I have never understood how African Americans could be Christians when the church did condone slavery for so long. Our enslavers were Christians. We were not.” –Wrath James White

I have been thinking about this comment ever since he made it in reference to my “A Theology of Slavery” posts (parts I and II). My initial response got me thinking in general about the miracle of the black church. But I wanted to look specifically at some of the aspects of African faith that carried us through this time and led to the development of the historic black church. And I think there are some lessons that we in this modern/postmodern age can learn.

Whenever beliefs seem to be in conflict, bridges can be built across the differing faith systems. In this case, they had to be. For example, I would imagine that animism, in essence, seeing God in all things, lines up nicely with the passage in Acts 17:28 “’For in him we live and move and have our being.’” With even such a tenuous connection made, conversations can begin. Suddenly we can re-evaluate how we perceive and create reality; something especially important in light of how we over-emphasize a logic-engineered reality.

Community was a vital part of African culture, representing the idea of belonging before believing. Even today, many people are searching for a safe community in which to belong. This is something I want to get back to later. However, I think the idea that resonates so much with we can learn from the ancient-future idea of African faith is the idea of the sacred performance.

“Three things characterized this religion of the slave–the Preacher, the Music, and the Frenzy.” –W.E.B. DuBois “Souls of Black Folks

The Preacher saw himself as the voice of freedom and inclusion, modeling himself similarly to how Jesus threatened the establishment of his day with the same thing. He was God’s poet: part leader, part orator, and part story-teller.

As leader, they were rhetorical representatives attempting to close the gap between words and actions. They stirred up the moral imaginations of their listeners to fight against (social) sin. Overtly–and sometimes less overtly–political, they tried to raise the consciousness f their congregation and community.

The sermon is also part of the sacred performance. The rhythm and emotion of language, the cadence, the whoops and chants make up part of the tradition of Black sermons. They arose and spoke to the pain and joy, troubles and blessings – affirming truth in spite of circumstances. Call and response, the back and forth interplay between speaker and hearer, was about participating in the sermon. From the Amen corners (those seats on either side of the pulpit filled with the older and prominent members of the congregation who responded enthusiastically to the service) that developed to simply encouraging the preacher as he spoke, the messages spoke to the congregation and they spoke to the sermon/sermonizer. The congregation became both witness to and participant in the sermon.

What cannot be over emphasized is the importance of The Preacher as The Story-Teller. The ideal preacher has style, humor, and a gift for stories. Story-telling has always been important, vital to the culture and the community. The story captured people’s imagination, creating image before the word. This dates back to the African griots, the keepers of history and traditions in an oral cultural. They were the tribe’s memory and tale-tellers. Folk tales passed down from generation to generation, kept alive the ancient tribal stories, as folk figures provide hope. Trickster characters illustrated the weak triumphing over the strong through cunning and perseverance. In narratives, personal accounts of ex/slaves in their triumphs and defeats. The important thing is that the stories be true. They knew that while truth was a component of story, story was the medium of the truth. Preaching naturally embraced this, as it lent itself toward story telling and making the story relevant to people’s lives.

“How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Psalms 137:4

Music (and by extension, dance) is also part of the sacred performance. Music was an expression of human life, as W.E.B. DuBois put it, “adapted, changed, and intensified by the tragic soul-life of the slave, until, under the stress of law and whip, it became the one true expression of a people’s sorrow, despair, and hope.” Even under the worst circumstances, you have to sing sometimes. The circumstances were not the definition of who we were. Songs encouraged the individual and then the community, to find their voice and work toward their hope.

The songs were produced by manifold suffering. Sorrow songs, as W.E.B. DuBois called them. Negro spirituals. Vehicles of communication and unification. The songs were another aspect of our oral tradition. Handy, since we weren’t allowed to read were even punished if caught. And the songs expressed a dimension of our faith that could only be done through art. Experienced.

Songs sang the truth as lived by the people, much like the Psalms. The shouts, hums, and moans that punctuate the spirituals and Gospel music were expressions of emotional truth. Words without words. The songs also expressed home as eschatological reality as well as speaking to their present reality. Phrases like the “Other side of Jordan” and “Down by the riverside” not only told of yearnings for heaven and their spiritual hope, but also served as code for escape routes. Faith met social action even in song.

African influenced worship marked a shift in how people look and experience church. The parishioners weren’t simply an audience that watched worship, but participated in it. Music (and dance) was a form of language, body prayers and a dynamic representation of faith. Worship should be zealous, private and public. There should be a spiritual rhythm to life, symbolized by the drumbeat and dance. To be in sync with the Spirit, to rest in, be caught up in the transcendent, worship in God-consciousness, dependence on His will in and for life.

“Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with your: a gift of story and song–soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil … the third, a gift of the Spirit.” W.E.B. DuBois

Difficult to explain what DuBois means by ‘the Frenzy.’ Maybe it’s one of those things where the experience comes before the explanation. However, basically I’d say that the sacred performance has to be responded to. Some people look down on black worship services as emotionalism over substances and thus (in their condescension) miss the whole point.

There is an ecstatic element to African religious expressions. Getting hit with the Holy Ghost is not too distant from the spirit riding of voodoo/animistic practices. The Spirit seizes you if you open yourself up to it, going from silence to wild abandon, murmurs to wails. It’s a “communion with the Invisible.”

As Ralph Wiley puts it in his book “Why Black People Tend to Shout”: “Black people tend to shout in churches, movie theaters, and anywhere else they feel he need to shout because when joy, pain, anger, confusion, and frustration, ego and thought, mix it up, the way they do inside black people, the uproar is too big to hold inside. The feeling must be aired.” We join a proud history of shouting as I read the Psalms. Shout, stomp, shriek, weep, laugh … worship experience springs from life experience.

Ultimately, the sacred performance is life.

In African religions, there is an interplay between community and the individual: to be truly human, you had to become part of, feel a responsibility to, and serve the community. What happened to the communal gathering affected the individual and what happened to the individual had an impact on the community. This stands as antithetical to western Christianity’s embrace of individualism, with the message of salvation often reduced to some brand of “getting my butt into heaven”.

Faith becomes tied to social praxis. How we have understood our history and culture. How that is related to our faith in Christ. Faith becomes a matter of asking a different set of questions from a different social and historical context.

Most importantly, faith revolves around moving from the sacred performance toward action. To take the generous orthodoxy of transforming faith (that wellspring that allows Christianity to find its way into any culture, bringing differences in faith) and let it guide generous orthopraxis.