On June 17, a white supremacist pig shot down nine members of the historic and beloved Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This was not just any church. People in Charleston know that one of the founders of this church was Denmark Vesey, a former slave who was killed for his role in planning a massive slave revolt, involving perhaps thousands of slaves, in the early 19th century. The story of this church leads us to the profound and complex role of the Black church in both the US south and north. The Black church has historically been a space where the liberation dreams of the African-American nation have been given expression through sermon, song, and political action. And in that vein, the Black church has also long been a target for the very powerful forces that seek to maintain the system of white supremacy.
Below we repost excerpts from one of the founding documents of the Kasama Project, “Nine Letters to Our Comrades,” which addresses the history and importance of the Black church.
From Nine Letters to Our Comrades:
“The adoption of Christianity by enslaved African people in America was not just the result of enforced ignorance or the forced indoctrination by Christian slave-owners (though both were involved). The mass conversion of slaves to Christianity happened as part of larger religious movements that swept across the U.S., sometimes in the face of resistance from their immediate owners. In the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s, African slaves and freemen flocked to camp meetings held by traveling white Baptist and Methodist preachers, some of whom were convinced of the humanity of the slaves (a then-radical idea) and of the slaves’ subsequent need for salvation. As they embraced Christianity and as they established churches, Black people shaped and reshaped Christian worship—in both form and content—marking it with their dreams and accommodations and, in some moments, creating a gospel of escape or emancipation.”
The defining elements of Christianity were certainly codified over centuries by ruling class ideologues. Many core messages Black people received via Christianity reinforced and justified oppression. The Christ of the Bible preaches “turn the other cheek” to the oppressed. Slaves were told that African people were “the descendants of Ham,” condemned to be “servant of servants.” But at the same time, the “spirit-filled” worship and music of plantation churches was carried over from West African cultures and they developed through the creative work of once-African people. The Christian fervor by many African American people over the last two hundred years is rooted not mainly in the imposition of “false consciousness” from without, but in a deep need for ecstatic relief and mutual consolation in a horrific world.”
Can anyone hope to deal with the gap separating communism from the radical sections of Black people without appreciating the reasons why many African American people are so deeply attached to their churches and faiths?” we have to understand the historic institutional role of Black churches, as economic support, as a political voice for a voiceless community, and even as the wellspring of world-changing music. Yes, those churches have been a force for accommodation and even reactionary purposes. But how can we evaluate all this if we don’t understand that religion (including the Black church) has had progressive and even revolutionary currents all through history. Let’s understand well the armed preacher Thomas Münzer,73 the slaves’ prophet Nat Turner,74 the last Puritan John Brown, and the still-beloved Sheik Bedreddin.”
“Christianity of the southern Bible Belt is not just the religion of the lynch mob—but also of the lynched. This is because the Bible Belt and the lynching belt is centered on the Black Belt — the former plantation areas of the deep South (what Black people called “the soil of our suffering”), a place where two distinct nations and national cultures cohabited in gruesome ways. Christianity there includes the African American churches.”
“Quite a few Black churches uphold some reactionary social values (including most recently in the controversies over abortion and same sex marriage). However, the gospel of the African American churches is obviously not marked by the “traditional value” of white supremacy. They have often interpreted the story of Jesus to explain, validate and inspire their own struggle for survival (including against the horrible threat and impact of lynching).”