Commentary: The Black Church – Not a Monolith

A discussion of African-American religious life and practices is impoverished without an illumination of its rich past and its present maturation. There are many acute interpretative concerns associated with the disclosure of the form and content of African-American religious practices, as is the case with all cultural and subcultural forms. The particular religious experiences of African-Americans do not begin with their presentations in the forms of denominations and institutions (e.g., in Islam, Vodun, spiritual churches, Protestantism, or Humanisms).

The emergence of African-American religious practices is the combined product of varied indigenous African religious practices syncretized with unique religious forms created during New World enslavement. From the moment West African peoples were stolen from their continent, it had never been clear why such trauma ensued. It was precisely this incoherence that served as impetus for new forms of religious expressions. They began to invest in cultural narratives that served to give meaning to the horror of the imposition of enslavement. African-American religious creations are attendant to their lived experiences and are imbued with religious meaning. The history of African-American religious experiences is variegated and culturally significant. For example, music, rites/rituals, myths, texts, conceptual frameworks and ideologies, and gender/sexual politics, are fodder for religious imagination and avails it of religious expressions.

It is imperative that our interpretations do not undertake revisionists’ histories or overly-nostalgic interpretations of African-American religious experiences. However, to understand the complexities of the African-American religious experience, it is paramount to maintain the integrity of these religious expressions by advancing clear-minded, critical analyses of their emergence and evolution. The potency of these experiences is observed in their struggle to reinterpret Christian and non-Christian symbols that serve as existential and communal resources.

An investigation of African-American religious experiences extends far beyond the discussion of “the Black church.” Indeed, the examination of the broader concept of African-American religion provides a more coherent vision of the profound complexities and diversity of African-American religious life than would a discussion solely focused on the institution known as “Black Church.” There are vital limitations associated with such a circumscribed analysis of Black Church.

One such concern is definitional. It arises when articulations are proffered as to the appropriate referent for the designation “Black Church.” To the degree to which the ascription of the term “Black Church” is oft en rendered nebulous by virtue of its ambiguous definitions and conceptual illusiveness, univocal assertions made regarding the Black Church are inappropriate. Many have taken issue with the ascription “Black Church” being given to those Black churches that, albeit having predominantly Black congregations, appear as merely “Black faces” placed on predominantly “White” or non-Black denominations (e.g., Presbyterian, Catholic, and Episcopalian). The sentiment here is not to undermine the legitimacy or efficacy of these churches, but to merely illustrate the nature of the difficulty of essentializing one’s claims regarding the real or legitimate “Black Church.”

The Black Church is a nomenclature that should be resisted, if not jettisoned at all costs—the cost of that instantiation and assertion are far too expensive. It is vital that we turn to more thoroughgoing analyses of the experiences of African-Americans that are interpreted as religious or imply religious significance. These experiences that are viewed as sacred or imbued with religious meaning extend prior to and are possibly expressed and lived outside the institution we know as Black Church.

Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and even W.E.B. Dubois were all influenced and informed by progressive democratic views of justice and fairness imbibed from the religious character of the rhetoric and social action exemplified in the lived experiences of Black folks. To be sure, this is not unique to African-American culture. But the take away here is that there were and are very clear views of human possibilities and human excellence promulgated in the reflective lived experiences of African-Americans.

The social and political heritage of African-Americans must not be reduced to the mere place of gathering—the church. The interpretive gaze should be turned toward the doings, sayings, and practices of those Black folks that understood then and now, that scrupulous stewardship of needed changes regarding religious views of right/wrong, justice/injustice, and punishments/rewards must be cultivated.

It is quite parochial and wrongheaded to purport that the Black Church, as if a monolith, is solely responsible for a diminution of progressive social action by African-Americans. The symbols and conceptual frameworks are indeed desirous of and in need of refinement. Interested parties must relinquish the assumption that these developments must be transacted within the walls of a physical space, and by a priestly class of doctrinal interpreters. D

— Illya Davis is a lecturer of philosophy and religion at Clark Atlanta University.