Is American Christianity oppressive?
Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson
September 17, 2019
In April of 2018, a towering academic giant departed from life’s stage never to return. This world lost one of the most articulate masters of theology it has seen in centuries, Dr. James H. Cone, the foremost authority of black theology and liberation theology.
In seminary, I encountered the writings of James Cone and Gayraud Wilmore. Since then, I have inquired of some of my white colleagues if they too encountered these masters of liberation theology in seminary and they were hard pressed to say yes. I was not startled at this realization. It did, however, clarify that while black seminaries provided a broader swath of theological perspectives, that included the likes of Alfred Whitehead, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr and Thomas Oden, very few contemporary white seminaries, at the time, included works by the likes of Robert M. Brown, James Cone or Gayraud Wilmore. Perhaps these theologians had not met the burden of historical relevance according to American Christianity. This for me raises the question, is American Christianity oppressive? I believe many would say a resounding yes. However, as rhetorical as the question is, I believe we need to do more than say yes, but also address the oppressive nature of American Christianity. To do this, I believe we need to look at the aspects that shape American Christianity.
Is American Christianity oppressive? Many would say a resounding yes. As rhetorical as the question is, we need to address the oppressive nature of American Christianity, by looking at the aspects that shape American Christianity.
American Christianity was forged from the bowels of this country and at the very heart of American Christianity is oppression. We need to look no further than the shackled souls that were brought to the shores of the colonies during the 17th century. At the center of the Civil War was the moral issue of slavery—an issue that tore this new nation in two. The American church was torn as well. Churches in the south sided with the pro-slavery movement while northern churches supported the abolitionists. While this is a part of America’s history, few want to discuss it and it is here I believe the oppressive nature of American Christianity was nurtured. This oppressive Christianity has shaped America’s theological perspective, it has shaped America’s view on Christ, and it has shaped American intolerance of diversity. James Cone’s voice reverberated with the critique of American religion. He laid out before the world two of the most prolific and powerful voices of the twentieth century as they critiqued American Christianity, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. Cone noted that “Martin and Malcolm were master critics of American Christianity.”[i]
It is interesting that a country that has advanced in the field of technology by leaps and bounds just in my lifetime has not moved the needle of oppression very much. In the short span of fifty years we have not only seen a man on the moon—we have the capacity to explore other planets beyond the moon. In the span of just thirty years, we have gone from the first personal stereo called the Walkman to iPods, MP3 players and now streaming music. We have taken the world atlas and put it in the palm of our hands through Google Maps, and with all of these advancements we still find ourselves divided on Sunday mornings during worship. As Martin Luther King observed, “We must face the shameful fact that the church is the most segregated major institution in American society, and the most segregated hour of the week is… eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.”[ii] While there are churches where diversity is prominent, the great majority of Protestant and Catholic congregations are segregated. Michael Emerson, the leader of the Multiracial Congregation Project, “found that only 8% of all Christian congregations in the U.S. are racially mixed to a significant degree: 2-3% of mainline Protestant congregations, 8% of other Protestant congregations, and 20% of Catholic parishes.”[iii] As much as we want to believe we have made progress in the church, very little has changed.
American Christianity is not only rooted in the oppressive nature of American history, it has been the tool that has held the foot to the necks of the poor. The oppressive nature of American Christianity is not restricted to poverty or racism, sexism is part of this oppressive climate. Historically, women have been second-class citizens in the church, a double penalty is to be a woman of color in the church. This critique of American Christianity is overdue and relevant, particularly now, because of the current climate in our country. It seems that American politics molds American Christianity, when I believe the reverse should be the case. The molding by American politics can be observed from the divisive behavior exhibited from Pennsylvania Avenue, in our nation’s capital, to the churches that support this rhetoric.
All too often, Christians are reactive to that which happens in society, instead of setting the temperament of culture. As this indictment of oppression is filed at the door of American Christianity, we must not leave the community to choose whether to ignore this cold hard truth. It is human nature to deny and resist that which we find difficult to accept. No, there must be a prescription for this malady that plagues American Christianity.
Cone clearly diagnosed the problem: “Racism is deeply embedded in American religion and society. We cannot get rid of it by forgetting the past and simply urging blacks and whites to develop a good will toward each other. Racism is a cancer. To get rid of this deadly disease requires radical surgery that cuts deep into not only the “body politic” but also the body of Christ…”[iv] The work to be done will not be easy, however. To move towards what Martin Luther King Jr. termed the “Beloved Community” will involve spiritual and moral surgery. This type of surgery will require the presence of the great physician. Jesus is the great physician who is able to heal the sick souls of humanity.
Luke’s Gospel recorded Jesus returning to Nazareth after his temptation in the desert. After that desert experience, Jesus went to the temple to read. That day the reading came from Isaiah 60, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim the release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed…” (Luke 4:18 NASB). The Gospel of Christ will set free those who are oppressed as well as the oppressor. The oppressors are blinded by fears that hold them hostage. Efforts to release the captives and free the oppressed involve the church not only saying that oppression in any form is morally wrong, the church must put force behind her words by supporting meaningful legislation. The community of faith must develop a strict moral consciousness that is governed by Christ and not the world. The church needs to be the thermostat, not the thermometer in culture. The body of Christ has the power to reshape American Christianity and to reflect the true values of Christ, not by being silent, but by speaking up.
The Rev. Dr. Greg Johnson is pastor of Cornerstone Community Church, Endicott, N.Y.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.
[i] James H. Cone, “Malcolm & Martin & America: A Dream or A Nightmare,” (Orbis, NY 1991) 295.
[ii] Martin Luther King Jr., “Strength to Love,” (Fortress Press, PA, 1981) 102.
[iii] James C. Klagge, “The Most Segregated Hour in America,” https://www.phil.vt.edu/JKlagge/ConductorChurch.htm accessed July 15, 2019.
[iv] James H. Cone, “Malcolm & Martin & America: A Dream or A Nightmare,” (Orbis, NY 1991) 296.
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