What is the Radical Black Church?

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How Do We Define the “Black” Church?

In some sense, the Black Church can be readily defined by its music, style of preaching and sounds. Yet these are only surface definitions—it is so much more. The Black Church was born in enslavement and represented our first true freedom movement; it was a space where enslaved Africans blended indigenous African practices with the version of Christian text which was given to them.

At its formation, the Black Church was an underground, counter-cultural, fugitive formation of enslaved Africans who rejected the social and religious construction of the slaveholding world. The Black Church was and should unequivocally be, in the words of Dr. Vincent Lloyd, the “church of the field negro”: a courageous and bold rejection of a world tethered to white supremacy. It was the Invisible Institution, which provided a hush harbor for Africans held in chattel slavery and free Africans still treated as second-class citizens in America.

This Invisible Institution was the primary source of resistance for Africans in America. This reclaiming of the Christian tradition enabled Black folks to resist chattel slavery in both passive and active ways.

In a passive sense, it inspired hope, determination, and the will to live in a system that sought to kill them and their loved ones. It created and fostered a sense of community during a time when community was attacked.

On the active side, it inspired men and women like Denmark Vessey, Gabriel Prosser, Nat Turner, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth to aggressively advocate for the liberation of enslaved Africans and speak out against chattel slavery, and even lead armed revolts against its evils.

It also gave birth to many of the denominations we see and love today, like the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. These denominations would also be instrumental in fighting against and attempting to alleviate the impact of slavery.

Denmark Vessey (c.1767–July 2, 1822)

Denmark Vessey was educated, a tradesman, and owned his own business in Charleston, SC. Vessey purchased his freedom after he won a lottery. He would later attempt to purchase his first wife and children, but to no avail. Vessey’s connection to his church and the faith inspired him to plan his revolt. Though free and wealthy, Vessey did not fully associate himself with other Black folks in his social group but instead found home and refuge in being with Africans still enslaved. In 1822, Vessey hoped to liberate slaves from bondage and then flee to the newly formed Haitian Republic.

The Rev. Nat Turner (October 2, 1800–November 11, 1831)

Nat Turner was a literate enslaved African. His master’s wife taught him how to read. Initially reared to be a house slave, Turner was sent to the field when his Master died, and his son took over. Turner was hired out as a preacher to hold revivals for slaves around Southampton County, Virginia. Turner claimed to have a vision in which God told him to remove the anti–kingdom of God (slavery) and replace it with the kingdom of God: freedom for all Black people.

Turner recruited more than 70 men who, using knives, axes, pitchforks, etc., killed 60 white Southerners. Turner and his men did not discriminate in regard to who they killed. All whites were targets. Turner’s crew was defeated by a white militia. Turner was later captured and executed, his body skinned and boiled into oil. His bones were crushed. Turner’s rebellion led to mass executions and movement restrictions on free Blacks. Nat Turner’s uprising still to this day strikes fear in the heart of the American psyche.

The Invisible Institution was a theological, cultural, and political defense against a white slaveholder version of Christianity. The misapplication of Christianity was a major component helping keep enslaved Africans in bondage. One of the ways this was achieved was through the use of a “slave bible.” Enslaved Africans were restricted in what they could learn or be taught as it pertained to the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). The Hebrew Scriptures were full of liberation theology, narratives, and hope that would undermine the slave system. Slaves were taught primarily from the Pauline epistles—a misapplication of Jesus’s teachings on masters and servants—and given a theology that promised rewards in the afterlife at the expense of their current condition. We call this theology today “white evangelism.”

For an institution to be considered part of the Black Church, it must have not only certain aspects of worship and traditions, but also: a belief that God is on the side of the oppressed and the moral arc of the universe bends towards justice; a spirit of engaged liberation at its core; a radical proclamation of the dignity, freedom, and right to exist for (but not necessarily limited to) Black people; a religious imagination that is able to see ourselves in the history of the faith and in our sacred text.

It must be rooted and centered in a Black politics and Black culture, fully rejecting white evangelical theology. Just because one has a predominantly Black church or a pastor who happens to be Black does not make that institution a “Black Church.”

What is White Evangelical Theology?

White evangelical theology is a system of belief that uses God to justify white supremacy and other forms of domination over others. Plainly stated, it is the religious arm of white supremacy, and makes up part of what Rev. Dr. Theron Williams refers to in his book Black Church, White Theology as the domination system.

White evangelical theology is marked by several key features that include, but are not limited to: hyper-capitalistic spiritual beliefs (i.e, the “prosperity gospel”); hyper-focus on self over community (MY personal relationship); hyper-patriotism and -nationalism (this is a Christian nation, praying for flags, the January 6 coup attempt); a focus on conversion rather than discipleship (we must GIVE them the Gospel); the centering of whiteness and European standards of worship, theological interpretation, iconography, etc.; the desire to have dominion over others in the name of God (who has access to health care, control over reproductive rights, who can get married etc.); and a focus on spiritual matters at the expense of current realities.

The role of this other gospel in keeping the American social order unjust did not stop after the Civil War. Many of the people and organizations dedicated to upholding white supremacy considered themselves “Christian.” Preachers such as Methodist minister William Joseph Simmons helped create organizations to protect white power and the American way of life. These men and women saw it as their Christian duty to purify America by keeping whites separate from all others (who were in a subordinate status).

The Radical Black Church Today

Rev. Dr. James H. Cone was the father of liberation theology, in particular Black liberation theology. Cone builds on earlier traditions to offer a theology and Christology that boldly and clearly puts God on the side of the oppressed. Cone offers three key points: God is Black, both as a political construct and in human form; God is with us in our liberation struggles; and it is part of our faith mandate to overturn systems of oppression.

Dr. Katie Cannon

Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon was a Christian ethicist and student of Dr. Cone. Building on his work while challenging his lack of gender analysis, Cannon would form a womanist theology that speaks to the existence of Black women and the entire totality of the Black community. Cannon’s work offers the idea that God’s creation is more diverse when viewed through the lens of Black women.

Bishop Yvette Flunder

Bishop Yvette Flunder, a student of both Cone and Cannon, expanded on both of their work to include the LGBTQIA+ family in the discourse about God and God’s creation. Flunder argues, much like Cannon, that our view of God’s creation is more beautiful when we include the lives of and stories of our LBGTQIA+ family into the narrative. She also argues, like Cone, that God is with them in their struggle against oppression.

So what does a Black Church, a radical one at that, look like in this present reality? To answer this, we must engage in a Sankofa moment: i.e., look to the past to get some idea on our future. It should look the same as it did in times past. It should be a church that serves not as a chaplain to the empire, but rather as a place that rejects the social and religious construction of the slaveholding world and all of its trappings. Here the Black Church needs to speak with the boldness of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who challenged Lyndon Johnson and even broke with him on Vietnam. It should be bold enough to seek to disrupt the status quo, as Rev. Jesse Jackson did with his campaigns. It needs to be open and affirming, as are Rev. Dr. Pamela Lightsey and Bishop Flunder, and encourage decolonization of our faith, as did the late Bishop Carlton Pearson. It needs to be in the streets fighting for the least of these, as is Father Michael Pfleger, and fighting for the soul of America, as does Rev. William Barber II. And when necessary, it must even say God damn America, in the tradition of Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright.

The idea of a radical Black Church is in fact redundant: if it is not radical then it is not a Black Church. If it is not a Black Church, then it is not the religion of the field negro. A church made up of Black people that does not embody the religion of the field negro is a church that promotes white evangelical theology in Black face. It is as simple as that.

The Rev. Terrance L. Thomas is an Itinerant Elder with the African Methodist Church and the current pastor of Bethel AME Church in Champaign. He is also the Executive Director of Building Community Life Center, and he sits on several community boards, including the Champaign County Christian Health Center and CU at Home.

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