All in the American Reincarnated Family

In this post I highlight a couple of books I have been reading (which I highly recommend) to discuss with readers of this blog how to interpret a possible connection between the findings I point out. My review here centers on a chapter from a recently published book called “Blacks and Whites in Christian America: How Racial Discrimination Shapes Religious Convictions” by Drs. Jason Shelton (UT-Arlington) and Michael Emerson (Rice), and a chapter from a recently published edited volume “Sustaining Faith Traditions: Race, Ethnicity, and Religion Among the Latino and Asian American Second Generation” edited by Drs. Carolyn Chen (Northwestern) and Russell Jeung, (San Francisco State University). In the former, we’re going to focus on the chapter titled: “Far-Reaching Faith: Evidence of an Inclusive Religious Doctrine” and in the latter we’ll focus particularly on Jeung’s study in the chapter titled: “Second Generation Chinese Americans: The Familism of the Nonreligious.”

As is often the case for me, when I read newer material it sometimes triggers my memories of a previous work I had also recently encountered and reading Shelton and Emerson’s chapter did just that. The book overall is an exploration into the similarities and differences in beliefs and practices between African American and white American Protestant Christians. In many fundamental or creedal beliefs, there’s a lot of similarity among these American Christians. But there are curious divisions that the authors unearthed which I had never considered before. Analyzing data from the Portraits in American Lives Survey, they found that “African American Protestants are almost three and a half times more likely than white Protestants to believe in reincarnation” – this claim is not merely based on a simple comparison of the average responses to the question of reincarnation. Instead, it is based on a rigorous statistical test or model that tries to account for as many possible explanations for the difference in beliefs. As some might say in statistical-talk, this is a robust finding.

This of course brought me back to the recent Pew study of Asian American religions where 34% of Asian Americans reported belief in reincarnation. That doesn’t seem surprising since 64% of Buddhist and 59% of Hindu Asian Americans believe this. However since Protestants and Catholics take up a larger share of Asian America, the overall figure must include some ascent to this belief among Asian American Christians. Indeed, 14% of evangelicals, 18% of the mainline and 32% of Catholic Asian Americans also ascribe to belief in reincarnation. Notably 26% of those who identify as “no religion” among those surveyed also believe in reincarnation. This last figure is important later in this post.

But more than knowing the comparative similarities and differences between various religious Americans be they white, black or Asian, is the interpretation of what this belief means. For those adherents whose belief system generally includes teachings on reincarnation, no further explanation is needed. Instead some interpretation is needed for the way Christians understand this belief. To understand the African American Christian belief in reincarnation, Shelton and Emerson interviewed a number of prominent African American Protestant clergy about what they thought these figures meant. In their review of the interviews, the explanation that the pastors gave was that this belief indicated

“the possibility of interacting with one’s ancestors long after they have passed away” (149). They continue: “blacks’ understanding of reincarnation is an indelible moment of spiritual clarity whereby a person ‘sees an image’ or ‘receives a message’ from a deceased loved one in a way that is so timely and powerful that it only subjectively feels as if that person has ‘come back.’” (149).

So in a way, the term “reincarnation” when asked on a telephone survey possibly brings to mind these spiritual experiences of interacting with ancestors or deceased proximal family.

So how do we explain the Asian American Christian and nonaffiliated findings? The Christian beliefs in reincarnation puzzles me but I wonder if part of the answer is that some Asian American Christians convert from Buddhism or Hinduism to Christianity. For some of them, prior beliefs merge together with contemporary beliefs. Another explanation might deal with having diverse religious family structures. Close ties with aunts, uncles and cousins from non-Christian backgrounds may be a source of religious knowledge which may merge with some Asian American Christians’ beliefs.

The other Asian American group, the nonaffiliated, brought me to Jeung’s study. As I pondered Shelton and Emerson’s chapter, I noted to myself that the way reincarnation is possibly interpreted by African American Christians sounds reminiscent of ancestor veneration among some Asian Americans. Jeung’s study included interviews with young second-generation Chinese Americans and their understanding of the kinds of customs they remember while they were growing up. For those unfamiliar with the term “second-generation,” this is shorthand for “children of immigrants.” Jeung’s interviewees grew up not professing any religion in the way that Americans conventionally understand the term “religion.” This is due to a variety of factors, one of which is that their parents grew up in an environment where religious beliefs were condemned or discouraged by the state. As with many state attempts to regulate religion, individuals and groups continue to practice whatever they did before only less publicly. Thus for second-generation Chinese Americans who grow up with immigrant parents, their understanding of religion is not based on experiences of attending a temple or church in their neighborhood. Rather it consists of practices that are not always articulated or taught to them like a catechism. They see their parents venerate ancestors, and sometimes they participate in the practice of bowing before a small shrine in their home or in visits to family gravesites in their parents’ country of origin. But its original meaning is largely lost on them. Jeung notes however that these practices are recast through the lens of American individualism. For these second-generation Chinese Americans ancestor veneration is an example of a unique self-expression of what Jeung terms as Chinese American familism. As he states,

“When combined with American utilitarian and expressive individualism, this religious repertoire consists of values, symbols, and rituals cohering around the Chinese American family.” (217)

I see an interesting parallel between the way some African American Protestants and second-generation unaffiliated Chinese Americans utilize beliefs and practices around reincarnation and ancestor veneration. They have in common spiritual practices that link them to filial ties of previous generations that have passed on. These spiritual experiences or practices are also fairly infrequent and are sometimes described by terms that draw from other religious traditions    regardless of whether they are familiar with Buddhism or Hinduism. It makes me wonder whether this is a cross-cultural similarity which we had not considered before. Perhaps this is part of an emerging contemporary American religion. Your reflections are welcome.

The Promise and Peril of Christian Solidarity: Lynching in the Christian South

In between teaching and professional conferences, I have recently embarked on a few trips to interview African American Christians in a large city for an ongoing study of how religion matters (or doesn’t) for everyday workers and entrepreneurs. In the process of meeting a wide array of churchgoers, I listened at length to the personal histories that informed their views on work and faith.

What struck me in some cases was the agrarian memories that quite a few folks recalled. They recounted stories of growing up on a farm in the rural South or visiting relatives regularly in those environments. Their parents were some of the first generation to enter into the big city. When I think back to the stories in my family, they resemble these same trajectories except that they took place in South Korea rather than the US. I think my father’s family still lived in one of the rural areas but he and most of his siblings had moved into Seoul or another large city. In the case of my father, he left the country entirely. He met my mother (who had left Korea as a single woman) in New York City and they moved together to Jersey City, NJ. These similarities suggest to me that many Americans and immigrants can likely relate to one another in the patterns observed in their family histories.

But even having similar rural origins doesn’t do justice to some of the profound differences that blacks faced in the South during the late 19th to earlier 20th centuries compared to whites and Asian immigrants. Southern rural blacks were not on equal footing with rural whites on access to a number of important institutional supports: adequate healthcare, reasonable housing, proper educational facilities and instruction. Many may have worked as hard (if not harder) than their white peers but the returns on that work were not always the same nor was their much legal recourse in the event of an injustice. The book, Slavery by Another Name by Douglas Blackmon, and the subsequent documentary, chronicles the kind of world that many of the grandparents of the men and women I interviewed lived through. It was the world of the Jim Crow South with formal and informal rules that circumscribed social life for African Americans after emancipation. Rural southern blacks (particularly men) would be arrested on trumped up charges in what is described as a “convict lease system” which effectively re-enslaved them for the benefit of white American society.

Under such conditions, it is not surprising that if there was an institution in which southern blacks had leadership, a sense of control, and community with fellow blacks, such an institution would hold a great deal of support and encouragement for a besieged people. Such is the institution of the black church. Indeed in the stories I heard, it was clear that the church had a significant role in the lives of the grandparents of the people I interviewed. The tie of the local black church in the midst of informal slavery, unequal treatment, and barriers to accessing basic institutional supports was critical for many. To borrow co-blogger Margarita Mooney’s book title, faith helped make them live.

It’s a rare thing to see research on religion in the most prestigious journals of sociology, much less one that focuses on religion and race. A sociological study that covers religion and race using Census data from over 50 years back is perhaps one of the rarest finds around. Such was Amy Kate Bailey and Karen A. Snedker’s examination of lynching patterns and religion in the South during the beginning of the 20th century and since it appeared in the venerable American Journal of Sociology, it also appeared in my “Top 11 of ’11” post.

Lynching is one of those practices that many of us as Americans haven’t reckoned with, and its impact in the memories of many African Americans persists to this day. Perhaps you didn’t know this, but one of Billie Holiday’s most famous songs (written by Abel Meerpool) “Strange Fruit” details this practice; listen to it and check out the lyrics.

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According to Bailey and Snedker, at least 2,500 blacks were lynched in the South in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, roughly one per week for 50 years. One per week. Imagine being a part of a visible minority community and hearing of someone killed by a mob made up of the dominant group nearly every single week. It’s important to remember that lynching was and is a means of social control. It was a demonstration of power. By killing one person in a bloody spectacle, the group in power conveys a message to others (particularly to blacks) that they are in control, and they will exercise that control through random yet coordinated acts of violence. Some describe this as domestic terrorism. Strikingly a fair number of lynchings were actually photographed and reproduced on postcards to be traded with other lynch fans around the country. One of these is pictured here from Waco, TX, the main city of my institution.

Lynch advocates were quite often religious, specifically Christian. Their brand of faith placed whites at the top of a racial hierarchy with blacks at the bottom. Chillingly, the practice of lynching, according to Bailey and Snedker, was a “fully ritualized, solidarity-enhancing event” (p.850). In other words, killing a human being through lynching helped bond the group together, often to reinforce their beliefs in racial superiority, justified through religious language. This happens in part because of the tacit cooperation of churches that legitimize such acts of violence in their practices of creating community.

The authors proposed 3 hypotheses concerning the role of religion and lynching. They predicted that when there is religious diversity (or pluralism), lynching will increase since the diversity of religions poses a threat to some communities that have strong boundaries. Second they proposed that the greater presence of African American churches will also be linked to a higher incidence of lynching. Finally, in counties with a large mixed-race church population will exhibit lower lynching rates.

Using data from the only 3 years in which the US Census recorded religion (1906, 1916, 1926), along with over 2800 documented lynching cases in that same time frame, they found support for these three hypotheses. Greater religious diversity (i.e. Christian denominational diversity) and the greater presence of African American denominations in a given southern county was linked to greater incidence of lynching in every decade in the former, and 2 out of 4 decades in the latter. The larger presence of mixed-race denominations lowered lynching in all four decades (see p.862-863). Subsequent analyses suggest that the strongest of these three characteristics is religious diversity. It’s curious to think about what this might have looked like in real life. Imagine a county that was predominantly white Baptist. White Methodists, Anglicans, and Catholics along with Missionary Baptists start new churches in that same county. As this diversity picks up, so do the lynchings. As a means of setting themselves apart, and to symbolize their power in the area to these newcomers, the lynchers (who are mostly white Baptist in this example) wind up killing blacks in this bloody ritual. Interestingly, where interracial church groups appear, lynching levels drop.

These findings leave a lot for reflection on the impact of church participation. For some the church was a space for some in the dominant group to justify the brutal and unequal treatment of racial minorities. For others, the church was the strongest institution that advocated for those racial minorities. And in a few rare instances, the church was a community of believers of both the dominant and minority groups.

The experience of lynching is not only the subject of historical sociology. Lynching has recently been argued as having theological significance. Theologian James Cone recently published a work that surveys the significance of lynching in African American culture and its overlay with the significance of the Christian symbol of the cross. In both instances a man treated unjustly is hung from a tree or the main product of trees. What powerful imagery in comparing these practices. In doing so Cone reappropriates the significance of lynching as a symbol not only of white supremacist terrorism but also as a reflection of a Christian South that subconsciously replicates the Passion by re-enacting the ritual of human sacrifice to atone for the sins of the people. It suggests empowerment of marginalized African American Christians, particularly those whose ultimate end mirrored that of Jesus. Putting these parts together, the stories of faith, family life in rural America, and racism have helped me better understand the role of the black church to many African American Christians.

The Black Church in America: Martin Luther King’s Legacy, The Social Gospel and the Prosperity Gospel

A Professor in Princeton University’s Religion department, Eric Gregory, once told me that many students in his Christian Ethics class know that Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader but do not know he was religious leader. Forgetting the religious roots of Reverend Martin Luther King’s legacy represents an at best impoverishment of knowledge, or perhaps as suggested in this article by Justin Dyer and Kevin Stewart on Public Discourse, an attempt to present in exclusively secular terms what Reverend King saw as a theologically and philosophically based argument: that African-Americans deserve full legal and substantive benefits of U.S. citizenship. As I’ve mentioned before on BWG, civil religion is an American tradition with many important legacies in American politics, and Martin Luther King is one example of this civil religion.

Although few of the black and white sociology of religion students I teach in the south do not know that Martin Luther King was a Christian pastor, many are nonetheless more familiar with the messages prosperity gospel preachers than with the social gospel of any kind. Realizing this blind spot made me more passionate to teach my students the historical roots of the political and social engagement of black churches. As early as the 18th century, when African-Americans lacked many other rights, African Americans organized their own churches as early as the 18th century. The religious freedom granted to African-Americans was used for their civic and political empowerment, producing powerful leaders like Martin Luther King.

To explain the close link between the black church and political mobilization, in their classic book, The Black Church in the African-American Experience, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya stated:

“other-worldly religious transcendence can be related dialectically to the motivation, discipline, and courage needed for this-worldly political action.” (Lincoln and Mamiya, Black Church, p. 234)

In other words, the black church’s often passionate Pentecostal tradition, its belief in God’s providence, his love for his people, generate the much needed-virtues of perseverance and courage to go against the tide.

The social gospel, such as promoting civil rights for African-Americans, certainly went against the tide of many [Read more...]

Remembering Prophetic Faith in American Politics

Recently, several news outlets have made a modest effort at remembering significant contributors, namely Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth and Professor Derrick Bell to the Civil Rights Movement who passed away at around the same time as Steve Jobs. Their passing reminds me that while the label “Christian” appears more often in association with conservative politics, a persistent voice remains on the progressive end of the spectrum as well, that of the Black Church. For those who are less familiar, the Black Church consists of several Protestant denominations that are predominantly constituted and led by African American Christians such as the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, the National Baptist Convention and the Church of God in Christ. Through these churches the Southern Christian Leadership Conference emerged and helped galvanize an effective and non-violent effort to bring racial justice for African Americans especially for those in the South who dealt with systemic inequalities codified under Jim Crow laws.

Having taught the sociology of race, class, and gender at a faith-based university, I am continually confronted with the reality that education and awareness about racial inequality is [Read more...]


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