Has the black church been sufficiently decolonised?
Harriet Tubman

The founder of black theology James A Cone has forwarded the idea that black theologians and black preachers were forced to reject the Caucasian church's attempt to separate love from justice and religion from politics in their quest for greater earthly freedom for black people.

In the American context, Cone argued that black theologians and preachers turned away from Caucasian theologians and embraced the moral and ethical pronouncements of great African Americans like Richard Allen, James Varick, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Henry McNeal, and Martin Luther King Jr.

In response to the overt racism in Caucasian Christianity a number of African Americans were forced to launch their own black denominations. In 1794 Richard Allen broke away from the Caucasian Methodist church to start what became known as the black church movement. Allen called his new church the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). Allen was preceded, however, by Andrew Bryan, who, amidst great persecution and adversity, started the First African Baptist Church in 1790.

Martin Luther King Jr

In more recent times (1945), there was a parting of the ways of sorts in the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America as African American Seventh-day Adventist requested the right to form what are known as regional conferences or black conferences to more adequately cater to the needs of black Adventists in North America. This development came ironically on the eve of the repeal of the separate but equal policy which laid the foundation for Jim Crow or apartheid in America.

Richard Allen, Andrew Bryan, and the black Adventists who pushed for the formation of the regional conferences are all to be applauded for their efforts to make Christianity more responsive to the plight and needs of descendants of enslaved Africans. No amount of historical revisionism on the part of faith-based historians of the Caucasian or African variety can erase the scarlet letter indelibly marked in the forehead of Eurocentric Christianity by the original sin of slavery and racism.

The black church movement sought to create some distance between itself and a Caucasian church structure that had drunk deeply from the polluted and intoxicating cup of racism. White Catholics and Protestants were equally seduced by the lure of human trafficking and the wealth generated from the free labour of enslaved Africans.

White churches were, therefore, complicit in the enslavement of Africans and in the colonial ventures that followed after the era of slavery ended. It is understandable why faith-based historians and black preachers might want to walk back some of the harshness to which Eurocentric Christianity had been wedded. Collaborators are never treated favourably by the oppressed once the oppressed get out from under the boot of oppression.

Faith-based black historians and black preachers must, however, tread a fine line between their faith and the historical reality of people of African ancestry. It simply is not acceptable for faith-based black historians and black preachers to downplay the coercive nature of the missionary enterprise that accompanied both slavery and colonisation.

Eurocentric religion benefited significantly when plantation societies criminalised the spirituality of our African ancestors. Pastors and priests edged on the secular authorities as they sought to root out every vestige of African superstition. Africans were murdered, imprisoned, and deported simply for trying to follow the spiritual traditions of their ancestors. Even today, in the supposedly post-colonial Caribbean, many islands still retain laws criminalising the practice of African spirituality.

The black church has made some advances but clearly much more still needs to be done.

If the Creator is a spirit, then there is no need for black people to imagine or depict the Creator as an old, bearded Caucasian. Jesus, if he really existed, was a brown Middle Easterner rather than a pale-skinned, blond, blue-eyed hippie. The angels who correspond to the Orishas in African spirituality should be able to materialise in any skin colour of their choice.

Most importantly, the black church needs to move away from its fixation with Jewish ancestors and history and become more firmly rooted in the spiritual traditions and thought patterns birthed in the cauldrons of the black experience.

Lenrod Nzulu Baraka is founder of Afro-Caribbean Spiritual Teaching Center. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or rodneynimrod2@gmail.com.


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