This week PBS premieres a moving four-hour series The Black Church: This is Our Story. This is Our Song (check local listings), tracing the 400-year-old story of the Black church in America from its bedrock role in the resilience and survival of Black Americans.
The documentary reveals how Black people have worshipped and, through their spiritual journeys, improvised ways to bring their faith traditions from Africa to the New World, while translating them into a form of Christianity that was not only truly their own, but a redemptive force for a nation whose original sin was found in their ancestors’ enslavement across the Middle Passage.
The following meditation is by the Reverend Dr. Susan K. Williams Smith, an ordained minister, musician, write and activist living in Columbia, Ohio. She currently serves as a co-chair for the Ohio Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and as national scribe for the African American Ministers Leadership Council. A graduate of Occidental College and Yale Divinity School and earned a Doctor of Ministry from United Theological Seminary. She is the author of “Crazy Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives,” published by Judson Press. Her latest book is “With Liberty and Justice for Some: the Bible, the Constitution, and Racism in America.”
James Cone, in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, quotes AME Bishop Bishop Daniel Payne who wrote in 1839,
Sometimes, it seems as though some wild beast had plunged his fangs into my heart, and was squeezing out its life blood. Then I began to question the existence of God and to say, “If he does exist, is he just? If so, why does he suffer one race to oppress and enslave another, to rob them by unrighteous enactments of rights, which they hold most dear and sacred?… Is there no God?
Cone writes that W.E.B. DuBois called black faith a “pythian madness” and “a demonic possession.” In a country where Black people are marginalized and cast aside, many white evangelicals call on their god, which seems quite different from the God on whom Black people have had to call and lean on in order to survive the poisonous fangs of white supremacy.
This struggle with understanding God’s role and place in helping marginalized people is not new; indeed, Moses questioned God in the same way, challenging God in Exodus 5:22-23:
Then Moses turned again to the Lord and said, “O Lord, why have you mistreated this people? Why did you ever send me? Since I first came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has mistreated this people, and you have done nothing at all to deliver your people.”
In spite of that complaint and the pain he was as he wrestled with the “whereness of God,” Moses continued his assignment of leading the Israelites out of captivity, but it was a journey fraught with questions that could not be answered. His faith was, as DuBois would say generations later, a “pythian madness and a demonic possession.”
Many of us try to pretend that everything is all right when so often, it is not. We cannot see. We cannot hear or even feel “the way” from chaos to calm, from confusion to clarity, from pain to peace. Some of us wail and call out the name of God, but others of us temper our crying to God so that it is a faint whisper. We know the testimonies of others; we have heard them say that when they have looked back, they have seen that God was with them, and so they sink in on the memory that brings brief moments of numbing from the pain of not feeling God in their here and now.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who broke from the ranks of the Republican Party to vote for the conviction of the former president in the recent impeachment debacle, got a letter from his family that said that because he had spoken and acted as he did, he had disappointed his family …and God. The sentence stopped me cold. The God of his family was a God who apparently was all right with the uprising at the Capitol, yes, but was also all right with the white supremacist mindset and beliefs that were the foundation of that uprising. The God of Kinzinger’s family is, apparently, a God who is not only all right with white supremacy but perhaps created it.
It is because of the beliefs of those who practice religion firmly believing in the “whiteness” of God that having faith in this country has a peculiar quality. How can we believe in one who has done “nothing,” as Moses said, “to deliver” the marginalized people in this country? What has been done to release Black and other marginalized people has been done under pressure and duress, and many who follow the God of Kinzinger’s family would probably say that it would be OK – and in God’s will – to take away what gains marginalized people have made.
Cone says that “black people’s struggle with God in white America …left a deep and lasting wound.” It is true; the wound is gaping, made worse by the constant hits it receives. Black people have had to “trust and cultivate their own theological imagination,” he says, because the God of the majority culture did not seem to have the desire to reach out to the marginalized, although God created them as well.
Tomorrow begins the season of Lent, a time where we have an opportunity to examine ourselves, including our souls, to see what we must work to get rid of – not just for 40 days but for the rest of our lives – in order to get closer to God. For some of us, that with which we will have to struggle is a troubled faith that is tinged with anger and anxiety because of the toxicity of white supremacy which is ever before us, and which is ever saturating everything that happens in this country. It is a barrier between some of us and God, an unpleasant truth but a truth nonetheless.
We would do well to be honest with God during these 40 days, laying before Her our faith in a way that exposes the tears and shredded seams of our faith. We will have to hold onto our faith, in spite of our questions and complaints against it, as did our ancestors, because our faith is the only thing that has kept and will keep us together as we live in and love a country that refuses to love us, as Doc Rivers said, God notwithstanding.
Amen and amen.