Race, Religion, and Social Change: A Campus Conversation

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Shawn Copeland, Boston College
Nichole Flores, St. Anselm College
Walter Fluker, Boston University
Moderated by Erik Owens, Boston College

Date: March 25, 2015

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In the wake of national debates on race following last year’s incidents in Ferguson and Staten Island, campuses all across America are struggling to respond appropriately. As part of Boston College’s ongoing efforts to shed light on the role of race in America, three speakers from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds will join us on March 25 to continue the campus conversation. More specifically, the panelists will examine the intersection of race, religion, and movements of social change, from both contemporary and historical perspectives.

Speaker Bios

M. Shawn Copeland

M. Shawn Copeland is professor of systematic theology at Boston College. She has also taught at St. Norbert College, Yale University Divinity School, and Marquette University. Copeland is recognized as one of the most important influences in North America in drawing attention to issues related to the religious, cultural, and social experience of African American Catholics. She has written more than 100 articles, reviews, and book chapters on such topics as theological anthropology, suffering, freedom, gender, and race. Recent publications include The Subversive Power of Love: The Vision of Henriette Delille and Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race and Being; she is also the principal editor of Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience. Copeland is a former convener of the Black Catholic Theological Symposium (BCTS), an interdisciplinary learned society of Black Catholic scholars; and a former president of the Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA). She received her Ph.D. in systematic theology from Boston College. 

Nichole Flores

Nichole Flores is an instructor in the Department of Theology at St. Anselm College. Her research emphasizes the contributions of Catholic and U.S. Latino/a theologies to notions of justice, emotion, and aesthetics as they relate to the common good within plural socio-political contexts. Her published work appears in the Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics (JSCE) and Feminist Catholic Theological Ethics: Conversations in the World Church, and her theological writing has been featured in America Magazine and on the Washington Post On Faith Blog. She earned her B.A. from Smith College, her M.Div from Yale Divinity School, and expects to defend her Ph.D dissertation at Boston College in May 2015. In August, she will transition to a new role as assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia.

Walter Fluker

Walter Fluker is the Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership the Boston University School of Theology, where he is also the editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project and the director of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Initiative for the Development of Ethical Leadership (MLK-IDEAL). He was founding executive director of the Leadership Center and the Coca-Cola Professor of Leadership Studies at Morehouse College. Known as an expert in the theory and practice of ethical leadership, Fluker has served on numerous committees and boards, and has served as a consultant and workshop leader for a diverse set of organizations, including Goldman Sachs, the Department of Education, and the Department of State. He is the author of Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility and Community and is currently completing a manuscript, The Ground Has Shifted: Essays on Spirituality, Ethics and Leadership from African American Moral Traditions. He earned a Bachelor’s degree in philosophy and biblical studies from Trinity College, a Master of Divinity degree from Garrett-Evangelical Seminary, and his Ph.D. in Social Ethics from Boston University.

Erik Owens

Erik Owens is associate director of the Boisi Center and associate professor of the practice in theology and international studies at Boston College. His research explores a variety of intersections between religion and public life, with particular attention to the challenge of fostering the common good of a religiously diverse society. His interdisciplinary scholarship bridges the fields of theological ethics, political philosophy, law, education, international studies and public policy. He is the co-editor of three books: Gambling: Mapping the American Moral Landscape (2009), Religion and the Death Penalty: A Call for Reckoning (2004) and The Sacred and the Sovereign: Religion and International Politics (2003), the last of which was called a "must read" by Foreign Affairs in 2009. Co-chair of the American Academy of Religion's Religion and Politics section, he also sits on the AAR's Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion and the steering committee of the AAR's "Religion and Public Schools: International Perspectives" group. He received his Ph.D. in religious ethics from the University of Chicago, an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from Duke University.

Event Photos

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BC theology professor M. Shawn Copeland

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BC Ph.D. candidate and St. Anselm theology instructor Nichole Flores

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BU theology professor Walter Fluker

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BC provost David Quigley introducing the panel.

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Boisi Center associate director Erik Owens moderating the panel.

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Photos by MTS Photography

Event Recap

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.

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Further Reading

Edward K. Braxton, “The Racial Divide in the United States: A Reflection for the World Day of Peace 2015,” The Messenger, December 31, 2014.

M. Shawn Copeland, “Revisiting Racism,” America, July 7, 2014.

M. Shawn Copeland, editor, with LaReine-Marie Moseley and Albert J. Raboteau, Uncommon Faithfulness: The Black Catholic Experience (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009).

Nichole Flores, “The Personal is Political: Toward a Vision of Justice in Latina Theology,” in Feminist Catholic Theological Ethics: Conversations in the World Churched. Linda Hogan and Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2014).

Lilly Fowler, “Former Ram Aeneas Williams Now Tending a Flock in Ferguson,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 6, 2014.

Lilly Fowler, “Clergy-led Protest Raises Questions over Nature of Repentance,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 15, 2014.

Lilly Fowler, “Movement Seeks to Make St. Louis a More Compassionate City,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 13, 2014.

Lilly Fowler, “Churches to Serve as Safe Spaces after Ferguson Grand Jury Announcement,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, November 21, 2014.

Walter Fluker, “Looking For Martin: Black Leadership in an Era of Contested Post-Racism and Post-Blackness,” in The Domestication of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. Lewis V. Baldwin and Rufus Burrows (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2013).

Walter Fluker, Ethical Leadership: The Quest for Character, Civility, and Community (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009).

Charles Marsh, God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

Judith Valente, “Dispelling Some Myths About Ferguson — Part 1,” America, January 19, 2015.

Judith Valente, “Dispelling Some Myths About Ferguson — Part 2,” America, January 27, 2015.

Emily Wax-Thibodeaux and DeNeen Brown, “Churches in Missouri Are Filled with Faith, but Common Ground Remains Elusive,” The Washington Post, August 17, 2014.