When Your Blackness and Faith Collide
One of humanity’s most significant yet daunting facets is the endless quest to find our identity. This search for identity is in and of itself complex, but when elements of one’s identity clash, the internal war that ensues is often catastrophic. A prime example is when religion and culture get pitted against each other. How does one process the dissonance felt when two significant parts of their human experience oppose? This is a question with which Black Christian Americans have to grapple.
Historically, religion has been an inseparable part of the Black American experience. According to a study by the Pew Research Center in 2014, about 79% of Black Americans identified as Christian. Black Americans identified with Christianity more than the general population, where 71% of Americans identified as Christian. However, the number of Black millennials identifying as Christian has steadily declined. According to a recent publication by ChristianityToday.com, the percentage of Black Christians who have no religious affiliation doubled from 2008 to 2020.
It is impossible to pinpoint a single event or idea that lends to this discernible shift in the number of young adults identifying as Christians. Perhaps one contributor to this exodus could be religion itself. It once served as a respite from the racial climate. It gave us camaraderie among African American believers. It was a tool to wage war against blatant injustice, but now, some view it as a relic of oppression.
In recent times of racial tensions, and outright clashes, the push to separate from anyone and anything connected to those causing the pain of oppression emerges stronger than ever. This includes the need to relinquish religion, seen , or step away from what is thought to be the God of the oppressor.
A narrative that emerged during this time was that maintaining protestant beliefs as a Black American was comparable to spiritual Stockholm Syndrome.
“Western Christianity is rooted in White Supremacy,” asserts Kenesha Bennett, a who works in admissions at an HBCU. Bennett is engaging young adults in religious and academic contexts regularly. In her personal time, she frequently studies topics such as history and world cultures.
“For example,” Bennett believes “some have traveled to different countries to share Jesus. Often, what happens instead is they “pedestalize” their own cultures while demonizing everyone else’s.”
Culture versus Religion
When exploring culture versus religion, we must first consider whether culture and religion should occupy the same space in one’s life. Can you hold the two in the same regard?
Culture and religion should not be so intermingled, said Joshua Oballes, a chaplaincy student at Andrews University. Oballes spent more than ten years as a missionary traveling to different countries, offering medical and disaster relief, leading evangelistic meetings, and aiding in feeding programs. He also worked with underprivileged populations in schools, juvenile detention centers, and low-income communities. Working, also as a teacher for students below the poverty line in rural Alabama, put him in close proximity to the human condition, in a way many of us may not experience.
Religion and culture are impossibly interlinked, Oballes said. Both seep into the human context and influence our human experience as our human experience influences them.
Many of the issues faced in Christianity result, historically, from idolizing one’s culture, said Oballes. While there are many beautiful elements of culture that are worthy of celebration, some elements of culture are in opposition to the gospel. A prayerful relationship between culture and religion, therefore is necessary; otherwise, it can lead to comparison, judgment, and dissent. Ultimately, that leads to the tainting of Christ’s image.
“It is impossible for faith and culture not to coalesce,” said Miguel Mendez, a pastor at Loma Linda University. Mendez is a doctoral candidate at George Fox University with a concentration in leadership and spiritual formation. And as an educator Mendez is well-versed in areas of diversity and spiritual development.
During the 19th century, African Americans found faith and hope, but their faith focused on the exodus. They had issues (understandably) with Paul and his admonishment for slaves to obey their masters. Their spirituals were notably both songs of trust in God, and resistance to their oppressors, resulting from their cultural reality.
“It is challenging to know where faith informs culture and vice versa” Mendez said. “It’s impossible to establish a hierarchy.”
Balance, then, ideally occurs when we realize that though God is bigger than faith and culture, both aspects inform how I speak of and understand Him.
The cross-pollination of religion and culture will always be a nuanced topic. However, At the heart of this conversation is the question, “Where do you find your identity?”
In truth, both religion and culture are inherently errant. The flawed minds of human beings have influenced both. And both can foster an environment of oppression and demonization. Building your identity on your culture or religion is like building your house on the sand. But, when your identity is in Christ, you will be unmovable, irrespective of the external circumstances.
Looking at life through the lens of Christ lends to finding a meaningful balance between culture and religion. With Christ as the foundation, our minds can internalize several truths.
First, we can understand that we will face issues on this earth that have no resolution. This reality shouldn’t stop us from pursuing the greater good for humanity, but it puts into perspective the present war for our souls that ensues beyond our realization. It helps us understand who the real enemy is.
A second truth we can gain from Christ as the center of our identity is, as Paul said in Galatians 3:28, is “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV). We can validate and internalize our equality because we are one in Christ. Neither culture nor religion saves you. That honor is for Christ alone. Thus, having a meaningful relationship with Christ requires that we lift Him higher than the elements of our human experience we find so dear.
I believe God is a God of diversity and creativity. Culture bears an element of the divine, and so does religion in many ways. To have a robust relationship with God, one that brings forth growth and healing, each individual has to do the hard work of understanding that these elements of our human existence inform our faith, but should never define it. Only an identity hidden in Christ offers the life-giving restoration many Black Americans desperately need and want.