It’s common to refer to “the Black church,” as though the institution stands as a monolith. We hear about “the Black church” and its critical role in African Americans surviving slavery, Reconstruction’s deconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights struggle. But increasingly we’re hearing people tell us (correctly) that “the Black church” is not one thing. For proof, try to define it. Are we talking only about the seven largest historical Black denominations? Do we include predominantly African-American congregations in predominantly white denominations (like the PCA or SBC)? Do we include individual African Americans who belong to white churches in white denominations? The answer is, “It depends.”
While the old orthodoxy presents “the Black church” as one entity living, breathing, and acting in the lives of its members, recent events increasingly reveal that the divide and definition of “the Black church” has little to do with denominations. It has to do with theology: Bible-believing and Bible-rejecting. And the division of the church raises its head, of all places, on today’s so-called Civil Rights issues, especially homosexuality.
Case in point: A dozen or so African-American pastors held a press conference in Washington, D.C. to call for support for Maryland’s gay marriage bill. Among them were clergymen like Al Sharpton, Delmond Coates, Otis Moss III, Freddie D. Haynes, and Amos C. Brown. A few days earlier, Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr. declared that he would happily perform a “marriage” or civil union between a homosexual couple, even comparing the fight for gay marriage to the fight to end slavery.
I believe these men are sincere. And I believe they’re acting according to the dictates of their own conscience. And that’s the problem: the conscience can be wrong. It needs to be shaped, and shaped specifically by the word of God. The efforts to pooh-pooh “theology” and “denominational positions” as inadmissible and misguided only shows that these particular men are the misguided ones. For how can a pastor–of all people–declare that the truth about God and His word doesn’t belong in their perspectives on these issues?
During the modernist-fundamentalist controversy, white denominations and congregations had to come to the hard conclusion that liberalism and Christianity were two different religions. African-Americans, battling on different fronts for basic civil rights, were largely spared that conflict. But we ought not think that the same dynamics were not present in “the Black church.” The divisions and tensions between a liberal and a Bible-believing faith could not be revealed so long as there were more pressing problems of basic existence. But now that the gains of the Civil Rights struggle have largely been amassed and codified, we’re beginning to see the rifts and fault lines emerge. I don’t think this is going to be pretty.
For example, many pastors are having voter registration drives and working to fight voter suppression. But the Washington Post reported that many other African-American pastors are encouraging their members to avoid the polls come election day. They reason that not voting would be a better option than to vote for either presidential candidate, a conservative Romney who appears indifferent to the class and justice concerns traditionally associated with African American politics and a President Obama whose stance on gay marriage and abortion are starting to chip away at support among some evangelical African Americans. I don’t think abandoning the vote is the correct response, but I understand the sense of frustration some feel. Neither man represents the African-American religious community’s typical historical combination of strong concerns for personal morality with strong social justice causes. Romney offends by writing off “the 47%” he thinks are looking for a government payday. An insult to half the country. Obama offends with his endorsement of sexual immorality as a social justice issue akin to the long fight for Black freedom. A comparison many African Americans, myself included, find confused and insulting. Voting for Obama may cost millions of lives, many of them Black, in the genocide of abortion as well as advance sexual immorality in a cultural context where a biblical definition of marriage remains under constant assault. Voting for Romney not only feels like a betrayal to many African Americans but also guarantees four years of political marginalization and indifference towards the needs of African-American communities. Rock and hard place.
Back to “the Black church.” This year’s presidential vote might expose the church’s over-reliance on politics and undermine long-standing patterns of support. Ironically, it just may be the candidacy of an incumbent African-American president that forces the church to consider whether “Black” or “church” matters most in the phrase “the Black church.” Without question there will be two sides. And with equal certainty we’ll find those two sides represent two different religious faiths, two Black churches, two approaches to the Bible, two visions of discipleship and community. Those two churches have been there for as long as African Americans have had access to the country’s theologically liberal divinity schools, seminaries, and departments of religion–a development forced by the fact that most conservative schools barred African-American enrollment. Nevertheless, I think we’ll find that those “churches” are largely divided not between the aisles but between pulpit and pew. The average African-American Christian intends to believe the Bible and live by it. They’re theologically evangelical though not political evangelicals. Many don’t know their pastors, trained at liberal schools, are theological liberals. That’s one of the great hidden sins of the church and it won’t be long before it’s exposed very widely. In fact, press conferences like that held last week are but a visible revelation of the great division.
In the final analysis, these leaders betray both the faith and the history of “the Black church.” They betray the faith because the Bible, which Black Christians cherish and take seriously, is unequivocal in defending the importance of all human life and in establishing sexual morality and justice in God’s sight. They betray the history of the Black church by redefining “justice” to include behavioral practices and sins that are in no way comparable unchangeable categories like skin color and “race.” This, they tell us, is a matter of freedom. These men prove that, as Chesterton put it, “Almost every contemporary proposal to bring freedom into the church is simply a proposal to bring tyranny into the world.” It’s the tyranny of darkness being called light, of sin being called righteousness, of righteousness being called sin. The Bible pronounces a “Woe!” when this is the case.
The sad display of these leaders notwithstanding, I’m encouraged by the signs I see and the rumblings I hear of African-American Christians struggling with the difficult balance of faith, politics, and identity. We’re not post-Black yet. Nor are we post-political pragmatism. And we sure don’t want to be post-Christian. These developments will be for some individuals and some congregations the sword that Jesus brings to divide us from earthly loyalties and cause us to cleave faithfully unto Him.
Even so, Lord, bring the sword. In whatever divisions ensue, Lord show which ones have your approval. Make righteousness to shine like the noonday sun. Cause your word to accomplish your purpose. And come; bring your kingdom in its full. Revive your church once more so that your glory rests upon your people. You have a people who have not bowed their knees to the Baals of society and politics; remember them and sustain them, dear Lord. For your glory’s sake, amen.