The relationship between African Americans and Christianity is interesting.
As somewhat of an amateur historian, it often intrigues me when I think about how black people in America have become so deeply intertwined with the Christian faith over the last 300-400 years as if to make it their own. But the fact is that the vast majority of African ancestors in the United States are Christian, not because of an epiphany or a prophet that came from the valleys of West Africa to share the word of Jesus Christ to a lost people, but because slaves were forced to convert under threat of death. It was this same Christian faith that used its scripture to keep blacks as slaves politically, socially, and economically until practically forty years ago.
Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ. Ephesians 6:5
When West African slaves were brought over to the States in shackles, they had no concept of Jesus Christ. No understanding of King James. No possibility of reading the Holy Scripture. While Christianity (and to a different extent, Islam) played a role in North African religions as early as the first century, it had not made its way down to the western and southern parts of the continent, where a majority of African-Americans’ ancestors come from.
In a partial effort to keep African slaves from rebelling, white Christian slave owners force-fed the great-great-great grandparents of today’s blacks Christianity at knifepoint and gunpoint. It was accepted wholeheartedly, to the point that now in the 21st century, a majority of African-Americans believe in Jesus Christ.
You may purchase male or female slaves from among the foreigners who live among you. You may also purchase the children of such resident foreigners, including those who have been born in your land. You may treat them as your property, passing them on to your children as a permanent inheritance. You may treat your slaves like this, but the people of Israel, your relatives, must never be treated this way. Leviticus 25:44-46
And what has the Christian faith done to black culture in return?
One could argue that it made black progress in America very weak. There is a prevalent “this too shall pass” attitude that hinders some from pressing harder than they should, from getting dirty and getting work done. It’s as if there is an expectation for God to just step in and make things right in due time. Because of that, far too many are far too willing to wait out painful or unideal situations that could be solved more easily than being proactive; rely on God more than ourselves.
It has made us soft.
Black America constantly uses God as both a reason and excuse for everything. “God is testing me.” “God will show me the way to pay these bills.” “God will keep me strong in prison.” “Thank you, God for this BET Award for my new rap album, Unforgivable Murder. Without Him, nothing is possible.” Black America may be the most conservative in terms of faith in God, yet the most liberal–no, the most egregious–in how that faith is used.
So we end up stagnant. Not moving forward. Afraid to take risks. Thinking God, and in extension, the government or some other form of hand-out will guide us through. When one considers about how many inner city communities display their lack of faith in “white America”, historically the same people who indoctrinated them in the Christian faith, it makes no rational sense. And thus the irony of black Christian faith bleeds through.
The servant will be severely punished, for though he knew his duty, he refused to do it. “But people who are not aware that they are doing wrong will be punished only lightly. Much is required from those to whom much is given, and much more is required from those to whom much more is given.” Luke 12:47-48
That said, it is religion has provided a strong community base from which the poor have found strength, comfort, and support. Black churches have been the focal point of the community and a place that provided the services that poor blacks couldn’t get anywhere else, such as child care, tutoring, and in some cases, tuition. Religion is the culture for today’s families, as most personal ties to our homeland are long severed, and America is the only real home blacks in the states know of.
Without Christianity, one wonders how the Civil Rights movement would have played out. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr (keyword: reverend) was the central figure the movement, just as the Christian Church played a crucial role. There is no denying the positive impact the church played. There is also no denying the long-lasting negative effects the religion has played.
Much like any tool, a belief, social construct, or religion can be used positively or negatively by the one that wields it. With that power comes the strength and understanding that each individual has the personal responsibility to utilize their strengths and build a life of their own for good or ill.
It may have been a relatively short period of time that there has been social acceptance of integration between African and European descendants, but there have been signs of dual understanding of the human experience that transcend race long before the Civil Rights Movement. When we think about some of our most celebrated in the U.S., none is so striking or heartfelt as Memorial Day, wherein the men and women who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces are remembered. While the origins of the holiday are disputed, it was on May 1, 1865, that former slaves in Charleston, SC honored 257 dead Union Soldiers. The dead soldiers were buried in a mass grave in a Confederate prison camp. The slaves dug up the bodies and worked for two weeks to give them a proper burial as gratitude for fighting for their freedom. They then held a parade of 10,000 people led by 2,800 Black children where they marched, sang and celebrated.
This event is significant in itself for the impact these people had on the country in recognizing those who fell in service of our country. What is also inspiring is that white missionaries and teachers and Union infantry joined the black Charlestons in the parade, joining in song and prayer and scripture as one people, not separate races, something that was absolutely unheard of at the time.
It is in this story that we find a central concept in Christianity that may speak volumes to why Americans embrace it so much, despite the history and hurt it has caused.
Forgiveness in those who do not know the evil that they do. Forgiveness in those that hurt my father, my mother, my brother, my sister. Forgiveness in the pain and scars that have been put on my soul, because while man knows only selfishness and ill will, God is good.
Perhaps it is the approach, then, with which Christianity is tackled that needs to change. Instead of using God as an excuse, use it as a reason to work hard and do good. Instead of saying that Jesus will help you out of any situation, remind yourselves that Jesus gave mankind hands to use and a brain to think and that we cannot just accept our situations–no matter how dire–blindly.
Work hard without simply accepting. Be accepting without being complacent. And if you must believe in a deity, don’t forget to believe in the one thing you must always live with and, ultimately, be accountable to.
This post was originally written in 2009 after the first inauguration of President Barack Obama.