by Savannah Finver
On February 25, 2021, the Center for the Study of Religion hosted the fourth installment of its Living Well, Dying Well: Religion, Health, and Healing series entitled “The Movement for Black Lives.” This was the final panel for the first of a two-year Global Arts + Discovery Theme grant that was focused on the topic of “Living Well,” while next year’s panels will turn to the topic of “Dying Well.”
The first speaker for the panel was Dr. Elise Edwards, Assistant Professor of the Department of Religion at Baylor University. Her talk was entitled “Black Spirituality and the Creation of Spaces for Healing and Liberation” and focused primarily on the need for construction of physical spaces in which black bodies, lives, achievements, and joys can be celebrated. For Edwards, religion intersects with both violence and liberation, but emphasis on liberation and restorative justice can’t and won’t be effectively reached until there has been greater focus on developing the physical spaces necessary for ensuring the safety of black bodies. While Christian theology can provide a kind of moral structure for a more just world, physical buildings provide the more tangible structures that ensure freedom from acts of violence, protection from toxic conditions in the environment such as pollution, and celebration of a black aesthetic that focuses on black joy rather than black trauma or death. Only once these bodily needs have been met can spiritual transformation be sought and achieved. Thus, for Edwards, it is our responsibility as scholars to engage in community-based scholarship where we actively participate in and critique the world around us in order to create a more just world.
The second speaker for the panel was Dr. Monique Moultrie, Associate Professor of African American Studies and Religious Studies at Georgia State University. Her talk was titled “Trusting Black Women: Reproductive Justice as Black Liberation” and focused on the need to trust black women to make their own decisions about their reproductive health. For Moultrie, reproductive health encompasses three main rights: (1) the right to have a child under the conditions of one’s choosing, be that a hospital or at home with a doula or midwife; (2) the right to not have a child if bearing children is not desired; and (3) the right to raise children in healthy and safe environments when motherhood is desired. Moultrie further notes that visible black mothers are a source of resistance against injustice, which she describes as “revolutionary mothering.” Because black women have historically been barred from parenthood, women who have chosen to parent visibly—and especially the mothers of the many black men who have been subject to police brutality and violence—have become the leading activists and representatives advocating for safe spaces in which to raise their children. However, Moultrie also emphasized the important role ethicists must play in celebrating all of the procreative choices of women, including the choice not to procreate. Religion and ethics can provide us with some of the logics and language needed for understanding the importance and value of human and specifically black life by emphasizing the sacredness of human life, redescribing women’s choices as being made in a Godly image, and the imperative of moral agency embodied in procreative choices.
Where both of the speaker’s presentations converged was on the importance and centrality of the Black Lives Matter(BLM) movement in social justice initiatives for black bodies, health, and lives. The hashtag #blacklivesmatter was developed in 2013, according to the movement’s website, as a response to the acquittal of the police officer responsible for the shooting death of Trayon Martin. Though it is best known for its protests against police brutality, Drs. Edwards and Moultrie both emphasize the growth of the movement since its origin to focus on many different aspects of black liberation and social justice initiatives. These initiatives include the creation of safe spaces within communities where black joy can be celebrated, children can be raised, healing can occur, and spiritual development and transformation become more accessible within black communities. Both speakers also discussed the importance of involvement on behalf of both scholars and religious groups/movements in communal social justice initiatives. The obligation to create a more just world does not belong to the members of the BLM movement alone. If we want to live in a world where health and healing are possible for all citizens, we share the collective responsibility of participating in black life and movements and elevating black voices.