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Black religion and black radicalism.

An exceedingly elastic but tenacious thread binds together the contributive and developmental factors of black religion in the United States as one distinctive social phenomenon. It is the thread of what may be called, if properly defined, "black radicalism." Black religion has always concerned itself with the fascination of an incorrigibly religious people with the mystery of God, but it has been equally concerned with the yearning of a despised and subjugated people for freedom--freedom from the religious, economic, social, and political domination that whites have exercised over blacks since the beginning of the African slave trade. It is this radical thrust of blacks for human liberation expressed in theological terms and religious institutions that is the defining characteristic of black Christianity and black religion in the United States--from the preacher-led slave revolts to the Black Manifesto of James Forman and the Black Declaration of Independence of the National Committee of Black Churchmen.

Despite the inseparable connection between black religion and the struggle for freedom, in no place in the world today, with the possible exception of Communist China and the Soviet Union, is the institution of the Christian religion and its official representatives more roundly criticized than in the black community of the United States. Leading this attack upon the black church are students, "street people," and the black professional class, itself only recently drawn into the vortex of black power and black awareness.

The criticism is not misplaced. One of the continuing paradoxes of the black church as the custodian of a great portion of black culture and religion is that it is at once the most reactionary and the most radical of black institutions; the most imbued with the mythology and values of white America, and yet the most proud, the most independent and indigenous collectivity in the black community. In order to appreciate black religion and the black church--indeed, in order to understand black radicalism anywhere in the world--one must delve into the nature and meaning of this paradox of the religious experience of Africans--both on the African continent and in the diaspora. The radicals who deprecate the black church, the black professionals who avoid it, and the black television comedians who mimic it, need to know how facilely they have absorbed white ignorance and how they have sewn themselves up in that bag. Black pride and power, black nationalism and pan-Africanism have had no past without the black church and black religion, and without them they may well have no enduring future.

During the eighteenth century there were more black and white Christians worshiping in the same congregations, proportionate to their numbers as baptized Christians, than there are today. This should not, however, be taken to imply that prior to the Civil War American churches were racially integrated. Blacks enjoyed no real freedom or equality of ecclesiastical status in either the North or the South. It never occurred to white Christians that the equality that was denied to their brothers and sisters in civil society should at least be made available to them within the church. As a matter of fact, the relationship pattern of whites and blacks in the household of God made it difficult for Americans to perceive that there was anything wrong with inequality in the household of Caesar.

In the South it seemed rather a matter of prudence on the part of the planters not to permit the slaves to come together for religious services unless some white persons were present. That, rather than any desire for racial integration, is the reason why most slaves and their masters sought the blessings of God under the same roof for more than 150 years before the Emancipation Proclamation.

There was interracial worship before the Civil War, but it was never intended to suggest equality. Even if a few pious slaveholders sincerely believed that they benefited from worshiping with blacks, and were willing to be reminded of their sins by black preachers, they were wise enough to appreciate the fact that their presence in the meetings had a restraining effect upon black religion. It was expedient that inflamed passions not be permitted to get out of hand and be exploited by some dubious character who might fancy himself a witch doctor, or by some itinerant Yankee preacher.

The possibility of slave uprisings was invariably associated with religion, despite the pains that had been taken to make the faith an instrument of compliance and control. Black Christians who were ardent in their devotions had to be watched carefully. Although church mission boards received word from the field that the new converts were zealous in their beliefs and generally of good behavior, one could not be sure just how deep their Christianization process had been, or how long it would last, particularly in view of the injustices that were tolerated within the church itself. Slaveholders and overseers knew that rebellion inspired by religion was always a possibility.

The period between 1890 and the Second World War was one of the luxuriant growth and proliferation of many forms of black religion in the United States and Africa that challenged the bourgeoisification of the mainline black denominations. Black holiness and pentecostalism, arising from southern folk religion pressure-cooked in the teeming ghettos of the North, mixed in fascinating combinations with some of the black consciousness and nationalistic tendencies noted above. Garveyism, as a religious movement, is one of the permutations of these converging and polarizing aspects of black religion and radicalism. General knowledge of black Baptist and Methodist bodies and beliefs suffers from the sholarly neglect of black church history, but even less is known about black Holiness and Pentecostal churches and their distinctive contributions to the development of black Christianity in America and overseas. A few recent studies have shown that these marginal groups grew rapidly from the end of Reconstruction through the Great Depression and made a lasting imprint upon the black lower class. There is increasing evidence that the most direct influence of the black church upon white Christianity may well have come through the black Pentecostal churches that emerged during this period.

One cannot fully understand the black revolution of the 1960s and what has happened since then without grasping the complementary functions of independence and interdependence between Malcolm and King that bound them together in a dialectic of social action that was at once cultural and political, Christian and non-Christian, separatist and integrationist. They learned from one another and received impelling power from one another. Little has been written about how they reacted to each other in private, or whether or not they were really aware of reciprocal roles in the drama being played out in the black community. But it does seem reasonable that their contributions cannot be evaluated separately with any accuracy.

These two young men, both of whom were struck down by assassins' bullets at the peak of their careers, approached the vacation of black liberation from two different politico-religious perspectives that had been growing silently, side by side, in the rich soil of the black folk tradition. But they shared the nourishment of that tradition together. They received enormous moral and spiritual power by calling forth from each other, perhaps quite unconsciously, the single, full-orbed interpretation of reality that caught hold of, and held in tension, the antinomies of the centuries-old yearning for black humanity and liberation.

The debate in some circles about whether there has ever been anything that could be called radical in the black religious tradition is misguided. What could have been a more radical understanding of America than Malcolm's when he called for blacks to give up the slave religion of Christianity and discover integrity and Fellowship in the worship of Allah? Not only that, but to turn their backs, once and for all, literally and ideologically, on all that America offered or promised? And not only that, but joyfully to take up the gun, if it became necessary, to protect themselves and make their freedom secure? And what could have been more radical than King's belief that in twentieth-century America--after two world wars, a disastrous economic depression, and a series of ill-advised imperialistic adventures in Latin America and Southeast Asia--it was possible to make whites become Christian, to make love the operative agent of reconciliation between black and white, rich and poor, segregationist and integrationist? What could have been more radical than, after all the dismal trials and failures, to suppose that the church could become, once again, faithful to its Lord, could become the church of the Sermon on the Mount and the Good Friday crucifixion?

It is no wonder that Harold Cruse could write that "the historically true, native American radicalism is black radicalism." But what Cruse has not understood is that this unique black radicalism has religious roots that lie deep and unseverable in the soul of the black community. This stark and massive reality must not be overlooked in any examination of what has been occurring in the world of oppression and struggling people. The radical faiths of Malcolm and King coalesce in the opaque depths of a black spiritually that is neither Protestant nor Catholic, neither Christian nor Islamic in its essence, but comprehends and transcends all these ways of believing by experincing God's real presence in the search for justice, by becoming one with God in suffering, in struggle, and in the celebration of the liberation of all humankind.

We can only hope that the black world, once it has gained its long-denied power, will not repeat the errors of the white world. It is not altogether self-evident from this study that we blacks will escape that fate. But it is, as DuBois wrote, "a thing of questing for eternal youth, or fruitful labor, or joy and music, of the free spirit and of the ministering hand." If we are vindicated in this hope, reconciliation between old enemies and estranged peoples will be the eschatological event that all of us await with eager longing.

The gift of black faith was wrought out of the distinctive way God was revealed to precolonial Africa and it was shaped, for 500 years, by the experience of suffering and struggle related to oprression. Its lasting contribution will be its demonstration of what it takes for a people to survive and achieve inner and external liberation under the strange circumstances of being downtrodden under the heel of Christian racists. Perhaps for that very reason the future of Christianity in Africa and in the diasporic communities of people of African descent may be to provide a bridge for first world Christians and non-Christians in the rest of the world to come together around the universal yearning for shalom--the justice, wholeness, peace, and healing that transcends any one religious vision and belongs to the whole human family.

The joyous testimony of the men and women whose tortured footsteps we have followed through the history of America has been to "keep on keeping on," as Fannie Lou Hamer used to say, "down the freedom road"--to continue, in other words, the struggle which refuses to settle for anything less than total liberation for the total creation. That has been black follks' answer to that mysterious question of Jesus in Luke 18:8--"Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
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Author:Wilmore, Gayraud S.
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Jul 1, 1984
Words:1889
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