Why the Black Church In America Matters

People stand outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., June 18, 2015, after a mass shooting at the church the night before that left nine people dead. Emanuel AME Church is one of the oldest in the South. (JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES)
People stand outside the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., June 18, 2015, after a mass shooting at the church the night before that left nine people dead. Emanuel AME Church is one of the oldest in the South. (JOE RAEDLE/GETTY IMAGES)

The black church’s radical humanism harbored a fierce resistance to slavery, a love of freedom, and a thirst for citizenship and equality.

The brutal act of racial terror that took the lives of nine black parishioners at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., purposely targeted the most important institution that has ever existed in the black community: the black church. So it should come as no surprise that in the age of Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore and #BlackLivesMatter, one of the nation’s most ancient and revered black churches should come under such an attack. Nor that the attack took place in South Carolina, a state so deeply rooted in white supremacy and racial hatred that its Capitol proudly flies the Confederate flag even today.

Black churches, specifically AME and Baptist, gave spiritual, religious and material sustenance to African-American communities during and after slavery. The church drew from African folklore and religions and Christianity to develop a unique blend of a sectarian and secular belief system that allowed black people to survive slavery and its aftermath. The black church’s radical humanism harbored a fierce resistance to slavery, a love of freedom, and a thirst for citizenship and equality that made it a hotbed of internal debates, discussions and controversies over the best course for black liberation in America.

Conservatives hewed closely to a politics of respectability, elevating church membership as a badge of honor that might protect African Americans from white hostility. Radicals vowed to secure heaven on earth by any means necessary, including participating in slave rebellions, abolitionist groups and self-help societies. Most steered a middle ground between these poles, sustained by a deep and abiding faith in the black capacity for survival and personal and political transformation.

After slavery, the strength of the black church made it a target of racist vigilantes, with white supremacists turning a religious symbol, the cross, into a burning icon of racial terror. White supremacy’s triumphant return in the South rationalized racial violence and murder as a divine act of “redemption” that would cleanse America from racial impurities by keeping blacks a subject people at all costs.

The African-American church stood in the eye of this white-supremacist storm. Instead of falling apart, the black church practically willed itself to exponential growth through political self-determination, community outreach and organizing that made it, alongside historically black schools, lodges and civic groups, the most important Negro institution America has ever produced. Black churches published newspapers; raised money to build schools and colleges; and helped organize libraries, insurance companies and anti-poverty efforts.

Historically black churches, such as Emanuel AME in Charleston, helped sustain communities against the ravages of Jim Crow, poverty and racial violence that contoured African-American life during this period.

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SOURCE: The Root
Peniel Joseph

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