In city where George Floyd died, minister emerges as key champion for justice
MINNEAPOLIS — To Russell A. Pointer Sr., feeding hungry neighbors…
To Christians such as Taneise Perry, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” voices a simple truth about the importance of equal treatment and justice for Black Americans.
To Perry, a Black mother of three sons, the viral hashtag #BlackLivesMatter has little to do with an activist organization that has raised millions of dollars and maintains a website at BlackLivesMatter.com.
“For me, it’s a really sad day to know that racism is a political issue,” said Perry, a Church of Christ member who lives in Charlotte, N.C. “Most people — I would say 99 percent of people who are out there protesting — are not card-carrying, dues-paying members to that organization. It’s really about supporting a movement.”
But to other believers, including Merijo Alter, the Black Lives Matter Global Network — incorporated in Delaware — pushes a radical agenda that threatens the Christian way of life.
“Their own writing shows that they are on the opposite side of the spectrum from those of us who try to follow Christ’s teaching,” Alter, who is White and a member of the High Ridge Church of Christ in Missouri, said in an email.
“We should be at the forefront of being politically incorrect by affirming that ‘All Lives Matter,’ yet this is construed as a racist remark,” added Alter, whose husband, Bill, is a former Republican state senator in Missouri. “I was taught as a child (to sing), ‘Red and yellow, black and white, we are precious in his sight.’ We have been hijacked by this disgusting organization.”
Larry Knight, a member of a Church of Christ in Tulsa, Okla., expressed similar thoughts: “I am a Bible-believing Christian, so I naturally believe that all lives matter. But it appears that some of our brethren … need to look into what the organization Black Lives Matter stands for. … One of BLM’s stated goals is to disrupt the family structure prescribed by God.”
John Edmerson, who is Black and serves as the senior minister and an elder of the Church of Christ at the Vineyard in Phoenix, said he is not a proponent of the Black Lives Matter Global Network’s stands.
But Edmerson said: “Yes, you can say ‘Black Lives Matter’ and not sign on to a platform that represents a lot of things that Christians in the Churches of Christ don’t really espouse or adhere to.”
The hashtag preceded the Black Lives Matter Global Network, which was founded in response to the 2013 acquittal of a neighborhood watch volunteer who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager. Also, FactCheck.org points out that a number of groups use the phrase “Black Lives Matter” in their name.
“BLM grew initially out of the death of Trayvon Martin,” Edmerson said, “but has now expanded to include Black people represented in any societal setting with special emphasis supporting the LBGTQ+ platform and the doing away with male-oriented leadership in the family.”
Two statements on the “What We Believe” section of the Black Lives Matter Global Network’s website particularly alarm many Christian critics:
• “We disrupt the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, especially our children, to the degree that mothers, parents, and children are comfortable.”
• “We foster a queer‐affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual (unless s/he or they disclose otherwise).”
“I wonder if Christians who hold up signs that indicate they support this organization are aware of all that they stand for,” said John Telgren, preacher for the Nebraska City Church of Christ in Nebraska. “Shouldn’t Christians have their own movement that is not in danger of accepting” the global network’s agenda?
But as some advocates of saying “Black Lives Matter” see it, the organization’s agenda is not the main reason many Christians oppose the expression.
“In my experience, many people’s reluctance to say ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not based on connections to Marxism or the LGBTQ movement,” said Tim Parish, who is White and the preaching minister for the Huntingdon Church of Christ in rural West Tennessee. “For many, it seems to be rooted in old Southern racism. Often, people are unaware of their own biases and may not even know themselves that racism or White supremacy lives deep within their hearts.”
“(O)ne protester’s sign said something that I thought was powerful: ‘All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.’”
Parish, whose predominantly White congregation drew 325 to 350 worshipers on a typical Sunday before the coronavirus pandemic, read a Scripture and said a prayer during a recent peaceful protest march in his community.
“Many White Christians were reluctant to be associated with the protest, and several countered with the phrase ‘All Lives Matter,’” he said. “Somehow, even saying ‘Black Lives Matter’ was offensive to them.
“But one protester’s sign said something that I thought was powerful: ‘All lives can’t matter until Black lives matter.’”
Floyd, 46, died May 25 after he was accused of trying to pass a fake $20 bill at a Minneapolis convenience store.
Viral video footage captured a White police officer pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck as the handcuffed Black man complained, “I can’t breathe.”
Related: A tragic death, a tough dialogue
The response to Floyd’s death — including violence, destruction of property and uprooting or defacing of monuments in some places — has become a central issue in the presidential race.
President Donald Trump, the Republican incumbent who counts White evangelicals as his base, has promised to protect America against “these radicals (who) would tear down the very heritage for which men gave their lives to win the Civil War.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden, on the other hand, has criticized Trump for tweeting words such as “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The Democratic candidate pledges “action to reverse systemic racism with long overdue and concrete changes.”
A recent survey by the Barna Group, which studies religious trends, found a stark contrast in perspectives between White and Black Christians.
Only 38 percent of White practicing Christians believe the U.S. has a race problem, according to the survey conducted in late summer 2019. But that number more than doubles — to 78 percent — among Black practicing Christians.
Similarly, 75 percent of Black practicing Christians at least somewhat agree that the U.S. has a history of oppressing minorities, compared with 42 percent of White practicing Christians, Barna reported.
Related: Protests and prayers
“Another reason the debate regarding treatment of Blacks in U.S. history is heated now, of course, is because there is an impending presidential election, and neither candidate is perfect (are they ever?),” Neal Coates, a political science professor at Abilene Christian University in Texas, said in an email. “President Trump has also made incendiary comments regarding race relations and immigrants.
“Finally, BLM, the organization, does not proffer a solution,” added Coates, who is White. “Instead, many citizens believe the ‘experiment’ of America has resulted in an exceptional country like none other. These advances include a new type of (free) government and constitution, a civil war which freed slaves, universal suffrage, improvements in transportation and communication, great sacrifice during two world wars, defeating the evils of communism, leading the creation of international law and organizations, encouraging free trade on land and at sea, improving civil rights, increasing life span, defeating diseases, and exploring space — the list is long.
“Americans want to move forward, especially at a time when dangers exist such as the Russian president moving to claim power for the remainder of his life,” the professor concluded. “Authoritarianism, and organizations that focus solely on the ills of America’s past, do not provide hope for the future.”
The politically charged nature of the Black Lives Matter debate was evident in a recent sermon at an Oklahoma church, as a White minister named Mike Mazzalango questioned the organization’s agenda and blamed Black Americans for the nation’s abortion problem.
Pointing to the prevalence of abortion, Mazzalongo cited “crocodile tears” and “phony outrage when some small-time crook or some gangbanger is killed while being arrested.” He described Floyd as “a petty criminal who was killed while in police custody.”
Mazzalongo said in the sermon: “But here’s my point when it comes to race and justice. Where’s the Black Lives Matter group? And where’s Antifa? And where’s the Hollywood fake outrage and Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and YouTube? And where are the pro athletes leading the vigils and giving interviews? And where’s the mainstream media and the pundits and the experts? And where’s the White liberal politicians taking a knee out of respect? … This is the same gang that also put their energy into promoting abortion on demand and making it available for free at any time. These are the guys that are establishing what’s moral.”
The minister’s characterization of Floyd drew a sharp rebuke from Perry, the North Carolina church member.
“I want to point out that this Black petty theft gangbanger — in his death — has done more for me and my family than my White brothers and sisters who can’t even bring themselves to say the words ‘Black Lives Matter,’” Perry said.
“Because George Floyd died,” she added, “there are protests happening across the world because not just the church, but the world, recognizes that this country has a problem.”
Perry, the owner of a Christian apparel and gifts boutique and co-founder of the women’s faith website Be Glam & Grace, spoke during a panel discussion on race issues organized by The Christian Chronicle.
She and the other two speakers — Edmerson and Jeremie Beller — were asked if one could support the “Black Lives Matter” motto without endorsing the organization itself.
Perry questioned why people can look past the extremist elements of animal-rights and pro-life groups and still support those causes yet want to focus on certain bullet points of the Black Lives Matter organization.
“I want to know why is it that you could watch Rodney King be beaten within an inch of his life by officers with batons,” she said, referring to a Black man whose 1991 beating by Los Angeles police sparked riots, “and then watch officers on your computer screens execute people for mere insubordination, but yet folks can look past those bad apples and still support the greater good of ‘backing the blue.’”
Beller, who is White and serves as congregational minister for the multiracial Wilshire Church of Christ in Oklahoma City, said he, like Edmerson, has concerns about the global organization.
But Beller asked why Christians who vote either Republican or Democratic don’t seem to worry about supporting every aspect of a political party’s agenda, given that “neither party has a lock on righteousness, justice and peace.”
“But then I’ll ask one more layer of the question,” said Beller, whose Ph.D. dissertation focused on religion and racism. “Why is it that people feel the need to look for outside organizations to do this? Why is it that people put so much trust and faith in political systems and in organizations like Black Lives Matter?”
The reason, in Beller’s view?
“It’s because the church has not been the voice God sent us to be.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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