A New Book Calls for a More Activist Black Church — But That Might Be Easier Said Than Done

The difference between churches of service and activism is seen by the degree to which they hold to the philosophies of black theology, a school of religious thought that emerged in the wake of the racial tumult of the ‘60s.

The difference between churches of service and activism is seen by the degree to which they hold to the philosophies of black theology, a school of religious thought that emerged in the wake of the racial tumult of the ‘60s.

Chuck D issued many a mission statement during Public Enemy’s heyday, and is still at it even though, a generation later, a nation of millions has no idea of that. He self-described as “louder than a bomb” to which one critic added “and considerably less concise”. But at their best, his Black Power-rooted lyrics (and his authoritative flow, not to mention the Bomb Squad’s beats-by-collage) captured the post-civil rights, pre-millennial rage of two disparate communities: the educated, activist left, and the young ghetto underclass. As he famously put it towards the end of “Don’t Believe the Hype” (1988):

’88 you wait the S1’s will

Put the left in effect and I still will

Rock the hard jams, treat it like a seminar

Reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard

As he often did, Chuck D tapped deep into black cultural archetypes with those lines. On the surface, it’s easy enough to understand “bourgeois” and “boulevard” to represent the well-to-do and the barely-making-do, and appreciate the audacity with which Chuck D spoke to both extremes.

But by presenting himself as the link to those extremes, Chuck D assumes there otherwise wasn’t much connecting the two, and that we already knew that. It shouldn’t be news that there are class differences within black America, nor should it be a revelation that much of the difference can be chalked up to educational opportunities, and the perspectives those opportunities – or the lack thereof – foster.

I’m not here to unpack, decry or solve that difference; volumes of words have been expended on the former two, and one humble column likely won’t accomplish the latter. But a new work about the history and current state of black religious thought shows that the difference, to a certain degree, exists even within the one institution most non-blacks think such differences don’t happen: the black church.

If “black church” conjures for you images of older women in colorful robes making a joyous noise onto the Lord, a preacher dressed in finery exhorting the faithless to come meet Jesus, and somebody either passing out or being projected into a frenzy from all the emotion, you owe a big shout-out to Tyler Perry for helping burn those stock images into the modern pop imagination (not, of course, that he’s the only one who’s ever fallen back on that shorthand).

Of course, the actual reality is a lot more nuanced. First, the popular notion of the “black church” excludes blacks who are Catholic or Episcopalian, or Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist, or who are otherwise non-observant, which in aggregate is a larger number than you might suspect. Not only do we not all look alike, we don’t all pray alike.

Second, it obscures the fact that even traditional black churches don’t pray alike. There are churches that exist primarily to give their congregants shelter and a day’s release from life’s unholy storm. There are churches that make community service and social justice as much a part of their mission as extending the faith, and might not see much difference between the two. And there are churches that counsel the best way to accomplish either or both of those other two callings is to ask the Almighty for as much personal abundance as possible.

The telling difference between churches of service and activism and the others, more often than not, can be seen as the degree to which they hold fast to the philosophies of black theology, a school of religious thought that emerged in the wake of the racial tumult of the ‘60s. But black theology is, as events have played out, more of an academic discipline than a mass-market practice, a notion more studied than preached.

The Divided Mind of the Black Church can be seen as both an introduction to the history of black theology, and proof positive of the chasm announced in its title. Its author, Raphael G. Warnock, is senior pastor of the venerable Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, made globally famous by Martin Luther King, Jr. But the book is less the work of a country preacher and more the work of a man with two masters’ degrees (divinity and philosophy) and a Ph.D from Union Theological Seminary. Warnock is speaking to scholars and thought leaders within the black religious community, not the faithful in the pews.

Although the book’s title implies a more provocative offering, its subtitle – “Theology, Piety & Public Witness” – is closer to the tone. Warnock carefully traces the history and evolution of the independent black church in America, moving from the black church as a bastion against slavery all the way to the role Ebenezer Baptist and other black churches played in the Civil Rights Movement. He asserts that the black church’s roots are in the battle for the social liberation of black people, rooted in a progressive understanding of the life and message of Jesus Christ. However, Warnock argues, the church became rudderless and apolitical after King, even though a school of thought was emerging to provide Scripture-based grounding to continue what he sees as the black church’s essential work.

That became known as black theology, and most everyone who knows of it associates it primarily with one man, James Cone. He emerged in the late ‘60s with a series of books and essays, most notably A Black Theology of Liberation (1970), that strove to re-envision Scripture, and subsequently the role of the black church, through the prism of black struggle.

Warnock’s lengthy quote of a 1970 Cone article is, in many ways, a summation of his own book’s basic point:

The Christian Gospel is a gospel of liberation. The pre-Civil War black churches recognized this, and that was why they refused to accept an interpretation of Christianity that was unrelated to civil freedom. Unfortunately, the post-Civil War black churches forgot about this emphasis and began to identify religion with piety. But the rise of Black Theology in the black churches is a renewal of the pre-Civil War emphasis. It is not certain whether the major black denominations will respond positively by re-ordering their structures in the light of Black Power. What is certain is the black community’s awareness of its blackness as a tool for liberation. And unless the black churches redefine their existence in the light of the fathers who fought, risking death, to end slavery, the judgment of God will descend upon it.

The Divided Mind of the Black Church probes what’s happened to the notion of black theology since the days of such heady pronouncements. Warnock posits two extremes: the scholars who have built from Cone’s foundation, including those who disagree; and black pastors who see no proper role for its tenets in their ministry. Not all pastors fall into the latter category; Warnock gives context to 2008’s widely misunderstood soundbites of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, one of the most prominent disciples of black theology in practice.

Warnock brings the discussion to the moment by noting the rise of black womanist theologians and ministers. Their perspectives, he writes, challenge both the male-centric hierarchy in the black church, and its reluctance toward progressive stances, especially on same-sex marriage, immigration, and other social justice issues not driven by race. “A church that is vocal about race but silent or closed to honest dialogue on these issues because it does not see their interrelatedness,” he says, “loses its prophetic edge, theological integrity, and moral credibility.” (If such language seems directly related to Cone’s, it possibly shouldn’t surprise; Cone was Warnock’s doctoral advisor at Union Theological Seminary.)

This is not to say there’s an ideological struggle happening at the immediate, congregational level. In fact, there’s little evidence that the phrase “black theology” is uttered anywhere in the black world outside the black theological academy. Individual churches have cast their lot and defined their ministries as their view of the Scripture in today’s context has led them, and the results fall across the political spectrum (although the Rev. Wrights of the black church are by far the exceptions and not the rule). Pastors may have come across Cone’s writings in their studies, but most who make activism part of their ministries take their lead from King’s work, not from Cone’s words (disregarding the fact that King was no slouch as a theological scholar and theorist himself).

Black theology, as influential as it has been worldwide (rechristened as “liberation theology”, it spread throughout Latin America and elsewhere in the ‘70s), is at this moment a notion talked about in the classroom more than anywhere else (and Warnock’s stilted academic tone won’t help The Divided Mind of the Black Church travel much further than that realm). There are other such perspectives and ideas, mostly similarly given to a progressive way of viewing the world and the black folk in it. Lectures, art exhibits, film screenings and scholarly dissections of virtually all things black, from gender to sport to political institutions, can be found on any college campus with a commitment to progressive black scholarship (and that doesn’t necessarily mean a predominantly black school, as evidenced by the programming, much of it open to the public, of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago). But try finding those events and discussions out and about once you set foot off campus and into the ‘hood.

Warnock has carved himself a mighty piece of work if he wants to shift the black church to the left – an oversimplification of black theology’s tenets to be sure, but not of its essential intent. Not only does he have to convince the folks in the pews of the importance of such a movement, he also has to get its proponents (and himself) speaking in a more appropriate lingo. His is a quest for the common ground between the book-learned and the heart-learned, and even in the black church such bridges aren’t always apparent. He might end up needing to ask Chuck D for help.