“Us slaves never have a chance to go to Sunday school and church. The white folks feared for slaves to get any religion and education, but I reckon somethin’ inside just told us about God and that there was a better place hereafter.” -W.L. Bost
In his slave narrative, W.L. Bost explained how some slaveholders took every effort to keep the enslaved from religion and education. Yet, they worshiped anyhow. Bost said, “Sometimes the patterollers catch us and beat us good but that didn’t keep us from tryin’.” He’s describing the will and sacrifices that created the original Black Church, known as the “Invisible Institution.”
Many of the enslaved would worship in clandestine meetings at risk of severe corporal punishment. While systematically being denied all avenues to self-improvement and hope, God miraculously revealed himself to us and supplied us with the moral imagination to know that liberation was forthcoming – a liberation not simply rooted in an exchange of power or free expression, but in love and orthodox beliefs.
The Special Function of Black American Christian Witness
The story of the Black Church is a testament to the sovereignty of God and how true faith is stronger than the most powerful manifestations of human wickedness. It proves there are indeed some things you can’t beat out of a people. Enslaved Christians didn’t have many choices in their daily lives, but they courageously chose to worship God. Subjugation, by definition, robs a people of agency, but they still chose to trust Scripture and praise Jesus notwithstanding the consequences.
But the plan wasn’t to remain invisible forever. As soon as the opportunity presented itself, the Black Church arose to become what C. Eric Lincoln called, “the most important and dominant institutional phenomenon in African American communities.” We went from secret meetings to a “nation within a nation.” The church was the center of economic cooperation, education, and social and political life for the Black community.
The Special Authority of Black American Christian Witness
The public witness of the Black Church sticks out as a particularly unique perspective and mode of social action. From abolition to the Civil Rights Movement, we managed to combine civic grace with a tenacious pursuit of justice. We showed the world that passivity amid injustice lacked love, and bitterness could not lead to redemptive ends. Regrettably, that ethic has been drowned out of the American political discourse today. We’re now considered unserious if we don’t treat our opponents with contempt and speak in vulgarities.
Worst of all, the faith is being misrepresented by Christians who seek to retain political power over all else. When some non-believers think of Christian politics, they think of President Trump sycophants. They see those who scorn racial justice, don’t acknowledge the image of God in immigrants and can’t bear to hear the truth about America’s checkered past. What they see is a culturally conservative manipulation of the Gospel.
The Special Position of Black American Christian Witness
The Black Church is a sleeping giant in the sociopolitical arena. We’re in an opportune position to heal this land. However, our politics must challenge the ideological right and left without false equivalency. We must engage partisan politics without allowing either party to become the master of our social action. The truth is conservatives won’t accept our witness unless the social justice is invisible, and progressives won’t either unless our orthodoxy is invisible. Neither option is dignified.
For any group of people to meet the tests of the moment, they must discern which values, traditions, and practices to preserve, and which must be left behind. As they assess the opportunities and challenges of the day and beyond, they must identify what’s worthy of protection and cultivation and which mentalities and institutions must be put to death.
The Special Duty of Black American Christian Witness
We must restore the dignity and independence of our historic witness. We must decide whether we’re going to lean into the best parts of our legacy and rescue American democracy or further neutralize ourselves by timidly or opportunistically following behind progressives or conservatives. Will our social commentary be prophetic or the regurgitation of generic partisan talking points?
Distinguishing the constructive from the destructive and the irreplaceable from the merely sentimental is the task of every generation of leaders. There will inevitably be spirited debates and moments when we must choose harsh realities over romantic cultural narratives. The myths that flatter us must give way to the truths that sustain us. This process is not optional. To run from it is a dereliction of sacred duty and the squandering of a precious legacy. What we choose to keep and build on will determine our identity and impact.
Let’s be careful about what we throw away. Some voices in our community’s academic and professional classes, say we must move away from the authority of Scripture and the historic Christian family and sexual ethic to survive. Ironically, this prescription is far more influenced by white secular progressive values than anything native to the Black Church. Essentially, it’s a call to repeat the mistakes of the white mainline church. It’s a path toward degeneracy and invisibility.
The Fierce Urgency of Now
To be certain, the church has been far from perfect. We must combat the misogyny and mistreatment of marginalized groups to be more Christlike. But make no mistake, the Black Church gutted of its theological substance is dead. Surely, we won’t let the faith that couldn’t be beaten out of us, now be finessed from our public witness for pop culture validation.
The In Visible Institution (IVI) newsletter is an intervention to infuse the public square with a corrective discourse. It’s an audacious attempt to revive the Black Church’s unique and dignified public witness. Our objective is to equip the church for the challenge described above through articles, podcasts, video content and more. AND Campaign has convened some of the top Christian minds in political and theological spaces. From pastors and proven community advocates to Howard University social engineers and Harvard scholars. We’ve sought out believers who’ve thoughtfully engaged the big questions and wrestled with great religious and secular minds alike. We’ve assembled a group of leaders who are unencumbered by ideological and partisan commitments – respecters of no agenda made by human hands but with unquestionable commitment to our community.
All that said, neither the Gospel nor redemptive social action belong to the Black Church exclusively. While we believe our tradition has an incisive word for this moment, we also have our blind spots. We invite our Native American, Asian, Hispanic and Caucasian brothers and sisters into this communion and discussion. We can’t faithfully pursue our visibility by rendering others invisible. “I reckon somethin’ inside” all of us that will no longer accept any form of invisibility. Our God is too great, and our ancestors sacrificed too much. It’s time to stand up and be accounted for in visible institution.
- Frazier, E. Franklin; Lincoln, C. Eric. The Negro Church in America. Schocken Books. New York. 1974. Pg.23. Lincoln, C. Eric, Mamiya, Lawrence. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Duke University Press.
- Durham and London 1990. Pg. 3.
- Id. Pg. 92.
- Frazier, pg. 33-51.