Debating the "Black Church" (Or Why I Love Religion Dispatches)



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KELLY BAKER

As should already be obvious, I am slightly enamored with Religion Dispatches and the analysis of current religious affairs. From Oprah to "Culting," the posts are poignant, reasoned and effective. So today, I was pleasantly surprised to find a debate on the term "Black Church" in reference to Rev. Jeremiah Wright's commentary on the media's antagonistic relationship with the Black Church. (T.D. Jakes expressed that the media distracts churches from their true work with negative coverage in a piece for CNN.) Anthony Pinn and our own Katie Lofton focus on problems with the usage of the term. In "Black Church: Institution or Abstraction," Pinn writes:

The phrase “the Black Church” is an at times useful category of religious commitment and expression; yet it is misleading. Media depictions and commentary tend to flatten what is already a stretched terminology. There is not a historical reality known as the “Black Church” that actually represents a unified and static organization. It is a term meant to signal, to capture, a full range of theologies, practices and structures. It is an abstraction. What we really have in the United States are black churches, as varied in orientation as the number of congregations. There are millions of African American Christians housed in thousands of churches across the country–some of them rather large and others small in number.

In using this phrase, we must remain mindful of the similarities and differences between local congregations, spread across urban and rural areas that the term, “Black Church,” easily covers. It is true that the term speaks to a generic embrace of the Christian faith found within African American communities. For example, this involves some concern for the Christ event as a primary mode of understanding the relationship between the divine and humanity. However any attention to the denominational structures–Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, and so on–points clearly to notable differences regarding, for example, the nature of salvation, the importance and proper form of baptism. These differences present vividly if one considers local congregations are not simply matters of thought. Rather, practice informed by thought—or praxis–also differs across what we’ve called the “Black Church.”

In her "Black Church Blues," Lofton argues:

At some point, we have to give it up. I know it will be hard. I know it will be sad. But sometime soon, hopefully very soon, we have to let go. Maybe a communal scrapbooking will help. Or perhaps someone can commission some sculpture. But no matter what, no matter how hard, we have got to consider the possibility that one of the more precious categories of religious classification is also one of our most pernicious. I speak today of “The Black Church.”

She further notes that the problem is that the term has become a monolithic description of African American churches, and moreover, this presents a static image of a diverse religious traditions and peoples. She continues:

For scholars (then and now) the Black Church functions as the black institution, that thing which has been defined by and sustained by the subjects themselves. Liberationist black scholarship reinforced the historical and cultural importance of The Black Church, casting it as the critical bridge away from slavery, away from economic deprivation, and away from a state of victimization. The Black Church was, therefore, intended to resist the primitivist consignments of white culture, offering a sophisticated, institutionalized alternative to the folk and the primitive. It was external structure for a people denied the ability to mold external freedom; it was, at the very least, a trap of their own making. And so scholarship reframed this history in one long corporate classification, conjuring an ideal social invention to save everyone from the taint of racial manhandling and imperial overlay. Over the long history of governmental mismanagement, abuse, and exploitation of African American labor and (non-)citizenship, the black church countered and created. It was an imagined opposite to a postulated leviathan.

In some ways, it hurts to deconstruct a term carrying such revolutionary virtue. But when attempting to invest individuals with biographical fullness (when attempting, say, to explain presidential candidates or their pastors or their pastor’s geographic situation or their denomination’s history or their presidential possibilities as correlate to their pastors and their geographies and their denominations) the Black Church acts as a beached whale on the highway. It is beached and blanched not only because it is monolithic and irritatingly vague to the scrupulous archival historian, pundit, or average voter struggling to make an informed decision (although yes, it is that), but also because it obscures the very agency it claims to inscribe. Such analytic vagary encourages a view of African Americans as static, universal, and essentially corporeal, while whites are allowed the possibility of change and multiplicity. Concepts like the Black Church are inherently resistant to individuation. While individual whites develop, regress, complicate, and contemplate over time, under the auspices of the Black Church, African Americans are trapped in eternal descriptors as easily read in any individual member as in the Black Church uterine whole.

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