The social media feeds of my left-leaning friends reveal an ongoing shock at the character and politics of mainstream Christianity in the United States. But many followers of Jesus have known for a very long time that western Christianity was severely diseased.
A century before Alicia Garza came Anna Arnold Hedgeman, Violet Johnson, and Florence Spearing Randolph.
Christianity isn’t inherently white supremacist. But Christian faith in America has been interpreted in a way that upholds the tenets of white supremacy, which is built on 18th and 19th century Western hegemonic values. These cultural values, which have been intertwined into mainline American Christianity, protect and uphold the system of white supremacy. “All men are created equal,” claims the Declaration of Independence.
In American history, some lives have mattered; others have not. That difference fundamentally has been a racial one.
As African Americans faced first slavery and then Jim Crow, they nestled in the black church as a haven. In the 1950s and ’60s, blacks congregated to fight legal oppression. In The Color of Christ, American religion historians Edward Blum and Paul Harvey argue that blacks and whites were once unified under the mantle of Christianity in efforts to combat societal vice and ills. Yet in more recent decades, black religiosity has shifted. Though many within the black community continue to showcase their religious conservatism, others have slowly drifted away.
America is living stormy Monday while the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday. Can we recover a blues sensibility?
In some spaces, stories are told of glass ceilings but with no mention of those stuck in the basement. Many African American Christians tell stories of driving while black or other times they’ve personally experienced racial profiling. But they are silent when it comes to the devastating impact of police brutality and mass incarceration on poor black communities. Some love to point people’s attention to how their presence has too often caused white people to cross the street or to clutch their purse, but yet turn their faces away from how young black people are stereotyped and criminalized as thugs and jezebels.
In years and decades to come, we’ll remember the last two weeks. The Emanuel A.M.E. massacre, the sudden shift away from the Confederate flag, the Supreme Court’s reaffirmation of the Affordable Care Act and its extension of same-sex marriage to every state. Last Friday there was an awesome funeral service for Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Emanuel and one of the victims in the shooting. And all of it while once again black churches have been burning, some under suspicious circumstances. For all of America’s secularization, actual and expected, each event was resonant with religious significations—and each prompted a wave of public theology.
The American hospice movement is thriving. But its growth has tended to neglect African Americans.
Paul Harvey's introduction to the history of African-American Christianity emphasizes both the fraught relationship between black and white Christians and the tensions within black religious institutions and communities.