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Spring 2018 Stories

Carol Stott, “Made by Hand,” watercolor, 2016. Used with permission.

Carol Stott, “Made by Hand,” watercolor, 2016. Used with permission.

Racial Justice, Theologically

Excerpt from Winter 2017 Santa Clara Lecture1

Vincent Lloyd


By Vincent Lloyd
Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies
Villanova University

One story of conventional wisdom goes like this: Once there was horrible racism in America, and with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, we entered a post-racial era. This conventional wisdom doesn’t hold a lot of water these days.

I would like to start thinking about racial injustice by looking at some data on the various dimensions of racism in the United States in recent years. More than just a set of specific problems to be solved, it’s a deeper moral crisis with theological resonances that might beckon a theological response. I then want to think about the way religion plays a role, even when it isn’t explicit, in Black Lives Matter organizing, and to think a little bit about what I call Black Natural Law, a tradition that appeals to a higher law or God’s law by African-American political thinkers.

Racism in the United States of America

First, let’s consider the racial wealth gap in the United States. The average amount of white family wealth in the United States is $111,000. The average amount of black family wealth in the United States: $4,955. An even more dramatic figure sometimes cited: The average amount of wealth for single black women— that’s assets minus liabilities—is $5. In terms of child poverty rates, the black child poverty rate in 2008 was 35 percent, while for white Americans, it was 11 percent. 

Another dimension that might not be the most intuitive is pollution. Pollution would seem like an issue that affects everyone, but as has recently been publicized by the case of Flint, Michigan, environmental racism disproportionately affects black Americans. To make the case for just one state, the air pollution exposure index, which ranges from 0 to 100, is about 57 for white people in the state of Washington—and 81 for black people. Nationally, people of color are exposed to about 38 percent more air pollution than white Americans, resulting in about 7,000 extra deaths per year because of that disproportionate amount.

Another issue relates to mass incarceration and the disproportionate amount of black Americans in prison. One case study receiving a huge amount of attention recently indicates that 2.3 million Americans are incarcerated. This means that 1 in 35 Americans is in prison, on parole, or on probation. Moreover, 58 percent of those incarcerated are black or Hispanic. And 5.9 million Americans cannot vote because of criminal records, which again, disproportionately affects African Americans.

Emily Rasmussen,

Emily Rasmussen, "Black Lives Matter," print. Used with permission.

 If we look at our prison population, the growth is relatively recent, beginning in the 1970s, and the rate of growth is astronomical. You might respond, well, there must have been a growth in crime and crime rates. But if we look at the national murder rate, it has been going down over the same period of time. Locally, Santa Clara County did a study in 2016 on race-based incarceration, and the study found that although black people make up about 3 percent of the county’s population, they receive about 11 percent of the felony prosecutions. The study also surmised that almost 70 percent of black Americans who have not finished high school will be in prison by their 30s.

These facts are a symptom of a chronic ailment—something that may have continued from slavery and segregation into the present—something that has recently been called anti-blackness—a specific anti-black core value, you might even say, of the American project. The worry here is that if this deep ailment afflicting America is anti-blackness, even if we fix particular problems, even if we lower the prison population, new problems will pop up. New symptoms of this deep disease will pop up. Therefore to address this disease directly we need a framework that will name and address anti-blackness itself.

On some accounts, anti-blackness comes about because of the afterlife of slavery. To get white Americans to treat their fellow human beings as slaves, a whole set of institutions, practices, and values that denied the humanity of blacks needed to be established. According to this account, even when slavery went away, those institutions, practices, and values persisted, so just changing the law and freeing the slaves didn’t change that fundamental commitment to anti-blackness because it was so deep, because it takes so much work to get someone to treat another person as less than human.

Another account, probably complementary, sees anti-blackness as resulting from anti-indigenous racism with the colonial encounter. And it sees that in turn resulting from anti-Judaism. So the way that Christians imagined Jews was displaced onto the way that European colonists imagined indigenous peoples, which was displaced onto the way that white Americans envisioned blacks. In this account, it’s fundamentally a theological problem that requires a theological response.

Black Lives Matter and Black Natural Law

I want to take just a brief excursion to let you know about a conversation that has been happening among my colleagues, among theologians and religious studies scholars, who are trying to think about what this framework of anti-blackness could mean. With some colleagues, I brought together a group of theologians and religious studies scholars in Massachusetts for a few days of retreat, sharing our thoughts, sharing a liturgy, and sharing reflections on how this framework could motivate a religious response. Out of that comes the book, Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics. And in the preface of that book, I try to distill some of the insights and feelings that were circulating among these theologians:

We are angry. We see gross racial injustice in the United States today. We see the anti-black violence committed by the police, by the prison system, by poverty, by environmental racism, by racial bias, and by hateful words and deeds. We know that this violence is pervasive and connected, and we know that it results from this nation’s deep, long-standing commitment to denying black humanity. Many of us, as people of color, have not only observed this violence at a distance, we have felt it in our own bodies and souls.

Samuel Joseph Brown, Jr, Self-Portrait, Watercolor, charcoal, and graphite on paper, ca. 1941, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 8 May 2018. Used with permission.

Samuel Joseph Brown, Jr, Self-Portrait, Watercolor, charcoal, and graphite on paper, ca. 1941, The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Web. 8 May 2018. Used with permission.

We are heartened by grassroots organizing demanding racial justice, and we join in the affirmation that black lives matter. We seek to learn from activists and to struggle together with them both to challenge the white supremacy that infects this nation and to envision what racial justice may look like. We are grateful to movement organizers for crafting an inspiring platform that calls for an end to the war on black people, reparations, investment in black communities, economic justice, community control of police, and black political power. We are inspired by the movement’s deep analysis of anti-black racism and by the connections that the movement makes with other struggles for justice.

We acknowledge the complicity of religious communities in perpetuating anti-black racism, and we acknowledge the deafening silence of many religious communities in the face of racial injustice, but we also remember the long, inspiring tradition of religious organizing and analysis aimed at challenging anti-black racism. We remember the invitation to believe in a God who is black. We remember the ideals of love and nonviolence, and we remember how these ideals have been perverted by those who privilege hollow peace over justice.

We learn from the movement that advancing justice requires disrupting ordinary life. Affirming that black lives matter is necessary but it is not enough, we call on our fellow theologians and scholars of religion to articulate how religious traditions speak to anti-black racism in their research and teaching. We also call on our colleagues to personally join the movement in the streets. We call on religious leaders to interrogate the ways their institutions have been complicit in antiblack racism and to mobilize institutional resources in support of the struggle for racial justice and to personally join the movement in the streets.

Finally, we call on religious practitioners to discern the resources in their faith traditions to struggle against anti-black racism and as well to personally join the movement in the streets. We’re an ecumenical group, Catholic and Protestant, Jewish and agnostic. We are predominantly black, but we’re also Latino and white. We are gay and straight, immigrants and U.S.–born, clergy and laity. We are theologians and secular scholars of religion.

Collectively, we lament that the grip of anti-black racism remains so tight. We denounce the false god of whiteness that is worshipped throughout this nation. We know that changes to a few laws will not suffice. We demand a revolutionary transformation in souls and in society, in universities and in political institutions. We believe that struggle and worship can be one and the same. Let us follow the lead of the black youths blocking highways and disrupting brunches, organizing together to recognize the inherent worth and dignity of black life.2

I hope that gives you a sense of the collective thinking of myself and other black theologians reflecting on these issues and mobilizing the framework of anti-blackness together with a call to listen to what’s happening in grassroots struggles.

I’d like now to reflect on the Black Lives Matter movement, not only as a political movement, but also as a love story. Thinking about love is central to the movement—love is very deeply rooted in a Christian and post-Christian tradition. A secularization story often told about racial justice organizing in the U.S. says that 50 years ago, there were black religious leaders, black men preachers at the front of the civil rights movement, and today, there are not. They say those at the front of the Black Lives Matter movement are not religious; they are particularly female, particularly queer, particularly youthful. They say religion has lost its centrality in the movement. But in fact, religious language and practices are all over. There’s a swirl of religious ideas, symbols, rituals, and feelings that surround today’s racial justice movement, and central to that is love.

To give a couple of examples, two months after Darren Wilson shot Mike Brown, calling him a demon in Ferguson, Missouri, there was a gathering of clergy in front of the Ferguson Police Station. At 11 p.m., about a dozen clergy members gathered and began to pray. There was a rabbi, a black United Church of Christ minister, several white Episcopals, and Reverend Osagyefo Sekou, a Pentecostal, who led the prayer. The police interrupted and demanded that the ministers disperse. Reverend Sekou and his colleagues kneeled and continued praying. They were arrested and held in a bloodstained van that night. Reverend Sekou himself is a native of St. Louis, Missouri, and after the death of Mike Brown spent months in Ferguson doing trainings on nonviolent civil disobedience rooted in Christian tradition. 

Think about the history of Black Lives Matter, which is often forgotten. We just think it’s an amorphous collection of activists, but in fact there’s a founding moment that is important to reflect on. Alicia Garza is a California-based organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. On the night George Zimmerman was acquitted in Trayvon Martin’s murder, she was angry and grieving. The next morning, she composed her thoughts on Facebook, concluding, “Black people, I love you. I love us. Our lives matter.” Her friend, Patrisse Cullors—like Garza, a queer, black activist—shared on Facebook the status and added the hashtag #blacklivesmatter. Another friend, Opal Tometi, created a digital platform to help disseminate this message and help activists connect around the country. Garza reflects, “The project we’re building is a love note to our folks.” Garza herself tweets under the handle @lovegodherself. Loving flesh deemed unlovable publicly, forcing us to ask difficult questions that are inescapably theological—that’s what is happening here in the Black Lives Matter movement.

I think there’s been too little reflection on how this love could be connected with a Christian story. Too often, love alone, as it circulates in American popular culture, is a Hollywood love story rather than a commitment grounded in religious tradition to social justice, which brings with it normativity. We need to think about something that goes along with love. We need to think about justice—and about accounts of divine justice.

Professor Vincent Lloyd engages the theological claims of the Black Lives Matters movement at the Winter 2017 Santa Clara Lecture.

Professor Vincent Lloyd engages the theological claims of the Black Lives Matters movement at the Winter 2017 Santa Clara Lecture.

There is of course a robust Roman Catholic tradition of reflection on natural law theory, but I would like to return to black culture, to blacks who are capable of doing, not just applying, intellectual frameworks to see black Americans as participating in a natural law tradition and theorizing natural law. Martin Luther King Jr. most famously did this in his 1963 “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where he appealed to Augustine and Aquinas, but also to Martin Buber, Paul Tillich, and the personalist and secular accounts of natural law. Throughout his career there’s a thread of appealing to God’s law or a higher law. He uses it against colonialism, against consumerism, and against pragmatism. He worries that people are making little gods of material objects, of money, and even of science. Instead, he urges us to turn to the eternal, to the soul, and the soul as it images God. He said that the worldly laws we find around us are often obscuring the eternal, obscuring God’s law and our access to the divine; worldly laws are in conflict with the natural law. He uses this language in Montgomery, Alabama, in his first public activist role during the Montgomery bus boycott. At the opening meeting of the boycott, King urges that the laws of segregation of the bus system conflict with the divine edicts of God.

My claim in reflecting on this black natural law tradition is to respond adequately and theologically to anti-blackness. We need to join the centrality of love as it’s being developed in the Black Lives Matter movement with the centrality of natural law and accounts of higher justice in the black political tradition. These two need to fit together—the love and the law—and we need to combine them in a way that’s responsive to the complexity of our current racial, political, and spiritual moment.


VINCENT LLOYD is associate professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University. He has held visiting appointments at Notre Dame, the University of Virginia, Emory University, and the University of Wisconsin. His research focuses on the intersection of religion, race, and politics, using the tools of critical theory. Lloyd serves as co-editor of the journal Political Theology, and he is the author or editor of 10 books, including Religion of the Field Negro: On Black Secularism and Black Theology, Black Natural Law, and the co-edited collection Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics. Lloyd’s current research project, funded by the American Council of Learned Societies, focuses on religion and mass incarceration.



  1. Vincent Lloyd, “Racial Justice, Theologically,” Santa Clara Lecture, 2016–2018 Bannan Institute series, February 16, 2017, Santa Clara University. This essay is an excerpt from the lecture; a video of the full lecture is available online:
  2. “Preface,” in Anti-Blackness and Christian Ethics, eds. Vincent W. Lloyd and Andrew Prevot (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2017).
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