Ross Douthat on Persecution and the Black Church

Ross Douthat Credit: Susan Etheridge for The New York Times
Ross Douthat
Credit: Susan Etheridge for The New York Times

Now that a few days have passed, it’s worth saying something about the much-discussed initial response to the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel A.M.E Church, in which a scattering of Republicans and Fox News personalities suggested that this was anti-religious violence, an anti-Christian attack, rather than the white supremacist violence (shaped by whatever demons occupy the shooter’s mind) that it quickly proved to be.

That initial response was a characteristically partisan mistake, in the sense that it reached for a narrative familiar to American conservatives (the persecution of Christians overseas, the growing suspicion of traditional forms of Christian faith at home) in a situation when the facts fit more closely with certain liberal priors (about the persistence of racist ideas, in particular) instead. But what’s interesting is that the reach wasn’t entirely mistaken: In grasping for their own preferred narrative, those conservatives brushed up against a somewhat different but immensely important truth about black Christianity in the United States.

By this I mean that while the Charleston massacre wasn’t primarily motivated by the hatred of Christianity or religious faith, it still was in some sense — a historically important sense — an anti-religious attack. The victims and the institution were not randomly chosen from among all the possible places where black people might be found; the killer deliberately selected a famous house of prayer, deliberately murdered a group of people gathered there for religious reasons. And in so choosing, he associated himself with a distinctive tradition of religious persecution that’s old as white supremacism itself.

African-American Christianity hasn’t been persecuted in the United States in the way that, say, minority religions are currently being persecuted by the Islamic State; the martyrdom of black Christians hasn’t taken the form of being explicitly asked to abjure Jesus Christ or die. But because the religion of the slaves and their descendants has been crucial to black Americans’ resistance, their long campaign for equality before the law, it has also been a place where the weight of oppression has been particularly heavily applied. Not only during the civil rights era’s church burning and bombings but long before, the quest to subjugate black people has logically required targeting their churches, their religious institutions, their ability to freely practice Christian faith. The faith of black people is not the thing that white supremacists hate most about them, but it is a thing that white supremacists consistently tried to break and weaken, gentle and diminish, in order that white supremacy might be sustained.

This was true for practical and political reasons, but also deeper cultural and theological ones. The black church hasn’t just been a locus of black civic life and ultimately political organization; it’s also been one of the major intellectual conduits, from the age of abolition to the era of civil rights, through which black Americans have pressed their moral claim on white America. By its mere existence, to say nothing of its flourishing, black Christianity has essentially called the bluff of white American Christians: We embrace the same religion; now vindicate your profession of faith and embrace us as your brothers. This was Martin Luther King’s message, most famously, but it wasn’t his alone, and long before the civil rights era white supremacists seemed to understand its power, and recognize that it was a kind of dagger pointing at the heart of their own racial ideology.

In the 1950s and 1960s, that dagger finally went home. But for decades and centuries before that, slaveholders and segregationists worked to turn it aside – to make their attempted marriage of white supremacism and gospel faith easier to live with, less self-contradictory on its face. Some of that work was intellectual, the work of constructing elaborate scriptural justifications for racial hierarchy. But a lot of it was structural and social, designed to prevent black Christians from presenting as equal members of the two races’ common faith. Hence the antebellum impulse (frustrated by underground slave Christianity, which in turn faced explicit persecution) to exert absolute control over the religion of the enslaved, so that Africans might be good Christians but only on the master’s terms. Hence the post-Civil War division of many Protestant confessions along racial line, often precipitated by black leaders but in reaction to a segregation of religious services and leadership that was designed to effectively deny the fullness of Christian brotherhood to African-Americans. And hence, finally, the spasm of violence directed against the churches and ministers whose Christian witness (and Christian arguments) ultimately helped bury Jim Crow.

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SOURCE: The New York Times
Ross Douthat

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