Black natural law allows us to identify the ideas of the powers that be, the ideas of the wealthy and the white, and demolish them.
“There was once a robust black political tradition linking ideology critique and grassroots organizing, but that tradition has been lost.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Vincent W. Lloyd.Lloyd is Associate Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University. His book is Black Natural Law.
Roberto Sirvent:How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Vincent Lloyd:It is exciting and heartening to see that racial justice organizing has moved from the margins to the center of our national political conversation. Grassroots leaders are advocating and building power in creative ways. Organic intellectuals are reflecting on the possibilities and hazards of various modes of political engagement. But the wheel need not be reinvented: the sorts of intellectual and practical puzzles faced in the current political climate echo puzzles faced by earlier generations. That is the history Black Natural Law seeks to open up.
Activism responsive to the urgency of the moment is crucial. So is slowly, deliberately building power in communities. So is the abstract work of identifying the ideas of the powers that be, the ideas of the wealthy and the white, and demolishing them. How can these tasks be linked together? If they are not linked, the critique of ruling ideas remains abstract and hollow while on-the-ground organizing and activism can be rudderless or confused.
“Higher law is discerned in community.”
Black Natural Law argues that the black political tradition from Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King, Jr., bound grassroots activism and organizing together with the intellectual work of ideology critique -- but this linkage has been lost in recent years. It was appeals to a higher law (or “God’s law” or “natural law”) that created this linkage. Talk of higher law is always in contrast with worldly law, with the latter contaminated by worldly interests, the self-interest of the wealthy, the powerful, and the white. Higher law isn’t discerned in an ivory tower. It’s discerned in community, as those who are marginalized proclaim that the laws and norms marginalizing them must not have the last word.
Higher law compels action. As soon as a community discerns higher law, that community moves to implement higher law, collectively challenging the laws and norms of the ruling class.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
Grassroots organizers today are noticing how the term “justice” has been coopted. Now it names the “criminal justice system,” a system that has very little to do with justice in its truest sense. In fact, justice has often come to mean the proper functioning of the legal system. When the police, prosecutors, and judges do their jobs properly, justice is served, supposedly. That thinking resulted in a million black men and women behind bars – a far cry from justice.
In fact, there was a very precise moment when the truest sense of justice was lost. Segregationist politicians realized they were going to lose. Civil rights leaders were talking about justice, about divine justice, about God’s law, and they were capturing the national imagination. Segregationists mounted a rhetorical counter-offensive by associating crime, urban rebellions, and nonviolent civil disobedience. They were all examples of lawlessness and disorder. What the nation needed was law and order.
“Justice is understood against the rules and institutions set up by the powers that be.”
Justice no longer stood in contrast to law. Justice became subordinate to law. My book tries to recover an earlier, truer sense of justice, to turn back to a time when justice meant something higher than a nation’s laws. This is the sense of justice that organizers are striving for, and my book aims to open up an archive of black politics where justice was understood richly and oppositionally, always understood against the rules and institutions set up by the powers that be.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
It feels like there’s an unfortunate gulf today between secular leftist organizers, on the one hand, and religious communities committed to advancing social justice, on the other. Black Natural Law seeks to tell stories that can bring these two groups together.
I invite those readers suspicious of religious, and particularly Christian, language to appreciate the way that one Christian idea, natural law or God’s law, has long been associated with solidly leftist political projects. And I invite those Christians suspicious of grassroots-led organizing and activism to see that following the lead of today’s Anna Julia Cooper’s and Frederick Douglass’s is an imperative of Christian ethics.
“I explain how to distinguish the false form of natural law put forward by Clarence Thomas from the robust black natural law tradition.”
Black Natural Law starts by observing that Clarence Thomas describes himself as an adherent of natural law -- and positions himself in the same natural law tradition as King and Douglass. Of course, Thomas’s political ideas and practice are miles away from those of King and Douglass. The sorts of claims made for natural law by Thomas -- and particularly by right-wing evangelicals and Catholics who put the rhetoric of natural law in the service of their electoral-political agenda -- make many observers rightfully suspicious of natural law.
In my book I explain how to distinguish the false form of natural law put forward by Thomas from the robust black natural law tradition. For that tradition, we are able to access natural law, and so justice, by collectively reflecting on our human nature, composed of rational as well as emotional dimensions. For Thomas, and other recent proponents of politicized natural law, there is no collective dimension and no emotional dimension. We access natural law individually through abstract reasoning.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
Black Natural Law draws primarily on four pillars of the black political tradition: Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Martin Luther King, Jr. While each of these individuals led very different lives, drew on very different sources, and engaged politically in different ways, they each invoked natural law to link grassroots racial justice organizing to the critique of racial and economic domination.
Certainly other men and women did as well: I take these four figures as exemplary rather than exhaustive. One of the challenges I set for myself was to engage with figures sometimes classed as mainstream or liberal rather than radical. I wanted to show how those political categories do not work particularly well. Each of the four figures I focus on was engaged in hands-on community organizing, public advocacy, and intellectual work, and each of the four attended to multiple forms of domination, not only racial but also economic, gender, and colonial. Each urged that the status quo must be pulled up by its roots: the definition of radical, but also the definition of a commitment to higher law.
My argument is that we can use Douglass, Cooper, Du Bois, and King to explicate the core features of black political tradition, then we can judge other figures and movements based on whether they have those features. Thomas lacks the collective and emotional dimension. I worry that bell hooks, for example, overemphasizes the emotional dimension at the expense of the rational. I worry that Ralph Ellison overemphasizes the individual dimension at the expense of the collective. I worry that Barack Obama underemphasizes the need to deeply interrogate the machinations of power. And so on.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
My argument in Black Natural Law is that there was once a robust black political tradition linking ideology critique and grassroots organizing, but that tradition has been lost. We cannot simply go back to the way things used to be. We cannot use the same words as Cooper or Du Bois, or employ the same styles of political engagement as Douglass or King. But we must embrace the underlying structure that they share: collective discernment of the ways worldly norms and laws are systemic flaws and collective action to right those flaws.
The classical black political tradition I write about thrived by employing religious ideas and images, though it was not subordinate to religious institutions or practices. Young racial justice organizers today also creatively employ a range of religious ideas and images detached from traditional religious institutions and practices. The language of black love, dignity, spirit, and of course justice have strong religious resonances.
I argue that we ought to embrace, rather than repress, such religious resonances. Just as they did in decades gone by, at their best religious ideas and images can orient grassroots organizing practices against interlocking systems of domination, and they can ground theorists in the collective wisdom of the grassroots. In other words, Black Natural Law invites us to tap the creativity of the black religious imagination in the struggle for genuine justice.
Roberto Sirventis Professor of Political and Social Ethics at Hope International University in Fullerton, CA. He also serves as the Outreach and Mentoring Coordinator for the Political Theology Network. He’s currently writing a book with fellow BAR contributor Danny Haiphong called American Exceptionalism and American Innocence: The Fake News of Wall Street, White Supremacy, and the U.S. War Machine.
Please join the conversation on Black Agenda Report's Facebook page at http://facebook.com/blackagendareport
Or, you can comment by emailing us at [email protected]