American Christianity in Black and White

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by Byron C. Douglas, Ph.D

The expression of one’s faith is significantly influenced by cultural, historical, and racial factors. For example, the black worship experience in a great many churches is marked by gospel singing, rhythms and beats that are African influenced, and a call and response preaching and singing style that has African origins. Cultural, historical and racial factors may influence scriptural interpretations, and also one’s perspective on societal events.

Since 2008, a number of Black Christians around the country pray regularly for president Obama’s (and his family’s) safety and for him to make wise decisions for the nation. On the other hand, a number of white evangelical Christians, and those who consider themselves to be members of the religious “right” pray regularly for his failure, his removal from office, and even his demise. Pastor Wiley Drake of California, and a twice elected second vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention, openly prayed for Obama’s death and encouraged others to do so. A number of white Christians question the president’s “legitimacy,” his citizenship, and his faith.

This difference between Black and White Christians is nothing new. There is a long history in America of differing “theological” perspectives between Black and White Christians. White religious institutions attempted to justify the barbarity of chattel slavery by purporting that it was “God’s will”. They tried to justify the myth of White superiority and Black subservience by citing the “curse of Ham” and Paul’s admonition for slaves to “obey” their masters. They also argued that slavery was the only means by which the slave could find “redemption” and “salvation”.

The slave identified with the biblical stories of deliverance from bondage (Moses) and deliverance from unjust persecution (Daniel). The slave welcomed the Good News that would set the captives free. They could identify with a savior who comforted the afflicted and reached out to the marginalized of society. One could surmise that they also related to a savior who was tortured and crucified (lynched), yet rose again. The slave also understood that faith without action is dead. Therefore they ran away, were disruptive on the plantation, and revolted (see the Baptist minister, Rev. Nat Turner).

Beyond emancipation, with few exceptions, White Christian leaders remained silent during reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynching, segregation, discrimination, and blatant injustice. In fact, many White Christians defended these practices. During the Civil Rights movement there were many Whites who defended segregation by stating it was “God’s will” for the races to be separate. The Movement was populated by Black church goers who faced terrorism because they believed in a God of justice, a God who heard the cry of the dispossessed. These Black Christians believed that their faith would be rewarded. They pressed on and forced the nation to make a monumental change.

Today we are faced with White Christians who believe it is their “calling”, their God given “right” (no pun intended) to lead. They want to take the country “back” (to what?). Michelle Bachman, Rick Perry, and even Newt Gingrich claim that it is God’s will for them to run the country. These “Christians” appear to believe that patriotism (or is it White nationalism?) and faith is synonymous, and that they represent a new “Manifest Destiny”.

Well my history, culture, race and faith leads me to reject a Christianity that favors the haves over the have-nots; that supports a veiled supremacist ideology; that wraps right wing extremism in the cloak of religious iconography; and refuses to acknowledge the sins of racial hatred (past and present), xenophobia, Islamophobia, and the mythical recounting of American history (“the founding fathers worked tirelessly to end slavery”—Bachman).

I will embrace and try to follow the Jesus that cared for the oppressed, embraced the children, addressed the spiritual and physical needs of the people, confronted the status quo and hypocrisy, and encouraged people to grow.

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