African American Religion


The notion of love in African American religion is complex and multilayered. Whereas African American religion is itself complex and represented by various and often competing traditions such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and New Age religions, the majority of African Americans are Christians. In popular terms, the loosely affiliated African American Christian organizations, and the Black congregations within predominantly white religious bodies such as the United Methodist Church and American Baptist Churches, USA, constitute what some call the Black Church. Formed in a historical period that was characterized by oppression and exclusion in America, the Black Church has often promoted itself as a loving institution that seeks to speak on behalf of people who are marginalized and downtrodden. Nevertheless, the Black Church has endured a tense, often contradictory, history when it comes to the question of love.

On the one hand, the Black Church has been a champion of agape-love, the type of love that African American Christians like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others have interpreted as referring to the creative and redemptive love—an unconditional positive regard that one nurtures for all of humanity, even one’s enemies. On the other hand, the Black Church has failed to come to terms with eros-love— the longing desire to unite with the “other,” particularly when the other is another human being of the same sex. This love is often referred to as erotic love, and it implies issues of sexuality and gender identity, which invariably leads to discussions of homosexuality and the question of what constitutes normal and healthy loving relationships between human beings. This latter form of love frequently causes uneasiness in African American churches, which can be inadequate with respect to their responses to issues regarding the body in particular—the Black Church responds to this uneasiness about the body and sexuality with interdictions prohibiting relationships that lie outside the established norms. There exists a tense and conflicting duality, and a means of compartmentalization with respect to agape and eros in African American religions.

The champion of agape was Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister, who was the leader of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and believed strongly in the principle of love. King was known by some as the “Apostle of Love,” and he came to embody the principle of love for millions of African American Christians and for diverse cultural communities. But for King, this notion of love was no abstract principle. Although it was a theological idea that for King was drawn from the life of Jesus and the Christian tradition, it had definite social and political implications that he believed could transform a violent and racially divided culture such as that in America. Two aspects that exemplified agape-love for King were forgiveness and justice.

Forgiveness—the condition in one’s heart or innermost being that one is always ready to pardon enemies for their sins—was a permanent attitude for King. Other African American religious leaders were critical of King for this position, especially in the 1960s. Malcolm X, one of the leaders of the Nation of Islam and the National Representative of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, for example, openly castigated King in his public speeches and in his writings. He ridiculed the idea of forgiveness of one’s enemies, particularly when that enemy was violent and oppressive. Malcolm X believed that loving one’s enemies and being nonviolent toward a violent enemy was immoral. Self-defense, Malcolm X thought, was moral and intelligent. At the same time, Malcolm X and others often overlooked the second principle that characterized King’s notion of love.

For King, love also required justice or the practice of equality in all aspects of one’s life, but the social practice of justice was especially paramount in situations in which a person or group held power over another. If justice was not given freely, then love required that one summon the courage to confront those in power and demand justice. This confrontation, for African American Christians, was primarily nonviolent, although historically love of freedom and of one’s community has taken the form of violent rebellion. An example is Nat Turner’s revolt against slavery in 1831. Another is the kind of Black Nationalism or African emigration that African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Henry McNeal Turner promoted in the nineteenth century, in which African Americans sought to return to Africa as a means of obtaining freedom and autonomy. Regarding the principles of violent rebellion and Black Nationalism, King believed that both of these positions were the result of an attitude of defeat. He believed that nonviolent activism was the means to justice, and it required a belief that white people who held power or committed violence against African Americans could and would change if African Americans appealed to their hearts and their sense of morality.

Although African Americans have championed and even embodied agape-love, African American religions have at the same time not generally been comfortable with eros-love. One of the ways in which African American religions have engaged the notion of eros is by severely limiting the types of loving relationships that they consider acceptable. For many religious groups, especially the Black Church, this has meant that same-sex relationships or loving heterosexual relationships outside the legally sanctioned ones would be prohibited, or at least criticized as immoral. Some argue that the inability of African American religious groups to engage the subject of erotic love in healthy ways stems both from religious ideas that privilege the mental and spiritual over the body, and from the historical experience of racism and oppression in which African Americans’—and women’s—sexuality was defined and regulated by white male ideals.

Many forms of Black Christianity focus on things that are considered mental and “spiritual,” often to the neglect or the negation of those things that are bodily or fleshly—the tradition has often privileged the mental and spiritual over things that were natural and bodily. Part of this is the result of adopting a Christian tradition that has split the mind and body into a hierarchical duality, one that negates the body and bodily pleasures and promotes instead a life of rational contemplation on “higher” religious ideas. These traditions can be traced to the early Christian thought of Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who advocated an ascetic Christian life that was characterized by self-denial, but the notion can be traced even further to ancient Greek thought. These same ideas that problematized eros were also homophobic and misogynistic, in the sense that women came to symbolize lust and temptation—especially given that the leadership hierarchies in most African American churches tended to be overwhelmingly male, while the memberships were predominantly female. This also exposed underlying issues of power, domination, homophobia, and misogyny in African American culture at large.

African Americans’ religions have adopted a philosophy of characteristically subjugating women and often limiting them to inferior positions within organizations, even though they constitute large, even majority, membership populations. Although in some cases this philosophy is changing, these changes fall far short of the equity and justice that have been a hallmark of Black religious groups, especially the Black Church, where it concerns racial issues. African Americans have been vulnerable to the type of philosophy and theology that endows with privilege the concepts that are considered mental and spiritual, in part due to their ambivalent relationship with the white community. For one, African Americans have struggled with their own sense of identity and with finding positive meaning with respect to being black. At the same time, their desire for the socioeconomic and religious advantages that are associated with whiteness has led to the adoption, as a measure of privilege, of such ideas that are viewed as being associated with whiteness, Europe, and European Americans.

In America, sexual and gender discourse has historically been defined by white men. As such, controlling sexual conversations became a way to control Black bodies, reproduction, and intimate relationships, and to suggest that African Americans were inferior. Such discourses have resulted in mythologies that suggest, for example, that African Americans’ penises are larger than those of whites, and also to degrade the intellectual capacities of African Americans by inferring from these stereotypes that African Americans are devel-opmentally and intellectually not as human as whites. Instead, pseudosciences like phrenology and physiognomy tried to suggest that African Americans were not only less rational and moral, but also more voracious and aggressive sexually and bodily. Unfortunately, African

American churches have been inadequate in responding to these forms of oppression. Perhaps the Black Church has overcompensated as a means of countering these notions and made open discussions of sexuality taboo, particularly regarding gay and other than legally sanctioned heterosexual relationships. This often expresses itself in an obvious discomfort with issues of the flesh.

As a result, love in the Black Church as in many African American religions is dichoto-mous—agape and eros remain woefully separate except under extremely controlled and defined circumstances such as those found in attitudes and teachings about heterosexual marriages. For the most part, the Black Church remains unable or perhaps unwilling to reconcile the inconsistencies regarding its practice and preaching about love. To some extent, the emphasis on justice and agape may veil the fear and inadequate position on eros, allowing the Black Church to compartmentalize the two forms of love as virtually unrelated poles. This continues to be a problem for which the African American religion has been unable to find an answer. Neither the Black Church nor the Nation of Islam, or any other African American religious communities such as the Hebrew Israelites have been able to bridge the vast gulf that exists between the perspectives of social justice on the one hand and gender and sexual equality on the other.

Love in African American religion remains a critical issue—critical because agape and eros for many people are two sides of the same coin. They constitute two aspects of what it means to be an authentic human being and, for some, what it means to be an authentic religious person. The uneasiness with which African American religions address the erotic may have deeper implications. For men, it may have religious and ultimate significance when one considers that the Divine is viewed as male in many monotheistic religious traditions such as Judaism and Christianity. This raises serious questions about the efficacy of religious traditions in the lives of communities they wish to serve, considering that the love of God may have homoerotic implications: for men to love, worship, and serve a male God constitutes a symbolic same-sex relationship. Failure to deal with erotic love may ultimately prove problematic for men, in this case African American men, who may unconsciously process the conflict as contradictory. On the one hand, erotic love between men is forbidden in African American religions and in the Black Church. On the other hand, erotic love, the desire to unite with God, to be entered by “Him” through worship, is indeed an unavoidable symbolic homoerotic circumstance.

The notion of love in African American religion also brings to the fore issues of power with respect to women. To that end, in a culture that bestows privilege on heterosexual relationships, it seems likely that women, who may invariably be seen as the “natural” com-plimentarians or partners for males, may even be seen as the natural partners and worshipers of a male God. Perhaps it is this dynamic that unconsciously motivates sexism and misogyny in the Black Church. What does seem clear is that the issues regarding eros-love among human beings have significant religious implications. The fear or inability to address issues of gender and sexuality—that is, erotic love— may perpetually affect the ability of African American religion to liberate and fully develop all those in the communities it serves who look to it for inspiration, guidance, and meaning.

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