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Black Church as
Sociopolitical Community

Natalia J. Garland

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"This is not an attack on Jeremiah Wright," said the Reverend in response to recent criticisms that his sermons contained hateful remarks. "It is an attack on the black church launched by people who know nothing about the African American religious tradition." Wright's response sounds like the alcoholic who tells his wife, "If you don't stop nagging me, I'll drink." The alcoholic is threatening his wife: either she submits to his control, or he will go out and get drunk. It is an excuse to abuse alcohol. Wright's response seems to have a similar underlying message. He seems to be saying that a white person or non-black person does not (or cannot) understand the black church and, therefore, has no right to criticize the text of his sermons. If anyone criticizes his preaching, then they risk accusation of having attacked an entire community. It is an avoidance of accountability.

What does the average non-black person or non-black church member know about the black church? It might be helpful to compare and contrast the black church to three other Christian religious groups in America: Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant. Christian theology and worship are not totally embodied in any spiritual leader. Quite the contrary, my chart below shows the different levels of cohesion and fragmentation within each denomination, despite their classification as a worshiping group. Let's look at the theological, structural, ethnic, racial, and stylistic composition of these groups in current American society.

  Roman Catholic Eastern Orthodox Protestant Black
Theologically Connected Connected Mixed Mixed
Structurally Connected Separated Separated Separated
Ethnically Connected Separated Mixed Connected
Racially Connected Separated Mixed Connected
Stylistically Mixed Separated Mixed Mixed

The Roman Catholic Church is the most cohesive. Its doctrine holds true for all local churches and individual members. It is unified under the leadership of the Pope, and administratively centralized at its headquarters in Vatican City. The Catholic Church embraces all races and cultures, and has various missions and social programs. Although all local churches practice the Mass, there is stylistic variation and controversy. Some of the variation is cultural or a matter of personal preference, while other variations involve Protestant charismatic influences. Inasmuch as all Catholics worship in the form of the Mass, however, it could be argued that they are stylistically connected to one another.

Although cohesive in spiritual identity, the Catholic Church is also the most secretive and the most scandalous when these secrets are exposed. In the U.S., the priest sex-abuse scandal is a horrendous example of this. The Catholic priests who protest alongside illegal immigrants have also strayed from their duties to their American flock. Outside the U.S., it was the Roman Catholics of Latin America who started the Liberation Theology movement in the 1960's and 1970's. As late as 1986, the Catholic Church still officially approved of a modified form of Liberation Theology. Reverend Wright preaches Black Liberation Theology which is very similar to the Latin American version. Although not kept a secret, Liberation Theology is not commonly known among most Americans.

The Eastern Orthodox Church is the most divided religious institution. It has a rather oxymoron character. In fact, it is impossible to speak of the Orthodox Church without adding a prefix. It cannot be called the Orthodox Church because that confuses it with Orthodox Judaism. The severe administrative and ethnic divisions require one to label the Orthodox communities as Russian Orthodox, or Greek, or Antiochian. Each sub-group is separated by leadership, language, and cultural arrogance. American converts to Orthodoxy often adopt the culture of whichever jurisdiction happens to dominate their locale.

Historically, race was not an obstacle among the Eastern Orthodox, as evidenced by the Coptic Orthodox in Egypt and by the Russian missionary work in Alaska. In today's America, although all races are welcomed, race seems coincidental and subordinate to ethnicity. Ethnicity is the major factor, second only to theology, in connecting members to their church and one another. Ethnicity is also intimately connected to worship style. All churches worship in the form of the Liturgy, but each ethnic group has its own style of song or chant. You will not hear a Russian choir singing in Greek, unless performed as a token arrangement. The Eastern Orthodox are aesthetically and musically sublime, but unable to contain beauty and share power under a single spiritual identity.

The Protestants are the most democratic and diverse peoples. They are primarily separated from one another by lack of an ultimate ecclesiastical authority and a centralized headquarters. Protestants proceed spiritually via their biblical interpretation of the born-again experience or baptism, intense Bible-reading, and sermons. The evangelical churches are pastor-centered in a Pope-like or celebrity-like fashion. Beyond these commonalities, Protestant churches offer a mixture of theological tendencies and stylistic preferences. Some are anti-Catholic, or pro-Israel, or pro-Republican; or emphasize the speaking in tongues, or preach prosperity, or prophesy the end of time. Some worship according to ritual and holiday seasons, some engage in animated worship, and some sit in mega-churches and take notes.

The evangelical churches seem especially creative regarding music and art. Although they still value traditional hymns, they have not standardized these in the manner of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox forms of sanctioned church music. There is a large market for Christian music, books, and gifts. Evangelicals encourage individual expression. The danger of this individualism, however, is that it also spawns cults and false doctrine.

Black churches appear to be a branch of Protestantism, differentiated by racially black membership, historical suffering as slaves, and the struggle against racism in America. Black churches are not unified as a whole: they range from Methodists to Baptists to Pentecostals, with consequent variations in leadership and theology. Yet, black churches are strongly connected in their purpose to strengthen black families and communities in a country that denied them human dignity. The black church enabled blacks to achieve independence from white-dominated churches, to address the psychological and social problems of their neighborhoods, and eventually to participate in upward mobility.

Although black worship is often described as emotional and animated, this type of worship has received much attention and seems not to be true of all black churches. If non-blacks do not know much about black churches, it is possibly because of a media focus on worship style and a lack of contact with all-black neighborhoods. It must also be remembered that not all blacks attend black churches. Some blacks attend Protestant churches headed by white pastors, as well as Roman Catholic churches. These churches seem more likely to have racially and ethnically diverse congregations. Whites (who live and socialize in white neighborhoods) probably have more social contact with these blacks than with blacks who live and socialize exclusively in black neighborhoods.

Now, let's compare and contrast the black church with other Christian churches. We have established that the black church is a spiritual and social community. Like the Catholic Church, it has developed social programs to build or rebuild individuals, families, and the community. Both church groups also seem to feel connected, as a whole grouping of people, within their racial and ethnic composition. Unlike the Catholic Church, however, the black church has no centralized form of governance. This is why Reverend Wright cannot claim to be representative of all black churches. Wright can only represent his own local church, and he is subject to evaluation just as the Pope is open to critique when he speaks outside of doctrine (i.e., from opinion).

Even though both the Eastern Orthodox and black churches are each focused on a common ethnic background, there is a sharp contrast in how this focus developed. Blacks were rejected by mainstream America, whereas the Orthodox rejected the mainstream. The black church is unified as a racial and problem-solving community. The Eastern Orthodox are separated from one another by ethnocentric traditions, and socially separated from mainstream America by a choice based on feelings of cultural superiority. The Eastern Orthodox are connected to one another only by theological doctrine. In contrast, while the black churches are theologically mixed and structurally separated, it is their historical experience that creates cohesion and identity.

As already noted, the black church is a branch of Protestantism. The black church matches the Protestant Church in every way except for the racial and ethnic components (without which, we could not speak of a black church). Theologically, structurally, and sylistically, the black church matches the Protestant Church. Racially and ethnically, the black church matches the Catholic Church. The Protestant Church is classified as racially and ethnically mixed because of the fact that some churches are integrated and some serve specific neighborhoods. For example, there are numerous 'storefront' Pentecostal churches in Hispanic areas. Some black Pentecostal and Baptist churches probably also fall into this category of Protestantism. Inasmuch as there is racial tolerance among all Protestant churches, it could be argued that the racial and ethnic characteristics should be classified as connected.

What is the future of the black church? So long as there are predominately black neighborhoods, black churches will probably continue to serve the spiritual and social needs of the black people living there. Will non-blacks ever attend black churches? Would the message of the Gospel be applicable to non-blacks? Non-blacks might visit or be invited to attend a black church, but it seems unlikely that non-blacks would be able to identify with the historical component. It is more likely that some blacks will merge into mainstream white churches, such as appears to be true of the Protestant mega-churches.

Perhaps the risk faced by some contemporary black churches is that they will become worlds unto themselves: not ethnic sub-groups like the Eastern Orthodox, but pulpits from which the sermon is replaced by the political speech. Now that we have knowledge of Reverend Wright's sermons and speeches, it appears that some black spiritual leaders may have deteriorated into a racism of black against white and a cultural vanity based on historical victimization. These groups have rejected mainstream society. But again, unlike the Eastern Orthodox, the rejection goes much deeper because it involves a hostile attitude. When the spiritual and social needs of church members are tightly interwoven, and the local pastor lusts for self-importance, then a trusting congregation can be led down an extremist and non-biblical path.

The biblical path was more apparent in the 1960's when the Civil Rights Movement was energized by Martin Luther King, Jr. His influence continued after his assassination in 1967, inspiring blacks and many whites throughout the 1970's to continue the racial transformation of American society. King's vision was to bring equality to blacks through inclusion in mainstream America. King also wanted to 'save' America as a land of democracy, freedom, and opportunity. His spiritual values were aligned with the core of all humanity: non-black races and other religions were not designated as the enemy. Although Americans continue to celebrate the memory of King, his success is at risk of being usurped by black leaders who would replace affirmation of America by an identification with the slavery and other injustices of the past. In addition, these leaders demonize whites as incorrigible oppressors. Let us not forget the three white people, CORE workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman, who were murdered in Mississippi for their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

Today's black church may be in need of a spiritual reformation. Some black churches probably need to get back to the basics of salvation and to re-assess their political focus. Mainstream black churches must confront the messengers of Black Liberation Theology and again affirm an integrated and united America. All Americans of all races and faiths need to respect one another as unique individuals with unique histories. (Written 05/05/08: bibliography available.)

Until we meet again..............stay sane.

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Copyright 2008 Natalia J. Garland