Arguably the most important social movement in the last decade is the #BlackLivesMatter movement (BLM), which radically affirms the value of Black bodies, Black survival, and Black joy in the face of systemic inhumane treatment of Black people in American society and across the globe. In The #BlackLivesMatter Movement: Toward an Intersectional Theology, the Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III identifies and moves toward addressing the disparities between BLM and the Black Church in America. As a minister and bishop who is deeply committed to the Black Church and someone who is equally committed to BLM and intersectional liberation, he is especially suited for this task. Yet, it is not only his voice that comes through in this text, but also those of prominent Black theologians engaged with BLM whom he surveyed, as well as a focus group of ministers in the Black Church.
In bringing these voices into conversation, Donalson argues that the Black Church has much to learn from BLM regarding holistic liberation, and that BLM can benefit from the theological and ideological basis that the Black Church can provide. The former becomes clear when Donalson recounts the results of his focus group study of ministers in the Black Church. While these ministers clearly recognized the continuing effects of racism, they did not “see social justice as inclusive of sexuality” (56). Thus, while racism is universally denounced within the Black Church, Donalson finds that homophobia, heterosexism, and sexism remain commonplace (66). Donalson attributes this discrimination both to internalized oppression on the part of the Black Church (58), wherein Black leaders have aimed at respectability in white supremacist society rather than full liberation, and a failure of Black academic theologians to influence and stay integrated with the Black Church (64–65). Unless this gap between Black theologians and the Black Church is bridged, Donalson argues that Black theology is threatened with irrelevance (68); and unless the Black Church can address the oppression within its midst it will be “the instrument of oppression for many of the Black bodies it purports to nurture” (67).
Despite the very real problems that Donalson identifies within the Black Church, he pushes for a genuine conversation between BLM and the Black Church because he argues that BLM can benefit from both Black theology and the Black Church more broadly. He devotes a chapter to explicating how Black liberation, womanist, and queer liberation theology can provide a framework to flesh out the intersectional liberation sought by BLM. Given his expansive definition of theology (6), he argues that BLM, and ultimately all discourse, is theological and thus it is important to name the “God claims implicit in #BlackLivesMatter” (10). Putting BLM into conversation with liberative Black theology will provide it with the sort of “ideological, sociological, and theological framework [it needs] to ensure its longevity” (12). Additionally, if BLM is to survive and thrive in the Black community, Donalson argues that it will need the support of the Black Church because of the influence it continues to wield and the fact that “Black churches have historically been the custodians of Black community values” (68).
In addition to the results and analysis of his survey and focus group results, Donalson is able to fit a constructive theological intervention into this slim book. He argues that a “hermeneutic of hunger” (27), which focuses on a response to the oppression felt primarily by those on the margins, should be emphasized in an effort to unite Black academia, the Black Church, and BLM. A mutual focus on resisting that which stands in the way of liberation has the potential to bring together these groups that, as Donalson has identified, are all too often separate. Additionally, he argues that the traditional emphasis on the Exodus from Egypt and idea of a chosen people has “failed this nation miserably” (73). Instead, that emphasis should be placed on the story of Hagar and a “theology that embraces exile,” which builds on the insights of womanist and queer theology (72). This approach “promises a God who is with and gives Black people the freedom to claim and name God differently than the Eurocentric God given during the ravages of slavery” (73).
Realizing the synthesis between BLM, the Black Church, and Black academia that Donalson envisions will undoubtedly require resolving many complex problems, but one such problem raised but largely unaddressed by this text is the salvific nature of the cross of Christ. Donalson refers to a paradoxical but salvific theology of the cross in this text (29, 54) that is in line with a traditional understanding of the cross in the Black Church but has been called into question by womanist and queer theologians. Delores S. Williams, the womanist theologian who first articulated the exile theology Donalson draws upon, rejected the cross as salvific in her groundbreaking work Sisters in the Wilderness (Orbis, 1993), and it remains an ongoing question if and how Christ’s cross is redemptive in liberation theology writ large. Donalson, however, has contributed to a conversation where such theological questions can be addressed.
This book is commendable, both for the amount of information and analysis Donalson communicates efficiently and effectively, and because of the importance of this subject matter for the future of BLM, the Black Church, and the universal fight for liberation against oppressive systems. This work also constructively opens the door for a wider conversation around Black religion and BLM. For, while he intentionally limits his discussion to Christianity and the historical Black Church, the liberating “Black folk religion” identified by Gayraud Wilmore in Black Religion and Black Radicalism (Orbis, 1972) is not contained by the Black Church. Rather, this religion finds expression in various Black religious traditions, such as those discussed by Judith Weisenfeld in her groundbreaking work New World A-Coming (NYU Press, 2016).
Additionally, Donalson aims to “put the #BlackLivesMatter movement in dialogue with the whole Christian communion” (39). Thus, his work here articulates the theological connections between BLM, Black theology, and the Black Church and opens up new possibilities for white Christians to engage with BLM and do the hard work of ridding their churches of deeply ingrained racism that recently, in America at least, has become all too visible. In short, with this book Donalson has identified important points of intersection between BLM, the Black Church, and Black theology, and moved us closer to a fully liberating theology.
David C. Justice is a doctoral candidate in Christian theology at Saint Louis University and an MA student in Religion at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Date Of Review:
July 9, 2021
Edward Donalson III currently serves as Senior Pastor of Kingdom Family Worship Center Int’l and is the Presiding Prelate of Freedom Assemblies Worldwide, and the Director of the Doctor of Ministry at the School of Theology and Ministry of Seattle University. He is the current President of the United Ecumenical College of Bishops. Dr. Donalson is also the Bishop of Operations for the P.U.R.E. Ministries International Fellowship Churches and serves both on the King County Juvenile Justice Steering Committee and the City of Kent Community Police Race Relations Taskforce.
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