Can the African American church experience teach us something about the condition of Christianity in America?
The brutal massacre in Charleston introduced an interesting and polarizing debate: were the members of Emanuel AME targeted for their race or for their faith? With slight nods to Fanon and DuBois, the discussion stretched the African American Christian's dual consciousness yet again, this time framed by conflict between our ethnic identity and our identity in Christ.
In the New York Times, Ross Douthat argued that the Charleston massacre was both domestic terrorism and Christian persecution. Choice of place was just as significant to the killer as choice of persons.
Douthat is on the right track. One may dismiss the Blackness or the faith of the Charleston nine, yet both aspects stubbornly demand to be acknowledged. The Christian reality takes into account both body and soul, and they cannot be separated without dishonoring the person's totality. Bifurcating the two denies God's work in and through the African American Christian's unique cultural history.
To parse these dynamics, we need look no further than today's persecuted Church. Assaults against the Church are always culturally, ethnically, and historically determined. While there will be similarities in the persecution of Christians around the globe, hostile motives will be shaped by the immediate cultural and political dynamics that surround each local body.
World leaders have noted the unprecedented rise in the global marginalization of Christians. Whether the acts are perpetrated by Hindu, Islamic, or Buddhist extremists, by hostile governments, or by White Supremacists, this is the larger global stage onto which the Charleston tragedy made its entrance.
Through the Charleston massacre, today's American Christian simultaneously glimpsed America's historical past and the present reality for Christians around the globe. Framing the Charleston tragedy solely on racial injustices and the civil rights struggle of the past is shortsighted, and ignores the larger context of today's rising global hostility toward Christ followers. The African American church narrative shows us that one need not live in a "restricted foreign country" to experience anti-Christian hostility.
Of course, some would argue that American Christianity itself perpetrated the atrocities against the African American church during slavery and in the Jim Crow south. At best, these practices sprung from an ethically deficient form of Christianity. At worst, a distorted "Christianity-ism" co-opted the language of Christianity to serve a dominant culture that worshipped itself.
Yet true Christianity emphasizes a basis for individual and communal transformation that worships Christ as the ideal; such transformation is an obvious threat to an anti-Christian culture. When that transformation is accompanied by spiritual empowerment, the need arises to stifle Christians and their institutions, lest they grate like sandpaper against the approved status quo.
The fruit of this transformation may take many forms: racial or tribal reconciliation, personal or collective growth toward a richer biblical identity, or even spiritual empowerment to stand against cultural oppression. Under a hostile culture's rubric, those who run counter to the dominant cultural force present a "problem" that must be managed.
Today's Christian is wise to consider these dynamics. The current progressive language of "evolution in thought" is reminiscent of the propaganda that defined African Americans as ontologically inferior beings, deficient in intelligence. This language gives tacit assent that anyone who disagrees with the status quo remains un-evolved, justifying marginalization and maltreatment; that which is not pro-gressive must, by default, be re-gressive. When those who hold to scriptural fidelity are presented as a drain on society, we become society's "problem" that must be managed.