Invoking crisis: Performative Christian prayer and the civil rights movement

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This article explores public Christian prayer in the U.S. civil rights movement. During the eleven years between 1960 and 1970, civil rights activists used performative prayer to foster socially destabilizing crisis by inviting arrest or physical violence, destabilizing the status quo, and drawing national attention to their cause. A new theoretical framework for analyzing public acts of piety and the resultant crises builds on the themes of body, word, and drama and intervenes into Bruce Lincoln's work on the relationship between religion and social change. A final section positions performative prayer in Gandhian nonviolence theory. At root, performative prayer offered far more resources for agitation than for pacification. Framed in this way, prayer becomes a dynamic ritual that generates social change rather than static words that mark identity, and the means through which political action is taken, not a state-protected tool of personal salvation.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)490-512
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of the American Academy of Religion
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jun 1 2015


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