As Christians in the modern world, we are constantly challenged to uphold – and expand – our concept and teaching of God’s universal love. We affirm that God made all of humanity in true equality, and we deserve a society that grants us true justice.
This Black History Month at Justice Revival, we highlighted a few of those influential leaders: W.E.B. DuBois, Prathia Hall, Bayard Rustin, and Pauli Murray. Each of them played a distinct role in advancing the cause of Black freedom, either from the pulpit, in scholarship, or on the ground in organizing – and often in more than one of these fields. From their inspiring work and history, we can draw important lessons as we continue to promote a message of justice inside and outside the church – most importantly, that God calls us to affirm human rights for all.
A Positive Calling to Act
The faith leaders we highlighted this month saw activism as part of the natural exercise of their Christian beliefs. Their lives, full of faithful inspiration, remind us that we, too, must engage in the work of social justice.
Rev. Dr. Prathia Hall, a pioneer for women in the Civil Rights movement and the Baptist church, was motivated by her idea of “freedom faith.” To her, activism was a form of ministry. She worked to free Black Americans from segregation, restrictions on voting, and horrifying racial brutality. She spearheaded the inclusion of women in the Baptist church, and as a preacher, she uplifted womanist thought in her sermons. Her dream of “freedom faith” – of bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven through direct work in dismantling systemic oppression – became closer to being realized as millions of Christians took up the mantle of civil rights.
At the same time in history lived another icon of faithful activism, the Rev. Dr. Pauli Murray. Murray was a world-shaking legal scholar, human rights activist, and prolific author. She developed the legal rationale behind Brown v. Board of Education; is credited with Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s opinion on the equality of sexes under the 14th Amendment; and she challenged the societal forces which oppressed both her race and her gender. Murray’s fight for equality also included strong advocacy for the Equal Rights Amendment, a struggle Justice Revival is now continuing over 50 years later.
But as Hall was, Murray, too, was moved by the spirit of God towards the church in her later life. She became the first Black woman to be ordained in the Episcopal Church, where she ministered to the sick and needy while continuing to preach the need for justice. For her life in pursuit of justice and work as a priest, she was declared a saint in the Episcopal Church in 2012.
The stories of these two faith leaders inspire us to consider the role of our own faith in activism. Across branches of Christian tradition, we must acknowledge as these leaders did that our faith calls us to respond to the injustices we see in the world. This is precisely because of the universal love that God bestows on all of creation: “if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:11). To love our neighbor is to uplift them, to affirm their inherent dignity, and to defend their human rights.
These inspiring figures also remind us that systems of cruelty don’t fit neatly into categories. In a painful symmetry to the way love reaches across all boundaries, the systems which oppress one group of people have far-reaching consequences. Throughout history, discrimination against Black Americans has interlinked with discrimination based on gender, sex, and other markers of identity, creating multiplicative harms.
Bayard Rustin suffered discrimination within the Civil Rights movement because of his open identity as a gay man. His genius organizing skill was originally uncredited in the climactic stages of the movement, including in the 1963 March on Washington. When he was first arrested for his sexual identity in 1953, he was forced to resign from the Quaker Fellowship for Reconciliation. At other stages of his life, he was prevented from associating with major figures in Black organizing because his sexuality was deemed a risk for optics. Despite this, he never gave up the fight for equality – and he never compromised on his identity.
Another intersection of oppression in the Civil Rights movement was that of Black women, who suffered both on account of their race and their gender – a system Murray called “Jane Crow.” For both Murray and Hall, this system was a limiting factor in every setting, making it difficult for them to receive higher education, be leaders in the church, or be included at the level men were at key moments in history. For Murray, this was exaggerated by her identity as a queer woman who transgressed norms around heterosexuality and gender expression. That multiple struggles layer on top of and exaggerate each other is its own cruel form of injustice
In the wake of these powerful lives spent fighting the systems of oppression, we can rejoice that our society progresses towards a more inclusive future. Scholarship has recently grown to highlight more of these marginalized figures who contributed greatly to our understanding of justice. Each of them have played a part in the generational work of welcoming the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth – and we must carry on this holy effort.
We encourage you to consider how these lessons might inspire your faith journey and engagement with issues of injustice. The holy and prophetic nature of social justice continues to influence us today as we consider all forms of oppression and inequity, including and beyond Black liberation.
The Struggle Continues
The struggle for human rights continues with us today, and we hope you will join us in this fight. Here are some ways you can take action:
- Take action with Justice Revival’s #Faith4ERA campaign by urging your Members of Congress to support the Equal Rights Amendment.
- Take action with the NAACP to advance racial justice
- Protect the critical right to vote, a centerpiece of the Civil Rights movement and democracy
“[N]either death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:38-39.