Create the problem, then solve it

Norm Allen on the Black Church:

Henry Louis Gates’ two-part, 4-hour documentary on the Black Church was featured on PBS February 16–17, 2021. It focused on the Black Church’s role in combating racism. While it is clear that churches (or rather, church people) have always had some positive aspects, the bottom line is that theistic churches have at their center the belief in a perfect God.

So the question that instantly comes to my mind – as it did every time I saw a teaser for Gates’s doc on PBS – is why this perfect God allowed slavery, or any kind of race-based hierarchy, or any kind of hierarchy period.

For all of the talk of the role of the Black Church in the struggle for civil rights, when I was growing up in the 1960s and 70s, I never attended a single church in which modern slavery or racism was even mentioned, let alone discussed in sermons…I have conducted no scholarly research to confirm or dismiss my personal observation. However, I have spoken with many other African Americans that attended church back then, and all of them have agreed with my observation. There are many Black scholars who have said that most Black churches either were not involved with the civil rights movement, or actually distrusted it. I suspect that this is true.

From what I’ve read a lot of Black churches looked very askance at King and the SCLC at first (and had no time for SNCC at all). That may have been more to do with fear and the realities of life in the south than with moral or religious “principles,” but it does hint that it wasn’t all a story of rights and freedom and rising up.

[M]ost Black churches have promoted the idea that only Christians can make it into Heaven. Obviously, religion evolves before our very eyes, and many, if not most, Black Christians have abandoned this bigoted religious belief. However, many still embrace it, and it is a part of history. A good historian should examine the belief and see how it has influenced people for better or worse.

Similarly, Black churches defend a belief in Hell and demons. The great 19th Century freethinker Robert Green Ingersoll once stated that “all the meanness of which the human heart is capable is summed up in that one word: Hell.” The belief in Hell and demons has led to botched “exorcisms,” false accusations against and ostracization of alleged sinners, literal witch hunts and much worse.

And it also leads to starkly binary views of people – saved or not saved, good or evil, one of us or cast out. None of that leads to a good place.

Finally, the documentary focused on the idea that without the Black Church, there would have been no real fight against slavery and racism. This is a case to be argued and not assumed. In any case, if not for White Christianity and the racism and slave system that it created, there would have been no need for the Black Church. As Gore Vidal noted, Christianity is a great religion for solving the problems that it creates.

It’s what con artists do – dump something on your carpet and then make a big show of cleaning it up with this miraculous device only $99.99 if you buy now.

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