2016-06-30
If you preach it, they will come.

Though far from its main message, that is one lesson to be learned from "This Far by Faith: Stories from the African-American Religious Experience," both a book published last April (which I'm working with here) and a six-part film airing June 24-26 on PBS. There are the black Moors. There are the black Jews, who are not to be confused with the Black Isrealites. Perhaps best known are the black Muslims of the Nation of Islam, who are most definitely not to be confused with black orthodox Muslims or the African Orthodox Church. Any African-American who has ever lived in an urban area has seen one or more of these groups proselytizing on street corners in full regalia and at full volume.

For all the noisy presence of those groups, mostly there is the black Christian and the Zion AME or Mt. Olive Missionary Baptist Church scattered every few blocks in every black community. The story of African-American religion is the story of African-American traditional Christianity and its determination to carve out both sword and sanctuary for its beleaguered flock.

"This Far By Faith" identifies itself as "the first in-depth treatment of this social history." Given the plethora of Afro-Am religious studies work readily available (albeit usually more academically oriented), the producers of the series and the book hang a lot on the definition of 'in-depth'. Standing alone, "Faith" has something of the lowest-common-denominator coffee-table book about it. But it is nonetheless a valuable primer for those unaware that the black church was much more than the source of gospel songs for marchers to rally to during the Movement days, much more than Elijah Muhammad's harem and nefarious doings.

Few Americans know of the pivotal and courageous role African-American religion played in opposing slavery and segregation and even as a meeting place for the planning of various revolts like the 1822 uprising organized by the free man (and Methodist leader) Denmark Vesey that ended in the hanging of more than 35 conspirators.

In fact, the black church came into being as a direct act of defiance of oppression. Williams and Dixie write:

It was in 1794 that the first independent black Methodist church came into being. Ushers at the predominantly white St. George's Methodist Church in Philadelphia pulled black worshipers from their knees during prayer, and the incident [the final racist insult in a long history of them, including segregation within churches] provided the necessary momentum for the city's black Christians to found their own churches. In 1794 Philadelphia's Christian black community decided to form an Episcopal congregation, which they called St. Thomas African Episcopal Church. Absalom Jones, leader of the group, became the first black Episcopal pastor in the United States.

Though they were hounded, jailed, physically attacked, and legislated against, many black churches and denominations followed the call, as blacks demanded not so much autonomy as the unperverted implementation of the religion they had so wholeheartedly embraced--too wholeheartedly, some have always contended. In the Vesey case, the turncoats who informed on the rebellion were not brainwashed "house niggers," as popular belief has it, but slaves motivated by their Christianity. The writers (somewhat simplistically) recreate their thoughts thusly:

Joe didn't know what to do. He had always been taught that God abhorred violence, regardless of whether humans used his name to justify it. To Joe everything that Vesey said went against the lessons of the New Testament. Joe knew that you were supposed to turn the other cheek, treat your neighbor as yourself, and rejoice when persecuted for the sake of righteousness. The God he worshipped could never condone the slaughter of whites, even if they had oppressed blacks for years. Joe didn't want to turn Vesey in, but his conscience wouldn't let him stand by and watch innocent people die.
Joe sought guidance from another enslaved black church leader, George Wilson, who, as a Christian, could also not condone murder. Thirty-six black men, Vesey included, died. Thirty-five were hanged and one, the conscience-stricken Wilson, committed suicide after receiving a hefty reward for his services.

As Joe's case shows, Christianity was (and is) a conundrum for the oppressed. It was also the most potent weapon in the slave master's arsenal. Without it, one wonders if slavers could ever have been able to either restrain them all from doing themselves in, or from behaving as badly as the whites did. It was often a better method of `crowd control' than either the whip or the auction block.

Many have questioned blacks' adoption of their oppressor's religion (and its handy dandy justifications for white evil), but it wasn't the theology and activism of the Black Isrealites or any other objecting group that fueled either black resistance to slavery and Jim Crow or the Civil Rights Movement. Christianity did. From a comfy Aeron office chair in 2003, it is easy to dismiss Christianity as a pacifying "slave religion," into which downtrodden blacks retreated to anesthetize themselves against bettering their lot (or, as with Joe and George above, with allowing anyone else to). Then one reads of a slave girl named Isabella Bomefree, born in upstate New York in 1797. She watched seven of her nine siblings sold away in slavery, wondering when she might be next. Before each was torn from her, their mother, Ma Bet, gave her children the only thing she could count on keeping, her faith. "My children, there is a G-d who hears and sees you," she told them. He lives in the sky.and when you are beaten, or cruelly treated, or fall into any trouble you must ask help of him, and he will always hear and help you."

Years later, that slave girl marched herself out of bondage, renamed herself Sojourner Truth and struggled victoriously for her people's freedom. Her relationship with Jesus, which was so personal she was jealous of other's belief in Him, girded and guided her every step of the way.

Hard as it may be to digest, religious fervor guided Sojourner Truth much more than abolitionism. What else did she have? What else could have kept her sane as her owner nearly succeeded in stealing her infant back into slavery? What else could her mother have bequeathed to her that could not be taken away? Reading "This Far by Faith" ought to make more those African-Americans who rejects or criticizes Christianity on political grounds feel ashamed.

As Williams and Dixie trace this path, what is perhaps most interesting about the fits, starts, revelations and recantations of blacks' religiosity in America is where the inquiry begins. The black Moors and the like look to situate blacks' understanding of themselves in a time before whites, a time when the former epitomized civilization and the latter were drawing stick figures on cave walls. The Nation of Islam and its rejectionist like situate the black self (and therefore black power, spiritual or otherwise) in a more explicit repudiation of whites. Both seem a perverse sort of anti-worship of whites.

Black Christians, on the other hand, seek to make sense of themselves and the world from within the context of their subjugation--who they are instead of who they were or who they are not. They reject not whites, but whites' false and damaging beliefs about blacks.

In all three cases, whites remain distractingly present in the black religious experience. One wonders how it could be otherwise. Blacks arrived here on slave ships with names like Brotherhood and John the Baptist, and, having been required to 'murder' their own gods in order to adopt the whites', were forced to worship Him in segregated churches which taught black subhumanity, just as they were forced to live in segregated neighborhoods and receive substandard educations.

As this struggle for the soul of America continues, there are those of us who are tempted to stamp religion as more often a problem than a solution. "This Far By Faith" shows we have some reevaluating to do. Just as blacks helped perfect American democracy by shaming the nation into living up to its much ballyhooed but hollow words, they also help continue to perfect American religiosity by joining it in faith and forcing it to listen to the beating of blacks' telltale hearts.

Blacks always knew that faith, of one brand or another, was the key to both their psychic survival and to the heart of their oppressor. "This Far by Faith" is a testament to the bottomless well of love, decency, hope, forgiveness and strength which sustains the African American community and keeps it from visiting the comeuppance upon America which it so often deserves.

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