But now we are delivered from the law, that being dead wherein we were held; that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in the oldness of the letter.

Romans 7:6

To whom are we bound?” asked Dr. Wright. He looked to his left, then to his right.

This question, in front of an audience of students, faculty and other members of the Howard community, was posed during a discussion about WEB DuBois’ The Education of Black People and the post-Ferguson era. It was in this discussion and the coming holiday, that I came to think about what influences the theology of black and brown people.

King’s theology, informed by the history of the black church and its role in the well-being of the black community and shaped by justice and love, was transformed by a moral obligation to ending racial injustice and poverty, as attributed to Rauschenbusch and a theology of the social gospel and Thoreau and the obligation to disregard unjust civil law. In his later ministry, King became more vocal about the interconnectedness of racism, poverty, war, and colonialism. However, the theology and philosophy of Euro-centric thought could not fully encapsulate the plight of the black man, woman and child who still felt the sting of the master’s whip in social and legislative policy post-Reconstruction. A theology procured from the years of 1492 and 1619, when Christopher Columbus arrived in the New World and when British pirates, sailing under the Dutch flag, landed at Jamestown and sold the first enslaved Africans in America, respectively, was necessary to examine the role of God, such as the deity found in Joshua, in the displacement and killing of Native Americans and implementation of chattel slavery if one were to expect to spiritually survive in an Euro-centric, Christian theology.

Though King did not directly delve into this theology, a liberation theology, his writings and understanding of Christianity reflected a deep passion for the marginalized; an exegetical reading of New Testament and Old Testament scriptures in which the least of these would emerge triumphant, in either this life or the next. This God, the one that King spoke of, was a deity who was with those crushed by occupying forces, not over them like a master to the enslaved.

One cannot begin to imagine his dream without facing the reality that blacks, people of color and those living in poverty (titles inseparable for many) faced in the United States. Stifled opportunities to amass generational wealth, highways built around neighborhoods, transporting white bodies to safety while black and brown bodies suffocated in ghettos; in one nation under God, an alternative approach to divinity and our relationship to the divine was indeed necessary to confront this particular type of evil. Now, post-Ferguson, when Darren Wilson describes Michael Brown as a “demon”, it was a reminder that blacks are still faced with deconstructing the imagery that invokes a swift response of the self-proclaimed righteous to slay them. It is this imagery placed throughout history, of black and brown bodies and spirits as inherently malevolent that brings us back to the question, to whom are we bound? Furthermore, what civil laws and theology are we bound to that call for the destruction of our bodies? King’s theology resided in the history and present condition of the marginalized. It is that history, that condition to which many of us are bound to today.

Janan Graham-Russell is a writer based in Evanston, Illinois. In 2016, she graduated from the Howard University School of Divinity with a Master of Arts in Religious Studies. Her writing focuses on culture, history, religion and theology through Black feminist and womanist lenses. Her work has been featured in The Atlantic as well as Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings (2015) and A Book of Mormons (2015). When she's not writing or doing research, she enjoys dancing to Beyonce, watching films, and spending time with her husband and infant son.

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