By Alton Pollard,Ph.D.,
“The Black church” is shorthand for the vast network of racial-ethnic communities of Christian faith, worship, and life born out of and informed by the historic and present day experiences of people of African descent in the United States.
The Black church is a sacred and social movement, representing communities of faith and, at its best, arenas of change. In oppressions affecting Black children, women, and men, Black churches have access to liberative and holistic resources and to reconciling potential, restoring ancestral wisdom and cultivating contemporary insights that uphold the agency of Black humanity. When and where the Black church upholds and models its own virtues of love, justice, freedom, community, equality, dignity, self-worth and more, it bears magnificent witness to a just and humanizing world.
In the last 50 years the African American community has undergone momentous and convoluted change. By the middle of the twentieth century, a largely Southern agrarian population had become predominately urban as Blacks “voted with their feet” against Jim and Jane Crow segregation and repressive white brutality for the “promised land” of the urban and mostly Northern and Western industrial cities.
The Black-led freedom movement of the 1950s and beyond was an intense evocation of powerful and prolonged experiences that for the better part of three hundred years had sought to dismantle the institutional mantle of racism. The scope and magnitude of these militant new protests were of a scale previously unknown and firmly identified with the ethos of the Black faithful — the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Ella Baker, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee among others.
Religion scholar C. Eric Lincoln identified the 1960s as the watershed years when the “Negro Church” died and was reborn in the form of the “Black Church.” Black churches joined spiritual imperatives with Black sociopolitical objectives in intermittent fashion, at times impressively so and other times faltering, as Black clergy and laity — especially women and young people — determined to embrace the clarion call to resistance, liberation, and social justice as part of their spiritual inheritance. In the aged presence of racism Black churches bore witness to the transcendent power of the divine resident in the souls of Black folk and others of the disinherited.
In the years since the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Consciousness Movements, Black religious and theological scholars have provided Black churches with critical tools of analysis and advocacy in the struggles against discrimination, apartheid, the HIV/AIDS epidemic, mass incarceration, human trafficking and forms of social stigma, and for gender equality, gay equality, environmentalism, health care equity, reproductive freedoms, diverse religiosity, Africa and the Diaspora, immigration, globalization, gun control, living wages, sustainable community, and so much more. This demanding and strategic work has only just begun.
There is a pervasive myth that the United States is comprised of a common citizenry living in a post-racial and inclusive society. In truth, the oppressive legacies of the past are hardly eradicated and never so easily dismissed. Disparity and death, violence and abuse, stigma and structural unemployment, food deserts and educational malfeasance, the War on Drugs and mass incarceration, racial profiling and anti-immigration legislation, voter identification and “stand your ground” vigilantism all function as contemporary forms of hegemonic social control.
Bi-partisan obstructionism and market forces dictate the new racial reality. Race-relations management forged in civic and corporate spaces masquerades as principled public policy. Intersections between race and other socially contested realities — gender, generation, sexuality and class among others — are denied critical nuance, coalescent recognition, and emancipating capacity. Injustice comes in new and myriad forms. The nation’s crisis of confidence in democratic freedoms continues unabated. Racism, America’s original sin, lives on.
The state of affairs in African American churches is as unsettled as those of larger society. Among Black mainline denominations meaning, mission and memberships are in disrepair. Non-denominationalism and non-affiliation are the new church growth sectors. The litmus test for inclusion in the church grows weary and unsteady in the face of a host of contested and expansive values ranging from family, gender and sexuality to culture, ethnicity and social class. Islam, indigenous African religions and other traditions are redefining and shaping what it means to be the Black faithful as never before. The largest reservoir of the Black un-churched is once potential members who finally despaired of finding spiritual, moral and holistic fulfillment in extant Black religious institutions. In point of fact, the Black faith community mirrors the same levels of mistrust and territorialism as the African American community and United States society writ large.
Today Black churches are at a crossroads. They are the fault line between many progressives and traditionalists, women and men, young and old, same and both gender loving, and the haves and have nots, wherever communities of African descent in the United States are to be found. The African American estate awaits the “good news” that leads to the moral, personal, familial, social, economic, political, and cultural transformation of our time. However, Black churches by and large have yet to seriously accept the fact that tackling the root problems of Black America will require a far more organized and intentional structural witness than is currently the case.
Martin Luther King, Jr. reminds us:
Any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men (and women) and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion (Stride Toward Freedom, 1958)
Half a century has passed since the epic Birmingham campaign, the murder of Medgar Evers, the March on Washington and the bombing of Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. Fifty years later, many African Americans continue to suffer the indignity of social pathologies not of their making. A culture of death, disprivilege, and disparity continues to be visited upon those who are Black, brown, poor, young and female. Policymakers eager to restore the United States to a presumed pristine former glory, legislate libertarian and limited (federal) government philosophies as a means to social and political control, brazenly oblivious to the gritty trauma that marks many of our nation’s neighborhoods and streets.
Black churches must direct their still formidable resources to public policy advocacy and education, to engaging the complex underlying structural and systemic forces that work against community building. The negative distribution of goods and services in Black communities everywhere is one major social policy trend awaiting proactive and concerted response from Black churches. The wholesale shift of economic and health activity away from Black urban and rural centers, with tragic consequences for the poor, is yet another. The “Moral Monday” Movement in North Carolina, the Dream Defenders in Florida, and the Fiftieth Anniversary March on Washington demonstrate the power of people of dedication and faith joined in coalition for insurgent political advocacy. Finally, it is important to identify and address what causes so many Black churches — and Black organizations as a whole — to focus with such passion on their own institutional and entrepreneurial interests, to the neglect and detriment of the wider community.
The work of social transformation and community empowerment requires far more resources than what the institutional Black church alone can hope to accomplish in our day and time. African America has a broad array of organizations and enterprises that have to be called upon to be accountable to one another and the whole. The culpability of us all is an inconvenient truth. The time to empower the entire Black estate is now.
This will not in the least relieve Black churches of their social and spiritual responsibility. Megachurches, storefront churches, and every form of church in between must commit to establishing a more liberative ethos and presence in the wider community. Tragically, for too many churches the recognition that there has been a shift in the political terrain over the last fifty years, that the struggle for freedom principally moved from the steps of the courthouse and city hall and migrated to legislative assemblies, corporate boardrooms, executive suites, and social media platforms never seems to have occurred.
Now as never before a learned, strong, prophetic and resourceful Black church must be joined with the best social and political thought and practice at our community’s disposal. As we move well into the twenty-first century, as the racial lessons of the recent past fade from the collective memory only to be confronted by the specter of a New Jim Crow at home and imperialist impulses abroad, pressing questions remain: How well will Black churches respond to assaults on the human spirit, to the erosion of our freedoms, to our quest for participation in a humanizing world? What spiritual sensibilities will be brought to bear in the everyday affairs of life? What theological and ethical resources will Black America employ in light of our ceaseless struggles? What public policy and civic commitments will we radically engage in spirit and in truth?
Having come this far by faith, with a renewed dedication to prophetic action and critique, Black churches are poised on the edge of a future, still too full of the provincial, but instilled with possibilities for insurgent renewal and change.
Alton B. Pollard, III, Ph.D. is the Dean and Professor of Religion and Culture at Howard University School of Divinity. Follow Alton B. Pollard, III, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@DeanABPIII