My appreciation for the Black church is well-documented, as are my critiques. Among other things, sound scholarship requires a balanced and nuanced approach, the ability and willingness to appreciate one side of a debate even while taking a valid opposing position.
Discussing the Black church adequately requires this nuanced thinking, particularly when political activism and social justice frame the discussion. On one hand, we can argue that as an institution, the Black church (especially its Protestant branches) has advocated for its congregants and extended congregants in the larger Black community. It created some of our first places of literacy and learning in the United States. It provided safe places for us to meet, renew our spirits, reinterpret Biblical passages and white theology into a Social Gospel to make sure God’s “Will be done on Earth, as it is in heaven.”The Abolition Movement, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights Movement could not be sustained without the Black church. Whether through protest music, projects of benevolence, education, or organizing the community to politically agitate, the Black church played a pivotal and indispensable variety of roles in the struggle for Black liberation and empowerment.
And yet, our church is not above critique. After centuries of white cultural imperialism, and the deliberate erasure of our role in world civilization and U.S. history, too many of our churches insist that “God has no color,” but continue to depict Jesus Christ as a white man on their stained-glass windows, and refuse to teach congregants about their cultural, aesthetic, and historical beauty and greatness; The church – like every other institution – suffers from patriarchy and gender bias. While Black women continue to comprise the overwhelming majority of Black church congregants, financial supporters, and volunteer workers/leaders, relatively few lead a church in the role of minister; The church dragged its feet and took an infamously conservative position on the HIV/AIDS epidemic in years past, presumably because it was uncomfortable having conversations about then-taboo subjects of fornication and homosexuality.
The Black church (representing as it does a people who are still stereotyped, criminalized, killed by police, underrepresented in sites of power and over-represented with respect to incarceration, deprivation, drugs and fratricide) must have a theology that connects spiritual edification to earthly empowerment. This becomes crystal clear with the issue of anti-Black police brutality. Police officers attack or kill Black and Brown people with disturbing frequency and are predictably exonerated.
The Black church cannot isolate itself to the pulpit or the pew, locking itself in a spiritual castle surrounded by a moat of dead Black bodies mangled by police bullets, white hatred, or Black apathy. Black Ministers and congregations throughout the United States must uphold the value of Black life and find ways to engage local communities in discussion, prayer and activism around the issue of police brutality.
This society has attempted criminalize an entire race of people. Your spiritual beliefs, church affiliation, or denomination offer you no protection from police brutality. Stand up, Black church, like you did in the era of enslavement. Be the radical moral conscience of this country like you did during the Civil Rights Movement. T.D. Jakes and churches in Los Angeles, and in other cities throughout this nation. Some ministers and churches are doing fine work, but the pressure has decreased since last month largely because two NYPD officers were murdered. We applaud and support those churches taking a stand on the issue of police brutality and incorporating this into their sermons and activism. But far too many are preaching the same ole’ “God will make a way out of no way” or “Put on the whole armor of God” sermons devoid of any political education, organizing or activism.
As I understand Christian theology, Jesus healed the sick, cured the blind, made the lame walk, fed the hungry, educated the ignorant, and resurrected the dead. Whether you interpret these miracles to be actual or symbolic, the point is that the Christ was not only concerned about earthly issues affecting common people, but meaningfully involved in addressing them.
Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.”
Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.