By Robert A. Vella
Fifty-six years ago, as a Catholic schoolboy attending Sunday Mass, I remember our priest preaching that “we are all God’s children.” It is a ubiquitous Christian phrase derived from a New Testament book. From: Colossians – King James Version (KJV)
Colossians 1:16 For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him.
Although I was one of those unusual children who never fully internalized religion and practiced it only to obey my mother, I greatly appreciated our priest’s message. It promoted the commonality of all people and all things. To me, it was essentially the same message written by Thomas Jefferson into the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
But, as I looked around the pews, all I saw were White faces. In fact, the olive complexion of my Sicilian ancestry made me the darkest person in the congregation. Coming from a lower middle class to poor family which often resided on the “wrong side of the tracks,” at least some of my neighbors and classmates were of Asian, Hispanic, and Black lineages. So, why weren’t they also in my church too? This noticeable inconsistency both puzzled and disturbed me.
As I grew older, the stark contrast between ideals and reality became increasingly clearer. I lived in a nation which has continuously struggled to reconcile its ignoble behavior with its admirable principles. America was at war with itself. It very much wanted such goals, but putting them into practice forced Americans to confront their own prejudices and human failings. Consequently, far too many Americans avoided doing so choosing instead to hide behind the moral and ethical depravity of their political and religious leaders.
For example, sometime after the Protestant Reformation, Evangelicals began reinterpreting the “God’s children” message to differentiate themselves from Catholicism and Papal authority. The Born Again movement was based on another New Testament text:
Gospel of John 3:3-5 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.”
Since the Bible was written, translated, transcribed, edited, and reedited by numerous authors over a very long period of time, it is full of ambiguity and apparent contradictions which leave it wide open to interpretation and reinterpretation. That’s why many theologians resist literal readings of the texts. From my perspective, I accept the importance of religion as a medium for spiritual expression; however, I also recognize the societal dangers posed by powerful institutions controlled by mortal men who are sanctioned by arbitrary authority and not by the public at large.
This is why there are Black churches and White churches in America. It happened not because God wanted it that way, but because severely flawed human beings in positions of great influence and power used politics and religion as tools for cultural segregation. I urge all people, regardless of their spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, to fundamentally understand the societal dynamics at play here. Unfortunately, most people blame belief systems they don’t agree with; but, the real problem is the abuse of unchecked authority.
Here are two excellent articles on this topic.
Disclaimer: This editorial does not imply that all churches are segregated or that all Americans are racist. Obviously, that wouldn’t be true. It is intended to convey the nation’s religious and racial history in relation to the current polarized state of American culture.
The term “the black church” evolved from the phrase “the Negro church,” the title of a pioneering sociological study of African American Protestant churches at the turn of the century by W.E.B. Du Bois. In its origins, the phrase was largely an academic category. Many African Americans did not think of themselves as belonging to “the Negro church,” but rather described themselves according to denominational affiliations such as Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, and even “Saint” of the Sanctified tradition. African American Christians were never monolithic; they have always been diverse and their churches highly decentralized.
Today “the black church” is widely understood to include the following seven major black Protestant denominations: the National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Progressive National Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church and the Church of God in Christ.
New historical evidence documents the arrival of slaves in the English settlement in Jamestown, Va., in 1619. They came from the kingdoms of Ndongo and Kongo, in present-day Angola and the coastal Congo. In the 1500s, the Portuguese conquered both kingdoms and carried Catholicism to West Africa. It is likely that the slaves who arrived in Jamestown had been baptized Catholic and had Christian names. For the next 200 years, the slave trade exported slaves from Angola, Ghana, Senegal and other parts of West Africa to America’s South. Here they provided the hard manual labor that supported the South’s biggest crops: cotton and tobacco.
In the South, Anglican ministers sponsored by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, founded in England, made earnest attempts to teach Christianity by rote memorization; the approach had little appeal. Some white owners allowed the enslaved to worship in white churches, where they were segregated in the back of the building or in the balconies. Occasionally persons of African descent might hear a special sermon from white preachers, but these sermons tended to stress obedience and duty, and the message of the apostle Paul: “Slaves, obey your masters.”
Both Methodists and Baptists made active efforts to convert enslaved Africans to Christianity; the Methodists also licensed black men to preach. During the 1770s and 1780s, black ministers began to preach to their own people, drawing on the stories, people and events depicted in the Old and New Testaments. No story spoke more powerfully to slaves than the story of Exodus, with its themes of bondage and liberation brought by a righteous and powerful God who would one day set them free.
Remarkably, a few black preachers in the South succeeded in establishing independent black churches. In the 1780s, a slave named Andrew Bryan preached to a small group of slaves in Savannah, Ga. White citizens had Bryan arrested and whipped. Despite persecution and harassment, the church grew, and by 1790 it became the First African Baptist Church of Savannah. In time, a Second and a Third African Church were formed, also led by black pastors.
In the North, blacks had more authority over their religious affairs. Many worshipped in established, predominantly white congregations, but by the late 18th century, blacks had begun to congregate in self-help and benevolent associations called African Societies. Functioning as quasi-religious organizations, these societies often gave rise to independent black churches.
(Bloomberg Opinion) — Robert P. Jones is founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of the new book, “White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” Jones, who was raised a Southern Baptist in Mississippi, has a divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a doctorate in religion from Emory University. His book is a powerfully detailed history, not a polemic. I interviewed him, via email, last week. A lightly edited transcript follows.
Wilkinson: “Racism” is a popular subject right now. You use a term — in the book’s title and throughout the text — that has sharper edges and fewer ambiguities: “white supremacy.” That’s a phrase Americans typically associate with the Ku Klux Klan or other fringe groups. Yet how “fringe” is white supremacy to American culture?
Jones: Properly understood, white supremacy is not fringe at all but actually has framed the entire American story. For most white Americans, the term primarily evokes white sheets and burning crosses — extremist images, mostly from a bygone era. But white supremacy is not just, or even fundamentally, about individual acts of racial terrorism. Its more powerful expressions are built, over generations, into the way society is organized: which neighborhoods were open, which jobs were available, what political power was allowed, and what laws were applied to whom.
A dizzying array of resources across multiple fields of human inquiry has been deployed to defend this belief. By far, the strongest were theological arguments that presented white supremacy as divine mandate. Particular readings of the Bible provided the scaffolding for these arguments. Black Americans, for example, were cast as descendants of Cain, whom the book of Genesis describes as physically marked by God after killing his brother, Abel, and then lying to God about the crime.
Wilkinson: One thing I learned from your book is how deeply the “Confederate Trinity” of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee pervaded white Christianity. How did the Lost Cause become an explicitly white Christian cause?
Jones: The Confederacy was, from the beginning, a cause tied up with white Christianity, which conferred on it divine blessing and moral legitimacy.
After the Civil War, Manly and others shifted tactics to promote a “Lost Cause” theology, which held that, despite military defeat, the divine vision of a white supremacist society would be restored. Over time, Davis, Jackson and Lee evolved into Confederate Christian saints who were treated as religious icons. In addition to creating public monuments glorifying them, groups such as the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and many upper-class southern whites, incorporated images of this Confederate trinity into sacred spaces, principally through stained glass installations in churches and other public buildings. (Until 2017, there were stained-glass panels depicting Jackson and Lee in Washington’s National Cathedral. The Cathedral removed two images of Confederate battle flags only the year before.)
Lee was described as a gentle and virtuous Christian knight, often depicted as Moses leading his people to the promised land, or as a Christ figure. The significance would not be lost on church congregations. Moses never made it to the promised land and Jesus was crucified; but Moses pointed the way to the Jewish people’s ultimate arrival in the promised land, and Jesus rose from the dead.
Davis functioned as a Christian martyr, whose treatment, especially his imprisonment, after the war symbolized the South’s broader mistreatment and humiliation. Stonewall Jackson represented a stern Old Testament prophet-warrior. In the face of an emasculating defeat, Jackson’s image evoked courage, valor and an unflinching sense of the righteousness of the cause. These images were installed in numerous churches and depicted on massive monuments like the frieze carved into Georgia’s Stone Mountain, which is larger than Mount Rushmore.