Christianity and Black Power
My purpose is to examine the concept of Black Power and its relationship to Christianity and the Church. Some religionists would consider Black Power the work of the Antichrist. Others would suggest that such a concept should be tolerated as an expression of Christian love to the misguided black brother. It is my thesis, however, that Black Power, even in its most radical expression, is not an antithesis of Christianity, nor is it a heretical idea to be tolerated with painful forbearance. It is rather Christ's central message to twentieth-century America. And unless the empirical denominational Church makes a determined effort to recapture the Man Jesus through a total identification with the suffering poor as expressed in Black Power, that Church will become exactly what Christ is not.
That most churches see an irreconcilable conflict between Christianity and Black Power is evidenced not only by the structure of their community (the 11:00 A.M. hour on Sunday is still the most segregated hour of any weekday), but by their typical response to riots: "I deplore the violence but sympathize with the reasons for the violence." What churchmen, laymen, and ministers alike apparently fail to recognize is their contribution to the ghetto-condition through permissive silenceexcept for a few resolutions which they usually pass once a year or immediately following a riotand through their cotenancy with a dehumanizing social structure whose existence depends on the enslavement of black people. If the Church is to remain faithful to itsLord, it must make a decisive break with the structure of this society by launching a vehement attack on the evils of racism in all forms. It must become prophetic, demanding a radical change in the interlocking structures of this society.
Of course the Church must realize, in view of the Christian doctrine of man, that this is a dangerous task. But obedience to Christ is always costly. The time has come for the Church to challenge the power structure with the power of the gospel, knowing that nothing less than immediate and total emancipation of all people is consistent with the message and style of Jesus Christ. The Church cannot afford to deplore the means that oppressed people use to break the chains of slavery because such language not only clouds the issue but also gives comfort and assistance to the oppressor. Therefore, the primary purpose of this essay is to show that embracing Black Power is not only possible but necessary, if the Church wants to remain faithful to the traditions of Christianity as disclosed in the person of Jesus Christ.
Definition of Black Power
What does Black Power mean? It means nothing other than full emancipation of black people from white oppression by whatever means black people deem necessary. The methods may include selective buying, boycotting, marching, or even rebellion. Black Power, therefore, means black freedom, black self-determination, wherein black people no longer view themselves as animals devoid of human dignity but as men, human beings with the ability to carve out their own destiny. In short, as Stokely Carmichael would say, Black Power means T.C.B., Take Care of Businessblack folk taking care of black folks' business not on the terms of the oppressor, but on those of the oppressed.
Black Power is analogous to Albert Camus's understanding of the rebel. The rebel is the man who says no and yes; he says no to conditions considered intolerable, and yes to that "something within him which 'is worth while ...' and which must be taken into consideration." He says no to "the humiliating orders of his master," and by so doing testifies to that something that is placed above everything else, including life itself. To say no means that death is preferable to life, if the latter is devoid of freedom. In the words of the black spiritual, "Before I be a slave I'll be buried in my grave." This is what Black Power means.
Unfortunately, many well-intentioned persons have insisted that there must be another approach, one that will not cause so much hostility, not to mention rebellion. Therefore, appeal is made to the patience of black people to keep their "cool" and not to get carried away by their feelings. These men argue that if any progress is to be made, it will be through a careful, rational approach to the subject. These people are deeply offended when black people refuse to listen and place such liberals in the same category as the most adamant segregationists. They simply do not see that such reasoned appeals merely support the perpetuation of the ravaging of the black community. Black Power, in this respect, is by nature "irrational," that is, not denying the role of rational reflection, but insisting that human existence cannot be mechanized or put into neat boxes according to reason. Human reason, though valuable, is not absolute, because moral decisionsthose decisions that deal with human dignitycannot be made by using the abstract methods of science. Human emotions must be reckoned with. Consequently, black people must say no to all do-gooders who insist that they need more time. If such persons really knew oppressionknew it existentially in their gutsthey would not be confused or disturbed at black rebellion, but would join black people in their fight for freedom and dignity. It is interesting that most people do understand why Jews can hate Germans. Why can they not also understand why black people, who have been deliberately and systematically murdered by the structure of this society, hate white people? The general failure of Americans to make this connection suggests that the primary difficulty is their inability to see black men as men.
This leads us to another reason why the concept of Black Power is rejected. Some persons would have us believe that advocating Black Power creates too much resentment or hate among black people and this makes significant personal relationship between black and white impossible. It should be obvious that the hate that black people feel toward white people is not due to the creation of the phrase Black Power. Rather it is a result of the deliberate and systematic ordering of society on the basis of racism, making black alienation not only possible but inevitable. For 350 years black people have been enslaved by the tentacles of white power, tentacles that worm their way into the guts of their being and "invade the gray cells of their cortex." For 350 years they have cried, waited, voted, marched, picketed, and boycotted, but whites still refuse to recognize their humanity. In light of this, attributing black resentment to the creation of Black Power is ridiculous, if not obscene.
Furthermore, while it is true that black people do hate whites, it is misleading to suggest that hatred is essential to the definition of Black Power. Quoting Carmichael's denial of the "black supremacy" charge: "There is no analogyby any stretch of definition or imaginationbetween the advocates of Black Power and white racists.... The goal of the racists is to keep black people on the bottom, arbitrarily and dictatorially, as they have done in this country for over three hundred years. The goal of black self-determination and black self-identityBlack Poweris full participation in the decision-making processes affecting the lives of black people." In hate one desires something that is not his; but the black man's intention is to claim what is hisfreedom. Therefore, it is not the purpose of the black man to repudiate his enslaver's dignity, but only his right as an enslaver. The rebellion in the cities should not be interpreted as the work of a few blacks who want something for nothing but as an assertion of the dignity of black people. The black man is assuming that there is a common value which is recognizable by all as existing in all people, and he is testifying to that something in his rebellion. He is expressing his solidarity with the human race.
In reality, then, accommodation and protest seem to be the only options open to the black man. For three hundred years he accommodated, thereby giving credence to his own enslavement. Black Power means that he will no longer accommodate; that he will no longer tolerate white excuses for enslavement; that he will no longer be guided by the oppressor's understanding of justice, liberty, freedom, or the methods to be used in attaining it. He recognizes the difference between theoretical equality and great factual inequalities. He will not sit by and wait for the white man's love to be extended to his black brother. He will protest, violently, if need be, on behalf of absolute and immediate emancipation. Black Power means that black people will cease trying rationally to articulate the political advantages and moral rightness of human freedom, because the dignity of man is a self-evident religious, philosophical, and political truth, without which human community is impossible. When one group breaks the accepted human covenant (i.e., a mutual respect for human freedom), it begins to plant the seeds of rebellion.
Many concerned persons have pointed out the futility of black rebellion by drawing a vast contrast between the present conditions of the black man in the ghetto and other revolutionaries of the past. They say that revolution depends on cohesion, discipline, stability, and the sense of a stake in society. The ghetto, by contrast, is relatively incohesive, unorganized, unstable and numerically too small to be effective. Therefore, rebellion for the black man can only mean extermination.
The analysis is essentially correct. But to point out the futility of rebellion is to miss the point of black rebellion. Black people know that they compose less than 12 percent of the total population and are proportionately weak with respect to economic, political, or military power. The rebellion in the cities is not a conscious organized attempt of black people to take over; it is an attempt to say yes to their own dignity even in death. Therefore, the question is not whether black people are prepared to diethe riots testify to thatbut whether whites are prepared to kill them. Unfortunately, it seems that that answer has been given through the riots as well. Yet this willingness of black people to die is not novel but is rather a part of the heritage of Christianity.
Christianity and Black Power
The black intellectual community is becoming increasingly suspicious of Christianity because the oppressor has used it as a means of directing the oppressed away from any concern for present inequalities by emphasizing a heavenly reality beyond time and space. Naturally, as the slave begins to question his existence as a slave, he also questions the religion of the enslaver.
It is, therefore, appropriate to ask, "Is Black Power compatible with the Christian faith, or are we dealing with two radically divergent perspectives?" To answer these questions we need to ask and answer a prior question: "What is Christianity?"
Christianity begins and ends with the Man Jesushis life, death, and resurrection. He is the essence of Christianity. Schleiermacher was not far wrong when he said that "Christianity is essentially distinguished from other faiths by the fact that everything in it is related to the redemption accomplished by Jesus of Nazareth." In contrast to many religions, Christianity revolves around a Person, without whom its existence ceases to be. Christ and Christianity belong together; they cannot be separated. Granted, there have been historical disagreements regarding the nature of that connection. The relationship has been conceived as inward or as external and mechanical. But it is impossible to separate Christ from Christianity without robbing it of its uniqueness.
The central importance of Jesus Christ for Christianity is plainest of all when we consider the New Testament picture of Jesus. According to the New Testament, Jesus is the man for others who views his existence as inextricably tied to other men to the degree that his own Person is inexplicable apart from others. Others, of course, refers to all men, especially the oppressed, the unwanted of society, the sinners. He is God Himself coming into the very depths of human existence for the sole purpose of destroying all human tentacles of slavery, thereby freeing man from ungodly principalities and powers that hinder his relationship with God. Jesus himself defines the nature of his ministry in these terms:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach the good news to the poor, He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed, To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
(Luke 4:18, 19)
His work is essentially one of liberation. Becoming a slave himself, he opens realities of human existence formerly closed to man. Through an encounter with him, man now knows the full meaning of God's action in history and man's place within it.
The Gospel of Mark describes the nature of Jesus' ministry in this manner: "The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the Gospel" (1:14, 15). On the face of it this message appears not to be too radical to our twentieth-century ears, but this impression stems from our failure existentially to bridge the gap between modern man and biblical man. In reality the message of the Kingdom strikes at the very center of man's desire to define his own existence in the light of his own interest at the price of his brother's enslavement. It means the irruption of a new age, an age that has to do with God's action in history on behalf of man's salvation. It is an age of liberation, in which "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the good news preached to them" (Luke 7:22). This is not pious talk, and one does not need a seminary degree to interpret the passage. It is a message about the ghetto, Vietnam, and all other injustices done in the name of democracy and religion to further the social, political, and economic interests of the oppressor. In Christ, God enters human affairs and takes sides with the oppressed. Their suffering becomes his; their despair, divine despair. Through Christ the poor are offered freedom now to rebel against that which makes them other than human.
It is ironical that America with its history of injustice to the poor (especially regarding the black man and the Indian) prides itself as a Christian nation (is there really such an animal?). It is even more ironical that officials within the body of the Church have passively or actively participated in injustices. With Jesus, however, the poor were at the heart of his mission: "The last shall be first and the first last" (Matt. 20:16). That is why he was always kind to traitors, adulterers, and sinners and why the Samaritan came out on top in the parable. Speaking of Pharisees (the religiously elite of his day), he said: "Truly I say to you, the tax collectors (traitors) and harlots go into the Kingdombut not you" (Matt. 21:31). Jesus had little tolerance for the middle- or upper-class religious snob whose attitude attempted to usurp the sovereignty of God and destroy the dignity of the poor. The Kingdom is for the poor and not the rich because the former has nothing to expect from the world while the latter's entire existence is grounded in his commitment to worldly things. The poor man may expect everything from God while the rich man may expect nothing because of his refusal to free himself from his own pride. It is not that poverty is a precondition for entrance into the Kingdom. But those who recognize their utter dependence on God and wait on him despite the miserable absurdity of life are usually poor, according to our Lord. And the Kingdom which the poor may enter is not merely an eschatological longing for escape to a transcendent reality, nor is it an inward serenity that eases unbearable suffering. Rather it is God encountering man in the very depths of his being-in-the-world and releasing him from all human evils, like racism, which hold him captive. The repentant man knows that even though God's ultimate Kingdom is in the future, it breaks through even now like a ray of light upon the darkness of the oppressed.
When we make it contemporaneous with our life situation, Jesus' message is clear enough. The message of Black Power is the message of Christ himself. To be sure, that statement is both politically and religiously dangerous. It is so politically because Black Power threatens the very structure of the American way of life. It is theologically dangerous because it may appear to overlook Barth's early emphasis on "the infinite qualitative distinction between God and man." In this regard, we must say that Christ never promised political security, but the opposite; and Karl Barth was mainly concerned with the easy identification of the work of God with the work of the State. But if Luther's statement" we are Christ to the neighbor" is to be taken seriously, and if we can believe the New Testament witness that proclaims Jesus as resurrected and thus active even now in the midst of human misery, then he must be alive in men who are where the action is. If the gospel is a gospel of liberation for the oppressed, then Jesus is where the oppressed are. Jesus is not safely confined in the first century. He is our contemporary, proclaiming release to the captives and rebelling against all who silently accept the structure. If perchance he is not in the ghetto, if he is not where men are living at the brink of existence, but is rather in the easy life of the suburb, then he lied and Christianity is a mistake. Christianity, therefore, is not alien to Black Power; it is Black Power!
There are perhaps many secular interpretations that could account for the present black rebellion as there were secular views of the Exodus or of the life and death of Jesus. But for the Christian, there is only one interpretation: Black rebellion is God himself actively involved in the present-day affairs of men for the purpose of liberating a people. Through his work, black people now know that there is something more important than life itself. They can afford to be indifferent toward death, because life devoid of freedom is not worth living.
The Church and Black Power
What is the Church and its relationship to Christ and Black Power? According to the New Testament, the Church is the laos theou, the "people of God." It is a community of people who have encountered God's action in history and thus desire to participate in Christ's continued work of liberation. As Bonhoeffer puts it, the Church is "Christ existing as community" or Christ's "presence in history." This means that the Church's work and message is nothing other than a continuation of the message and work of Christ. It is, as Barth puts it, "God's provisional demonstration of his intention for all humanity."
If the real Church is the laos theou whose primary task is that of being Christ to the world by proclaiming the message of the gospel (kerygma), by rendering services of liberation (diakonia), and by being itself a manifestation of the nature of the new society (koinonia), then the empirical Church has failed on all counts. It certainly has not rendered service of reconciliation to the poor, evidently because it represents the values of a sick society that oppresses the poor. Some present-day theologians, like Hamilton and Altizer, taking their cue from Nietzsche and the present irrelevancy of the Church to modern man, have announced the death of God. It seems, however, that their chief mistake lies in their apparent identification of God's reality with the signed-up Christians. If we were to identify the work of God with the denominational Church, then, like Altizer, we must "will the death of God with a passion of faith." Or as Camus would say, taking his cue from Bakunin, "If God did exist, we should have to abolish Him!"
The Church has not only failed to render service to the poor, but also failed miserably at being a visible manifestation of God's intention for humanity and at proclaiming the message of the gospel to the world. It seems that the Church is not God's redemptive agent but rather an agent of the old society. It not only fails to create an atmosphere for radical obedience to Christ, but also precludes the possibility of becoming a loyal, devoted servant of God. How else can we explain that some church fellowships are more concerned with nonsmoking principles or temperances than with children who die of rat bites or men who are shot while looting a TV set. Men are dying of hunger, children are maimed from rat bites, women are dying of despair, and churches pass resolutions. While we may have difficulty in locating the source of evil, we know what must be done against evil in order to relieve the suffering of the poor. We know why men riot. Perhaps we cannot prevent riots, but we can fight against conditions that cause them. The Church is placed in question because of its contribution to a structure that produces riots.
Some churchmen may reply: "We do condemn the deplorable conditions which produce urban riots. We do condemn racism and all the evils arising from it." But to the extent that this is true, the Church, with the exception of a few isolated individuals, voices its condemnation in the style of resolutions that are usually equivocal and almost totally unproductive. If the condemnation was voiced, it was not understood! The Church should speak in a style that avoids abstractions. Its language should be backed up with relevant involvement in the affairs of people who suffer. It must be a grouping whose community life and personal involvement are coherent with its language about the gospel.
The Church does not appear to be a community willing to pay up personally. It is not a community that views every command of Jesus as a call to the crossdeath. Rather, it is an institution whose existence depends on the evils that produce the riots in the cities. With this in mind, we must say that when a minister blesses by silence the conditions that produce riots and condemns the rioters, he gives up his credentials as a Christian minister and becomes inhuman. He is an animal, just like those who, backed by an ideology of racism, order the structure of this society on the basis of white supremacy. We need men who refuse to be animals and are resolved to pay the price, so that all men can be something more than animals.
Whether Black Power advocates are that grouping, we will have to wait and see. But the Church has shown many times that it loves life and is not prepared to die for others. It has not really gone where the action is with a willingness to die for the neighbor, but remains aloof from the sufferings of men. It is a ministry to middle-class America! How else can one explain its snail-like pace toward an inclusive membership? Even though Paul says that Christ "has broken down the dividing walls of hostility" (Eph. 2:14), the Church's community life reflects racism through and through. It is still possible to be a racist, a black-hater, and at the same time a member of the Church. It is my contention that the Church cannot be the Church of Christ and sponsor or even tolerate racism. The fact that the Church does indeed tolerate or sponsor racism is evidenced by its whiteness.
This leads me to conclude that Christ is operating outside the denominational Church. The real Church of Christ is that grouping that identifies with the suffering of the poor by becoming one with them. While we should be careful in drawing the line, the line must nevertheless be drawn. The Church includes not only the Black Power community but all men who view their humanity as inextricably related to every man. It is that grouping with a demonstrated willingness to die for the prevention of the torture of others, saying with Bonhoeffer, "when Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."