Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Taking Back the Black Church From Yvette Carnell


Last week, Huffington Post contributor Yvette Carnell published “Why Black Liberals Need to Take Back [The] Black Agenda From The Black Church.”  In it, the founder of the Breaking Brown media hub felt she “made the case” that the Black Church had outlived its political usefulness, and should take a back seat to Black liberals in driving the Black political agenda.  In response to strong criticism from her readers, she released a subsequent article to bring some definition to the large brush strokes with which she painted the Black church, its history and shortcomings.  On her media site, Ms. Carnell promised that this is just the beginning of a larger analysis she will deliver on the Black church, and its relation to current Black politics.

Her writings left us with a few questions: Did she indeed ‘make her case’ regarding the Black Church in these two articles?  Further, what do we need to know about her approach as she presents her forthcoming critique?

Let’s think through her argument together.

I.

Ms. Carnell opens her second article by reiterating two main points from her first: that the “Black Church (1) was never central to the Civil Rights movement and (2) is not a useful 21st century model for leadership” (emphasis ours).  Carnell cites statistics, but mere statistics don’t adequately represent the conceptual reality.

The church as a singular and identifiably labeled institution may not have always been visible, but thousands of church members were.  By Carnell’s logic, which cites the lack of statistical institutional visibility, we could say that Democrats, liberals, Republicans, conservatives, beatniks, colleges or universities (and on and on) were never central to the Civil Rights Movement.  Of course, we know that the Civil Rights movement was comprised of many contributors from diverse backgrounds; yet the reality remains that the use of church buildings as strategic locations, the recorded speeches, sermons, rhetorical style, and non-violent demonstrations that drew on the foundational principles found in the Sermon on the Mount makes the church’s centrality rather obvious.

Carnell’s reasoning and understanding of history here are puzzling.  If the church wasn’t central to the movement, why did those resistant to the movement target numerous southern Black churches for bombing, burning and terrorism? Even if Ms. Carnell does not acknowledge the centrality of the church, the White bigots who tried to terrorize the church in the South certainly understood its centrality to the movement’s advancement, as well as the potential psychological impact that targeting churches could have.

It is indeed true, as Ms. Carnell asserts, that “[Dr.] King himself lamented the ‘apathy of the Negro ministers’ and their interpretation of Christianity.”  However, Ms. Carnell doesn’t report that Dr. King’s significant contribution was to weaponize our theology into a powerful force against racism and injustice.  This revolutionary application came with his speech delivered on December 5, 1955, late on the first day of the Montgomery bus boycott.  It was at this moment that our civil rights struggle was transformed into the Civil Rights Movement.

II.

Ms. Carnell states in her first article that “Martin Luther King Jr. and other Christian leaders of the Civil Rights Movement stood on their faith because there was nothing left to stand on.  Blacks weren’t full citizens so faith was where it began and ended.  We had to believe in something and so we did” (emphasis ours).  From our vantage point, it appears she measures the value of the church primarily in terms of its contribution to “Black politics.”  Does this mean that the church must be subsumed under politics?  Is politico-centrism a worldview we must adopt to be authentic and relevant?  Is she suggesting that we ultimately submit to a one-dimensional existence – political serfdom?   

Carnell’s reduction of faith to a mere political “agenda” is disturbing.  A purely utilitarian view of the Christian faith insults all who take faith seriously, not just Christ-followers.  Specifically, biblical faith certainly champions the cause of justice; the Civil Rights movement, for example, was able to accomplish gains in justice because of its Judeo-Christian theological underpinnings.  However, the Bible’s message from Genesis to Revelation is not limited to social advancement; rather, it has something much greater in view, namely reconciliation with God.

It is hubris then, for any one individual to decide that a faith becomes obsolete once it has facilitated social improvement.  It exposes that individual as one who doesn’t understand the function of faith in the first place.  A faith in God that can be discarded isn’t true faith; it’s apostasy – rejecting the Creator for some aspect of His creation.

In her first article, Ms. Carnell chides the Black church for its apostasy in bowing to a gospel of Black pacification, which she feels has rendered the church ineffective.  However, her argument simultaneously suggests that the church should do precisely what she claims that “prosperity pimps” (her terminology) have done; replace the God of the Bible with an idol – in this case, politics. 

III.

Ms. Carnell states “adherence to morality politics is a dead end because it lays claim to resolving centuries old disagreements which can never be wholly resolved in the public sphere.”  She also promotes the idea that “Christian literalists are not influenced by polls or rationalism” in determining public policy.  To this we counter that politics without a moral base is itself a ‘dead end.’  Without an ethical basis, what prevents politics from degenerating into tyranny?

Should we base our morals on the shifting ground of public opinion, as she suggests?  By appealing to transcendent truths above public opinion, the Civil Rights Movement was able to discredit the prevailing public notion that Blacks were inferior and/or unequal.

Are we to base our morals, then, on rationalism?  If Ms. Carnell means that rationality should play a key role in our moral judgments, then we are in agreement – as long as there is a transcendent reference point that isn’t subject to the limitations and flaws of human nature.  However, based on the context of these two posts, she appears to be pushing a human-opinion centered rationalism – a sure recipe for confusion and conflict.  It is one thing to believe in absolutes, it is quite another to be an absolutist.  The believer in absolutes humbly yields to a Source above him, while the absolutist arbitrarily makes his/her own opinion the ultimate moral source.  Similarly, it is one thing to follow a moral code, it is quite another to be a moralist – one who is self-righteous and judgmental.  Carnell’s broad-brushed statements put her dangerously close to both moralism and absolutism.  Under such a rubric, it is difficult to appreciate respectful rationality when presented by others.

Observe the effects: Carnell mistakenly conflates the theological motivations of Christians with the political motivations of conservatives; the two may agree at times, but they are not the same.  The same can be said about the motivations of Christians and liberals.  By conflating Christians and conservatives, she does a great disservice to conservatives who profess no faith at all, yet may still be advocates of smaller government, supply-side economics, a strong military, and the myriad of other concepts that are associated with conservative thought.  Individual values and politics are (and should be) far more complex than Carnell allows, and while we may individually agree with a right-winger at a particular point, it does not mean that we are right-wingers.  The same applies to particular agreement with a left-winger.  Does sharing a common cause with atheists make us atheists?

Ms. Carnell does allow that not all liberal concepts are the exclusive domain of the un-churched, and that liberals may indeed be Christian; yet she doesn’t adequately take into account the numerous reasons why Christians choose for or against liberal or conservative policies. 
“You’ll get the same “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” rhetoric from the Black Church that you get from Newt Gingrich, with a dollop of Jesus on top.  If you agree with this up by faith notion of prosperity, then you’re a Republican.  Go there.  Do that.  Liberals believe in government as a force for good.” – Yvette Carnell 
Humility and reason force us to acknowledge that we are all broken; by extension, we all contribute in some way to the brokenness of government and society – conservatives and liberals alike.

Carnell’s assertion fails to take into account that the Ku Klux Klan was once the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party in the old South.  She does not delve into the darker historical accounts that show that opposition to federal civil rights legislation in the 1860s, 1950s and 1960s came mainly from Democrats.  Neither does she differentiate between fiscal and social conservatives, liberal and far-left, conservative and far-right. 

The overall failure to observe these nuances has put African Americans today at risk of being dismissed; taken for granted by the Left and written off by the Right.  This is a blueprint for marginalization.  In the 1960s, Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Charles Hamilton and others warned us not to make this mistake, yet here we are. 

In the last few decades, African Americans have sided overwhelmingly with Democrats and/or “liberals” to such an extent that we no longer do critical thinking about the political and social issues of today.  And while Ms. Carnell has previously asserted that ‘critical thinking’ among African Americans is dead, when it comes to the church and African Americans of faith she shows very little of the critical thinking we should expect from writers with a national platform.  In the process, she perpetuates the same damaging group-think she condemns.

IV.

Ms. Carnell does point us to an uncomfortable truth; while many churches are functional, some are dysfunctional.  The same can be said of leaders and of those in the pews.  As a matter of fact, all churches are broken to some extent because they are full of broken people in need of redemption; so it is, incidentally, with politics and governments.  This is a door to understanding the liberating message of the gospel of Jesus Christ – that redemption for the believer has been fully accomplished.

Ms. Carnell does get this right: no one who claims the name of Christ receives a pass from God for unrepentant sin, or for the distortion of Christ’s message.  So though Ms. Carnell has us squirming in our pews at times, we share her outrage at the publicly displayed obscenities that come from the far edges of the church’s brokenness.  As Christians, we are outraged because unrepentant sin distorts the message of the Bible, and because it too often results in manipulation and abuse of people who are genuinely searching for wholeness.  As Black folk, we are likewise outraged because we know all too well that the positive actions of the many are historically judged by the negative actions of the few.

Her articles also correctly point out that some facets of the Black church have slipped into unbelief, and it is true that the theological influence of the church has degenerated.  While unacceptable, this has happened before; witness the numerous instances where Israel (the Old Testament church) degenerated into unbelief and idolatry.  What must remain in view is the great message of the Bible, that God’s redemptive purposes are never thwarted by human failure; God always has a righteous remnant

Ms. Carnell accurately describes two African American “strands of Christianity,” (a) Black liberation theology that, in her words, “partially fits the bill” of her politico-centrism but is “not practiced by the majority of Black Christians” and (b) prosperity gospel – a “materialistic message in some Black mega-churches” that poses no threat to the unjust status quo.  However, by reducing Christianity to these two marginal strands, she betrays a lack of knowledge as to the depth and breadth of the actual biblical church.  Any assumption that the church excludes concerns about “income inequality and the wealth gap” is uninformed.  A casual reading of the biblical prophets reveals God’s compassion for the poor and oppressed, wherever they may be found. 

Biblical truth holds that both liberation and spiritual prosperity are essential dimensions of the biblical Gospel.  In fact, the gospel is a multi-dimensional, transformational message. However, if the gospel is reduced to only one of these dimensions, it ceases to be the Gospel and becomes something unbiblical and grotesque.  For example, ‘liberation’ without transformation becomes an empty political message that cannot address human brokenness.  Likewise, unspecified ‘prosperity’ without transformation becomes the glorification of manipulation, materialism and greed.

At the end of a separate but related article on the church, Ms. Carnell mentions a third potential strand of Christianity by addressing those she calls "well-meaning Christians.”  Yet a sampling of her articles reveals this manifestation is based on her opinion – not on a real understanding of the life of the larger church or on biblical truth. 

We are persuaded that all man-made ideologies will fall short of fulfilling a biblical ideal.  The Word of God remains above political and social categorization.  However, the God of the Bible – who Self-identifies as neither Republican nor Democrat, conservative nor liberal – has given His followers the freedom to agree with any of America’s ideologies at points where they agree with Scripture, producing believers who span the political and social spectrum.  Certainly if God affords His followers this freedom, then media pundits who claim His name should do the same out of identification; those who don’t claim His name should do the same out of respect.

We agree with Ms. Carnell that we can’t step into history’s waters in the same place twice; to expect the “Black church” to operate in the same manner it did fifty years ago is to attempt to run DOS 1.0 in a Mac OS X environment.  The needs, while they may be just as desperate as they were then, have changed; the general culture, the neighborhoods, the policies, etc., all have shifted.  However, the biblical church, of which the larger historic Black church was an important part, is still alive and well and is about the business of addressing the core concerns of individuals and groups.

We must respectfully ask, then; who has given Yvette Carnell the authority to determine the relevance of the church in Black America, and who is she to decide the ‘strands’ of Christianity and define its orthodoxy?  These are but a few of the questions begged by her sweeping assumptions.

CONCLUSION

How then, should we approach Yvette Carnell’s critiques of the church?  We often appreciate Ms. Carnell’s contributions and the content she presents.  However, her lack of knowledge and basic courtesy toward Christ-followers cheats the public of a helpful understanding of the role of Christian faith in society.  Based on what she has presented so far, we are concerned whether she will be able to develop her “longer critique of the Black church and its detrimental impact on politics” with integrity. 

Information is not knowledge, nor is knowledge the same as understanding; all three are necessary for wisdom.  For centuries, we have fought hard against White folk who relegated us to broad, generalized categories and then made decisions for us based on paternalistic ‘one-size-fits-none’ legislation; Black folk who similarly perpetuate worn-out caricatures are roundly unhelpful.  Therefore, we invite Ms. Carnell to a dialogue on the church that might open her schemas, or to correct us in the places where she feels she has been misunderstood. 

We needn’t agree on everything, but whether writing for national media outlets or simply blogging, we have the responsibility to construct respectful, informed arguments – we too, are learning this as we write for various audiences.

In spite of her knowledge, experience, and national platform, Ms. Carnell seems oblivious to the myriad of exciting new models of the church springing up among African Americans. That being said, if the church is not the stereotype that Ms. Carnell has presented, then what precisely is the church? 

It is a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural body of Christ-followers whose convictions are drawn from one transcendent Source.  Its actions and beliefs are not subject to the winds of political, cultural, social or even denominational change, but rather have the ability to inform one’s thought in all of these areas – and more.  If one really wants to address the issues surrounding the church, one needs an understanding of how God is working through history and culture; one must begin with understanding the church’s unifying and consistent factor – the Word of God.

Finally, a word to the church: it is becoming increasingly fashionable in both mainstream and social media to caricature and stereotype biblically-minded Christ-followers of all ethnicities and frame them as obsolete.  As ill-informed journalism on Christianity continues to proliferate, those who worship God in spirit and in truth must remember what Vance Havner and many other observers of history have noted:

Biblical Christianity has always outlived her pallbearers.



The Ellises are educators who have the privilege and pleasure of working as a team, traveling and lecturing together.  Carl is the Assistant Professor of Practical Theology at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, and is the author of numerous books on African American culture and theology.  Karen has enjoyed a long career in broadcast media and the arts, and now writes on theology, identity and human rights.  Learn more about their work at www.ellisperspectives.com, and follow them on Twitter: @CarlEllisJr and @KarAngEllis.


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