The Black Church: Institution or Abstraction?

The relationship between Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Senator Obama continues to capture headlines. However, Rev. Wright’s speech at the National Press Club last month has cast the issue in a different light: Rev. Wright charged that recent developments do not represent an attack on him, rather it is the Black Church under attack. This statement begs the question: What is the Black Church and who represents it?

The phrase “the Black Church” is an at times useful category of religious commitment and expression, yet it is misleading. Media depictions and commentary tend to flatten what is already a stretched terminology. There is not a historical reality known as the “Black Church” that actually represents a unified and static organization. It is a term meant to signal, to capture, a full range of theologies, practices and structures. It is an abstraction. What we really have in the United States are black churches, as varied in orientation as the number of congregations. There are millions of African American Christians housed in thousands of churches across the country; some of them rather large and others small in number.

In using this phrase, we must remain mindful of the similarities and differences between local congregations, spread across urban and rural areas that the term, “Black Church,” easily covers. It is true that the term speaks to a generic embrace of the Christian faith found within African American communities. For example, this involves some concern for the Christ event as a primary mode of understanding the relationship between the divine and humanity. However any attention to the denominational structures (Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, and so on) points clearly to notable differences regarding, for example, the nature of salvation, the importance and proper form of baptism. These differences present vividly if one considers local congregations are not simply matters of thought. Rather, practice informed by thought—or praxis–also differs across what we’ve called the “Black Church.”

Scholars typically discuss this difference in terms of “other-worldly” oriented churches and “this-worldly” oriented churches, although the lines between the two are far from neat and linear. The first involves churches committed to some version of the social gospel whereby they understand Christian commitment to involve service to community. The latter involves a more rigorous attention to personal salvation as the primary concern of Christian ministry and practice. And all of this is just in terms of Protestant churches. I have not even mentioned the roughly three million African American Catholics in the United States. Nor, have I given any space to the African-based traditions such as Voodoo, Ifa, and Santería–to name only a few–that claim the attention and adherence of many African Americans. And what about the three million African Americans who have embraced Sunni Islam? Do you get my point?

Much of this nuance, these differences, are lost in sound bites and news reports.

Trinity Church, once lead by Rev. Wright, is simply one example: one particular black church. It is not the Black Church, it is one congregation dotting the Christian geography of Black America. Furthermore, Rev. Wright is one minister, one whose ministry taken as a whole shares something of the social gospel emphasis that has marked some of the history of black churches in the United States. Yet, he is not synonymous with the Black Church, although he speaks to and from what is a stream of praxis within the history of black churches. To make one minister, regardless of how important and active, with the expansive, thick, and at times contradictory formulations of Christianity within African American communities does damage to the complex and layered nature of African American Christian expression. It is not the best way to correct for the flattening tendencies marking media coverage (including commentary from pastors and scholars) associated with Rev. Wright and Senator Obama. The way to correct for this tendency involves tenacious defense of the complexity, the variety, and layered nature of black churches and their praxis.

How do we do that? Well, I’d suggest a few ways to approach the issue. First, apply the same complex thinking marking other areas of our collective life to our understanding of religious organization. In a word, we assume a variety of political opinions and perspectives as a marker of our democratic process and framework. Let’s assume the same sort of complexity and richness with respect to the religious life (lives?) of citizens, also framed by our democratic ideals.

Next, let’s do a little research: Read and converse. Read some of the rich materials on the religious orientations of US citizens available on line and through a variety of other outlets (like this one); have conversations with members of other faith communities; take the time to discover what religious commitments shape your community, your city, and your country.

In short, don’t assume the easy answer. Demand complexity. After all, a sound bite is just that…a small bit or taste of what’s available.