So I went to church recently–and in the interest of full disclosure let me first explain that I am not a Christian. Haven’t been for some time. However, I do believe in “spirituality,” which I’d conceptually define as an emotional force or energy that can be perceived and experienced, but not fully explained with the rational senses. Further, I think Black people are highly spiritual. This is why when you watch videos of West African Muslims, or Brazilian Candomble/Yoruba initiates, there is far more animation, emotion, and physical expression than is typical of Arab Muslims or European Catholics. Plus, I love Gospel music, and where else can you get free live Gospel?
Anyhow, I was not pleased with the church I attended today. Upon entering, the pastor immediately went about invoking every Black preacher stereotype ever conceived. His message, sermon, and style served as the fodder for this post, and as I sat there, I began to synthesize all of the in-person and televised comedic and real preachers I’d seen over the years. Some were in small, poorly-lit store-fronts; others were in large, conference-like venues and mega-churches. Some were on TV and in films, and served only for purposes of ridicule, comedic effect, and satire. Others, unfortunately, were the very real outfits from which the satirical depictions were created. As I listened and watched today there were three constructs that warranted critique. While it isn’t clear whether addressing these will lead to more converts, it is indeed correct that not addressing them will only serve to turn others away.
1. Hating on Egypt
I’m no Biblical scholar, but I am a student of Pan African history. I, like most people who’ve ever been to church, am familiar with the story of Moses gallantly leading his people out of Egypt and into the proclaimed Promised Land, performing miracles with the help of God along the way. And I, like most people who’ve ever studied American chattel slavery, understand how this particular story served as inspiration to enslaved Blacks who likened slave owners to the cruel Egyptian idolators described in the Good Book.
The problem is that Egypt was so much more than what those who attended the Councils of Nicea, Trent, and all the others in between said it was. Egypt, or “Kemet,” was and is to Black people what Britain and the U.S. are to White people, or what dynastic China was to Chinese people. Egypt was one of the first great civilizations in the world. According to scholars like John Henrike Clark, Chancellor Williams, and Cheikh Anta Diop, there were 30 successive dynasties of Black rule in Egypt. Egypt serves as incontestable proof that Africa is not the land that time forgot, or a place whose peoples are inherently “uncivilized,” or a place completely bereft of material, intellectual, and mineral wealth. That Africans (AKA Black people) have contributed nothing to the betterment of the world is one of the great hoaxes of contemporary history. When Black ministers disassociate themselves and their congregations from Egypt, talk simplistically and disdainfully about it, and remove Egypt from its greater historical and symbolic context, it makes us look like we really weren’t shit before slavery, and like we ought to be glad Whites took us and gave us some “civilization.” Those who don’t know their history are doomed to sit in church and believe anything.
2. Direct Hostility Toward Gays
OK, OK, now I know this is even more controversial than alleging that Blacks built the pyramids in Egypt, and not aliens, or Whites who came all the way from Western Europe to build them, stay for a spell, then summarily go back to cold ass England–because that’s a totally probable proposition, right? It’s just baffling to me how this particular Black minister could stand before his flock today, and pridefully recount how he “stood with President George W. Bush and all the other Christians who had come to Washington to support the Defense of Marriage Act.”
Standing with George Bush is nothing to be proud of. After all, he is the guy who illegitimately invaded a country, sunk over a trillion dollars into an unnecessary war, tortured an unknown number of unlawfully detained people, called for warrantless wiretapping of American citizens, probably tampered with the 2004 election, definitely botched the handling of Hurricane Katrina, and was cited by the uber-conservative Wall Street Journal as having had “the worst track record for job creation since the government began keeping records.” I’m not sure what kind of street cred comes with being one of Bush’s homies, but it definitely doesn’t seem very, uhh, Christian.
But I digress. The reality is that the jury is no longer out on homosexuality. You can think being gay is “yucky” in the same way my four-year-old son thinks eggs don’t make a good meal choice, and you can totally not wish to see two men kiss (now two women on the other hand. . .). What you cannot do, however, is argue that gay couples should be denied the more than 1,100 rights that heterosexuals are afforded. The U.S. is not a theocracy, and church and state are to be kept separate. This is a simple matter of justice, and religion should not be used to cloud or obfuscate it.
The primary talking point for Christian conservatives is that homosexuality is a deliberate choice, and an unnatural act that goes against God. A common but no less effective counterargument is that homosexuality exists in over 1,500 species in the animal kingdom, and is not a choice, but a biological fact. Whether being gay is comparable to being Black is debatable. Whether Black people should be receptive to and supportive of other oppressed people who routinely face discrimination should not even be up for discussion. You have a chance to be better here, and to demonstrate true Christian love and tolerance. Can you be Christian and not demonstrate such virtues toward your fellow man?
3. The Merging of Capitalism and Christianity
The first thing I noticed about the pastor was his ridiculously oversized, diamond-studded watch. His watch matched his bracelet, and was accented by two large diamondrings on each hand. During his sermon the pastor talked about God wanting him to soon have a new car, the multiple homes he owned, and how the congregation could some day also possess these status symbols if they only believed, prayed, and of course, tithed like he did.
He even found time to make fun of a few members of his flock who, during a recent missionary trip to “Africa” (for Africa is always talked about as one big monolithic landmass, not a continent with over 50 diverse countries, but again, I digress), could not afford, as could he, to ride first class. “I came back there to their coach seats to see them with a mimosa in my hand,” the pastor recalled, “and they looked so cramped up and uncomfortable. Sister Jean (pseudonym) was sitting next to a fat man and couldn’t hardly breath! I told them they shoulda saved their money and bought better seats, but they didn’t listen!” All of this was met with thunderous laughter. I couldn’t believe there were people who actually gave this guy their hard earned money.
A major problem with a purely capitalist world view is that it posits that the world is a true meritocracy. Therefore, if one works hard, one will rise and succeed commensurate to his effort. Conversely, if one struggles or is unsuccessful it is because he or she is slothful, lazy, or frivolous. Inequality, stratification, racism, and oppression are typically treated as overt, rare occurrences that only harm individuals, not entire communities. They are insufficient, the thinking goes, to use as a narrative for why White males have historically dominated all others in the U.S., or why the top 1% has more financial wealth than the bottom 95% of Americans.
There is an unmistakable ideological link between conservative Christianity and capitalism. Similarly, if a Christian is not successful or prospering, it is because he or she has not prayed hard enough or possessed the requisite level of “faith” to warrant a blessing by God. Both world views are patently false and inherently problematic. I’d think this would go without saying, but pastors who tell people that to attain the American dream they must pray harder, believe more, and simply donate larger sums to the church should be viewed with more skepticism than stories of Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster.
If anything, the church should be more, dare I say, socialist. Jesus wasn’t a baller! He didn’t drive a Judean Bentley, flaunt ice, or constantly remind his working class audiences how much more paper he had than them. And when the unemployment rate among African Americans, especially African American men, is more than double what it is for the population at large, do the jobless really want to go to church to be told that their lack of employment is due to not believing hard enough? Jobs programs, free childcare for working single mothers, or trade apprenticeships would be far more substantive.
Now that’s a church I might join.