By Sikivu Hutchinson
For the longest time religion has simply been an accepted way of life for you, unchallenged, unquestioned, a shopworn ritual, gentle as a vise. If you’re churchgoing the first seeds of doubt may be planted after squirming through umpteen marathon prayer sessions. If you’re not churchgoing, doubt may come from seeing all the privilege and status, the houses, cars and ring-kissing reverence lavished on the pastors, the bishops, the priests and other hallowed Christian elite.
At first, doubt feels as though you’re teetering, walking a tightrope over quicksand, staring down into a jury of horrified faces – of family, of friends, of anyone who has ever claimed the right to sit in judgment of you. In doubt, you look around you, and wonder about the incredible amount of real estate churches suck up, the dutiful who power the meager storefronts dotting every block, the elderly sisters resplendent in white ushers’ uniforms scrounging their last Social Security check for the collection plate. As a questioning teenager these were indelible images for me, signposts driving through communities decades removed from the 1965 Watts uprising yet still steeped in its turbulence. As a black girl from a politically conscious, secular family this was the everyday currency of black community, “natural” and impenetrable, anchored by the belief that regardless of circumstance, regardless of the crushing blight of racial injustice, there was always the comforting bludgeon of blind faith.
In doubt, the prevalence of suffering and injustice are held up as “evidence” of God’s presence, the lifelong exam of hard knocks that you’re slapped down to take. Indeed, you are told, suffering and injustice validate the need to persevere, to lap up more scripture and take every hardship on the chin in submission to divine providence.
Yet you wonder how God could justify the near ritualistic killings of unarmed people of color by the police in your community, could sanction the lopsided numbers of black youth in prison versus those who go on to college, could turn a blind eye to the bulging ranks of your peers who are homeless, in foster care or simply on the brink. If you are middle class, in a comfortable home with no worries about where your next meal is going to come from, living the insular life of an average teenage sinner, you may be told that you are “blessed,” that it is part of God’s plan, and that you should not consider your good fortune in the context of others’ misfortune but concede to the mystery of God’s ways.
And yet if you’ve been shattered, like so many of my students have, by the murders of friends who could read your mind, who could make you pee laughing one minute and drive you crazy with fist-clenching rage the next, who were your life raft body, soul and blood; then the bromide of unquestioning faith is brutally, viciously inadequate. Is, in fact, a mockery of justice, an absurd consolation as you walk through the shadows in the valley of death, tiptoeing past grave after grave of the departed, the bright-eyed sixteen, seventeen, eighteen year old black and brown faces cut down by boys that look like them the day before graduation, the night after prom, the morning of the first day of college. Will the Lord be your shepherd as it was theirs?
And if you are a young woman at this philosophical crossroads there is the question of whether there is safe space in a culture that defines your worth through conformity, submission and policed sexuality. Of whether your sisters will become the La Buena Mujer figure that your mother and her mother were trained to become, a figure based on the model of self-sacrificing saints and virgins, of protecting sinning menfolk, of being seen and not heard, of having every inch of one’s body mapped out and territorialized like the West Bank in Palestine.
If you have been questioning these violent contradictions you might be asked — what other models of morality are there? You may inwardly reply, “morality” as commandeered by preachers lambasting the gutter religions of competing cults, damning gays on Sunday and screwing everything that moves on Monday? Or “morality” as defined by predators in prayer robes insulated for generations from the full scrutiny of the law? Or “morality” as dictated by fundamentalist terrorists who sanction the murders of abortion doctors in defense of the “rights” of the unborn while millions of living, breathing children go without health care in the wealthiest nation on earth?
If you have been grappling with these questions and see no concrete alternatives, you may retreat from or go underground with your beliefs. But know that you are not alone in your doubts or passion for truth. There are others in your community who think as you do, who may have already been marginalized and dismissed for their views. They can show you that being a moral person, having inner strength and defining one’s path in life is not dependent upon bowing down to Gods, worshipping on Sundays, knowing scripture backwards and forwards and following the prayerful herd. As African-American novelist Zora Neale Hurston said, “I do not pray. I accept the means at my disposal for working out my destiny. It seems to me that I have been given a mind and willpower for that very purpose.” It is my belief that being a moral person and building a moral community is based on a justice compass, and it is what communities of color have bequeathed to this bloody experiment in “democracy” ever since the first European illegal “alien” occupied these native lands.