Lecture Recap: 'Race and Religion' - Pastor Eric Manning and Professor Judith Weisenfeld'

Written by
Joe Shipley, ODUS Communications Fellow
May 17, 2021

The final FOCUS Speaker Series event of the 2020-2021 academic year took place over Zoom on Tuesday, May 11th. ODUS was proud to host Professor Judith Weisenfeld and Pastor Eric Manning in a virtual conversation about race, religion, identity, and history in the United States.

Judith Weisenfeld is the Agate Brown and George L. Collord Professor and chair of Princeton’s Religion Department. Her most recent book, New World A-Coming: Black Religion and Racial Identity during the Great Migration, won the 2017 Albert J. Raboteau Prize for the Best Book in Africana Religions. Pastor Eric Manning served in US Army Intelligence before beginning his tenure as the reverend of Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. Mother Emanuel was the site of a tragic 2015 mass shooting in which nine members of the church were murdered because of their race.

The panelists were introduced by Frantzesca Barron ’22, who added that the event was a collaboration between FOCUS and the Black Student Union’s DuBois Intellectual Series. Pastor Manning and Professor Weisenfeld then appeared onscreen, joined by Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students and Director of Student Leadership and Engagement Ian Deas. Dean Deas, a South Carolina native, moderated the conversation and subsequent Q&A.

He began by asking the panelists about the Black Lives Matter movement, which has dominated much of the dialogue about race for the past, and specifically the murder of George Floyd. Pastor Manning spoke from his own experience attending rallies and protests. He recognized that there was a divide between younger BLM activists and his own generation. “This was not our movement,” he said. “This was not our time. But we wanted to provide some wisdom and some guidance in the way they were going to navigate, drawing a lot of similarities to what we saw in the ‘60s with the Civil Rights Movement, and trying to share with them the importance of making sure that you have a sound strategy, you had support in place.” He told activists not to lose heart, and to keep pushing even after news cycles had seemingly left them behind. “Don’t fall back,” he urged, before recounting how he and his son had faced tear gas at protests and how he had asked police officers to exercise restraint and patience.

Professor Weisenfeld talked about her three “points of entry” in the discussion over race and religion – personal, political, and scholarly. On a personal level, she said, growing up as a Black Catholic child of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant and an immigrant from the West Indies, made her deeply aware of how religion and race affected how people treated her. Her political and scholarly awakening came in college, at the culmination of the anti-Apartheid movement. Her senior thesis explored how religion came into play on both sides of Aparheid – with Christian rhetoric being used to justify racial oppression on one hand and James Cone and the Black theology movement using Christianity to fight against it on the other.

Dean Deas then asked the panelists about how religion, and religious institutions, could be used to overcome racial oppression. Professor Weisenfeld spoke first, and urged people to be nuanced in their approach. “Black is not the only racial category in a racialized system, so blackness and race are not coterminous. There are other ways in which racial formation affects other people. And there are other things about African American religious history that are not always about race,” she said. “I think it's incumbent upon ... members of the dominant kind of predominant religious group, American Christians and white American Christians, to attend to their the ways in which their churches, histories and theologies have contributed to systems of race and racial oppression … just really doing the hard work and attending to that is, to me, a crucial step.”

Pastor Manning agreed. A major step, he argued, would be for white Christians to acknowledge the long history of using religion to oppress African Americans. “Regardless of how painful the story is,” he said, “we have to be truthful about what it is.” He talked about the story of Denmark Vesey, an enslaved man and a preacher who led a rebellion in Charleston in 1822. When Vesey was defeated and imprisoned, white South Carolinians dismantled his church and hanged him, all while using Scripture to justify their actions. For Pastor Manning, honesty was a critical part of healing. He encapsulated his values in the “three Ts” – truth, trust, and transformation – and reminded the audience that honesty about the past is a prerequisite for improvement in the future.

Dean Deas then shifted the conversation to Black churches’ role as centers of community and identity. Professor Weisenfeld noted that there was “no question that Black churches … have been key to community formation, to offering theologies that again affirm fundamental humanity,” but also said that her research focused on religion outside of churches – the informal systems of worship that often arose as critiques of religious organizations. Pastor Manning held up Mother Emanuel as an example of the role Black churches can play. He described how the church had survived “underground” during the 1820s and 1830s, and that just after slavery was abolished there were already over 3,000 active members. Mother Emanuel’s community even took part in what he called “church planting” as its members founded the Mount Zion church just down the road. But Pastor Manning also worried about the “decline” of churches as pillars of the community, and spoke about their need to adapt to a changing world – to support members and non-members alike in increasingly difficult times.

A major theme of the discussion was the role of faith in overcoming tragedy. Dean Deas asked Pastor Manning and Professor Weisenfeld about the aftermath of the 2015 shooting, when families of the victims made headlines by forgiving the perpetrator. Pastor Manning, like many others, was surprised by the move. He spoke about his journey toward understanding the “doctrine of forgiveness.” Forgiveness, he said “encourages us to show each other a little bit more grace, a little bit more mercy. And again, from a Christian perspective, if God forgave us all, then what rights do we have to withhold that forgiveness from any one else who is created in the image of God?”

Professor Weisenfeld was circumspect. She acknowledged that there are things that Black churches must do to own up to past gender- and class-based hierarchies, but also saw her own meaning in the act of forgiveness. “If I had to characterize the Black religious life across history in the United States. It's about imagining the futures of Black people as humans,” she said, “affirming humanity and imagining futures, and an act of forgiveness to me says, ‘I can imagine a future for us.’”

The last major point of discussion was how to prepare future scholars and activists to confront racism, both from a religious and a secular standpoint. Both Dean Deas’ questions and questions from the audience explored the topic, and Pastor Manning and Professor Weisenfeld had no shortage of insight. They agreed, first and foremost, on the importance of studying history. Professor Weisenfeld said that “understanding …  that history, that engagement, and thinking in the broadest sense possible ... one has to understand that as core to American history and I think really just refusing the kind of sanitized American history that is being legislated upon us right now.” Pastor Manning referred back to his “three Ts,” adding that, “We need to read more history books, we need to understand our collective history, and always, as I said before, look for that truth, so we can have the trust and then transform our communities.” Both panelists had a reading list ready for anyone willing to begin the long process of studying the history of racism. Pastor Manning recommended reading books by theologians like James Cone (who Professor Weisenfeld had mentioned earlier) and Howard Thurman, as well as historians like W.E.B. DuBois. Professor Weisenfeld’s list included James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

Pastor Manning and Professor Weisenfeld approached the discussion from different angles. Pastor Manning brought his experience as well as his spiritual insight, while Professor Weisenfeld’s expertise focused mainly on the secular, historical context surrounding race and religion. Their points of view occasionally differed – Pastor Manning, of course, had an overwhelmingly positive assessment of the role of churches as centers of community, while Professor Weisenfeld tried not to romanticize them – but this only contributed to the richness and depth of the conversation. It would be difficult to imagine a more meaningful culmination of the 2020-2021 FOCUS Speaker Series, or one which left the program better positioned to continue to enrich Princeton’s anti-racist curriculum. FOCUS will continue to offer these and other programs in the coming year, so please continue to check our website and our social media.