Black women are growing increasingly skeptical of mainline Christianity
At 13 I innocently became a catalyst for change in the Seventh-day Adventist church when I applied for admission at Mount Vernon Academy, a boarding school in Ohio, 56 miles away from my home in Columbus. The rejection letter came with directions to the historically black Pine Forge Academy in Pennsylvania, 442 miles from my home. Rejection letters from other boarding schools in closer, bordering states, cited policies against accepting students from outside their conference territories, and quota systems that had already been filled for the next ten years.
This led my father Frank W. Hale, Jr, and two friends who were brothers in the faith and fight, Mylas Martin and Burrell Scott to create the Laymen’s Leadership Conference. That organization became a movement of black Adventists from coast to coast. Its demands for change to the entire church structure, its policies and practices came to a head at the church’s 1962 world session in San Francisco, California.
Though the church conceded—at least on paper during that meeting—my subsequent experience at the two academies I attended indicated that underlying beliefs and attitudes remained largely unchanged. The most telling evidence is the fact that I have no high school diploma despite having completed all the requirements in less than three years. That was the “problem,” since no white student had ever done so at that institution.
So later, when I was invited to a meeting of the All African Peoples’ Revolutionary Party, organized by Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael) who ignited the Black Power movement, to promote Pan Africanism for the total liberation and unification of Africa under scientific socialism, all I could say is “Where do I sign?”
My favorite bumper sticker reads, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention,” and with activism being part of my DNA, the disparities and inequities in the church, the nation and the world could neither be ignored or just fodder for discussion.
For some of today’s young, black, Christian women, the discussion has gone on too long, and they’re re-evaluating everything: from assertions that black Christians are stalling black liberation; that spirituality, not religion, is critical to black women’s well-being; that more young black people are trading in church for African spirituality; that Christian redemption for black women is a myth; that black women’s faith and flourishing is rooted in womanist theology, to exploring the proclamations of black witches in Baltimore.
One could easily conclude that the church is in danger of losing the most reliably Christian people in the world – black women.
Back to the Book for Answers?
During the 1960s Malcolm X angrily challenged that “Christianity is the white man’s religion.” However, many black religious movements have urged African American people to, as the late American theologian James H. Cone wrote, “adopt a perspective on God that was derived from their own cultural history.” Black theology, liberation theology, feminist theology, Latin American liberation theology, and womanist theology, to name a few, have answered that call.
According to Cone, “black theology is primarily a theology of and for black people who share the common belief that racism will be destroyed only when black people decide to say in word and deed to the white racist: ‘we ain’t gonna stand any more of this,’” (Black Theology and Black Power, 1969). Further he states that “the task of Black Theology, then, is to analyze the black man’s condition in the light of God’s revelation in Jesus Christ with the purpose of creating a new understanding of black dignity among black people, and providing the necessary soul in that people, to destroy white racism.”
Unfortunately, Cone also declares that “Black Theology knows no authority more binding than the experience of oppression itself. This alone must be the ultimate authority in religious matters.”
In his 1977 work Farewell to Innocence: A Socio-Ethical Study on Black Theology and Power, Allen Boesak refined the idea of Liberation Theology. It is one that “reclaims the Christian heritage and reinterprets the gospel to place it within its authentic perspective, namely, that of liberation. In doing so, it questions the historical role of the Christian church, the alliances of the church with ‘the powers that be’ and insists on a true church, i.e., a church that proclaims and lives by the liberating gospel of Jesus Christ. . . Liberation theology seeks a church that ministers to the poor not merely with compassion but with a sense of justice.”
Phyllis Trible, professor of Old Testament at Union Theological Seminary and prolific author, states that “the uniqueness of feminist theology is its use of women’s experience to expose male-centered bias of classical theology and articulate a faith that incorporates full humanity” (Trible 1983).
Latin Liberation Theology
Guerrilla/revolutionary theologian Camilo Torres and the book, “Notes for a Theology of Liberation, by Peruvian philosopher and priest Gustavo Gutierrez, immediately comes to mind when the subject of Latin American liberation theology is discussed. This religious movement arose in late 20th century Catholicism and sought to apply religious faith by aiding the poor and oppressed through involvement in political and civic affairs.
Black women, then, so long disenfranchised due to race, gender and class, have had to look for affirmation and ways to find identity, meaning and purpose. While feminism and feminist theology are generally understood as relating to the issues and voices of middle-class white women, womanism and womanist theology speak to the unmuting of African American female voices and the empowerment of the underclass.
Unfortunately, the church, not Christ, has often been, and is currently guilty of promoting the antithesis of Christianity in policy and practice. This creates a vulnerability to anything that appears to counter oppression successfully.
In her article, Church Makes Me Sick, Dr. Roni Dean-Burren cites very specific and valid reasons why black people are leaving the church including the manner in which it fails to take a hard enough stance against physical, emotional or sexual abuse and the degree to which it either ignores mental illness or tries to pray it away.
While there is definitely a growing overall distrust for mainline Christianity, there is more specifically an exodus of black women from the Christian Church. While black men are turning to the Hebrew Israelite movement, black women are embracing nature-based, ancestral religions. For example, The Atlantic published a revolutionary piece documenting the transition of young black women into modern-day witchcraft. This article and many others cite how young black women, former Christians, use artifacts and rituals like yoga, crystals, masks, mantras, chanting, and the burning of sage. All of these practices have their roots in Hinduism, Buddhism, and the many variations of West African Yoruba (Cuban Santeria, Brazilian Candomblé, Haitian Vodou), a set of religious traditions focused on reverence for ancestors and worship of deities known as orishas.
Iyawo Orisa Omitola Founder of the Black Witch Convention stated at their 2018 conference in Baltimore, “one thing I know from studying African religions is, I have never seen one subservient goddess. So why are we sitting here thinking we have to be subservient?” Yomi Adegoke in her article “‘Jesus Hasn’t Saved Us’: The Young Black Women Returning to Ancestral Religions” begins her article with the testimony of a young black girl named Michelle Yaa, a former Seventh-day Adventist who believes she did not convert to Comfa but instead “calls it an awakening. It’s just waking up.” These beliefs along with a dissatisfaction with unanswered questions, gender based discrimination, and the silencing of sexual and physical abuse victims has many black women like Yaa resonating with the words of Omitola. But it is womanist theology that holds the greatest appeal for unsuspecting black women.
The concept of “womanist” is presented in Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens. Many women in church and society have appropriated it as a way of affirming themselves as black while simultaneously owning their connection with feminism and with the African American community, male and female, according to an article by Mariam Williams called “Being Black, Feminist and Christian: An Ongoing Struggle.” Womanist theology allows women to reclaim their roots in black history, Christianity and culture.
Roots and Fruits
It is essential to critical thinking and mandatory for all who would be not only informed and enlightened, but safe and saved, to examine “roots” and understand “fruits” here. Womanist theology stems from an author who embraces the belief in the salvation of all souls, which contradicts scripture. Her revisionist views of God, clearly expressed in her writings, also contradict Old and New Testament representations of Deity.
Despite this conscious decentering of the black church in womanist theology, many black women believe it possible to be a Christian womanist. Void of a Christ-centered interpretation of the Bible however, womanist theology is dangerous and deadly, albeit attractive in its offerings of freedom from theological and ecclesiastical domination.
Thinking black women seeking to be faithful to Christianity that has historically and contemporaneously been, in the words of bell hooks, “imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist and patriarchal” admit to an ongoing struggle.”
Black Women’s Faith in the Midst of Struggle
In recent years, polls, such as the one conducted by The Washington Post continue to show “black women among [the] country’s most religious groups.” Yet, the number of faithful practicing Christians have ebbed among millennial women. The numbers do not indicate the large shift in Christian practice among women who incorporate traditional rites into their Christian walk. (See sidebar) It is true, however, that the future of black Christianity, and women who profess it, will be a recognition of how God has led in the past.
“The gift of black faith was wrought out of the distinctive way God was revealed to pre-colonial Africa and it was shaped, for five hundred years, by the experience of suffering and struggle related to oppression. Its lasting contribution will be its demonstration of what it takes for a people to survive and achieve inner and external liberation under the strange circumstances of being downtrodden under the heel of Christian racists.
The joyous testimony of the men and women whose tortured footsteps we have followed through the history of America has been to “keep on keeping on,” as Fannie Lou Hamer used to say, “down the freedom road” – to continue, in other words, the struggle which refuses to settle for anything less than total liberation for the total creation. That has been black folks’ answer to that mysterious question of Jesus in Luke 18:8 – “Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will He find faith on the earth?” (Wilmore 1989)
I am acutely sensitive to the yearning of African people on the continent and in the diaspora for justice. Aligned with liberation movements around the world, the Party provided the means to study and work in many political contexts towards these ends. During my time with the Party, I was completely alienated from the church, but eventually I came to realize how pathetic any human attempt to eradicate the fruit of our problems (poverty, racism, sexism, classism, ageism, colonialism, capitalism, colorism, egotism and all the rest) is without the eradication of the root of our problems – sin.
In the meantime – the in-between time before the Parousia when all that is at odds with peace and justice will meets it end – we are benefited from a parable Jesus told His disciples, about how to occupy themselves while He was away, having entrusted them with what was needed. Luke 19:13 (NASB) reads, “Do business with this until I come back.” Given the many resources with which Christians are blessed by God to have at our disposal, financial, legislative and practical support of such organizations and movements as “END IT NOW” and the “EQUAL JUSTICE INITIATIVE” are two of many investments to consider.
Enditnow is a global initiative to raise awareness and advocate for the end of violence around the world. It aims to mobilize Seventh-day Adventists around the world and invites other community groups to join in to resolve this worldwide issue.
The Equal Justice Initiative is a private, nonprofit organization that challenges poverty and racial injustice, advocates for equal treatment in the criminal justice system and creates hope for marginalized communities.
So, today, as an African American female who left but has returned to the church with all its challenges, involvement and participation in the efforts of these two endeavors are ways in which I attempt to be a faithful servant and “do business with this until [Jesus] comes back,” all the while realizing that “my hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” Amen.