ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Black America stands at the precipice. African American unemployment is at its highest
in 25 years. Thirty-five percent of our children live in poor families.
Inadequate healthcare, rampant incarceration, home foreclosures, and a general
sense of helplessness overwhelm many of our fellows.
By Eddie Glaude, Jr., Ph.D.
The Black Church, as we’ve known it or imagined it, is dead. Of course, many African Americans still go to church. According to the PEW Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 87 percent of African Americans identify with a religious group and 79 percent say that religion is very important in their lives. But the idea of this venerable institution as central to black life and as a repository for the social and moral conscience of the nation has all but disappeared.
Several reasons immediately come to mind for this state of affairs. First, black churches have always been complicated spaces. Our traditional stories about themas necessarily prophetic and progressive institutions run up against the reality that all too often black churches and those who pastor them have been and continue to be quite conservative. Black televangelists who preach a prosperity gospel aren’t new. We need only remember Prophet Jones and Reverend Ike. Conservative black congregations have always been a part of the African American religious landscape. After all, the very existence of the Progressive Baptist Convention is tied up with a trenchant critique of the conservatism of the National Baptist Convention, USA. But our stories about black churches too often bury this conservative dimension of black Christian life.
Second, African American communities are much more differentiated. The idea of a black church standing at the center of all that takes place in a community has long since passed away. Instead, different areas of black life have become more distinct and specialized flourishing outside of the bounds and gaze of black churches. I am not suggesting that black communities have become wholly secular; just that black religious institutions and beliefs stand alongside a number of other vibrant non-religious institutions and beliefs.
Moreover, we are witnessing an increase in the numbers of African Americans attending churches pastored by the likes of Joel Osteen, Rick Warren or Jentzen Franklin. These non-denominational congregations often “sound” a lot like black churches. Such a development, as Dr. Jonathan Walton reminded me, conjures up E. Franklin Frazier’s important line in The Negro Church in America: “In a word, the Negroes have been forced into competition with whites in most areas of social life and their church can no longer serve as a refuge within the American community.” And this goes for evangelical worship as well.
Thirdly, and this is the most important point, we have witnessed the routinization of black prophetic witness. Too often the prophetic energies of black churches are represented as something inherent to the institution, and we need only point to past deeds for evidence of this fact. Sentences like, “The black church has always stood for…” “The black church was our rock…” “Without the black church, we would have not…” In each instance, a backward glance defines the content of the church’s stance in the presentjustifying its continued relevance and authorizing its voice. Its task, because it has become alienated from the moment in which it lives, is to make us venerate and conform to it.
But such a church loses it power. Memory becomes its currency. Its soul withers from neglect. The result is all too often church services and liturgies that entertain, but lack a spirit that transforms, and preachers who deign for followers instead of fellow travelers in God.
Black America stands at the precipice. African American unemployment is at its highest in 25 years. Thirty-five percent of our children live in poor families. Inadequate healthcare, rampant incarceration, home foreclosures, and a general sense of helplessness overwhelm many of our fellows. Of course, countless local black churches around the country are working diligently to address these problems.
The question becomes: what will be the role of prophetic black churches on the national stage under these conditions? Any church as an institution ought to call us to be our best selvesnot to be slaves to doctrine or mere puppets for profit. Within its walls, our faith should be renewed and refreshed. We should be open to experiencing God’s revelation anew. But too often we are told that all has been said and done. Revelation is closed to us and we should only approximate the voices of old.
Or, we are invited to a Financial Empowerment Conference, Megafest, or some such gathering. Rare are those occasions when black churches mobilize in public and together to call attention to the pressing issues of our day. We see organization and protests against same-sex marriage and abortion; even billboards in Atlanta to make the anti-abortion case. But where are the press conferences and impassioned efforts around black children living in poverty, and commercials and organizing around jobs and healthcare reform? Bishop Charles E. Blake Sr., the presiding bishop of the Church of God in Christ, appears to be a lonely voice in the wilderness when he announced COGIC’s support of healthcare reform with the public option.
Prophetic energies are not an inherent part of black churches, but instances of men and women who grasp the fullness of meaning to be one with God. This can’t be passed down, but must be embraced in the moment in which one finds one’s feet. This ensures that prophetic energies can be expressed again and again.
The death of the black church as we have known it occasions an opportunity to breathe new life into what it means to be black and Christian. Black churches and preachers must find their prophetic voices in this momentous present. And in doing so, black churches will rise again and insist that we all assert ourselves on the national stage not as sycophants to a glorious past, but as witnesses to the ongoing revelation of God’s love in the here and now as we work on behalf of those who suffer most.
Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. is currently the William S. Tod Professor of Religion and chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University.
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“Eddie Glaude is the towering public intellectual of his generation. He also is a superb scholar and academic pioneer in his profound synthesis ofAmerican pragmatism, African American thought, and religious studies.There is simply no one else like him emerging on the intellectual scene!Cornel West
Eddie Glaude is poised to become the leading intellectual voice of our generation, raising questions that make us reexamine the assumption swe hold by expanding our inventory of ideas.Tavis Smiley
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Pragmatism and the Challenges of Post-Soul PoliticsJohn Dewey once said that every generation has to accomplish democracy for itself, because social justice is something that cannot be handed down from one person to another: it has to be worked out in terms of the needs, problems, and conditions of the present moment and its distinct challenges. Black politics have grown increasingly stagnant and even ineffectual because of their basis in the sufferings and indignities of the past instead of the real-life obstacles of the present moment. Poor health, alarming rates of imprisonment, drugs, and the advanced concentration of poverty in our nations cities warrant a form of political engagement that steps out of the shadows of the black freedom struggles of the 1960s and rises to the complexities of the 21st century with more innovative thinking, a greater emphasis on responsibility and personal accountability, and a fuller embrace of education and participatory democracy. Eddie Glaude, Jr./ NewRacialStudies
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Other Responses by Edward J. Blum (Sympathy, Frustration and Reform), Ronald B. Neal (RIP: The Myth of the Black Church), William D. Hart (The Afterlife of the Black Church), Jonathan L. Walton (“The Black Church Aint Dead! (But Maybe It Should Be?)”), Anthea Butler (“Saying Its Dead Doesnt Kill It”), and Josef Sorett (’This is the Air I Breathe’: Unpacking Post-Black Church Proclamations”).
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Is the Black Church Dead?Debate Flares Among African-American ChristiansBy David GibsonThe Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday the nation commemorates on Monday, was a product of the black church, and the black church has arguably done as much as any Christian community to inspire the soul and culture of modern American society. It has supplied the prophetic language that has driven the nation’s ongoing reconciliation with the original sin of slavery, and it helped form the character of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American president and an orator with the delivery of a black preacher.
Yet New Birth Missionary Baptistwith 25,000 members who generously bankroll high-living pastors and high-tech servicesis also emblematic of what many in the African-American community see as a profound crisis in black Christianity, or even the “death” of the black church. One objection is that this prominent Georgia megachurch preaches a money-centered “prosperity gospel” that traditional African-American clergy consider a betrayal of their faith’s legacy of sacrifice and social justice. This focus on personal financial gain represents a kind of cultural conservatism that is spreading among black churches, critics say, and signals a concern for the success of each individual congregation rather than the national community.
In addition, New Birth’s charismatic leader, Bishop Eddie Long, is under intense scrutiny for allegations that he used his position as a spiritual counselor to coerce at least four men into sexual relationships while they were teens, giving them cars and cash in return.
Long and his representatives have denied the charges, saying only that Longwho said he takes pride in being called “Daddy” by the congregantswas just serving as a mentor to the teenagers and did not engage in sex with them. Long, who is 57 and married (and an opponent of gay rights) freely admits that he is “not perfect.” But he is also not about to step aside from his pulpit, and, more importantly, his congregation has rallied to his side. “Of course we support him,” a congregant who gave his name only as Roger said after a nearly three-hour service of rollicking music and praise for Long, and insistent appeals for donationsappeals that were repeatedly answered as thousands streamed up to the pulpit to lay wads of cash in a growing pile on the stage.
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By Bart D. Ehrman
The evocative title tells it all and hints at the tone of sensationalism that pervades this book. Those familiar with the earlier work of Ehrman, a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of more than 20 books including Misquoting Jesus, will not be surprised at the content of this one. Written in a manner accessible to nonspecialists, Ehrman argues that many books of the New Testament are not simply written by people other than the ones to whom they are attributed, but that they are deliberate forgeries. The word itself connotes scandal and crime, and it appears on nearly every page. Indeed, this book takes on an idea widely accepted by biblical scholars: that writing in someone else’s name was common practice and perfectly okay in ancient times. Ehrman argues that it was not even then considered acceptablehence, a forgery. While many readers may wish for more evidence of the charge, Ehrman’s introduction to the arguments and debates among different religious communities during the first few centuries and among the early Christians themselves, though not the book’s main point, is especially valuable.Publishers Weekly / Forged Bart Ehrmans New Salvo (
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of a Growing Religion in America
By Miguel A. De La Torre
This book by Miguel De la Torre offers a fascinating guide to the history, beliefs, rituals, and culture of Santeria — a religious tradition that, despite persecution, suppression, and its own secretive nature, has close to a million adherents in the United States alone. Santeria is a religion with Afro-Cuban roots, rising out of the cultural clash between the Yoruba people of West Africa and the Spanish Catholics who brought them to the Americas as slaves. As a faith of the marginalized and persecuted, it gave oppressed men and women strength and the will to survive. With the exile of thousands of Cubans in the wake of Castro’s revolution in 1959, Santeria came to the United States, where it is gradually coming to be recognized as a legitimate faith tradition.
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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posted 12 March 2010