03 September 2008

Who is the Black Church?

When asked the question who is the Black Church, many other questions arise—what is meant by Black, what is meant by Church, why the question was posed and “who is” as opposed to “what is?” These questions drive my thoughts as I attempt to explain the identity of the Black Church in today’s social context. First of all, we must locate the Black Church in America for an accurate and potentially definitive conceptualization.

The Black Church in America, having its roots deeply embedded within the institution of chattel slavery, is truly unique and in some ways diametrically opposed to the democratic ideals of the American culture, a culture founded on western philosophy and built upon an explicitly Eurocentric foundation sustained by the pursuit of happiness and freedom at whatever cost. Hence, most Americans consistently cringe at the thought of certain words like suffering, failure, and outcast. The American Dream or rather the pinnacle for all American’s individual strivings finds its precipice at the point of prosperity and ultimate, self-sufficiency associated with independence. Moreover, the Dream is promoted as being assessable to and attainable by all; however, this Dream is merely a mirage for the masses in America, particularly African Americans.

The American dilemma
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. often exclaimed that the political and cultural systems of America pride themselves on taking necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. King alludes to the fact that there are simply some programs and policies that are set up to keep certain people at certain socioeconomic levels; the distribution within this society is similar to a bell curve. The group huddled in the middle is affected the most. The issue with this approach to governmental procedure, policy making and socio-cultural expectation is that it opposes indirectly (yet sometimes directly) the philosophy behind the American Dream. The American Dream is for all, yet Blacks by and large have not had equal access to this physical “Dreamland.” Unlike the dominant and free white culture that has blossomed in America since its founding and is in control of the intellectual pursuits of its constituents, black existence in America has always been bodily. The fight to manage the body is a political one rooted in what Dolan Hubbard calls “lofty and legalistic ‘visible’ public documents (e.g., Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights, Fugitive Slave Laws) [which have] a direct impact on these ‘invisible’ people’s bodies and bodily movements.”[1] The members of this outcast community had to rely on the things that drew them closer together, those functions that are elemental to humankind including dancing, singing, and speaking. Therefore, the black proclamation is actually dichotomous with the white proclamation. Whereas there is supposed to be a unified proclamation in Christ, the reality is that while whites subscribe to a covenantal God-man relationship in which God speaks and man listens, the black encounter with God is expressed as “our fathers/mothers cried and God heard their cries.”[2] This rendering of a bifurcated proclamation within the Christian Church in America is what I believe is the central organ of not only the Christian Church dilemma in America but moreover the cultural, social, economic, and political dilemma in America.

The Proposed Solution
There are various dividing walls set up within American culture, yet we as Christians teach and preach the Pauline assertion of unity: “As many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”[3] How do we combat the reality that what we as Americans practice is not quite what we preach? It indeed requires a healing of sorts.[4] While the ultimate healing and deliverance will come from God, we can initiate the process by examining the role of the church. I believe Marian Wright Edelman offered a viable solution during the New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta, GA, by stating that “the church needs to rediscover its prophetic voice.” It will allow us to share the word of God to the people so that we can reset the moral compass of America.

Abraham Heschel notes that the prophet actually “feels the pathos of God.”[5] In other words, the prophet recognizes that change is God’s work. For decades the Black Church has been the headquarters for the prophetic voices to sound off and be heard, yet with a prophetic word we have often also seen much opposition and rebuttal. For instance, just a month or so ago, Reverend Jeremiah Wright made some remarks during a National Press Club meeting that did not sit well with the majority of the public. In addition, just last week, in light of what had been said by Rev. Wright and the undue media attention the Trinity UCC seemed to be getting, Barack Obama decided to resign from the church, a church he had been affiliated with for some 20 years. It seems as though the media is attempting to force the black church’s hand and replace truth with political expediency.

The Black Church is more than a political arena; it is the hub of spiritual and moral instruction. The Black Church has always been a beacon in the community, and we find ourselves at a point where we are being told that letting our light shine is acceptable as long as it doesn’t shine too brightly or clearly proclaim truth and potential consequences. This prophetic ministry is not limited to the Black Church alone, but it is embedded within the very ethos of the Black experience in America. Perhaps it is not readily accepted by mainstream America because it is antithetical to the American Way of freedom without guilt. Or possibly, just as with the biblical prophets, the power structures and shapers of policies are too consumed with themselves and their own agendas that they cannot see any truth in the messages rendered.

Who is the Black Church? She is the embodiment of Christian ideals. As such she is bold. She is vibrant. She is unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian. She steps out boldly proclaiming the messages of her ancestors that still speak loudly to the current socio-political tenor of America. She has been the platform for some of America’s most influential voices: Frederick Douglass, David Walker, Martin Delany, Henry Highland Garnet, Richard Allen, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Adam Clayton Powell, Gardner C. Taylor, C.L. Franklin, Samuel DeWitt Proctor, Joseph Lowery, Andrew Young, Otis Moss Jr., James Forbes, Benjamin E. Mays, Howard Thurman, W.C. Turner, and Jeremiah Wright just to name a few. The Black Church is more than a sounding board; it is the locale at which God speaks fresh words to the children of God. The Black Church is the source of community for Blacks in America, and, dare I say, the Black Church is the starting point for gaining a real sense of actualizing the essence of the American Dream for all Americans.
[1] Hubbard, Dolan. The Sermon and the African American Literary Imagination. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1994. p. 2.

[2] Exodus 3:7.
[3] Galatians 3:27-28, KJV
[4] James Forbes alludes to this at the New Baptist Covenant Celebration. “It’s about healing…Jesus said, ‘I came that you may have life and have it more abundantly.’”
[5] Heschel, Abraham. The Prophets. New York: Harper Collins, 1962. p. 29.

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