Reports of the Black Church’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated: A Review of Walter Fluker’s Latest Book

"Tongues (Holy Rollers)" Archibald Moltley, 1929
"Tongues (Holy Rollers)" Archibald Moltley, 1929

In April of 2010, Eddie Glaude wrote “The Black Church is Dead,” an essay that incited conversation and debate about contemporary black Protestantism. [Read RD’s numerous responses, including Glaude’s own response to the responders.] In opposition to entrenched assumptions about the black church, Glaude argued three points: the black church has never been a coherent entity with a unified progressive vision; it is no longer the center of the black community; and the prophetic quality of this institution seems to be waning in the midst of new problems and new ecclesial formations (the rise of megachurches, the prosperity gospel). Most overlooked was Glaude’s concluding exhortation for us to reimagine what it means to be black and Christian. Sounding the death knell on the black church creates opportunities for new life within black churches.

Walter Fluker’s timely and fascinating text, The Ground Has Shifted, is partly a response to Glaude’s challenge and call. While Fluker agrees with the thrust of Glaude’s argument, Fluker riffs on the life/death relationship in ways that are more fluid. In other words, black bodies have always existed on the edge of social life and social death, a position that invokes specters, the experience of being haunted and hunted. For Fluker, the task for black Christians, and blacks more generally, is to explore possibilities in the space of the living dead, that liminal space between past and future, remembrance and hope, and transcendence and immanence.

As he puts it,

We must therefore learn to speak from those spaces inhabited by the living dead as part of our ongoing theological and churchly missions in order to disrupt the categorization and binary symbols of blackness/whiteness and provide a middle way of speaking from this spectral space to the possibilities of our future.

The implications of this middle way are crucial in a moment that is purportedly post-racial. For Fluker, an in-between ethic enables us to see in the post-racial idea a commendable desire for transcendence while acknowledging how the post-racial fantasy denies ongoing forms of racial violence and suffering. Liminality also prompts black Christians to acknowledge the lingering traumas of the past without allowing this backward turn to prohibit the construction of a better future, the making of home in an inhospitable world.

Much of The Ground Has Shifted is dedicated to drawing resources from black literary and religious traditions to provide a vision of black life in the face of both change and stagnation. In response to the kinds of shifts that have occasioned the post-racial fantasy, Fluker encourages us to think beyond the dominant tropes associated with black Christianity—such as Dilemma and Exodus. As the author demonstrates, black writers and activists have often interpreted W.E.B. Du Bois’s double-consciousness as a kind of dilemma or problem. According to this reading, black Americans are torn between their loyalties to the nation-state and their commitments to other black people. Because the ideal American citizen is often defined against blackness, being both black and American will continue to be a dilemma until blacks are accepted as fully human. But as Fluker points out, this notion of Dilemma is too narrow to respond to contemporary global realities and conditions.

He points out,

While Dilemma might have been unavoidable in the past in claiming an African heritage and yearning for U.S. citizenship rights, it cannot at this point in our history and in the contemporary global context help us to deal with the massive concerns of human and nonhuman flourishing.

For Fluker, we must redirect our imaginations from Dilemma to Diaspora, a turning that connects local strivings to global movements. Invoking Martin Luther King’s idiom of a “world house,” Fluker employs diaspora in order to highlight the connections, and tensions, between black liberation struggles and the struggles of other oppressed groups around the world. The language of diaspora also registers the shape-shifting nature of identity, the fluidity of our attachments.

Similar to the transition from Dilemma to Diaspora, Fluker urges black Christians to replace the Exodus trope with the image of Exile. As many commentators, including Glaude, have noted, the Exodus narrative has shaped the black community’s understanding of domination, freedom and peoplehood. In opposition to those who used biblical stories to justify chattel slavery and anti-black racism more generally, blacks have found in Exodus a God who suffers with, and eventually rescues, the oppressed.

While Exodus still contains power, Fluker draws attention to the limitations of this narrative. On the one hand, the story is too linear and triumphant to make sense of ongoing black suffering. Making an allusion to William R. Jones’s classic study Is God a White Racist?, Fluker rejects the notion that we can identify within history a liberation moment for black people. In addition, there is an underside to the Exodus narrative, especially for the Canaanites, or those indigenous communities that already reside in the promised land. For Fluker, the language of Exile registers the permanence of alienation, movement and dislocation. We have no recourse to a stable place that we can return to or settle on. Exile allows for the possibility of searching for home, but only when home is perceived as a perpetual discovery and openness to the new and different. Exile is not the opposite of home; home is made in the enduring state of exile.

The transition from Dilemma and Exodus to Diaspora and Exile is accompanied by a passage from the proverbial frying pan to the fire of the Holy Spirit. Here Fluker plays on the ambivalence of fire in the context of black strivings. While it can refer to racialized violence and destruction (lynching, the burning of black churches), it also alludes to the experience of being overwhelmed, and consumed, by the Spirit. Fire here signifies passion and life. Fire is that energy that takes an individual beyond herself, opening the self to the proverbial Other. Fire is that new life that Glaude suggests can be breathed into black churches. While openness to the Fire is always dangerous, Fluker hopes that a greater openness to global realities, changes, and possibilities might contribute to the black church’s rejuvenation and flourishing.

While Fluker develops the theoretical significance of concepts like exile, diaspora, fire, crossing, and haunting, he certainly is thinking about practical, everyday realities that black bodies face. This becomes evident in the penultimate chapter as the author identifies “the plight of black youth, particularly young black men, as a commons where black churches and their many and varied interlocutors must congregate, conjure, and conspire.” Here Fluker underscores the state surveillance of, and violence against, black males as well as the accompanying images and tropes that locate the black male outside the sphere of the human. Recall that Darren Wilson talked about Michael Brown as if he had monstrous, extra-human qualities. This imagined association between the black male body and the non-human continues to legitimate anti-black violence.

But it seems that some questions still need to be raised. How much does class determine how frequently and intensely one has to confront police surveillance? How is anti-blackness mediated by other subject positions and power relationships? While Fluker acknowledges the intersectionality between race, class, gender, and sexuality, why does he privilege blackness and maleness in the penultimate chapter—a hoary tendency that was replicated in Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” challenge? And how does the privileging of young black men actually belie the strategies that Fluker uses to trouble stable identities and confining tropes?

These questions might point to limitations that we find in any text, but they should not take away from the brilliance, beauty, and pleasure one experiences while reading Fluker’s book. The Ground Has Shifted does a masterful job of blending black religious thought, literature, critical theory, memoir and personal experience.

Some of the most poignant moments include the author reminiscing and mourning the loss of loved ones in a manner that emanates remembrance and hope, being haunted and making a home. Fluker is also able to incorporate difficult theoretical ideas in a legible way that does not push the reader away. Finally, this book exemplifies what generosity looks like. The author practices a kind of charity toward his interlocutors that I can only try to emulate. I hope I come close in this review.