Church makes me sick: How Black Christians are stalling Black liberation
I often take it upon myself to harshly criticize the faith I hold dear.
by Roni Dean-Burren, PhD
Church makes me sick. Christians make me sick. I really do mean that. They make me sick.
Wait. Let me reword that. We make me sick.
I regularly attend a church. I am a Christian, but there are plenty of days that I wish I didn’t identify as such. But I do. For that very reason, I often take it upon myself to harshly criticize the faith I hold dear.
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We, the Black church, often have an inability to be reflective. Too many of us get up on too many Sundays to bemoan the mass exodus of people from the church, but do not ask the right questions about why they leave. The reality is that Black people are leaving church for very specific and valid reasons, and loyal members of the church continue to act as if they cannot see or understand why that is.
Daily, we are witnessing and participating in increasing and much-needed conversations around Black lives, prison reform, the school-to-prison pipeline, LGBTQIA+ rights, sexual health and freedom in the Black community, and in society at large. The fight for the liberation of Black people presents the Black church with clear opportunities to partner with community organizers and activists to work towards our collective freedom. Instead, I have seen the Black church often act as an anti-liberation agent.
As I watch us operate, I have noted certain patterns of behavior from members of the Black
church when confronted with these aforementioned issues and more. These patterns cut across various denominations and they are some of the very reasons that Black people who are interested in working towards our liberation will not only continue to leave the Black church, but also actively shun it.
Respectability politics. We engage in them continually. So often, I see and hear pastors and church leaders spend an exorbitant amount of time extolling the virtues of presenting ourselves as respectful, especially to the white gaze. Stop telling young Black men: “If you’d pull your pants up, people (read: white people) would respect you.” This attitude is fully incongruent with reality. Dressing well has never and will never keep white supremacy from snuffing out the lives of Black folks. These politics are also heavily laid on the bodies of Black girl and women, often blaming them for the abuses that they experience living in the Black patriarchy system that the church so passionately upholds.
Children. We do not treat them well. “Children should be seen and not heard” is a prevalent sentiment in Black churches. They are not seen as free agents who have their own thoughts and desires. This is best exemplified in how we expect children to sit quietly during boring church services and never question any aspect of what they are being taught. This notion is the epitome of oppression. This is indoctrination, and many Black people invested in Black liberation are refusing to allow their children to be subjugated to such.
Faith. We tie Black folks’ liberation to it. The idea that our freedom is rooted in “more faith in God” is dangerous. This message removes responsibility from oppressors and instead tells the oppressed, “It is your fault that you are in chains. Just pray harder and believe more. Then, you will be free.” That message is flat out dangerous and will not being liberation to caged people.
Abuse. We do not take a hard enough stance against physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. The scripture that says, “All things work together for the good of them who love the Lord” is often used to help victims “understand” their abuse. The underbelly of that concept tells victims to see their molestation/rape/trauma as a blessing. Furthermore, we shun counseling and therapy as something for the faithless or weak-minded. Here again, we are pushing people away because they refuse believe that their trauma is somehow a blessing on their lives.
Mental illness. We either ignore it or try to pray it away. The church has quite literally made Black people sick, or at least aided in their sickness. Shunning counseling and therapy is not only a gaslighting tool, but it also keeps people in need away from helpful resources and forces them to rely solely on the church for their “healing.”
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While there are no quick fixes to the ways in which the Black church is failing the Black community, rectifying our faith and actions is a start. It’s past time we get real about harm that we have caused, and continue to cause, and fix do something about it. Black liberation cannot wait.
Roni Dean-Burren, Ph.D. is a lecturer at the University of Houston. Her scholarly research and community activism center Black women and Black children. Support her work at paypal.me/RoniBurren.