Black Lives Matter and The Trinity: Recognizing How Systems Are Connected When Working for Change

Outline of a crowd of angry people,
Outline of a crowd of angry people,

Of Trinities Good and Evil

Ten years ago as a young graduate student I found myself enrolled in a course entitled Trinitarian Theology taught by the brilliant John Hoffmeyer. By the end of the first day of class the chalkboard was covered with words in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German and English. On this suddenly polyglot blackboard was the Greek word Perichoresis. This is the word that a group of ancient theologians used to attempt to describe the relationship between the Three Persons of the Holy Trinity of the Christian tradition. The term alludes to the way that unique entities interpenetrate one another, creating an existence as one con-substantial being while maintaining distinctness in the comprising persons. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (or Creator, Savior, and Sustainer) remain unique persons while all being eternally united as One God.

Simultaneously I was enrolled in a class with the great Michael Eric Dyson. Weekly we explored the life and teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. The highest compliment that I can offer a course is to say that it will "mess you up." And this class certainly did that - in a most necessary way.

King, if taken seriously should mess listeners and readers up in regards to the way that one lives their life in contemporary America. If his words don't shake you, then you are either only reading his "I Have a Dream" speech and nothing else or you aren't really reading him at all.

In the King class we considered a different triune god. Towards the end of his life, King spoke and wrote more and more about what he described as the dangerous giant triplets: Racism, Extreme Materialism, and Militarism. Part of King's genius was how he saw that these three dangerous trends in our society were (and remain) deeply connected in what we might call a perichoretic relationship of their own.

There is a word or two in all of that for my fellow Black Lives Matter activists. The first is an encouragement to not miss the interconnectedness of various aspects of oppression and presume that the sole force we must fight against is racism. This racism draws from and feeds other distinct yet connected systems that are just as lethal.

The Hydra, Slavery, and Complex Systems of Oppression

If I may borrow again from Christian scripture, this fight is not against individual people, but rather "powers and principalities." It is best to see our fight against racism rather than against unique racists. The dismissal or conviction of a racist police officer, careless prosecuting attorney, or corrupt judge is certainly important, but it does not solve the root and source of the problem.

And the source of the problem is interconnected with other powers and principalities. Our current struggle is like the Herculean battle against the Hydra of ancient Greek and Roman mythology. Like the frightening mythological dragon that attacked the warrior Hercules, there is a multi-headed attack on Black Lives and on marginalized people in general.

As King said, Racism draws power from materialism (financial interests). Those financial interests or powers secure themselves by way of militarism and force (at times military and/or police forces). And that force is too often employed in a way that benefits certain groups and suppresses others in racist ways.

Take for example American slavery. To describe this darkest hour in our nation's history as simply being based on a racist hatred of people of African descent is to miss the complexity of the transatlantic slave trade and the work of enslaved Africans in America. There was no doubt a vicious and racist dehumanization of Africans and their descendants in treating them like property. But this also had deep economic roots as well. An incalculable amount of money was made on the capturing, selling, and reselling of Black bodies. And those very same bodies were used to further agricultural and other forms of commerce in the Americas. Enslaved Africans were not only a sign of wealth, they created wealth (wealth that some families and institutions still benefit from today). Money, greed, and materialism were just as much a part of slavery as racism was.

The same is true with violence. The only way to sustain such a despicable practice was with the threat and use of violence often in lethal ways. What else could stifle a potential escape or revolt but brutality? And the power of the iron shackles and whips would later be traded for military weapons as half of the nation fought to keep slavery - an integral part of the economic engine of nearly all southern states. Racism, materialism, and militarism all connected. The Cappadocian Fathers and King were right.

It is not terribly difficult to draw a parallel to the Black experience today and the way that racism, economic disparity and violence all contribute to a complex system of oppression. I can already hear the critiques that naming all of this is contributing to the "victim posture that so many people of color have today." But the story of Black people (and many other groups) in American is anything but one of victims. Quite the contrary. The Black story in America is one of survival and triumph again and again. It is a story of grace and loving a nation that in so many ways has failed to properly love them back. It is a story of enduring struggle and our fight today is another chapter in this ongoing epic.

A three-fold Hydra of oppression demands a three-fold Herculean activist response. This brings me to the second recommendation for fellow Black Lives Matter Activists: A multi-headed threat demands a multi-fronted response. Imagine our potential effectiveness and strength when different change-making spheres unite for change and when different activist movements come together in innovative ways.

Multifaceted Responses and United Struggles

An ongoing project by University of Pennsylvania professors John Fantuzzo and Dennis Culhane demonstrates this in a convicting way. Fantuzzo and Culhane have developed a series of integrated systems for cities to use in caring for children enrolled in early education and public schools. Through their research they saw that most cities and the institutions tasked with caring for our children have separate computer systems that are often inaccessible to different agencies. One tracks children's vital statistics, another their involvement with behavioral health services, yet another their records in homeless shelters, foster homes and child welfare services, and still another separate record for their public school education. They have found that if these different services, each trying to care for children, could work together, and share information, the potential for children to succeed in school and at home increases exponentially. So it is with all activist efforts and so it is with the struggle for Black lives. A complex system of forces threatening a people group must not only be viewed with eyes that see its interwoven complexity, but it must also have a multi-fronted response.

It is usually wise to avoid clichés when writing, but it is difficult to not utter the old American truism "United we stand, divided we fall" because it is accurate and most applicable in the struggle for Black Lives and justice in general. This past Spring I had the great joy of co-teaching a course entitled "The Heart of Social Change" which invited students to explore the various ways and fields in which societal change happens: protest and direct action, through the influence of the business realm and philanthropy, through education and academia, the media, social media and social campaigns, or other avenues. When asked which is the most effective way that social change happens the students found themselves debating and landing on the answer "all of the above." Of course it depends on the issue and the context, but very often it takes a coordinated effort on multiple fronts to bring about true change.

So many people find themselves "Wanting to do something but not being sure how to get involved." My advice is simply to serve and work for change right where you are. If you are a teacher, incorporate contemporary issues into your curriculum in age-appropriate ways. If you are a lawyer maybe offer pro-bono services to those who've been jailed while protesting or even work to change unjust laws and policies like "Stop and Frisk" or "Stand Your Ground." If you are an artist push the conversation forward and open eyes through your lyrics, poetry, dance or visual art. Who could deny the role that Black Artists played during the Civil Rights and Black Power Struggle?

If you live in spaces where conversations about police brutality, unequal judicial sentencing or housing discrimination don't often happen, maybe your service is just bringing these subjects up with those who don't have to think about them. My point isn't simply to "blossom where you're planted", but rather the fact that a struggle needs individuals on all of these fronts working simultaneously to be successful. A movement has to be more than only those who are in the streets raising their voices, but those with the courage to raise there voices wherever they may be in whatever profession, context, or season of life they are in.

An Activist Trinity

What if it wasn't simply people from different walks of life working together - what if it was different movements locking arms in the struggle. What might the Black Lives Matter Movement look like if it/we united our struggle with the remnant and spirit of the Occupy Movement and the remnant and spirit of the Anti-war and Anti-Gun Violence Movements? To continue with the theme of this essay, what if we created an activist trinity unifying the change-making efforts from these three distinct fronts.

By way of example - a demonstration and march against the profiling and murder of an unarmed Black woman or man should consider and name the various powers at play. We activists and those working for change must see situations in 3D recognizing the various depths of what is happening. There is potentially racism (either consciously or subconsciously) at work in the presumptive profiling, arrest, sentencing or killing of certain individuals.

And yet anti-gun violence or peace activists would remind us that we need to see the role that violence and militarization have in all of this. Perhaps we can question why community officers tasked with walking a daily beat carry lethal weaponry at all. In an age where we surely have the technology to stop one engaging in criminal behavior without taking their life, why aren't more non-lethal weapons used. I recognize the difficulty in having this conversation during a season where we have witnessed a tragic uptick in violence against police - and that is never alright - but these are important questions that we as a society must contemplate. The notion of those who are charged with protecting and serving us, carrying lethal military grade weaponry that they might and do use against us seems to be an important question that peace and anti-gun activists can help us engage.

And this is where our sisters and brothers from Occupy would step up with the "Mic Check" challenging us to address the economic aspect of it all. Questions must be asked about not only the financing of a police department that spends a tremendous amount of tax payer money settling racial profiling and wrongful death cases (see New York City's tally from the last several years), and not only the economically exploitative motivations in the distribution of tickets and drug cash seizures that help to fund a number of departments, but the way that poverty and a lack of jobs contribute to illegal behaviors in the community - problems we solve with criminal justice rather than the provision of jobs, job training, and educational improvement. It's all connected and we activists must never forget that.

So what? The point of our struggle is not to win. Not to conquer or destroy. The point is to make something new with the power of our love and the strength of our ideas. It is easy to get caught up in the short game - justice for an individual whose rights were neglected and whose life was taken. And while that is critically important the long term goal of re-imagining how we live together and working to get there as a society is the point. And we will need a perichoretically connected community to make that happen. Can we come together to re-imagine how policing is done - perhaps in a way that minimizes the potential for racial profiling and minimizes the use of lethal force? Can we reconstruct oppressive and unfair financial systems that play so vital a role in the daily lives of individuals and the decisions that we make? And might we further King's dream of a beloved community - a dream that we have no doubt made progress on, but one that is far from being fully realized around racism in America? I think we can, but we'll need to come together in struggle and in imagination.