The Black Church was born in the United States as a direct response to imperialist white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy. From the Maafa forward, through American racial apartheid and beyond, the Black Church has served to create space where Black people can be passionately human and express their innermost wants and desires (Walton 2009). It has been the safe harbor where Black people transcend negative cultural identifications associated with race and/or class, while having their own inner desires and spiritual longings affirmed. This year as we enter Black History Month, I am considering the need to celebrate, honor, and challenge the Black Church.
Amid much conversation within Christendom about multiculturalism being the way to follow the teachings of Jesus, I believe there is still great need for the Black Church considering what passes for multiculturalism in many cases is either the dominant culture erasing all particularities or mindless cultural appropriation. It was out of the crucible of racial oppression that the Black Church tradition emerged as a nonracist appropriation of the Christian faith, and as such represented the capacity of the human spirit to transcend racism. No such transcendence seems present in the least among these multicultural congregations for people who engage justice work against anti-blackness (Paris 1985). The historical role of the Black Church has been to serve as the prophetic voice and moral pulse of America. The Black Church was held as the exemplar institution in the Black Community to resist the opportunity-hoarding of the dominant culture in ways that further disinherit Black people. Opportunity-hoarding, a practice of the dominant group, keeps good things like education, jobs, and capital within their social network (which is most often predominantly white). This habitual way of acting reproduces racial disadvantage (Glaude 2016). There is no such function within the movement for multiculturalism in the church. Then there is the fact that the forces of racial apartheid, classism, sexism and many other evils that work against the common good and specifically the good of Black people are on the rise. With this cultural background, the Black Church is as relevant and necessary today as it was in 1787.
The Black Church, like the communities it represents, is not a monolith. Just as there are multiple ways of constructing Blackness, there are multiple ways of being the Black Church (Touré 2011). And while we celebrate the role of the Black Church in Black communities there are opportunities in this present historical moment for the Black Church. It would seem that whole segments of the Black Church are still wrestling with oppression sickness; that is, the internalized oppression that causes the oppressed to be infected by the sickness of the oppressor. Any time both the oppressed and the oppressor share the same view of the oppressed, liberation is impossible. Self-hating behavior is not uncommon in oppressed populations. Oppressed individuals often engage with systems that degrade them. In fact, all oppressed people try hard in some stages of liberation to assimilate and prove to the oppressor that they are okay (Griffin 2010). The effort to mimic the dominant Christian culture still has witness in the Black Church tradition with classism, sexism, heteroprivilege, patriarchy, and ultimately closed doors (Flunder 2005).
The opportunity for the Black Church is to further decolonize the ways in which the Black Church talks about God, the individual, and the community. The Black Church has the responsibility to speak back to the interlocking systems of our nation’s politic by lifting the voices of those most marginalized by the insidious nature of imperialist, white-supremacist, capitalist, and heteropatriarchal norms. This Black History Month let us consider the powerful potential of the Black Church to once again rise as the premiere prophetic voice in American culture that will speak truth to power amid the moral bankruptcy of our current sociopolitical milieu.
Peace Is Possible,
Rt. Rev. Edward Donalson III, DMin | Director of Liturgy and Worship | Assistant Clinical Professor
SCHOOL OF THEOLOGY AND MINISTRY | SEATTLE UNIVERSITY
Flunder, Yvette A. 2005. Where the Edge Gathers: Building a Community of Radical Inclusion. Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press.
Glaude, Eddie S. 2016. Democracy In Black: How Race Still Enslaves the American Soul. New York: Crown Publishers.
Griffin, Horace L. 2010. Their Own recieved them Not: African American Lesbians and Gays in Black Churches. Eugene: WIPF &STOCK.
Paris, Peter J. 1985. The Social Teachings of the Black Churches. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Touré. 2011. Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness: What it Means to be Black Now. New York: Free press.
Walton, Jonathon L. 2009. Watch This: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Black Televangelism. New York: New York University Press.