In view of recent developments being argued and debated in Congress, before the Supreme Court, within the Church, and within the larger context of society on hot topics like same-sex marriage, voting rights, affirmative action, gun control, the economy, and other socio-political issues, I revisited an article written by Eddie Glaude, Jr., Ph.D., Professor of Religion and Chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University that created a maelstrom of criticism from the Black clergy, seminarians, civil rights leaders, church leaders, and laity alike. Glaude wrote a controversial article in the Huffington Post, titled, “The Black Church Is Dead” (February 24, 2010), that critiqued the role and effectiveness of the Black Church in the 21st Century. The purpose for this article is neither to further debate Glaude’s criticism of the Black Church nor to address any specific issue that he asserts. Rather I would argue for a Church that is fearless, unapologetic, and that speaks with a prophetic voice, “What does the Lord require of you?” even if it means being persecuted, ridiculed, threatened, and intimidated by a secular media, popular culture, and society.
Glaude argued, “Black America stands at the precipice. African American unemployment is at its highest in 25 years. Thirty-five percent of our children live in poor families. Inadequate healthcare, rampant incarceration, home foreclosures, and a general sense of helplessness overwhelm many of our fellows” (Huffington Post 2010). Glaude’s criticism seemed to suggest that many Black Churches had left or abandoned the prophetic model and call to social justice like Rev. Martin Luther King—one that challenges political and economic institutions of power—for a more materialistic, conservative self-help prosperity gospel led by well-known white and black televangelists, and some mega-church pastors.
There already have been a great number of scholars, theologians, pastors, and intellectuals that have written critical reviews and opinions—pros and cons; liberal and conservative—on Glaude’s view of the Black Church and its need to be more engaged “on the national stage” on issues that African-Americans face in their daily lived experiences. It is not unusual however for the Church to receive criticism from time-to-time on whether or not it is fulfilling its purpose and mission. What shocked and surprised many within the Black Church was that such scathing criticism came from within and from a member of its elite club—a black theologian.
LEFT AND WHO’S RIGHT
Criticism from many conservative religious and political leaders suggest that the old vanguard of civil rights leaders perpetuate a mentality of victimization and entitlement that keep blacks locked in poverty and from being successful. They argue that self-help, hard work, and personal responsibility are the tools needed for success and that blacks must let go of past injustices like slavery, discrimination, and de facto segregation (in other words, “get over it”), if they want to compete and succeed in today’s global marketplace.
Liberals argue that economic wealth, prosperity, and empowerment cannot be fully achieved or realized until racism and economic inequality—past and present—is acknowledged and honestly confronted through some form of a national dialogue on race. Cornel West stated in his book Race Matters, “To engage in a serious discussion of race in American, we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society—flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes.” Many of those long-held negative stereotypes have been perpetuated by conservative politicians and media who care very little about legitimate black concerns. For example, the so-called religious Christian right and conservative politicians often use the myth of “black victimization” as means to caricature “blacks as a problem” in order to advance their conservative views and agenda.
Personally, I have no allegiance to any of these groups. Most all of them have lied to and about blacks—Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, alike. All of these political groups and their alliances have a history of deception towards blacks and blacks have been often used as pawns in their socio-political games. No other group in America has been met with so much distain, hate, and rejection as African-Americans. No other group has been wrongfully mistreated, misused, misunderstood, and exploited for political purposes as much as African-Americans. And yet Blacks have succeeded and survived in spite of the odds against them; in part because of the Black Church. This is not a myth. It’s an historical fact.
I definitely believe in self-help, black empowerment, and personal responsibility, but not necessarily defined through the lens of a political party, nor by conservative evangelical or liberal Christians. Over the years I must confess that I have become increasingly uncomfortable and disagree with the political and religious views of some conservative evangelical Christian groups and leaders like Franklin Graham, John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and their ilk, on matters of race and social justice. They know little, if anything, about the African-American experience—and nil on matters of social justice.
I feel that it is time for blacks to define their own destiny (individually and collectively), and divorce themselves from both political parties and yes, even some Christian affiliations, and begin creating new paradigms of political, religious, and sites for social change. It is also time for us to lead and stop being led by those who have no real or genuine interest in the concerns of African-Americans and our communities. The Black Church in particular must be clear about what it stands for rather than what it so clearly stands against. In order for this to happen visionary leadership is needed.
Black Church conferences and conventions will have to change from just “feel good” moments of praise and worship and entertainment, and begin to seriously engage people in the process of becoming agents of change in our communities, families, nation, and world. Jesus has already declared the Church’s power and position when he said, “. . . and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 16:18-19).
SALT AND LIGHT
Regardless to the criticism the question still remains to whom, what, and how will we speak? Will a secular world even listen to what the Black Church has to say and will it matter? Unfortunately, the Black Church—and the Church in general—is too busy being worried about and listening to the world and society’s opinion of them rather than being the “salt and light” Jesus taught and instructed it to be.
In Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 5, verses 13 and 14, we hear the words of Jesus to his disciples after he had given them the Beatitudes and after teaching them how they were to live as citizens of his kingdom. They were to be the salt of the earth meaning they were to keep the world from moral corruption and decay by the lives they were to live. They were also to be the light, which meant Christians are to be the world’s light in darkness. John Stott states, “Like light in the prevailing darkness, Christians are to illumine society and show it a better way.” Unfortunately, today’s disciples and Christians are losing some of its seasoning and brightness. Instead the world appears to be crushing the Church under its feet through unbelief and secularism.
Even the Black Church from which I draw my faith tradition is struggling to find its place and voice in the world today. There was a time when our community looked to the Church for guidance, inspiration, succor, and hope. One could largely depend upon the Black Church to be the stabilizing force within the Black community. We buried our dead, voted and elected our officials, sent our children off to college, took care of the sick and fed the hungry, welcomed home our sons from war, married our first love, marched and fought for civil rights and against racism, raised our children, and heard the liberating Gospel preached to us. That tradition is being lost in a secular society and popular culture that doesn’t believe in God, the Bible, or the Church.
C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya wrote in their seminal book, The Black Church in the African American Experience, “While there has been some chipping away at the edges, particularly among unchurched underclass black youth and some college educated, middle-class young adults, black churches still remain the central institutional sector in most black communities.” Lincoln and Mamiya’s research and findings challenges and raise concern to all who still love this community and who are willing fight to save it. “One of the major roles of black churches in the future,” they argue, “will be as historic reservoirs of black culture and as examples of resistance and independence” (15).
So, who then are today’s prophetic voices and visionary leaders? Who is fearless enough to speak truth to power and take a stand against secular and popular culture? With all the noise being made and the clatter of voices proclaiming to know the way of the Lord who will even listen to what the Black Church has to say particularly in a growing anti-Christian, secular, and godless society?
Do blacks even need prophetic voices like those during the 1960’s like, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Fannie Lou Hamer, to name just a few. Or, do we believe and accept the view like so many white and neo-black conservatives espouse that the civil rights era is over. Racial segregation and discrimination like the 1960’s, they insist, no longer exist. The days of marching are over. Historians have declared this as the post-Civil Rights era.
Conservatives love to point the gains African Americans have made in entertainment, sports, the media, education, economics, politics, and yes, even in the White House as proof that the civil rights era of the past achieved its goals. Apparently, a great majority of African-Americans didn’t get the memo. What many of them fail to understand is that many of these gains were achieved not “because of” them but “in spite of” them.
If there are any prophetic voices speaking today they have been muted and silenced by the “rulers of this age” (politicians, secular media, popular culture, etc.). If today’s prophets speak too loudly about disparate economic inequities, racism, and social injustices there are strong currents and forces of opposition that firmly stand against them.
To say the Black Church is not being systematically targeted by those who disagree with its views and teachings of Christianity and morality is not telling the truth. Blogs, newspapers, the news media, politicians, academia, LGBT groups, and yes, even some black clergy are filled with anti-Christian/anti-Church sentiment, bad theological opinions, erroneous and false biblical interpretations, and deceptive exegesis of Scripture to discredit the Black Church. Nevertheless, the Black Church will survive, stand strong, and speak out on issues that affect them.
There is a strong bias and negative caricature of the Black Church that attempts to undermine and provoke disunity between the church and community. The fore-mentioned groups blame the Church and its leaders for everything that is wrong and ill in society. There is a war of cultures and the Black Church is now the enemy. The Church should not be surprised at world’s treatment and hatred towards them. Jesus said,
“Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and kill you, and you will be hated by all nations for My name’s sake. And then many will be offended, will betray one another, and will hate one another. Then many false prophets will rise up and deceive many” (Matthew 24:9-11).
HEARTBEAT VS. DRUMBEAT
The Black Church is not dead or dying. It’s being renewed, energized, and gaining strength to tackle today’s issues. I still believe the Black Church is the heartbeat of our community, and those who would like to destroy its influence know this all too well. Contrary to what some may believe there are many who yet cling to the Black Church and find a source of fulfillment, unlimited love, support, renewal, and spiritual strength. Further, it will be the Black community that will decide who, when, and what its focus and fight will be on the national stage. Indeed, the fight will be different from those of the 1950s and 60s. The Black Church will not be kneeling this time but standing to face the Goliaths of today.
The secular media has often painted a very narrow and simplistic picture of the Black Church, which is often portrayed as being uneducated, controlling, homophobic, uninformed, backward leading, sexist, patriarchal, having corrupt leaders, and often led by womanizing Black preachers with an obsession for money. While some of this criticism may be true it doesn’t speak to the total contributions the Black Church has made and continues to make in its community.
Still others argue that many Christians are “on the wrong side of history.” In my opinion it is far better to be on the wrong side of history that on the wrong side on God. While I don’t disagree entirely with many of Glaude’s opinions and observation, yet I wonder if the Black Church and its leaders will have the boldness and courage to speak out like the prophet Isaiah who judged and spoke to the future state of Israel regardless to the consequences.
“Whom shall I send,
And who will go for Us?”
Then I said, “Here am I! Send me.”
And He said, “Go, and tell this people:
‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
Keep on seeing, but do not perceive’ (Isaiah 6:8-9).
I hear the sounds and the drumbeats of war.
 Glaude, Eddie, Jr. “The Black Church Is Dead.” The Huffington Post February 24 2010.
 West, Cornel. Race Matters. Boston: Beacon Press, 1993, p. 3.
 Stott, John R. W. “Four Ways Christians Can Influence the World.” Christianity Today October 2011.
 Lincoln, C. Eric, and Lawrence H. Mamiya. “The Black Church and the Twenty-First Century: Challenges to the Black Church.” The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1990. 382-404.