and justice advocacy without forcing an action into confused double-duty.
What does this mean for us now? Well, I suppose it means that both people my age and the religious establishments we don't frequent have some reflection to do. For our unchurched generation, I suppose we should be asking how we might find authentic ways to manage the injustices and traumas of life in sustainable, regularized ways. We cannot only face injustice when it goes viral, and the mournings in our life are longer-term and more numerous than just the protests around police brutality allow us to process. I'm not asking anyone to necessarily be like Job's friends, to tear their clothes and sit in ashes for seven days in total silence at the sight of injustice. I am asking us, however, to consider seriously the ways in which the forms, vocabularies, gatherings, and liturgies of our traditions could aid us in making sense of our corporate lives. We should be able to speak our grief and fear and rage aloud to a group in more settings than an occasional protest. That could be through systemized chanting, ecstatic shrieking, hymn singing, extemporaneous group prayer, or shared mystic silence. We should also be able to find others that share our feelings, concerns, and traumas and are finding concrete ways to bring reconciliation into the world. Religious communities, when they are conducting themselves appropriately and authentically, can provide this, and we shouldn't be so quick to discard what thousands of generations of our ancestors found helpful in serving their communal needs.
Religious communities and institutions, however, are also in need of some deliberate self-reflection. Religious institutions (and I am speaking here primarily from a Christian context and to Christian churches) must ask what their particular outpost (not just their denomination or tradition) is doing that younger Americans find so alienating. It is more than just rational inconsistency in scripture or pre-scientific thinking. The opportunities for managing and transforming human experience described above are not being offered by many faith communities, especially mainline protestant, evangelical, and Catholic churches. So eager are we to breeze through human suffering on the wings of privilege to promise cheap and unearned resolution that we rob our movements of grace. So eager are we to eliminate difficult feelings or different presences from gatherings that we drag our communities from salvation. So eager are we to appease the powerful that we become an arm of denial and oppression. We are found to be spiritually bankrupt, personally frigid, and utterly hypocritical. Serious self-examination, confession, and mourning are necessary. Then, perhaps, we might raise a proper lament and seek deliverance.
I have some hope that some sort of uniting might happen, and that through the common struggle for justice, prophetic faith communities and those who thirst for a new way to experience and interact with reality might find one another. In the fires of conflict, something more than convenient alliance might be forged, and a new generation of voices might transform religious practice just as religious practice serves them. And perhaps in this new, divine community, we might revive and normalize appropriate and accessible practices that help us make sense of our fear, rage, hurt, sorrow, and so much more in the face of grievous injustice, and that we different folks might be set through loving engagement with these human realities on the path to liberation. For now, as a pastor, I need to ask what I could do better in my daily practice to aid people like those two young women who came into conflict on a shared mission for justice, and to offer some illumination on how the functions of my tradition, even as broken as they are now, could be of service to their struggle.