Dr. Neal interviews Dr. CJ Rhodes Zera Today

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Listen to an insightful conversation on Bishop CP Jones the holiness church’s impact on black religious life from Dr. CJ Rhodes’ book “Deeper Still”

Indiana as the crossroads of faith, tolerance, and community

freedom indiana

The recent religious freedom restoration bill passed by the Indiana State legislature has created the latest uproar in a growing news cycle reporting on the infringement of rights for the LGBTQ community. Indiana’s SB 101 was created to protect the religious freedom for business owners, churches, and other religious related communities and organizations against those who threaten said freedoms. The LGBTQ community believes that it and others like it passed in several states (mostly southern states such as Arizona, Mississippi, and Arkansas) believe the bill was created to enhance discrimination against their community and causes. The reality is that it all boils down to one word: tolerance.

If you were to ask the average American if they considered themselves intolerant, bigoted, racist, or homophobic, the answer would probably be an overwhelming No. It is true that most individuals, especially those who ascribe to a religious belief system, believe that they are good and kind-hearted Americans, however when pressed with certain social issues, they discover they may not be as tolerant as they believe. In their 2005 book “The Truth about Tolerance,” Brad Stetson and Joseph Conti point out how tolerance has gotten lost in the American culture war.  This war is even more distinct in American Christianity as seen in the battles between the liberal and conservative branches of Protestant Christianity. While both branches claim the same goal of evangelizing and making disciples (as presented in Matthew 28:18-20, the conflict resides in who is more right in discipling-a fundamentalist, evangelical, conservative Christian, or an affirming, liberal, progressive Christian. This schism is affecting mainline Protestant American Christianity as Episcopal, Methodists, and more recently Presbyterian denominations wrestle with progressive ideologies and concepts such as abortion and same sex unions.  Both of these branches of Christianity grapple with the understanding and application of truth in the context of American pluralism (Stetson and Conti, 2005, pg.61).

What makes the Indiana law and others like it disturbing is that it commits the fraud of seemingly speaking for oppressed (or seemingly oppressed) people, businesses, and organizations. The very title suggests that religious freedom has been taken away from them. That is far from the truth. The greatness of living in the United States of America is wealth of religious diversity and freedom one is allowed to experience. Even within evangelical Christianity, there is no consensus on worship rituals, liturgy, music, clergy vestments, or theological training. There are evangelical pastors, business owners, and even state lawmakers who do not agree with the bill. The connecting factor for those lawmakers who designed the bill and supported the bill was perhaps the sense of fear in regards to the religious diversity that is becoming more evident in the state and America. This religious pluralism threatens their perception of truth as relayed to them through their faith. In fact, their defense of their brand of faith is associated more with intolerance and narrow-mindedness than intellectual good faith and genuine concern for the well-being of those they propose to protect with the bill (Ibid, pg.63.)

While tolerance needs truth to be coherent, truth cannot be misrepresented and legislated as absolute. When state lawmakers begin to dispel myths about their perspectives of truth, they are more likely to govern from the perspective of humanity and not faux religious authority. It is under the guise of the latter that laws like Jim Crow was institutionalized and maintained for decades. It is under the guise of the latter that the Jewish leadership during the time of Christ sought to have him killed. It is under the strain of the latter that the Civil Rights leaders marched until they ascertained the liberation desired. It is from such laws that the American public wants to distance itself and cry for the boycott of an entire state.

In the end, the governors and legislators of states who pass religious freedom laws do more harm than help to their cause. Their zeal to “save America” or “restore America” falls far short of the command of their faith to make disciples. It fails to be fully aware of the rich religious and social diversity that the United States has enjoyed over the last two centuries. While Indiana Governor Pence and his staff are doing their best to defend the law and lawmakers, there will continue to be big fallout for that state. The call is not for renunciation of beliefs or values; the call is to the recognition of the diminutive voices of the same.

 

The Black Church Then and Now

When most people think of the black church, a vision of hooping preacher’s tuning up to bluesy organ playing, gospel choirs robed and swaying to upbeat music, members shouting and dancing as they are moved by the spirit to do so, and everyone dressed in their Sunday’s best with the ladies wearing the biggest hats one can imagine. That is the idealized version of the black church, but it isn’t the reality. The reality is that the black church is about as diverse as any other ethnic group’s religious expression. There are the Methodists (of which I am affiliated), the Baptists (of which are my religious origins), the Pentecostals (the liveliest of the group), and more recently the non-affiliated fellowships, assemblies, and what not that is becoming the more reticent trend. The black church has certainly come a long way since the Christian religion was introduced to African tribes and new slaves arriving in the west.

Historically when we think of the black church we must think of the movements that brought about a sense of connection for black slaves and freemen in the western world. Leaders such as Richard Allen with the Free African Society, William Seymour and the Azusa movement (later adopted by Bishop Carlton Pearson), C.H. Mason and the Church of God in Christ movement (this led to splinter groups such as the Church of Christ Holiness, USA, the Assemblies of God, and several other COGIC organizations that took the name but not the leadership), and the National Baptist Conventions (USA, America, Progressive, and more recently the National Missionary Baptist and Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship).

The black church has had it’s moments of a collective identity particularly one of social and economic oppression. The local black church has until recently been the epicenter of activity in the black community. There are some churches that have managed to stay and grow within their communities even as demographics have changed and there are others that have taken up shop in the suburbs and managed to experience exceptional growth numerically yet have diminishing influence on their members regarding social and political issues.   During the years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow up to the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century, the black church was the driving force for education, economic thrift and development, and social justice. This isn’t the case anymore.

The black church as a collective is becoming largely discombobulated and outdated. This is evident as more black pastors begin to function independently of a denominational governing body and become celebrities in their own right. Take for instance, Bishop T.D. Jakes, author, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, movie and music producer and now talk show host. 20 years ago, he was a rising star from West Virginia and is now considered by many to be the 21st Century Billy Graham. There is also Dr. Michael Beckwith, motivational speaker and contemporary mystic who was featured on “The Secret” a best selling documentary about wealth and prosperity creation. There are many more that have reached the pinnacle of both religious and secular success and wealth. These represent the great change the black church has undergone in the last two centuries.

For me, the biggest thing about the contemporary black church is how stifled it is. While there is a great thrust of religious diversity in the American society, the black church has seemingly only been in mark time. What is interesting is that the more mainline streams of black religious experience are attempting to find relevance in latter day movements such as the charismatic and apostolic movements. This is more prominent on the African continent and in Latin America than anywhere else. As this is occurring, more blacks are beginning to find identities outside of the black church. More are identifying as non-believers (atheists/agnostics), Buddhist, hindu, and even turning to western African religious traditions (voodoo, ancestral worship, etc). There are also new sects such as the Black Israelites rising up in pockets of the south and the north.

It’s still a good thing to know that there is a black church. Its a powerful communication of how we as a people collectively managed to adapt to new oppressions in a new world. We took the religion of the masters and made it our own. We used a tool that was created to keep us in bondage as a way of empowering us to rise out of that same bondage. We developed a culture within a culture that is emulated by other ethnic groups around the world. We found a way to make the church of Christ an instrument of prosperity for the preacher and the community. The challenge now for the black church is to find a way to reconnect to those things that got us this far. It is time to go back to the “old landmark”. It is time to celebrate our diversity without crippling our power. I believe this can be done and know it should be done. The question now is “will it be done?”

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