Is The Black Church Dead? Part 1
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On February 24, 2010 the Huffington Post published an essay by Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. (Tod Professor or Religion and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University) entitled, “The Black Church is Dead.” Although Glaude conceded that blacks are one of the most religious communities in the US with 90 percent of blacks identify themselves with religious groups, he stated that, “the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.” This sparked a great debate among America’s black churches, including responses from all segments of black society. The importance of this debate has to do with the foundation the black church has historically played in African American society on a political, moral, and cultural basis.
It is a provocative question.
The controversy rose again this year as aol.com published an article by David Gibson, this time asking a question, “Is the Black Church Dead?” The short answer is: “Yes, the black church is dead!” Nonetheless, the problem is not as serious as it sounds. Just like Jesus, it may spend three days in the grave before it rises again. In his own defense, Glaude said, “In Christianity death never has the last word.” He also made the following observation, “So to declare the death of the black church is actually to declare the precondition for its resurrection.”
Glaude is right, resurrection is coming! But there is a significant problem with Glaude's writings. Glaude seems to have forgotten that the black church's job in America has always been to work itself out of a job. The black church's ultimate legacy will someday be that it became the glue that unified blacks, whites, Hispanics, and Asians into one faith family. Although it began as a conscience to America - - - pointing out its excesses and social sins, the prophetic spirit of the black church is racially transcendent. Contrary to the belief of 21st century secularists, King's dream was never a black dream but neither was it a multi-faith dream, it was a Christian dream. Even worse for those who hate evangelical Christendom, King and his associates believed that this was a Christian country which could not observe the “Ghandi- like” strategy of non-violence in operation in our streets without repenting of their racial hatred, pride, and cruelty.
In order to understand the “resurrection” of the black church, it is important for me to present a brief history of the black church. By the end of this two part article, I am sure that you will agree that the black church's work in America is not over.
As an organized institution, the black church is only a little more than 224 years old. Although the nation has had individual black Christians in our land for the entire 400 plus years of our existence, the emergence of the black church gave both heaven and earth a clearing house for answering prayers about poverty, pain, and justice among African Americans. From its inception, the black church became the center of the black community. One of Its most central missions has been to preach to its members and the nation about the dignity of all human life. From its inception, the black church was preoccupied with the concept of heaven and eternity. It recognized that both slave and master would someday give an account for the deeds done in the flesh.
Early black Christians believed like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. that all under-served human suffering was potentially redemptive. Therefore, they believed that eternal victory came from living a Christ-like life- - -imitating His humility, self-control, and faith. In fact, the Christian slave community believed that as they served their masters as though they served Christ, Himself, there would be a tangible return and great blessings released to them and their families. Unfortunately, many of these slaves could not imagine a day of freedom for themselves. Instead they prayed their prayers for their children and for future generations. Even in the face of severe beatings, lynchings, and the breakup of their nuclear families; they held fast to the belief that if they lived right, somehow their children would see a brighter day.
So strong was the black church’s faith in the face of persecution, problems, and torture that it produced thousands of Christians like the character Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s fiction - Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In fact the book, written by the wife of a Bowdoin College professor, was a believable depiction of the superior morality and the powerful “inner life” of men like Tom. These great black Christians actually were better people and more humane than many of the owners who claimed superiority over them.
As Uncle Tom’s Cabin became famous and its message spread throughout New England, it became a prophetic trumpet used to call white New Englanders to fight for the slaves. Further, white gospel preachers, inspired by the book, preached about the responsibility of Christian people to transform the beliefs and practices of their entire nation. This belief was at the heart of the Methodist movement in the United States.
Most whites do not realize that it took the First Great Awakening in the 1740s to create the environment in which blacks could even hear the gospel in large numbers. Prior to that time, white men dared not preach to slaves because of a mix of both doctrinal concerns as to the true humanity of blacks and practical economic concerns about the “fairness” of keeping men and women in slavery after they had converted to Christianity. Before the awakening, many preachers felt that it was simply not expedient to preach to the slaves or to cultivate their spirituality. They did not want the persecution or ridicule that came to those who “loved the blacks.”
As we fast forward to the late 1780s, just 10 years after the Revolutionary War, the black church was a part of a spiritual revolution. Black Christians gave birth to a formidable movement called the Black Church. The institution was cut out of the white church like one would cut out a cancer. Black believers were isolated and discriminated against but they did not let a little persecution stop them. Men like Richard Allen, Father of the African Methodist Episcopal movement, decided to view their rejection as a “release into a unique calling” in God. They realized that God had sovereignly called them to shape and influence the United States. With this sense of direction they preached and lived their message with boldness and power. The black church’s message was that grace is available to all mankind and that this grace can transform the worst sinner into the most brilliant “saint.” Years before King’s I Have a Dream speech they knew that it was the content of one’s character- - - not the color of one’s skin that mattered most to God.
In addition to their positive theology, they saw themselves as being called to bring healing and encouragement to a traumatized ethnic group. They encouraged the largely illiterate former slave community to take their place in this emerging democracy. They started declaring, “Yes, we can!” long before candidate Obama showed up on the nation’s 21st century scene. Early black church leaders believed they had been thrust into a national spotlight by God’s grace - - - not the will of man.
It was a faith-filled black church that nurtured the ex-slave community in the post civil war, reconstruction period. The reconstruction period gave birth to banks, savings and loans, mutual aid societies that helped the poor and created scores of other innovative solutions to black social and financial problems. The cradle of this creativity was the black church. Its most brilliant leaders were its clergy, and its credo was faith in God.
The black church was more than a voice of conscience to the black community - - - it was a lifeline. It was at the very epicenter of the community. Not only did it offer refuge from a cruel unforgiving world, it was a place of training for championship level preachers, entertainers, and civic leaders. By the time the civil rights movement emerged from the black church, it had matured enough to give direction and conscience to the entire nation. Filled with the redemptive power of God’s grace, the prophetic boldness of the Old Testament prophet Amos, and the moral authority of the Bible; it was a force with which to be reckoned.
Unfortunately, blacks and as well as whites forget that the black church’s strength has been that it was an instrument of God’s righteousness and justice. Yes, some of the pastors and leaders had flaws and occasionally moral failings, but the institution was on a mission to shape its people within and reform the society at large - - - in the name of God. Therefore, it was more than a political entity. It was somehow liberal and conservative at the same time. Its original concepts of justice were biblical, not political - - - harkening back to the purest moral foundations of the Bible.
The black church will rise again in strength!
Read Part 2 of this article in the next commentary.