Negotiating our understanding of the past. PBS and the Black Church, One Body in Christ

I recently watched the PBS Documentary on the History of the Black Church hosted by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr.  If you are looking for something to watch and learn about the Black experience in America this should be on your watch list.  As a historian, I am always curious to see how other historians construct narratives of past events and what they include and exclude from the story.  Given the time restraints of about four hours, Dr. Gates did a great job.  Although, if you ask four historians for their opinions about a work you are bound to get five or six opinions and I am sure Dr. Gates will hear all about what he should have included.  I will add my two cents, I would have loved more on William Seymour and the founding of Pentecostalism.  But now my rant is over.  In the ideal world Dr. Gates would have had as many episodes as Ken Burns had for his documentaries on the Civil War or Baseball.  Some readers might be surprised by that but yes there is that much material to cover.  The Black Church is an institution with a four-hundred-year history, the Civil War didn’t last that long.  So there was a great deal that is left out of the telling of this story.

As someone who loves reading and teaching about African American history I was glad that finally a documentary was devoted this topic.  The series showed just how diverse the Black Church actually was and continues to be.   It is why I prefer to talk about the Black churches. I think the term Black Church can be problematic. It provides a good handle and I understand how it helps us construct a narrative, but the Black Church is not a monolith.  It has and continues to be a diverse movement.  Referring to the Black Church can over simplify a complex story. So the singular is a misnomer. All that said, I understand that the term allows scholars to evaluate the role of Christian religion in the black community.

The term Black Church can also be problematic because of how some church historians construct the past in ways that the black church or “churches” can be taken as something of an appendix to the main story. Due to Christendom, it is easy in the west to tell the story of the church from a white, western European vantage point as if there is a straight line from Irenaeus to Aquinas to Luther without mentioning other movements.  This perspective can even pass over the Eastern Orthodox and Ethiopian churches.  It is common to tell the story of the church as if white, western and European is normal and there is this other thing, the Black Church.  Instead, the Black Church should be woven into the 2000-year story of God’s people as an integral part of the story of how God has been redeeming his people. I often tell my students that terms like, Black Church, Latino Church, African Church and Asian Church, are helpful handles but they should never lead us to believe that they are not part of the main narrative.  There is one story of the church and it encompasses all of these.

Without doing any cultural appropriation, I see the story of the Black church as the story of all of God’s people.   If we are members of one body, the body of Christ, there cannot be a white church, a black church, Latino church etc. Some readers might be saying well don’t different groups experience Christ and the gospel differently?  Yes, they do, I understand from a contextual theological perspective these handles make sense so that we can study them.  But in light of the divisions, we see in the church with Sundays being the most segregated day of the week, these terms can reinforce division.  The story of the Black Church is part of the story of my family in Christ.  If we are watching a series like this we should not be thinking that is “their” history, rather we should be thinking this is part of “The” Story of God’s people.

This leads me to my final evaluation of the series.   As a Christian it was difficult to watch this series, First, the advent of the Black Church came about in part because white Christians could not live up to Galatians 3:28, that in Christ there is neither free, nor slave, nor Jew nor Greek.  The Black church had to develop as an alternative to how many white Christians were practicing Christianity.  Second, the intersections of the white church and black church were more often stories of one set of cousins abusing the others.  When you begin to see all of these various histories as part of a larger narrative, it becomes challenging to see cousins abusing each other.   Finally, the series reminded me that separateness between groups in the church based on ethnic, race, or class distinctions is not an invention of the last 400 years.  Throughout the New Testament, Paul and James had to write to churches to condemn their separateness along these lines.  Galatians 3:28 is an ideal put forth by the Apostle Paul that has not been realized often enough in the history of the Church.