BEYOND TRIVIAL MELODIES: THE BLACK CHURCH AND OCCUPY WALL STREET
When creative genius neglects to ally itself in this way to some public interest it hardly gives birth to works of wide or perennial influence. Imagination needs a soil in history, tradition, or human institutions, else its random growths are not significant enough and, like trivial melodies, go immediately out of fashion.
I am a radical democrat or improvisational socialist—as opposed to a social democrat or left liberal— because I am convinced that the rule of capital (an interlocking network of corporate, bank, and political elites), the hegemony of white and male supremacist ideologies, the proliferation of homophobic sensibilities, and the relative weakness of ecological consciousness are the major obstacles to our task.
by Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou
The Black church has been virtually absent in the Occupy Wall Street movement. The Black Church, which has nearly a mythological hold on progressive religious identity in America, was born in the crucible of slavery and reached its political height in the Civil Rights movement. Asserting the humanity of Black people and demanding god-given democratic rights placed the Black Church at the left of most political discourse inside the American empire. Two generations later, save a few stalwarts from a bygone era, the most visible Black religious leaders are the purveyors of a Wall Street theology. This is a feature and function of capitalist discourse that dominates both liberal and conservative political affiliations in the United States.
Occupy Wall Street has placed economic justice (i.e. income inequality and a corrupt governmental-financial industrial complex) at the center of the public conversation. The very idea of class warfare has gained a certain salience in the American mind. Occupy Wall Street presents a unique moment in the life of the Black Church to wrestle with the class divisions and economic justice. Combined the high levels of economic deprivation that has wreaked havoc on Black communities for the past generation, the nature of what its means to be the Black Church and to have success in the Black community is up for debate. While acknowledging racism barriers, most African Americans still hold to the Horatio Algiers’ narrative—hard work is rewarded with economic success. Yet the current economic crisis has proven this axiom to be hollow.
To be sure the Black Church is not monolithic. In fact the term, “Black Church” is a rubric for a half dozen predominately Black denominations, dozens of non-denominational mega churches and their fellowships, and black congregations inside predominately white denominations. These various constellations constitute the Black Church. In word, there are many “Black Churches”.
Beyond the theological nuances and denominational politics, an assessment of the Black Church’s relationship to economic justice begins with its theological traditions and congregational tendencies. The dismal Black Church participation in Occupy Wall Street is a function of the dominant strains of Black religious life in United States. Historically, economic justice and critiques of the market have not been dominant features of the Black Church. The theological traditions and congregational tendencies can be broadly categorized in four distinct but overlapping constructions: social conservative, social gospel, liberationist, and democratic socialist.
Social conservative churches and theologians place an emphasis on personal piety and individual responsibility. The aim is to be converted to Christianity. They read the Bible as fundamentalist and often deployed Victorians notions of respectability and gender norms concerning the role of women—the domestic sphere. More over social conservatism not only lacks a critique of capitalism but rather lauds its possibilities. In the context of the church, wealthy persons are in possessions of the highest Christian virtue. Conversely, the poor are poor because of their lack of faith—a central feature of the prosperity gospel. Group action is typically associated with food pantries, clothing donations, and community holiday meals. But most activities center around the life of the congregations (i.e. bible study and faith formation classes). These efforts have sole purpose of religious conversation. Voting in elections for candidates who share their religious values and worldview is the most frequent form of civic engagement.
In addition to social services and subsistence programming (e.g. homeless shelters and soup kitchens), social gospel congregations advocate for public policy that eases the structural stressors on the poor. Their group action ranges from food pantries to campaigning for continued government funding of programs for the poor. Moreover, their theological caretakers create religious based ethics to buttress the social gospel actions. Unlike their socially conservative counterparts, social gospel adherents place an equal value on religious conversation of the individual and religion’s critique of institutions and structures of oppression. Distrustful of industrialization, social gospel folks argued that evil (read oppressive) systems inhibit personal piety. To this end, early social gospel proponents provided services.
A significant amount of scholarship has been devoted to the social conservative and social gospel streams of the Black Church. Across denominations, the social gospel and social conservative are the largest tendencies of the Black Church. However, the liberationist tradition is the most revered in public imagination and is often cited as the most authentic Black church. Both the social conservative and social gospel clergy and congregations lay claim to the legacy of the liberationist church. To this end, countless texts have been written on the Civil Rights movement. Every Black preacher—worth their weight in salt—lifts up the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. as the touchstone for the role of pastor.
The origins of the liberationist tradition can be found as early as the 1700s with the founding of Black denominations and churches committed to ending slavery and full enfranchisement. It reaches its theological maturation in the writing of Rev. Dr. James Cone, the father of Black Liberation Theology. In the liberationist tradition, Black solidarity presupposes religious conversation. Womanist theologians accentuated the life and life chances of Black women in the face of the racism of the feminist movement and the sexism of the Black church. The liberationist project is the direct descendant of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements—breaking the back of America apartheid and emphasizing black self reliance. Afrocentric cultural practices, community economic development, anti-domestic/sexual violence, social services, voter turn out, and public policy advocacy are part of the liberationist praxis. The liberationist use social protest in a variety of settings—from workers right to targeting discriminatory business. In a few spaces, queer Black theology and congregations have emerged in response to the Black Churches homophobia in the social conservative, social gospel, and liberationist traditions.
Hence, these categories often overlap at times are held in tension—black nationalist’s congregations with social conservative theology; womanist theologians with Victorian sensibilities about sexual respectability; civil rights pastor who opposes gay marriage. However fluid this categories may be, one thing holds true—none have wrestled critically with the question of economic justice. The democratic socialist tradition has not been as widespread as the social conservative or social gospel and does not enjoy the prominence of the liberationist tradition in public mind. The democratic socialist tradition is the least known and valued of the Black Church categories. Occupy Wall Street and widespread economic uncertainity demands that this tradition be recovered and reconstituted, if the Black church is to be relevant in this moment.
There is a small but significant tradition of African American church leaders who believed that economic justice lay at the center of their faith formation. Black Unitarian minister, Rev. Peter H. Clark joined the socialist Worker’s Party in 1876 because he believed that capital must be ruled and regulated not simply rule. Rev. George Washington Woodbey, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in San Diego, CA, became the leading Black socialist voice in the world. The former slave ran for vice president of the United States with the renowned Eugene Debs on the Socialist Party ticket in 1902. For Woodbey, socialism articulated biblical economics. In the democratic socialist tradition, the conversation to socialism was the same as the Christian conversion. Holding forth that Black folks were part of the working class and needed working class consciousness, Rev. Richard Euell was also an early 20th century advocate of Black Christian socialism. As pastor of Bethel African Church in Iowa, Rev. George Slater, Jr. continued in Woodbey’s foot steps and severed as the secretary as the Colored Race for the Christian Socialist Fellowship. “Socialism, like the inspired Carpenter of Nazareth, places more value upon man than it does on riches,” wrote Rev. Reverdy Ransom in Negro and Socialism. These creatures of the Black church argued that Black folks must embrace socialism as a means of their Christian duty and their social progress.
The most written about and least understood figure to emerge from the Black Church is Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. While the social conservative, social gospel, and liberationist tout his legacy, little attention is paid to King’s democratic socialist commitments. Of her courtship of Dr. King, Coretta Scott King commented that he was the first Black man she had met who called himself a democratic socialist. Speaking before the Negro American Labor Council in 1965, King posited, “Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God’s children.” At one of his last SCLC staff meetings he asked that the recorders be turned off as he spoke about his democratic socialist politics. The eventuall founder of the Democratic Socialist of America, Michael Harrington wrote the Poor People’s Manifesto at King’s personal request.
Toward a New Black Left Theology
King’s turn toward economic justice was evidence in the support of the Memphis Sanitation Workers and the Poor People’s Campaign. He saw the struggle of the Poor People’s Campaign as the same struggle of the sanitation workers. Democratic Socialism is the public control over public resources. It places an emphasis democratic means to distribute wealth and the use of capital for public good. It seeks to insure that all citizens have access to the means to meet human need with dignity. The prophetic tradition of the Black Church which is most present in the social gospel and liberationist tradition emphasis the needs of the “least of these”—the poor and vulnerable. Ending the economic and existential misery of the historically othered is the driving mission of the prophetic tradition. A prophetic democratic socialism will turn public resources onto the needs of the least of these as means for democratic civilization.
Occupy Wall Street challenges that the Black church and its theologies take up the cause of economic justice and democratic socialism. The economic devastation that has depression level of unemployment in much of Black America demands a re-engagement with the democratic socialist project. The emphasis on economic justice does not preclude wrestling with sexism, homophobia, imperialism, and racism. Rather, a prophetic democratic socialism fully understands that economic justice is connected to the plight of women’s liberation, advance queer rights, black and brown poverty, and military industrial complex. Transcending the identity politics of the liberationist by deeply engaging sexism, racism, and homophobia, extending the social gospel vision, and jettisoning the social conservative need for religious conversation, a new black left theology can seize upon the peculiar moment and reinvigorate the best of the prophetic tradition. Prophetic democratic socialism believes that the nation must be converted to a more just economic and existential structure. .
This moment requires black preachers and theologians to take a Gramscian turn. Appropriating Antonio Gramsci’s organic intellectual, the prophetic democratic socialist cultivates strong roots in their community, working to maintain links between theology, political economy, and local struggles connecting to the people and their experiences. The prophetic democratic socialist does not exist outside of history but rather assesses and articulate moments when the divine is breaking into history through social movements.
In preparing for the seminal event for the Poor Peoples Campaign, Resurrection City, which planned to bring thousands of poor people to the nation’s capital to live in tents until the passage of anti-poverty legislation, King prophesies, “Resurrection City will be the Freedom Church of the poor”—a lived democratic socialist theology in community.
This is the task of the Black church in the time of Occupy Wall Street. If the Black church refuses this tradition is shall be like the tinkling brass—no more than a trivial melody that will soon be out of fashion.
REV. OSAGYEFO UHURU SEKOU
Osagyefo (oh-sah-GEE-fo) Uhuru (ooh-WHO-roo) Sekou (SAY-koo)
Rev. Osagyefo Uhuru Sekou is an author, documentary filmmaker, public intellectual, organizer, pastor and theologian.Considered one of the foremost religious leaders of his generation, Rev. Sekou is the former Senior Minister of Lemuel Haynes Congregational Church (UCC) in New York City. He has forthcoming collection of writings, “Gods, Gays, and Guns:Essays on Race, Religion, and the Future of Democracy”.