Race, Religion and Social Change: A Campus Conversation
Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life
The national debate over race has intensified in the last eight months as the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray (among many others) by police officers have sparked nationwide protests and exposed strong disagreements about the extent of racial injustice in modern America. To help us grapple with these crucial issues among our own community, the Boisi Center invited three theologians to discuss the inter- section of race, religion and movements for social change. Billed as a “campus conversation,” the March 25 event drew several hundred students, faculty and staff to the large Devlin 008 auditorium, and connected them to a broader, semester-long effort across the university to engage the BC community in discussion of racial issues.
Boisi Center’s associate director Erik Owens opened the session by commending students for their activism and engagement last semester, and remarking that this event would not have occurred with- out the vigorous student-led protests that brought this issue to the forefront.
The first panelist to speak was professor Shawn Copeland, an African-American Catholic theologian in BC’s theology department. Copeland argued that racism is a combination of “prejudice plus power,” built on fundamentally false assumptions that directly contradict the Judeo-Christian notion of “imago dei,” that humans are made in the image of God. Too often, Copeland continued, Christianity has colluded in the formation of racial bias, and it is an ongoing challenge to practice the values we preach. Copeland ended on a hopeful note, saying that the activism of BC students inspired faculty members like herself to be a better person and scholar.
Latina Catholic theologian Nichole Flores, a Ph.D. candidate in theology at BC and instructor at St. Anselm College (and former Boisi Center research assistant), focused on the idea of aesthetic solidarity. How can we use arts and performances to foster a solidaristic com- munity, Flores asked, especially when racial discourse comes to an impasse? Drawing on anecdotes from her own teaching experience, Flores suggested some productive answers, and noted that performative protests like the die-in can have a profound effect on bystanders.
Walter Fluker, an African-American Protestant theologian from Boston University, picked up on Flores’s theme, noting how civil rights songs galvanized the movement in the 1960s. Moving beyond aesthetics, Fluker discussed the theology of Howard Thurman, who insisted that one must not neglect interior spirituality while leading movements of social change. Fluker discussed these ideas in the light of Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s civil rights movement, which was heavily influenced by Thurman. Speaking of the relationship between religion and social change more broadly, Fluker memorably stated, “Any religion that does not honor freedom is not good religion.”
In the discussion period that followed, one student bemoaned how popular apps like Yik Yak created new anonymous forums where racism can flourish. Copeland and Fluker noted that anonymity has always emboldened racism—even the KKK wore hoods—but that it is really a form of cowardice. Other audience members asked about the proper role for media depictions of race, and about the experience of black Christians who worship a God typically depicted as white. These questions provoked a fruitful discussion about political correctness, the potential pitfalls of idolatry and the current state of black churches, where attendance remains high despite a national trend toward secularism.
The frank discussion among audience members and panelists fulfilled the event’s charge to produce an honest campus conversation on race. “There’s no real place in Christianity for political correctness,” said Copeland. “The burden of religion is to bridge us across lines that would usually divide us.” Owens closed the event with a challenge for the audience to carry that conversation throughout Boston College, and beyond.