Much like the secret gathering spaces of the early Christian church, members of the Invisible Institution – the subversive underground church of enslaved African peoples – would congregate in the woods, sometimes known as the “bush arbor” or the “hush harbor,” in the hidden places and spaces tucked away from the damning gaze of their white oppressors. Meetings of the Invisible Institution granted the slaves enough “theological freedom” to create songs, scriptural interpretations and even worship styles imbued with an understanding of God as liberator, not oppressor (Why, Lord? 23-5).
Evans attributes the profound import of scripture within both the slave church and the modern black church to the revelatory sense of relevance and redemption culled from the biblical texts and ascribed to the black tradition. Of the earliest African American Christians, James Evans writes, “If the Middle Passage and slavery obscured their history as Africans, they found in the biblical story a sense of themselves as remembered by God. This aspect of the life of the Black Church is the reason for its tendency toward engagement with the world and social witness” (141).
Similarities between the Invisible Institution and the Black Lives Matter movement are widespread. Both could be construed as grassroots, African American-led responses to systemic white oppression and rampant institutional sin. Granted, members of the slave church gathered in the secrecy of the woods, most often under the cover of darkness, while the Black Lives Matter protesters frequently assemble in highly public spaces to demonstrate during daylight hours. However, actions of both the church and the movement were, and typically are, orchestrated in secret, in conversation and collaboration only with those individuals who are trustworthy and demonstrated “supporters” of the cause. In both instances, the primary intended outcome of the gatherings is liberation from oppression.
For the enslaved, liberation was necessary both physically, to grant them freedom from bondage, and spiritually, to undercut the imposition of a foreign religion, touting a false biblical witness to promote cheerful earthly servitude while promising glory “on the other side.” For the protestors, physical liberation is necessary for the multitude of disproportionately and often unjustly incarcerated African American men (and women). Economic liberation is necessary to address disproportionate income and wealth ratios along the color line, both by way of reparations and through establishment of equitable compensation practices, regardless of race or gender. Social liberation is necessary to spark a paradigm shift in the country’s pervasive cultural perception of black as “less than” white, and to promote a balancing of the scales in the distribution of resources for education and health care.
Finally, liberation for the soul is necessary to begin tending the wounds incurred through centuries of emotional, mental and spiritual scarring as a result of poor, negligent, cruel and even torturous treatment at the hands of the white race. In both instances, the central focus of the African American-led collective is to subvert the dominant oppressive forces of the age – religious subjugation and enslavement in the early 19th century, and racist government infrastructures in the 21st century.The first-century Christian church fits this model, as well, as its pronounced allegiance to the radical teachings of Christ positioned it in direct opposition to the will and mandates of the Roman Empire. Involvement in each of these three institutions – the early Christian church, the slave church and the Black Lives Matter movement – meant the possibility of personal harm, harm of loved ones, loss of liberty and even loss of one’s life.
In the volume Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology in the Slave Narratives, constructive theologian, author and University of Chicago Divinity School professor Dwight N. Hopkins outlines the sociological implications of the Invisible Institution in language that heavily mirrors the implications of the Black Lives Matter movement. According to Hopkins, the religious experiences depicted by members of the slave church differed from “traditional” white religious encounters in at least two distinct ways: “First, African American slaves pictured a political dimension in their theology…second, slaves’ religious thought accented an original cultural expression” (3). Of these alternative theological interpretations Hopkins concludes, “Thus the ‘Invisible Institution’ symbolized both a cultural statement of slave theology and a liberated space in which slaves controlled the political power to develop their theology” (9).
The Black Lives Matter movement is undoubtedly a pronounced cultural statement of a call for liberation, and an occupation by the people of a liberated space in which protestors aim to influence the political powers. Just as class operates as one of the defining factors influencing the unjust conditions that sparked the Black Lives Matter campaign, Hopkins observes that “this subversiveness in black chattels’ paradigm of theological anthropology grew out of their use of the intellect from the poor’s perspective” (31). And much like enslaved believers in the Invisible Institution exercised freedom of religion through original cultural expression, members of the Black Lives Matter movement intentionally employ the use of counter-culture language, imagery, slang, apparel, chants, songs and dedication of sacred space (such as the street memorials to Michael Brown and Freddie Gray) to “mark” the movement, and to ensure the movement’s relatability and accessibility to an angry, disenfranchised population. Authentic participation in the movement means aligning oneself with the perspective and plight of all those who are impoverished, unemployed, imprisoned, underpaid, disrespected, dismissed and undervalued because of discrimination on the basis of skin color.
In my next post, I will shift our focus to the contemporary black church. In so doing, I will compare interpretations of the modern institution set forth by author and womanist Zora Neale Hurston, who explores the relationship between folklore and the black church in her cultural anthropological work, The Sanctified Church, and by professor of Urban Ministry R. Drew Smith in his essay, “The Church in African American Theology,” exploring similarities between the modern church and the movement. Drawing upon Hurston’s work, close comparisons may be identified between the Black Lives Matter movement and, again, W.E.B. Du Bois’ “‘marks’ of the Black Church: the music, the preaching, and the frenzy” (J. Evans 144).