Without the knowledge of the past combined with knowledge of culture, one would have a very vague understanding of how the faith of African-Americans has been affected through history to the modern age. I have been deeply affected on this immersion; not always with the amount of work and energy that it takes to be involved in this type of contextual learning experience, but rather with what I didn’t expect.
I didn’t expect to be hit in the face with how the reality of Pope Alexander VI signing a document known as the Papal Bull in 1493, which stated that any land not inhabited by Christians was available to be discovered, claimed, and exploited by Christian rulers would clarify my understanding of the role I have in uprooting a hegemony that is still thriving even in spaces that are dedicated to being progressive and forward-thinking. In short, this doctrine holds that when European nations “discovered” non-European lands, they gained special rights over that land, such as sovereignty and title. Not only did this Bull ensure exclusive rights to the lands discovered by Columbus, it justified the similar theft of the Native Lands we now call the United States of America.
It is in light of this Doctrine of Discovery, which instilled the sanctioning of Christian enslavement and power over my own ancestors by denigrating them with no justification save for supplying the New World with its major workforce, that I realize viewing the prisms of a Christian reality by means of a theological lens of exploration exposes another layer of the physical and emotional anguish of oppression.
Oppression is extant even in the spaces of radical inclusion and hospitality. Christianity is still lacking a liberating, environmentally safe, and spiritually attuned paradigm for the greater good of all humankind because historically and culturally, the root of empowerment which begins in suffering is not ideologically comfortable for a faith based and steeped in cognitive dissonance.
Walking through this city, I have discovered how the theological expression of a people deprived of social and political power is authentically manifested; true faith and understanding of democracy cannot be divorced from the black social experience that begins with the Middle Passage and the transportation of those deemed to be pagan and enemies of Christ.
The language of “vanquish,” “capture,” and “subdue” is the mortar that holds the bricks of this city and all other cities across this country together. For the last week, my engagement with the transformative aspects of this immersion has uncovered the need for pulling that reality out of the shadows of the hallowed halls of academia and theological pontifications into the light of day.
I am the sum total of many parts seen and unseen; known and unknown. I am God’s beloved, a survivor, and the remnant of a legion of fighters that lived and loved so that I might live and love.
One of the most profound discoveries that literally took my breath away was the image of walking onto the grounds of the African-American History Museum. I noticed immediately that that the building was designed to look like a slave ship. At once, I was faced with the nightmarish conditions of the voyage and the unknown future that the stolen men, women, and children of my heritage faced as human cargo.
As I stood in reflection of how supremacist theological history has wrought oppression and subjugation unceasingly to black people, the irony of where this national monument sits was not lost on me. In bass-relief and off to the left is the Washington Monument. In that moment, I stood in the dichotomous shadow of Race and God.
To be Black and Christian in a world that devalues my blackness and individuality no longer mattered. I stood there bred with a strength that is intricately woven into the tapestry of survival that my ancestors forged as a means to harmonize and keep balance within an oppressive culture that still seeks to wring life, physical and spiritual out of us.
Race is an unfortunate consequence born out of fear and fueled by greed. Race is an external distraction toward our internal understanding of God. It prohibits us from fully experiencing the divine in all created beings and it seeks to enslave that which was never meant to be contained. In their quest to colonize this country and the minds of the people in it, the construct of White Christianity has sought to erase and devalue the importance of the legacy of the African-Americans’ contribution.
I have found that the life and identity of resistance is in full effect. The perpetual lie of black and brown bodies being represented as savage, lazy, and shiftless is merely an extension of the privileged thoughts of an oppressed people who never learned what living in true liberation actually was as it pertained to their own relationship with a just and loving God.
Frederick Douglas said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress…Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” so what can be derived from the misery that flows through all of the bloodlines that merge in the shape and form that is known as me?
What I derive from the misery that flows through all of the bloodlines merging in the shape and form that is known as me is an understanding that the insidious demon of supremacy will persist as long as the depositories of self-loathing exist within us. Justice is not something that should be locked behind barricades of hatred and insecurity….it cannot be contained, and it shall not be denied.
In his book, A Black Theology of Liberation, James Cone says, “The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God’s experience, or God is a God of racism…. The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition God’s own condition. This is the essence of the Biblical revelation. By electing Israelite slaves as the people of God and by becoming the Oppressed One in Jesus Christ, the human race is made to understand that God is known where human beings experience humiliation and suffering…Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity.”