August 23, 2012 Kinetics

What is the Black Church?

By Randal Jelks, PhD

Back in May I traveled to London to attend Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Racethat was graciously hosted by the Birkbeck College of the University of London.

The conference was a critical inquiry into race viewed through the lens of religion. Can we understand “race” through the religious claims of universality among women and men. Could communities that gather through faith provide what one of our keynotes speakers called “critical multiculturalism?”  Specifically, could “Black Churches” in North America, Europe, and Africa  conceptualize anew on worldwide inequalities fed by race?

The conferees also inquired into the fiction of “race.” Though “race” is fictional, it is and has been a powerful weapon of external and internal oppression. Living by a “raced” narrative, one that easily explains the everyday and the ordinary is a deception, a very powerful deception that unify regions and states.

Contemporarily, around the world, notions of race and tribe in our lean economic times have sent men with guns over the top. For instance, a Norwegian man and his co-conspirators attacked immigrants in murderous mayhem killing children at a summer camp. In Italy, near Milano, riotous attacks have occurred singling out Ghanaian immigrant farm workers. In the United States a teenager, Trayvon Martin, is shot to death because a hooded sweatshirt was “symbolic” of criminality. In South Africa, Zimbabwean and Malawian’s fleeing either political oppression or the oppression of hunger are beaten up and murdered for quote stealing jobs. In Northern Nigeria, Islamic young men, using brutal acts of violence, attempt to subdue the pluralism of faiths and cultures within their region in the name of achieving unified political power. And in Chicago black young men are killing each other in horrifying suicidal gang violence.

The great challenge for conferees was that while religious communities have made claims to fraternity, those claims have often justified enslavement, patriarchal exploitation, bloodletting militarism, environmental destruction and abusive sexism. The central question then was how should the “Black Church” speak to these issues, which raised the bigger question what is the Black Church? And what does Blackness mean?

Conceptually there are multiple meanings of Blackness as a spade of recent books have argued.  However, what I mean by blackness is both political and philosophical. Blackness for me is like the blues. It is an expression of the existential dimensions of living disposed lives—loving, living, crying, dying and always hoping. My notion of Blackness takes our common existential situation of dispossession and politicizes it. Blackness politically incorporates democratic governance and cooperative economics in a collective struggle to make better our common lot as human beings/species. It takes the collective dimensions of our bluesy lives and turns it into a platform for taking collective action and agency in our perennial struggle to bring shalom.

The concept of Blackness here springs from a metaphysical belief and is sociologically organized in what I call broadly define “the Black Church.” In days past, the “Black Church” were all those Protestant congregations that Black Americans made their spiritual home to endure the ravages of enslavement, Jim Crow, and mobilize to fight for civil rights movement. Of course, the term “Black Church” obscured myriad differences in the way American blacks thought theologically through their respective denominations. It also obscured the social conservatism that sprung from their respective denominational teachings and immobilized Black Freedom struggles. The old formulation of the Black Church is, perhaps, dead as Dr. Eddie Glaude suggested. And, rightly so!

However, the Black Church as I conceive of it is not dead.  What I mean by the Black Church are communities of faith who gather following Jesus’s model of rabbinical love and are dedicated to the liberation of persons from violence, hatred, and self-destruction. These are communities of women, men, and children who see their purpose as building up all humanity and not simply “church folk.”

The Black Church as I conceive it is not simply a consumerist way station as reflected in the gospel of prosperity, but a space where we learn to give and receive love. It shares with the older model of Black Church an anti-racist perspective that all God’s chillun’ are equal. It is a community where we reflect on the questions of justice and power and all aspects of our environment. The Black Church is not bounded by nation-states. The bonds that unite these churches together are not a single doctrinal principle, but a common existential seeking in the face of all forms of suffering. It is a space when we are born to celebrate life and new beginnings, as well as a place to face our mortality, the end of our days, in loving community.

In the final analysis, it is a space where we can faithfully commence a collective struggle to promote justice and healing for those both near and far.

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