What Prayer Won’t Fix: How The Black Church Perpetuates White Supremacy and Patriarchy
Daniel Black on the Oppressive Role of Christianity in Black Culture
I was raised in the church. So were all the other children in my community. From as early as I can remember, it shaped our lives and purportedly would determine our afterlife. Everything we did centered around the church: Sunday school, Wednesday Bible study, Saturday morning youth choir rehearsal, Sunday evening BTU. Whether we believed in God or not didn’t matter. Our people did, so we spent a lifetime trying to please Him.
At church we learned how to pray, how to approach the “throne of Grace.” God was not to be handled clumsily; one had to know the verbiage, the vernacular rhythm necessary to speak to an almighty, omniscient God. Usually children weren’t called upon to pray, except on special occasions like Youth Day. Then, parents and elders smiled and listened as youngsters fumbled their way through rehearsed church jargon, trying as best they could to mimic the vernacular of their folks. It was always a far cry from what the deacons or mothers could do.
When they prayed, the angels and cherubim stood still. These old black folks would bow to their knees, before a plain wooden chair, and begin, “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God of yesterday, today, and forevermore. We beseech thee, oh God, to hear our prayers and supplications. We magnify you, oh God, and glorify you, and exalt you high! You are the keeper and the healer of our souls!” Or something like that. I’m a grown man and still I can’t pray like those elders. It was an art, a soul’s desperate, poetic plea. Some of the language came from the Bible itself. They never used words like “supplication” or “beseech” in everyday speech. But I suppose it made sense to think that God liked those expressions since He’d used them in His book. That, of course, is another story.
The black church is the oldest social institution black people own and operate. Founded during the antebellum period, it began in hush harbors—those “steal away” places in the forest, next to rivers and streams, where water absorbed the sound of prayers and music and thick foliage shielded desperate black believers. Yes, there are other black institutions—the Nation of Islam, independent black schools, the Nation of Ndugu and Nzinga—but none share the historical impact of the black church on black social and political progress.
Indeed, over the years, the black church has kept black people alive. Literally. It has provided space in which to meet, pray, strategize, and even sleep sometimes. In its inception, it gave poor, disenfranchised black people imaginative context wherein to construct identity and communal value. These marginalized human beings became somebody on Sunday mornings when they morphed into Sunday school teachers, deacons, ushers, and choir soloists. For hundreds of years, maids and janitors, mechanics and cooks, gathered in black sanctuaries, believing that God had something special reserved for the poor yet unwavering.
Cloaked in Sunday-best frocks, black folks strutted to church and poured their hearts out to God, pleading for miracles they could only imagine. My family was among them. We went to church every Sunday in rural Arkansas—absolutely every single Sunday. No excuses. Even when we weren’t feeling well, we pressed our way. I recall being nauseated one Sunday morning, and Daddy telling me, “Grab a trash bag and let’s go.”
All communal events happened at the church—family reunions, picnics, baby showers, funerals—and everyone assisted in its maintenance. Every few months, families gathered and cleaned it as if preparing for God’s arrival. Men and boys did the external labor, mowing grass or trimming trees or painting, while women and girls dusted pews, swept, and cleaned the kitchen. A shabby church was a disgrace to a people. Elders voiced harsh criticism for those communities in which churches appeared dilapidated and uncared for. The church was our collective achievement, our pride on display, and we meant to show the world who we were.
The problem, of course, is that we couldn’t clean the theology. Most of our preachers and pastors had no more learning than the average congregant, so they spewed the same destructive rhetoric slave masters taught a century before. “We are nothing but filthy rags before a perfect savior,” I recall Pastor saying one morning. I frowned. I knew I had faults, but was I a filthy rag?
Another time, he said, “I wouldn’t mind being a slave if Jesus is my master!” Again, my eyes bulged. I didn’t want to be anybody’s slave. I thought we had gotten past that. And of course he didn’t believe women should preach. Most black people, unfortunately, agreed. In fact, he read scriptures that limited women’s influence both in the church and the home. None of this made sense to me. Most black women I knew ran their homes with fierce strength and efficiency. Certainly men couldn’t do it, so why would we as a people follow that instruction? That’s when I began to believe we’d been reading a book meant for another people. I didn’t say that then though.
But I’m saying it now. The downfall of the black church is that it keeps teaching its own bondage. We can’t seem to find the courage to disagree with scripture or, more powerfully, articulate new ideas that contradict what we were once told. We fear the Christian God the same way we feared slave captors. If we’re not careful, we’ll discover the two as one in the same.The downfall of the black church is that it keeps teaching its own bondage.
Black theologians have been urging black people for years to reconstruct our own notions of God, Heaven, the Bible, and spirituality in general. James Cone, Renita Weems, Jacqueline Grant, Howard Thurman, Kelly Brown Douglass, Catherine Meeks, and so many more challenge contemporary black churches to renegotiate our understanding of God and our relationship to divinity. For example, Kelly Brown Douglass’s Sexuality and the Black Church upends traditional black beliefs about God’s view of sexuality and, in fact, invites black people to dismiss the Eurocentric idea that sexual fluidity is not divine. These are the radical considerations that would make the modern black church relevant and attractive to a new generation of congregants.
Yet, for some reason, these liberative ideas get modified before they reach most black pulpits. This has cost the black church dearly. It’s as if many black pastors fear the wrath of a ubiquitous, tyrannical, (white) God if they dare say anything that goes against traditional Christian ideals. Because of this, the black church has, in many ways, imprisoned its own people. It’s taught black versions of white supremacist thinking and celebrated itself for the rejection of pagan, Africanist ways. There are black churches today that frown upon or straight out deny the legitimacy of African rituals such as libation in the sanctuary.
Many contend that honoring ancestors is downright demonic. They often adhere to the Western belief that African traditional practices are “heathenish” and “evil,” meaning full of witchcraft and sorcery. This, then, means that they never consult Africa or African culture as the source of a new, black spirituality. Rather, many black churches—far too many—depend upon Eurocentric understandings of God and spirit in ways that make them hate themselves.
Take, for instance, the tradition of posting white images of Christ in Black sanctuaries. I have questioned this insanity for years, only to be told, time and again, that “Jesus’s color doesn’t matter.”
“If that’s true,” I ask, “Why is he usually white?” Have you ever seen a black image of Christ in a white church? I haven’t. You know why? Because most whites won’t worship a black savior. They might vote for a black president, but following a black man into eternity is another matter. Most blacks won’t either. Nonetheless, the point is that the color of Christ does matter, and, in fact, one’s ability to conceive of himself/herself as Christ is spirituality made perfect. The identity of the historical Christ is, for the most part, irrelevant because Christ is far more imagined than real; so if that imagining does not reflect a people’s own cultural Self, those people’s self-worth is seriously impaired.
Let me return to the notion that “slaves should obey their masters.” 1 Peter 2:18 says specifically, “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse.” What the hell? Are black people not thinking? Who would teach this as the Word of God? Some will argue for the legitimacy of this scripture in context, but there is no context to make this idea holy.
Even understanding one’s self as God’s slave is problematic because then God gets authority to treat people without respect and dignity. And let me say for the record that if God wants slaves, I don’t won’t God. Plus, such a paradigm is dangerous for people who just completed four hundred years of captivity. I know the mandate that one is not supposed to change the Word of God, but that’s part of the problem—understanding the Bible as the only Word of God. How ironic that the descendants of slaves worship the same book, in much the same way, as those who enslaved them! This is the text that justified, and continues to justify, their brutalization. It should at least be scrutinized and amended, shouldn’t it?
I have a better idea. Let’s sanction some black-authored works as the Word of God. Let’s believe that we, too, can write holy scripture that articulates God’s heart. Anything less is insulting and self-rejecting. Let’s take the pulpit next Sunday and read from, say, The Bluest Eye. Pecola’s story is just as healing, just as immaculate, as Mary’s. Or let’s study The Color Purple and see how patriarchy destroys an entire nation. This is black agency in action. Or if you want a story of a savior and his resurrection, read Ernest Gaines’s A Lesson Before Dying.
God’s character in black permeates that narrative and teaches self-love in its purest form. For black people not to refer to their own literary tradition when they search for the Word of God is quintessential self-hatred. There are other texts too—The Fire Next Time, The Souls of Black Folks, Jesus and the Disinherited, Two Thousand Seasons, Kindred, and, more contemporarily, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing.
The black pen never fails to produce spirit-filled work that, if black people read and heed, would set them free. Black people in churches all across America would shout with deliverance and revelation if their souls were fed this discursive delight on Sunday morning. We hear God as clearly as any other people on this planet. We can speak for God, too.
Concerning women, we should be ashamed of the ubiquitous patriarchy in the black church. Black women pay bills, cook, clean, instruct, and prophesy at home, then get to church and are told to sit down and be quiet? This makes no sense at all, even if the Bible says to do it. Our mothers and sisters have led liberation struggles, guided black men to freedom, run for president of the United States (before any man), and devised mathematical equations to get a person to the moon and back.
But they can’t preach? I understand Jurena Lee’s fury. She said, “If the man may preach, because the Savior died for him, why not the woman, seeing he died for her also? Is he not a whole Savior, instead of half of one?” Her theology was in her body—not just a book. She knew God—not just the story of a Christ. And she undoubtedly expected black men to understand since they shared her history of discrimination. But they didn’t. Still, she pressed on and preached anyway. There must’ve been days when, as a black woman, she spoke to an audience of only one or two listeners. She might’ve even preached to the trees and animals of the forest. She probably didn’t mind. She wanted to share God’s word and didn’t care with whom she shared it.
Those who wrote the Bible didn’t know the history of black women. They didn’t understand that black women paid the same cost as black men for black people’s liberty. They didn’t know that black women birthed children and chopped cotton all in the same day. They didn’t know that black women breast fed their enemies’ children then breast fed their own. They couldn’t have known the torture of rape and sexual assault black women endured daily while smiling and fighting to maintain a home.
Writers of the Bible surely never saw a woman run like Harriett Tubman or dance like Katherine Dunham. If they had, they would’ve known that, for black people, God is a woman too. The maroons of Jamaica would have died without Nanny’s strength and leadership; the Montgomery Bus Boycott would never have happened without the organizational brilliance of JoAnn Robinson and the Women’s Political Council; Barack Obama would never have ascended to the White House except for a brilliant, savvy black woman named Shirley Chisholm who paved his way and a priceless, genius black woman named Michelle who guided and shielded him.
In truth, it’s insulting, now, to hear black churches teach misogynistic articles of Western submission after black women have stood at the vanguard of history and defended our communities with their lives. This is madness! Yes, we need to revise the Bible—or, better, get busy writing our own. This is real liberation. God will not be offended. Indeed, God might be proud that, finally, black people assume themselves divine too.
Excerpted from Black on Black: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America by Daniel Black. Copyright © 2023. Available from Hanover Square Press, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.