On Violence, “the Religious,” and Black Power

I am a regular contributor to Religion in American History.  Here is my most recent post:

“Instead of preaching the Cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence which we sweetly impose on them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of non-violence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.”  Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence (1968)

I want to return to a question I raised to my last post. Why is Black Power usually imagined to be essentially secular (in juxtaposition to the religiousness of southern civil rights struggles)?  I’d argue that one of the reasons many people at the time (and most historians since) characterized Black Power as such had to do with deep-seated assumptions about the nature of “religion” itself.  What marked Black Power as symbolically different than civil rights was violence, both rhetorical and actual.  The prevailing images of civil rights were tired women and tireless youth marching peacefully – and stoically enduring suffering – for freedom.  Meanwhile, the prevailing image of Black Power was black men donning black leather and brandishing guns.  (This is, of course, not a fair characterization of either.) The problem with this second image, at least for some scholars, is that “religion” – one might say real religion, proper religion, or good religion – has long been presumed to be peaceful by its very nature.  To put this another way, “the religious” (people, institutions, ideas) is legitimate only to the extent that it does not threaten the stability of civil society.  When the religious enters the public sphere through violent means, it is immediately suspect insofar as its relative religiousness is concerned.  This suspicion was behind typologies of “good” and “bad” Islam in the wake of September 11, 2001 and it underwrote (still underwrites) categorizations of the Nation of Islam (NOI) as a political sect masquerading as religious – this despite the fact that Black Muslims were largely forbidden from overt political action or violent confrontation with the U.S. state in the first half of the twentieth century. Continue reading