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Toward a Black Spirituality

“I will not oblige to your colonized way of faith” Lecrae “Facts”

Several months ago I began to notice a trend among young black Christians and young blacks in general. The trend has been that more and more black youth are seeking alternative spiritual sources, be that within the Christian tradition or outside of it altogether. They have been on a journey to uncover an authentic black spirituality. I noted the intense struggle within them to express their faith in an authentically black way that not only was free of the dominance of white supremacy, but also was not rooted in slavery. This is partly personal observation and partly research based. It is a fact that blacks are leaving Christianity in favor of other religious expressions. It is my personal observation that this is because of a desire to find spiritual expression outside of the realm of a religion that is considered to be the “white man’s religion”. 

Let’s face it, the black church and its roots and history are a product of slavery. While many aspects of the black church retained elements of African spirituality, its evolution and development happened in the context of that strange institution. I sensed within them, and honestly within myself, a desire to seek for a faith and spirituality whose roots were free from that narrative. Is there a spiritual expression for the black man and woman that predates or goes beyond the experience of slavery? And can that expression be found within the confines of Christianity? Furthermore, how does one go about purging the vestiges of white supremacy and Eurocentrism from their Christian experience? Their nuances and depths permeate almost every denomination, every theological framework, every church and every religious institution. So I began to explore what spiritual expressions I could lay my hat on and call home in the context of being a proud black man in America. 

Ever since I heard Malcolm X utter the notion that Christianity is the “white man’s religion” and that it had no relevance to black people I began to question the legitimacy of Christianity for black people. Was this statement true or an exaggeration? Naturally, because it was Malcolm X saying it, I began to look at the Nation of Islam. 

Nation of Islam

While the Nation’s assertion that Islam was the original religion of the black man and that Christianity was a tool of the white oppressor was intriguing, it did not hold up to scrutiny. Christianity had indeed been used by white slave masters and slave traders to justify slavery, but it was not the message of Christ or faithful to His word. There was no doubt in my mind that this usage was a misappropriation of the gospel and therefore this critique could not be validated. There is also significant evidence and historical issue with the claim that all or even a majority of Africans brought to the Americas were Muslims. I loved the social critique that the NOI offered and the principle of self-governance and self-determination, but the theology, especially the dismissal of Jesus of Nazareth and His replacement with the person of Fard Muhammed was not something I could accept. There were also many iterations and “spin-offs” of the NOI, such as the Five Percent Nation of gods and earths, and the Moorish Science Temple of America that also fell short of filling the void. And so the journey continued. 

Black Hebrew Israelites 

In light of Kendrick Lamar’s latest album DAMN, I discovered that there were many black youth that were turning to Black Hebrew Israelites. I was intrigued and began to search to uncover if this was a legitimate outlet. First, it must be noted, that like Protestant Christianity, Hebrew Israelites are very multifaceted with many different groups, expressions, and belief systems within it. The basic idea is that blacks in America are direct descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, and even the tribe of Judah. They believe that after the Romans laid waste to Jerusalem in A.D. 70 that many Jews fled south to Africa as far as Ghana, and that many of the Africans that were taken as slaves during the slave trade were actually Jews. Furthermore, they believe that the original Hebrews were black. So the title Hebrew Israelite is more of an ethnic claim than it is religious. They believe they are ethnically descendants of the tribe of Judah or one of the lost tribes. Religiously, some groups still accept the Messiahship of Jesus while others reject it. 

I had no problem with much of this on some levels. I already believed the original Hebrews to be brown skinned people. I am always down for a good conspiracy, so I could even accept that the Jews had migrated to Ghana and some ended up in America. In fact, the presence of African Jewish tribal communities is very well substantiated and documented. As stated earlier, many groups accepted Jesus as Savior and Messiah so no problem there. But here is where I had to get off the train. Most groups believe that the reason these African-Hebrews were taken was because of the covenant curses found in Deuteronomy 28, particularly in vs 68 which says “The LORD will send you back in ships to Egypt on a journey I said you should never make again. There you will offer yourselves for sale to your enemies as male and female slaves, but no one will buy you”. In this context, they place the blame and rationale for American slavery on themselves and on God. On themselves because slavery happened as a result of their unfaithfulness to the covenant law of the Torah, and on God because God caused slavery as a punishment for the breaking of that covenant and as a means to awaken them to the true knowledge of themselves. I could not accept a rationale that places the blame of slavery on the kidnapped Africans (or Hebrews, whichever you choose) and exonerates the European perpetrators. Furthermore, the New Testament is clear that we are no longer under the Old Covenant but we are under the New Covenant sealed with Christ’s blood. Therefore, the Old Covenant curses no longer apply. I saw this movement as yet another attempt to find meaning and identity beyond slavery as ours has been ripped from us. 

I cannot say that I have yet landed at a conclusion. Where I have loosely pitched my tent is here: Christianity was African long before it was European. Go to any seminary or school of theology and take a “History of Christianity” course and that course will inevitably trace the history and growth of Christianity westward. It will trace how it spread from the Middle East to Europe and how it developed in Europe, which is again a vestige of a white supremacist, Eurocentric interpretation. However, the true history of Christianity actually goes south before it goes west. The seedbed of early Christian intellectual thought and development was in Africa. It was in cities in North Africa such as Alexandria and Carthage. It was in kingdoms further south such as Axum and Ethiopia. Christianity had become the official religion of the Ethiopian empire almost a century before it was adopted in Rome. This research and this simple fact gave me solace enough on which to rest my head. Christianity was not the white man’s religion. It had it origins before the existence of slavery and white supremacy. It had its thoughts and developments in Africa long before it became a power in Europe. 

If Christianity is in fact indigenously African, then the narrative that Africans were not exposed to it pre-colonial era or pre-trans-Atlantic slave trade is a myth. A myth may be too soft a word—it is a lie. A lie perpetuated by the mammoth of white supremacy. A lie that maintains that Eurocentric Christianity represents the highest realization of holiness and purity. It is this lie that I heard growing up that said that classical music is the music of heaven and that gospel, R&B, Blues, Jazz, Hip-Hop and anything else Black was the music of the devil. (Next week’s post will further discuss this type of spiritual colonialism). Because Christianity is indigenously African, it frees me from guilt about engaging with it while also engaging my blackness. They are indeed compatible. 

We are all searching for identity in a world where our cultures and languages of origin are unknown. But I am glad that I can still rest in the truth of Jesus, and the truth of the Christian faith while still being firm and bold in my blackness. I do not have to submit to the powers of white supremacy and Eurocentric thought and relinquish my blackness to be accepted by Christ. I am accepted for who I am. I believe God is still with me on this journey. May He be with you on yours. 

If you would like more information on early African Christianity I have included some great resources below. 

How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind -Thomas C. Oden

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