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A Lil' Theory Series: So Help Me God Pt. 1

Every month Melanin Voices will decode an inter-sectionally BLACK philosophy, theory or concept as part of the 'A Lil' Theory Series'. It’s gonna be dope the next time you have a Facebook argument because you’ll have enough ammo to clear an entire thread.


 "For such a high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens. Who needeth not daily, as those high priests, to offer up sacrifice, first for his own sins, and then for the people's; for this he did once, when he offered up himself." (Heb. 7:26-27).

The Black Church has been a staple in the Black community since before the first slew of 'first Baptist' churches hit our great-grandparents' neighborhoods. It houses cotton haired (nappy headed) portraits of Jesus, experts on fish fries and life, and wide, weary smiles, and because the Black Church was founded by black existentialism – the collective experiences and culture of Black people – it's foundation is interwoven with our struggle to navigate American society. The church housed many of the meetings, people and projects that propelled the Civil Rights Movement forward. Hell, it housed the fellowship and optimism necessary to propel many Black folks through the week. But, as I see#BlackLivesMatter come across my newsfeed, timeline, television and favorite T-shirts, I wonder if the elders feel the growing void. During slavery, the Black Church was a comfort. During Reconstruction, the Black Church sustained this comfort and began formally organizing for political gain in the middle the country's reconciliation with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a reincarnate of the prolific slave pastors who inspired white and  Black listeners-and the Black church birthed him. Yet with the resurgence of the Black Pride movement, where Black women and men are wearing their Afros, young Black college students are organizing across the country and Black Lives Matter is building infrastructure,  the Black Church's silence more than demonstrates its status as a political relic.

There are plenty of reasons for why the separation happened. But the main problem is that the "Black" part has been carved out. Divisive perspectives on a variety of decisions and lifestyles marginalized some. Counts of greed and theft alienated others while upward mobility encouraged some Black folks to move away from predominantly Black neighborhoods where most Black churches are found. Whatever the case, much of the Black has been removed and that was the part that connected Black folks through the understanding, down to the spirit, of the daily tests Black folks endured. This understanding inspired the urgency members of the Black church moved with to aid each other. Though promising paradise in the future, the Black Church once related Christianity to its struggle and thus understood that it’s people were under attack.

It's not a secret that true Christianity deals with forgiveness, atonement, an eternal love that protects and comfort that awaits. It’s true that the brand of Christianity taught to slaves dealt only with their subjugation and it's also true that slave owners prohibited slaves from gathering without surveillance for fear of revolt. What isn't true is the prevailing notions of Black Christians as the descendants of folks who fell for the okie-doke. Stories dealing with relief, especially after prolonged periods (such as Exodus), spread from plantation to plantation in a variety of ways. Most slave pastors weren't literate, but they had heard enough of white pastors to know that the gospel they offered differed greatly from the ones slaves knew. Though it was illegal to teach slaves how to read and write, religious abolitionists, freedmen and some literate slaves found ways to educate slaves – from establishing illegal schools to merely telling what they learned reading the Bible that day. With religious instruction being the only legal path to literacy, many slaves spent time mulling over the scriptures and found that the Bible didn’t consist of  31,102 verses saying “obey your master”. The Black Church was born – it’s emergence only Biblical. In the Old Testament, God established Levitical Priests as the middleman between God and the Israelites, designating these men to handle all spiritual matters, but especially those dealings with atonement of sins through offerings. In mainstream Christianity, Christ is referred to as the “High Priest,” signifying His role as bridge between the Abrahamic God and His children. In a similar way, the Black Church served as High Priest, navigating the spiritual and political burdens Black people bore, sacrificing so that God – the Abrahamic One or Freedom itself – would be appeased. It offered a humbler Christianity than mainstream Christianity, starting in secluded areas called hush-harbors to hide worshipping slaves from masters who feared a revolt – whether politically or divinely inspired. It looked forward to the end of slavery while mainstream Christianity prolonged it, even encouraged it. In mainstream Christianity, God turned His head away from his only begotten Son. The God of the Black Church empathized when each of his Black children were whipped against, strung up on or locked within their pine.

There are countless horror stories detailing Black folks' betrayal at the hand of the church. Some argue that there is a mass exodus of Black folks from Church for this reason. Much of its political ambition has collapsed under a variety of pressures, limiting the connection it once had to all Black folks. Still, the Black Church is composed of more than long white sheets to cover legs and open palms and begrudged tithes. It houses more than cotton haired (nappy headed) Christs, fried fish dinners and wide weary smiles – has more tenacity than the young, more wisdom than the old and more dynamism than its current culture. Its influence extends beyond religion and into the crevices of Black society; for centuries the Black Church was a solace to a people well beyond 40 years into their journey into the land of milk and honey. The Black Church housed with no house, fed with no food and moralized the immoral. Whether Christianity really helped slaves at all will always be disputed – and should. But what about the deserved respect – however cautious – for the first political infrastructure we ever built?