The murders at the Emmanuel AME Church in South Carolina and the series of arson attacks on black churches across the South have reignited questions about why black churches are targets for those seeking to demonstrate their anger. Black churches have long practiced the “prophetic” tradition, which argues justice and equality should be provided for on Earth, not just upon entering the pearly gates.
While reactions from white supremacists to the prophetic message have been well documented, the most fearsome attacks on this tradition have emerged from black clergy and members who embrace the status quo. These internal threats pose a greater danger to black progress because they encourage retreating from politics, leaving many blacks without a voice.
These assaults on black churches’ prophetic message began with Christianity’s introduction to African slaves. Many argued Christian conversion would pacify slaves, but others feared the messages of equality in God’s eyes would lead slaves to question their servitude. In response, colonies such as North Carolina banned black churches, and others mandated white oversight of black worship.
These devices did not stop the prophetic message from spreading. Leaders such as Richard Allen, David Walker, Henry Highland Garnet and “Mother” Emmanuel’s Denmark Vesey argued that God did not support the institution of slavery.
Further, God commanded all Americans, slave or free, to end slavery and white supremacy. In response, churches such as Emmanuel AME were burned to the ground, and Denmark Vesey was executed.
Martin Luther King Jr. faced similar problems. Responding to those who argued that religion has nothing to do with solving the race problem, King argued “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion.”
In response, white supremacists and state governments resorted to violence to mute the prophetic message. King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” further demonstrates the internal and external forces working to quash the prophetic message as he chastises passive black clergy just as much as lambasting American racism.
The prophetic tradition still finds itself in conflict with mainstream America. King’s anger toward an oppressive system has been distilled, diluted and sweetened to the point that he is popularly portrayed more like a Disney character than a revolutionary for racial, social and economic change — a true vessel for the prophetic message.
The nation’s resistance to the confrontational language of the prophetic tradition was on display as recently as 2008, when the uproar over the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s questioning of America’s historical connection with God forced then-candidate Barack Obama to offer a heavy handed criticism of his former pastor.
Further, well-known black clergy such as Bishop Eddie Long and the Rev. Creflo Dollar continually criticize blacks for attempting to address past and current racial discrimination. When confronted with racism’s negative effects, they preach individual spiritual failure as the cause, not inequality and persistent structural racism.
These messages undermine a sense of community and the need for political action at times when group cohesion and political mobilization are best for confronting these problems. The prophetic tradition argues that these problems cannot just be prayed away. It calls on blacks to have a strong enough faith to take action not only to improve their lot in life, but also to improve the lives of others.
After decades of progress, blacks question how God could allow the race to be thrust back into a fear of being attacked on the street, at the pool or even in church. If the church’s prophetic voice is to provide answers to these questions, its antagonist within the black church must be quieted.
Going forward, both clergy and members must invoke the past to develop messages that help people understand these events and how to stop them. Much like the Moral Mondays protests in North Carolina, clergy and members must come together as a coherent voice to make it clear they seek justice, and nothing else will do.
The prophetic message has withstood centuries of external blows, but in order for it to survive, the black church must confront its internal attackers.
Eric McDaniel is an associate professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin who studies politics, religion and organizational behavior.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Fort Worth Star Telegram.
To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.
Like us on Facebook.
— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) July 16, 2015