The controversy surrounding Joe Biden being interrupted at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina resulted from his cynical use of a Black church for political purposes.
Let’s start at the top - with President Joe Biden. Using the lame excuse of memorializing the victims of the 2015 racist massacre at Mother Emanuel Church in which nine church members were murdered in cold blood by white supremacist Dylan Roof, who they had welcomed into their Bible Study, Biden’s true purpose for speaking at the church was to beg Black people to save his lagging campaign for re-election. But Biden didn’t even memorialize the victims of that massacre nearly a decade later by name, nor did he bother to speak at the church on the actual anniversary of the massacre, June 15. Instead, in his political speech, Biden generally condemned white supremacy with the oft-repeated ahistorical lie, saying “It is a poison, throughout our history, that’s ripped this nation apart. This has no place in America. Not today, tomorrow or ever.”
Aside from the fact that Biden ignores the white supremacist settler colonialism foundation of the establishment of this country by non-Indigenous, European settlers through the genocide of millions of indigenous tribes, the dispossession of land from the survivors, the apartheid system the survivors were forced to live under, reservations, and the enslavement and denial of human rights of Africans and immigrants all in the service of developing and growing the settler colonial state of the US. This settler colonialism steeped in white supremacist ideology continues to be a feature, not a bug, of the function and ideology of Americanism through the perpetuation of racialization.
Of course, Joe Biden is no historian and no academic scientist, but the idea that politicians are still comfortable standing before any gathering of Black people anywhere in this country and continuing to convey the lie that white supremacy has no place in American society when it literally established this society and still impacts how it operates is insulting in itself. But for Biden, in particular, to convey this lie to Black congregants in a historically Black church that was borne out of a struggle with racism within the Methodist church, was co-founded by Denmark Vesey, and was the target of a racist massacre less than a decade ago is particularly egregious. Because while he was begging those Black people to continue to support his administration that hasn’t done much for the Black masses, he took his plea to Black voters while his administration is actively arming a genocide in Palestine that is the result of the same ideology of white supremacist settler colonialism that established this country and that racialized people still suffer under.
This is a special kind of violation of the sanctity of Mother Emanuel committed by a man who couldn’t be bothered to defend reproductive rights, negotiated with the Republicans to allow SNAP benefits and the Medicaid budget for children to be cut, did nothing to protect affirmative action in higher education (as insufficient as that was), who has sent $1 billion in weapons to Ukraine of which 59% is unaccounted for, and who owes student loan borrowers at least $20,000 in promised student loan relief. “I owe you,” Biden said from the pulpit in Mother Emanuel, as he acknowledged that he wouldn’t have won without Black voters, and he sure does, the very least of which is $600 he owes all of us.
Then there is church leadership who allowed this cynical political ploy to occur in their sacred space. While political activity in churches is nothing new in the US, Black church leaders of Mother Emanuel abdicated their responsibility to challenge empire and its abuses as representatives of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and protectors of the people that empire oppresses. This is, after all, what the Gospels represent - that God is on the side of the oppressed. The Good News of the Gospels is that Jesus has shown us how to care for one another, which should include challenging the empire.
There is a rich tradition within many, but certainly not all, Black churches of Black Liberation Theology, founded by Rev. James Cone that teaches exactly that - that God is concerned with the poor and the weak - and that “...in a white-dominated society, in which black has been defined as evil — to make the gospel relevant to the life and struggles of American blacks, and to help black people learn to love themselves. It's an attempt, he says "to teach people how to be both unapologetically black and Christian at the same time." Black Liberation Theology is an extension of Liberation Theology that emerged from the Global South and the writings of Peruvian Catholic priest Gustavo Gutierrez, in which the poor and oppressed were prioritized in the Gospels over the oppressors who maintain the status quo of oppression for their own benefit.
Considering the rich history of struggle at the foundation of the AME Church, for years many church members, leaders, and elders have been involved in liberation struggles for years, particularly during the Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 60s and 70s. So how did church leaders today see a campaign speech by Joe Biden as beneficial in any way to their church’s legacy and to the oppressed people within the church’s community?
Especially when it has been revealed in a press release issued by Marcus McDonald, lead organizer with Charleston Black Lives Matter, that “The nonviolent demonstration was planned by local Black and Palestinian in consultation with members of the AME community to respect the church’s history.” McDonald goes on to state that:
“We decided the best way to honor the church’s mass shooting victims and its long history as a site of civil disobedience would be to wait until Pres. Joe Biden began his speech to disrupt, rather than detracting from any of the church’s esteemed Black elders or devaluing a place of worship. But to be clear, this was not a church service; it was a political campaign event. Several Black congregants associated with Free Palestine CHS were also singled out and denied entry to the event, including lead Charleston Black Lives Matter organizer Marcus McDonald.” [Emphasis added]
How does church leadership consult with members of the community and the church to raise the very pressing issue of an ongoing genocide that the sitting President who is invited to speak in the pulpit is unapologetically supporting and then denies those members access to the event where those issues should be raised? Of course, this is an example of how the church is not immune from the influence of imperialist power and the desire to be next to it. But this is just the thing that Christ continually modeled for us regarding how empire is to be dealt with that Mother Emanuel’s church leaders seem to have forgotten.
The Gospels are filled with examples of all the times that Jesus was confronted with the injustice of imperial power, whether it was meted out by oppressive religious leaders or oppressive Roman leaders. Of the religious leadership, Jesus said, “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden.” (Matthew 23:1-4)
Jesus’s opposition to the oppression of the Roman empire (and all that came before it) can best be summed up in his words, “You know that among the Gentiles (that is, the Romans) those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It must not be so among you” (Mark 10:42).
So how do the leaders of Mother Emanuel church think they are living out this command for us Believers when they not only did not concern themselves with the various oppressions still imposed upon working class, poor, and colonized people in the US and abroad by the Biden Administration, but they ignored the 75 plus years of ongoing oppression committed by Israel against Palestinians that the US government has always supported? The current president, in particular, is providing an endless supply of arms to help Israel continue to carry out their latest genocidal pogrom against Palestinians while lying to the congregation of a historically Black church, claiming that he’s trying to negotiate a ceasefire. But you can’t truthfully be negotiating a ceasefire while you are providing weapons to the entity bombing people to death. No, Biden is the empire enabling a genocide, and what better place for the command to break the yoke of oppression by empire to be raised than in a historically Black church whose savior is the Palestinian-born anti-imperialist Christ?
But when you want a seat at the empire’s table more than you want to turn over those tables and drive the imperialists out from among the people they were exploiting with a whip, like Jesus did, then you have not only betrayed the oppressed that we are mandated to liberate, but as a so-called leader of the faith you have betrayed the very clear anti-imperialist direction from that faith modeled for us by Christ. From the perspective of the Gospels, appeasing empire over speaking up for the oppressed is nothing short of selling one’s soul for that seat at the table.
And what about the congregants in the church? They aren’t spared critique here. If you look at the videos circulating online, you will see that many of the people in the pews aren’t Black. As confirmed in an interview with Marcus McDonald on Black Agenda Radio, he tells Margaret Kimberley that many of the people in the church were not only not members, but they were invited there only for Biden’s campaign speech, not to honor the victims of the 2015 massacre nor to memorialize any of the victims. So most of those white people in the congregation had no connection to Mother Emanuel other than their desire to be in the room in proximity to imperial power. But of the Black people in the pews who joined in with those non-members chanting “Four more years” to drown out the three protesters who righteously interrupted Biden’s speech - and I admit it is difficult to tell from the video how many Black attendees did - their complicity in this disrespect to the Black radical tradition of Liberation Theology and the mandate of Believers to speak truth to power is also a reflection of the petit bourgeois infiltration of the Black church away from that tradition and toward that ideologically empty seat at the empire’s table.
Obviously those white non-members committed an egregious offense against the church, its legacy, and the Black members of the church in attendance and who were denied entry into their own place of worship by enthusiastically chanting for four more years for Joe Biden, chanting for four more years of genocide, four more years of economic hardship for the poor, four more years of not protecting the legal rights of the marginalized, because they were mad at those three brave protesters, and because they likely are not victims of Biden’s heinous policies. Shame on every one of them.
But the Black congregants’ and attendees’ should also be ashamed for their refusal to intervene on behalf of not just the protesters as they were escorted out of a political campaign speech that should never have been allowed to happen, but of the Palestinian people those protesters were speaking for. This is a particularly egregious offense committed by those so-called Christians, who probably just had a lovely Christmas service celebrating the birth of their savior, Jesus Christ, but who chose on that day to silence people who were doing exactly what the Bible commands us to do - to not stay silent in the face of oppression - because they didn’t want to “disrespect” the Genocidaire in Chief who just helped bomb Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, yet was allowed to violate their sacred pulpit. How is THAT not an issue worth raising in church?
How are the Black people in Mother Emmanuel silent on the oppression of Palestinians, whose struggle against white supremacist setter colonial violence and occupation is so similar to ours and to that of Indigenous people’s, simply because Joe Biden is in the church and is the accurate target of criticism for enabling the genocide? Well, aside from the rich history of Black/Palestinian solidarity being less known than it should be, and the efforts by many in the Christian community to challenge the apartheid state of Israel and now calling for an end to the siege of Palestine today that have not received the popular support they deserve, the influence of various Zionist lobbying organizations on Black religious and other institutions in the US cannot be dismissed.
For years Zionist lobbying groups have been courting Black churches with trips to the Holy Land, have been active on HBCU campuses with lobby opportunities with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and have simultaneously carried out coordinated attacks against Black Lives Matter groups in the US all while either funding several pro-Israel Black Democratic candidates and running competitors against more progressive Black politicians (all while supporting pro-January 6 right-wing candidates in US elections). The reach and impact of the pro-Zionist, pro-imperialist, anti-indigenous anti-Palestine narrative funded by these efforts in many institutions of influence in the Black community is evident. People who understand oppression, occupation, and genocide in their DNA because of our history suddenly have little to say about these atrocities being committed against Palestinians by Zionist apartheid Israel, even when the person assisting the atrocities is right in their church in front of them. What better time to raise this glaring contradiction of Christians welcoming the genocidal Settler Colonialist In Chief into their church while shouting down the few people who were brave enough to do what every Christian in such a circumstance should have done?
I submit that it is the same desire to be close to empire that the so-called church leaders displayed, and here is where the class character of Black churches shows up the most. In too many Black churches in the US today, there is too little preaching from the Gospels and examining what Jesus would do in the midst of so much suffering and oppression, and too much acceptance of the white supremacist narrative of the Gospels that they shouldn't pay attention to anything that's going on in this world because this world is not our home. Rather than get involved in politics in any meaningful way for the benefit of the oppressed, we Black Christians are told we're supposed to be “waiting” for our reward in heaven. And we are told this by white supremacists who have used a misinterpretation of the same scriptures to justify their domination, their accumulation of wealth and power, which they’ve always done, of course. They continue to use it to oppress us while we’re waiting for our “pie in the sky” as Malcolm X said.
Simply put, too many in the Black church have traded their mandate to challenge oppression for the comfortable garments of capitalist individuality, and any oppression that people continue to endure is their fault, for being not sufficiently obedient to empire, for not working hard enough to be rewarded by empire, for not being generous enough with their tithes and offerings to the religious empire that they have established. They aren’t thinking about fighting oppression on behalf of the living here on earth. They believe that their obedience has made them comfortable, and anyone else who still has problems needs to give their lives to Jesus. The congregants of Mother Emanuel AME Church who cheered for Joe Biden to drown out demands for a ceasefire in Palestine show that they aren’t interested in the devastating outcomes of his policies against oppressed people, they just want their seat at the table, and yes I’m saying that they sold their souls, too.
And then, finally, there was the unhinged online response that misrepresented so many details about this event and turned it into a diatribe against “anti-blackness” and “disrespecting Black sacred spaces.” From this silly tweet from Symone Sanders decrying the protesters shouting at Biden during his egregious presence in that church, as if their actions were a worse offense than Biden asking for Black folks’ votes while he bombed a bunch of brown people in Palestine and Yemen; to the tweets condemning the protesters of being “anti-Black” in their action while completely ignoring that the three included one Black woman, one Palestinian woman, and one Jewish man, social media proves itself once again to be a terrible arbiter of social issues, when people can create a whole narrative dismissing a righteous protest for liberation and solidarity as racist while being racist against two of those who were brave enough to use their voices to do what a whole church full of people refused to do. Interestingly none of the white attendees of the speech were condemned by these people for participating in the cynical use of a Black church for a political event. That wasn’t disrespectful to the sacredness of the Black church? Of course it was, and the social media defenders of Black sacred spaces are also on the wrong side of this issue.
There are those of us Black Christians who do still adhere to the Black radical Liberation Theology tradition of the Black church, but it doesn’t appear that some members of Mother Emanuel AME Church are among those who do. This is the reality among too many Black churches in this country, and that is to our eternal shame, as the Black church is still one of if not the most influential institutions in the Black community today. But its influence will only be detrimental to us and anyone fighting imperialism for liberation if too many Black Christians continue to disregard our Biblical mandate from our Christ to break the yoke of oppression and liberate the oppressed. We are all doomed if we Christians continue to choose to appease empire rather than to be like Jesus and clear out the temples and our society of empire’s exploitative corrosive influence.
Those three protesters and the others they organized with showed Mother Emanuel AME Church and the rest of the nation what being like Jesus today looks like.
He would absolutely say #FreePalestine.
Jacqueline Luqman is a radical activist based in Washington, D.C.; as well as co-founder of Luqman Nation, an independent Black media outlet that can be found on YouTube (here and here) and Facebook.