Rev. Melech E. M. Thomas serves as the pastor of Bethel AME Church in Selma, North Carolina. In 2015, his leadership and justice work during the Freddie Gray protests in Baltimore were featured on the front page of the New York Times website as the “Young Leader in Baltimore.” Rev. Melech is a graduate of Howard University and Virginia Union University.
If there is any lesson to be learned from the histories of the Black Church in America, then it is this: American Christianity has chosen its god, and it is not the Jesus of Scripture. In the nearly 245 years since the Declaration of Independence, the American experiment in democracy has used its collective theological imagination to create a world where ideological aspiration and political hypocrisy can coexist. And out of this illicit matrimony, an idol has been birthed. So in 1952, when renowned ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about the “Ironic Situation” of American history, it seems that Niebuhr was actually describing the United States’ idolatrous and sinister relationship with the preservation of whiteness. Jesus is not the god of America. Whiteness has been the object of American worship throughout history and continues to be so to this day.
Jesus is not the god of America. Whiteness has been the object of American worship throughout history and continues to be so to this day.
This is why whenever the hollow deity of white hegemony is threatened by non-white cis-heterosexual male power building, the mainline white American church engages in both ideological gymnastics and theological contortion in an effort to make whiteness “fit” the ever-changing landscape of American society. Enslaved Africans recognized the hypocrisy of American mainline Christianity. They saw firsthand how the god of white Americans was not the same Jesus they encountered in Scripture. In 1829, David Walker, a member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, wrote in his Appeal: “Have not the Americans the Bible in their hands? Do they believe it? Surely they do not. See how they treat us in open violation of the Bible!” There was no way for Black people to honestly hold or share theological space with the violent hypocrisy of the white church.
Therefore, Black persons in the United States created their own religious institutions. Long before James Cone’s groundbreaking work in Black liberation theology in the 1960s, Black people pushed back against the theological tyranny of American religion and developed inclusive, emancipatory religious spaces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is not lost on historical irony that at the same time as the 1787 Constitutional Convention was meeting at Independence Hall in Philadelphia to “secure the blessings of liberty,” formerly enslaved Africans Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were being dragged off their knees during prayer at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church less than four blocks away. This specific historical moment demonstrated the dialectical tension of American theological turmoil out of which the institutional Black Church was birthed.
Black people pushed back against the theological tyranny of American religion and developed inclusive, emancipatory religious spaces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
To be clear, when Black people created their own religious institutions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, these institutions were not established in order to participate in the American historical narrative. The Black Church is not simply some “chapter” or “aspect” of American history, but it is distinctly and intentionally alternative to American history. From the “hush arbors” where enslaved Africans worshipped a liberating God in an “invisible institution” to the public displays of resistance to racism and injustice by twenty-first century Black churchgoers, the prophetic tradition of the Black Church has always pushed back against the theological hypocrisy of American idealism and pointed to the world that must be created in its place.
Consequently, it is no secret as to why whenever the ideals of American democracy have been on life support, it has always been the Black Church who saves it. Whether it is the legacy of antebellum Black churches leading the abolitionist movement, the insurgent revolution of AME pastors into electoral politics during Reconstruction, or the Black Baptist churches of the 1960s forcing the hands of this nation on civil rights, the Black Church has played a central role in teaching America how to be a nation of liberty and justice for all. Because for over 250 years, Black Christians in America have used the Black Church to create the egalitarian societies that America promised, but never produced.
The Black Church is not simply some 'chapter' or 'aspect' of American history, but it is distinctly and intentionally alternative to American history.
In a political “gilded” age where the American public confuses basic civility for societal progress, American Christianity must look at itself in the mirror. The presence of “Jesus Saves” flags and Bible-carrying insurrectionists at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021 were not aberrations of American Christianity. The images to which the world bore witness on that day were indicative of a nation that has historically utilized theological language in order to defend its own patriotic narcissism. White Christian nationalism did not “surge” out of thin air. But when Jerry Falwell and the religious right are given free political reign for years, and when anti-intellectual educational propaganda such as the Abeka Book curriculum is taught to unsuspecting children across the nation, this current resurgence of mainstream white supremacy is the product of both the intentionality of white racists and the silence of white moderates.
Yet, while white Christianity is unraveling by its ecclesiological strings, Black Christians are still creating spaces that exist outside of America’s theo-patriotic hypocrisy. Even as the Black Church currently faces its own reckoning with its legacies of misogynoir and queerphobia, the “invisible institutions” created within the “invisible institution” direct the whole of this country toward the society America must become in order to survive. Mutual aid organizations founded by Black queer and transgender Christians like There’s Still Hope in Charlotte, North Carolina and The Lighthouse Foundation in Chicago, Illinois represent how the Black Church has always been what America claimed to be, but never was.
While white Christianity is unraveling by its ecclesiological strings, Black Christians are still creating spaces that exist outside of America’s theo-patriotic hypocrisy.
American Christianity is currently at the intersection of what it must become and what it is becoming. The time is now for America to abandon its idolatrous obsession with whiteness, and look to the prophetic traditions within the Black Church for leadership in a more just society. But that society can only come when, in the words of Haitian revolutionary Boukman Dutty, Christians “throw away the image of the god of the whites who has so often brought down our tears, and listen to liberty which speaks in all our hearts.” Black Christians have sought to do this for centuries. But until white Christians do the same, nothing will change.
This essay is part of a series co-sponsored by the Center on African-American Religion, Sexual Politics and Social Justice (CARSS) at Columbia University and the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University. The series is co-curated with CARSS Director Josef Sorett of Columbia University and Ahmad Greene-Hayes of Princeton University.