Black Preaching, the Church, and Civic Life

14 Nov

I can’t say that I’ve even thought of that topic until a two or three weeks ago. Now it’s been much on my mind. What got me thinking about black preaching in the first place, of course, is my recent church visit. But how I got from that visit to this more general issue, black preaching and civic life, that takes a bit of explaining. Where I’m going is that, if we’re going to make substantial changes in how this country, these United States of America, goes about its business, if we’re going to forge a more just and more sustainable union, we’ve got to be grounded in something, something that doesn’t quite exist. Perhaps black preaching has a role to play in that something.

Civics 101: Legitimizing the State

Let’s start with the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its Foundation on such Principles, and organizing its Powers in such Forms, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

As I’ve observed in another post:

In Jefferson’s formulation the government gains its power by grant from the people. The people, in turn, gain their power, their unalienable rights, from their Creator. This reverses the logic of legitimization prevailing in traditional European monarchies. In those governments the rulers got their legitimacy from God and their subjects, in turn, got their rights and obligations through their relationship to the ruler. In that scheme democracy is implausible. Jefferson, and the new nation, emphatically rejected that scheme in favor of a different one.

In this new system the separation of church and state secures two ends, religious freedom and, even more fundamentally, the state itself. The first is obvious, and has occasioned much discussion. The second seems obvious as well, but is somehow more subtle. How can the people legitimize the state unless their authority is itself independent of that state? The only way to guarantee that independence is to guarantee the separation of church and state.

And that, I suggest, may be why religion has been so important in American society. For a large fraction of the population, though not for all, it has been the ground of capital “B” Being on which their sense of themselves-in-the-world depends.

The rest of that post elaborates on that last paragraph and its implications. I assume that argument for the rest of THIS post, but I have something different in mind.

What has happened in this country is that, while we the people retain the nominal power of legitimizing the national government through our votes, both for the President and for congressmen, that power has become only nominal. Whoever we vote for we get a government that’s run by the corporations, for the corporations, and over we the people.

The Church in 21st Century America

How do we reverse that? Where do we get the power to wrestle the government away from the corporations? What I’m wondering is whether or the church is where we’re going to have to find that power.

Historically the church has been very important in American history. In his 1977 book, Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform, William McLoughlin argues that social reform in America has been driven by religious revivalism, not just the First Awakening of the Colonial period, and the Second Awakening of the early 19th century, but by two subsequent periods of religious ferment in the late 19th century and again in the late 20th century. Economist and Nobel Laureate Robert William Fogel took up McLoughlin’s argument in his 2000 book, The Fourth Great Awakening & the Future of Egalitarianism, backing it up with social and economic data and analysis. (See this web-page for a summary of Fogel’s argument.)

It’s worth remembering that the church, and the black church in particular, was central to the civil rights movement. The church was also important in the anti-war movement, both as a source of inspiration and leadership (think of the Berrigans), but also as a source of draft counseling and in helping war resisters flee to Canada.

While it is not at all clear what the church will do in the current situation, I note that the Vatican has called for global oversight on the economy. Further, the Archbishop of Canterbury has endorsed the idea of a “Robinhood” tax on bankers’ income while St. Paul’s Cathedral has suspended proceedings to evict anti-capitalist protestors camped in front, a location in the heart of London’s financial district. Finally, the Sisters of St. Francis in Philadelphia have been exercising socially responsible share-holder activism for well over two decades.

The church is waking up. And none too soon, for we’ve got a long haul ahead of us. The changes required can’t be achieved in a single Presidential election cycle, nor two or three. Ten is more like it.

Black Preaching Style

And that brings us to black preaching style. For one thing, it is a consistently impassioned style. Yes, it IS about teaching, as all preaching is, but it is about motivation as well, not simply motivation through analysis and reflection on religious principle, but motivation through enthusiastic affirmation. Moreover, the black preacher is an actor, assuming different attitudes in the course of a sermon thereby modeling behaviors and attitudes to his parishioners. They feel downtrodden, as we all do from time to time, and he shows what that looks and feels like in the course of a sermon. But he also shows what decisiveness and accomplishment look like as well. Not only does he tell stories, he acts them out, as Henry Mitchell points out in Black Preaching: The Recovery of Powerful Art.

It is a preaching style that calls for active participation from the congregation. When he asks “Can I have an ‘Amen’” his congregation responds appropriately: AMEN! Nor do they always wait to be asked. Amen’s will be spontaneously offered at moments of affirmation during the sermon. Further, the organist is likely to accompany peak moments with brief improvised organ riffs.

The style is thus one designed to bind mind body and soul into a cohesive, resilient, and joyous unity.

Nor should we forget that the style has been forged under the most grievous circumstances, originating in late colonial times and the early days of the republic when African Americans were often forbidden to have religious meetings. It was the black church that kept black communities alive and vital in the days of slavery and on through into the 20th and now the 21st century. It is a style thus schooled in resistance and adversity.

Perhaps black preachers, and congregations too, have something to teach the wider American community. The story of how American popular music is a hybrid of many musics, with black music among the most important strains, that’s an oft-told and an by now an old story. Is there more that European Americans can learn from African Americans?

Is worship style now entering into the polycultural arena? Will it help we the 99% in our struggle to contain and even reverse the depredations of the 1%? For we do need all the resources at our disposal. One that’s been battle tested over three centuries surely has much to give.


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