The Black Church has an orientation problem. No, not that orientation problem. It’s the problem of defining itself and its theology in relationship to “white Christianity.”
The problem has been there since the enslavement of African peoples and the expulsion of African-Americans from predominantly white congregations and denominations. From the time the first chaplains, preachers, and plantation missionaries began to proclaim their message to slaves, the burning question became, “How shall we orient ourselves to white Christians and white Christianity?” With the rise of independent Black churches in the late 1700s and the first denominations in the early 1800s, the question only intensified. Without the egalitarian camp meetings mixing peoples in a gospel way, and without the necessity of looking at each other in worship settings, there was no impetus for pursuing deeper reconciliation.
But that doesn’t mean the Black church was able to go off on its own without determining how best to orient itself to professing white brethren. In the early days of Black Baptist conventions, for example, vigorous debates were held about whether to cooperate with white denominations in missions or whether to invite whites to Black denominational gatherings. Sometimes those debates threatened further divisions in denominational bodies.
“The problem has been there since the enslavement of African peoples…”
At other times, self-conscious reflections on the African-American experience prompted questions about the viability and adaptability of “white theology” in the Black church context. The first churches and denominations pretty much without exception adopted the statements of faith inherited from white evangelical counterparts. Black faith was and is evangelical faith. Yet, the old formulations said nothing about race, racism, slavery, suffering, justice, resistance, struggle, freedom, or abolition. It was not an applied faith—at least not applied to the African-American context. So, the church has been consistently troubled by this question of how to relate to the theology it inherited. Some eventually called for a Black God for Black people. Others carried on an embrace of the “Western” theological tradition. Some became essentially pragmatic and atheological. Still others called for an entirely new theological project, assuming the “Western” inheritance beyond remediation.
The Black church has always been seeking “shoes that fit our feet,” to borrow from the title of Dwight Hopkins’ book, which borrows from a slave testimony. Our separatist identity—for that’s what the Black church is and has—cannot be escaped and begs the question of the church’s orientation to the white church. That tension gets expressed in questions like, “Can you be Black and Christian?” (1960s and 70s) or “Can you be Black and Reformed?” (1990s-2000s). “Black and…” will forever characterize the Black church as long as she remains independent and yet oriented in some way to non-Black communities.
What to do?
First, the Black church must recover a radical God centeredness in its theology and practice. We cannot be oriented to other men in the doing of our theology. That is to poison the theology (which is an act of worship) with idolatry from the start. Whatever we do in the development and application of doctrine, we must do for the glory of the Lord. It must be our ambition to exalt our God. Everything else must be relativized in relation to the Lord of glory and King of kings. We’re not church-centered. We’re not people-centered. We’re not politics-centered. We are God centered, orbiting about Jehovah as the sun of our universe. If we orient ourselves to God in His word, it will invariably turn us from men.
Second, the Black church must see the wider Christian heritage as legitimately its own and not exclusively or even mainly the inheritance of “white Christianity.” All God’s people belong to all God’s people. The center of the theological solar system is not an ethnic people but the God who reigns over all nations. It is God who adopts us into His family and gives us a family history, the story of Christian theology and identity through the centuries. There must be a simultaneous rejection and embrace—rejection of one family member “owning” that tradition exclusively and the embrace of that wider tradition as our own. We can no longer feel ourselves disenfranchised and disempowered by the insistence of some that the Christian tradition is a western tradition. We can no longer fall into the trap of thinking that legitimacy is determined by reference to that tradition as if it were not our own and as if it eclipsed what is our own. For what is “ours” is also “theirs,” and what is “theirs” belongs to “us.” We reject theological snobbery and hierarchism in order to more fully embrace and appropriate what God’s people have in common.
Third, the Black church must continue to develop, articulate and share theological work focused on its own historical, social, cultural, economic and even political vantage point. In this sense, we need to be oriented toward God in situ, in our place, context and reality. We need not ask permission, seek approval, or offer an apology for doing so. We need to do this literally without regard to what anyone else thinks. One of the major failings of Black theology as a discipline is that it spent considerable energy seeking legitimacy and interaction with what it viewed as the “white academy.” As radical as it considered itself, Black theology was still seeking approval and acceptance from whites. Simultaneously it failed by making the history and culture of Black people the source of its theological material instead of the Scripture itself. Its social location became its text rather than its context. At which point it fails to do what needs to be done—deep independent theological work in context and sometimes critical of context without fear of or need for the approval of others. We need a genuine theological movement oriented to African-America.
“We need to be oriented toward God in situ..”
But an important qualifier needs to be made. Though the theological and practical reflection of African-Americans need not seek approval from others, this does not mean we’re being tribal or exclusive. For the blessing of diverse social locations is the ability to raise questions and proffer answers that persons in other social locations cannot see or consider given their context. This is the Black church’s gift to the wider Church, however she may use it. We need this exchange. We need to plumb the tradition of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints as well as breathe new life and learning and application into the faith for our day. This begins with taking seriously our own social location but it continues with handing that reflection to the wider family of God.
Fourth, the Black church must make a cautious but joyful embrace of multi-ethnic churches. The movement to plant and grow multi-ethnic churches represents a new and hopeful work of the Spirit. The breaking down of old ethnic barriers and the rewriting of old inter-ethnic scripts is what we ought to see with the gospel’s advance. All Christians ought to embrace and celebrate this development. However, the proliferation and embrace of multi-ethnic churches cannot mean the elimination of the ethnic or the re-entrenchment of old patterns of disproportionate privilege and power. In other words, multi-ethnic cannot mean a more subtle return to disenfranchising hypocrisy and gospel denial that necessitated the Black church’s birth to begin with. The Black church shouldn’t rebuild and station guards around the ethnic “wall of hostility” which Christ tore down in His body on the tree (Eph. 2). But we must make sure that we’re embracing the genuine “one new man” that is in Christ. The reconciliation must be real, and the test of its authenticity will be new patterns of sharing and distribution typified by the early church in the Scriptures.
I’m not sure how often we put words to this orientation problem. But it’s there. It’s nagging and unsettling. To be quietly and frequently oriented to “white Christianity” calls into question blackness itself. That’s no easy tension to live with, so we need to cut the knot in our theology and our stomachs by reorienting ourselves, our theology and our worship to that One True and Living God who alone stands at the center of everything.