What is the future for this institution that has been an indispensable piece of black culture since slavery?
The institution of the Christian church is core to the history and culture of Black people in America. Black people love church. We put on our Sunday best, sing gospel, wave those little fans that don’t make anyone cool, preach for an hour and a half and then we COME BACK at 6 for revival.
While the religion will always be a spiritual refuge for people of all skin colors, the “Black Church” has also served as a social, political and economic force to help push the race forward. However in the era of Black Lives Matter, it seems as if fewer and fewer of our recent movements around race are emerging from the Church like they once did. In this new era of Black history, what has happen to the Black Church and what is its future?
The Church as a tool for coping with slavery
As with any issue with Black people, we first need to look all the way back to slavery to see how to Church has been historically used by people of African descent. To put it in frank terms, the way slaves and slave-owners used Christianity to legitimize/cope with slavery was FUCKED UP.
To start, Christianity was used as one of the biggest justifications for slavery. Ephesians 6:5 says “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” Verses like this and many others like: Colossians 3:22, Titus 2:9 and 1 Peter 2:18 not only justified slavery, but also encouraged slaves to be docile to their master even if they were cruel. That’s FUCKED UP.
Maybe it would be less egregious if African slaves and European slave-owners shared the same religions, but Christianity was forced upon slaves. While Christianity had made inroads in North Africa and down the Nile River, the people of West Africa, where most slaves were procured from, practiced a variety of their own traditional religions. Thus, Christianity was used to whitewash, pun intended, the slaves’ identity because it is easier to control a people who don’t know their own cultural history. Really FUCKED UP.
While slave masters’ use of Christianity makes sense, why would slaves embrace this religion so thoroughly that their traditions are still practiced by their descendants hundreds of years later? A deeper look reveals a very interesting coping psychology behind these traditions.
Looking at the Church in the context of a slave, you begin to realize that slaves were drawn to Sunday service not just for spiritual reasons, but for very practical reasons as well. Sunday was the only day slaves didn’t have to work. Sunday was the only day master wasn’t whipping them. Sunday was the only day slaves could feel like they were human. It’s no wonder the Church became core to the black identity. It provided the only, respite from the hardships of live as a chattel. FUCKED UP.
This is clearly reflected in the Negro spirituals, religious songs sung by slaves that eventually paved the way for styles like gospel and the blues. Take two of the more popular spirituals “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Wade in the Water.” On the surface, both are simply songs about God. But when you look at the lyrics, which slave masters never did, other meanings emerge. “Swing Low” is about God coming to take the singer away to heaven. With lyrics like “I looked over Jordan, and what did I see/A band of angels coming after me” and “If you get there before I do/ Tell all my friends I’m coming too.” The slaves are literally saying that they’d rather die than be in their current situation. FUCKED UP (that’s the last one I promise).
The Church as a tool for empowerment
Understanding that many slaves embraced Christianity for social reasons and not necessarily for religious ones is very important in understanding the role of the church in the Jim Crow Era, which is from the end of the Civil War until the end of the legalized segregation in the 1960s and 70s. It was during this time that the church was converted from a white tool of oppression to a black tool of empowerment. During this time, the church became a meeting place for Black thought and came to represent the Black voice. Many of the Black leaders during this time emerged out of the church. Hiram Revels, who was the first ever Black US Senator in 1870, was an American Methodist Episcopal minister. MLK was a minister and many of the protests of the 50s and 60s were organized by Christian groups such as the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and Christian youth groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
One of the main reasons the church became a center for black people to enforce their power was segregation. Whether you lived in the Jim Crow South or the heavily discriminatory North, black people were only allowed to live in designated areas of the country. That meant that if you were a successful businessman or a poor sharecropper, you still had to live in the same area. This meant that you both probably went to the same church too. During this time, the Church in the Black community became something like the Catholic Church in Medieval times, the main vessel of knowledge and culture. The cream of the black community rose to the top through the church. Political activist were pastors, black entertainers got their starts in the choir and many of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities started with the support of local Churches.
However at this same time, the cracks in the idea of the Church as an effective vessel for Black thought and culture were beginning to show. Emerging alongside the activist Black Church in the Civil Rights movement was the Black Muslim movement. One of Elijah Muhammad’s biggest recruiting points was the rejection of blacks worshiping a “blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jesus.” Also pulling blacks away from the Church was the opening up of opportunities in the white man’s world through the entertainment hall, sports venues and board rooms. While as powerful as it had ever been, the Church was quietly losing it monopoly as the center of the Black community.
The Church as one of the tools in the tool belt
Today, many of the roles that the church served throughout black history are either no longer relevant or have found themselves expressed in other aspects of our society. There is no longer the same level of overt racism that all black people can unite behind back during slavery and Jim Crow segregation. In addition, with the ability for black people to live and work almost anywhere they choose, the role of the Church being a centralized refuge for the Black expieirence. Today our black leaders aren’t just ministers but also CEOs of billion dollar companies, international celebrities, entrepreneurial athletes and even the President. Fewer and fewer Black leaders have the traditional markings of church on them because the Church no longer the only vessel to Black empowerment.
Now don’t get me wrong, the Church is still a major part of the Black experience. I would argue, however, that today its influence is now more about cultural history rather than current relevancy. I would also argue that this occurs drastically along generational lines. Using my own family and friends as an example, I know many people my age that don’t go to church as adults even though they went every week as kids with their parents (myself included). Much like converts to the Nation of Islam in the Civil Right Era, today’s Church seems ill equipped to address the issues we as “young people” are dealing with. Speaking personally, church doesn’t seem to be my best option for change when I’m seeing daily videos of police shootings and confronting random micro-aggressions at work. I just roll my eyes when I see Church leaders like Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton grandstanding with victims of the latest racially-motivated catastrophe.
If this is the case for other, younger generations of black people, what has replaced the Church as the convener of the shared Black experience? Where is the vessel in which black people can both jointly express their sorrows but also raise their voices to the outside world? Where the place that we can as one people is celebrate, mourn, discuss, sass, organize and mobilize? For me, the answer is social media.
Social Media as the new Church
Remember the reasons I mentioned earlier about why the Church lost its place as the cultural, social and political epicenter of the Black community. Desegregation meant that Blacks where no longer centralized in certain neighborhoods and churches, as they were during slavery and legalized segregation. The Church lost its power because it became harder to unite black people when they didn’t share the same neighborhood, and with Black Muslims even the same religion.
Social media picks up the slack by connecting us all regardless of our location and uniting us by the shared experiences we do have in common. Even if you ignore the successes of social media-based movements such as Black Lives Matter or Colin Kaepernick sitting for the national anthem, the power of shared experience through memes, posts and even articles like this speak to the internet’s effectiveness in creating community. Communities like Black Twitter and even World Star Hip Hop (sigh) are places we go to laugh, be “given life,” “stay woke,” get angry and figure out what to do about it.
I don’t want to end this post, with you thinking I hate the Church. I don’t. As I said in the beginning, the Church is a part of our culture and will continue to be going forward. Unfortunately, past performance is not an indicator of future success and the Church is not as well suited to deal with the issues of Black folk today as it was in the past. Maybe it’s a victim of its own success.
All I know is that if I want black people to get active, a meme of Obama saying “Just Vote” is way more effective than mobilizing pastors to register their congregations. I guess the “post” is the new pulpit and as Bishop Don “Magic” Juan always says, “Church.”