Dear Black Church,
It is with a considerable amount of care and trepidation that I stain a white page with these words. Because I am so sick and tired of seeing the black church played for a fool. To be fair, the black church is not some multi-headed monolith that responds to the beck and call of me or anyone of my ilk. In my eyes, the African American church has been the most influential institution that has ever been mustered by the descendants of African slaves in America since the Civil War. Many of the most prominent figures in the Civil Rights Movement were officers of the church. There was once a time in America in which the effectiveness of the Civil Rights Movement hinged upon your ability to galvanize the masses enough to get them to come out and support great preachers turned activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a multitude of other fallen kings of the beautiful struggle. There were Northern whites, Catholics, Jews, gays and Muslims involved in the planning and execution of the March on Washington and other events. We in the African American community remember these days as the Black Church’s finest hour.
As an African American man who can easily trace his roots to the time that immediately followed the abolition of slavery in America, you hold a dear place in my heart as a reminder of an era when African Americans were closer, more politically effective, and appeared willing to unify for a common cause. It is in part because of the place that the Black Church holds in the hearts of even the most unapologetic heathen among us that we constantly, either subconsciously or otherwise, look to it in times of political and cultural uncertainty. Though its sway over the community is not the same as it once was, the importance of the Black Church as it pertains to affecting the opinions of its constituency in the modern context, cannot be overstated.
But today is different. The Black Church has wrought much confusion when addressing the glaring issues of concern for me. Just recently, the revelation that embattled Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling attended Praises of Zion Missionary Baptist Church in San Pedro, South Los Angeles is such a case. TMZ reports that there was a great deal of consternation from the congregation as Sterling sat with his bodyguards among the audience of approximately 30 people for the entire 2-hour service. The church visit was reportedly planned before his $2 billion deal with former Microsoft head Steve Ballmer was finalized. Senior pastor J. Benjamin Hardwick’s sermon just so happened to be about forgiveness. Coincidence? Likely not.
It immediately struck me as a publicity stunt. After all, this is the man that was in cahoots with the Los Angeles Chapter of the NAACP in order polish up his image among minorities and paint himself as a great white benefactor after years of racially charged lawsuits surrounding his business practices, such as a housing lawsuit in 2003, one in 2006, as well as a lawsuit from former Los Angeles Clippers GM Elgin Baylor.
Once the drama surrounding Sterling’s comments came into public view, former LA NAACP head Leon Jenkins offered up his Christian faith as the primary reason why Sterling should be forgiven.
“God teaches us to forgive, and the way I look at it, after a sustained period of proof to the African-American community that those words don’t reflect his heart, I think there’s room for forgiveness. I wouldn’t be a Christian if I said there wasn’t.”
But monetary payoff, and not faith, appears to have been the real reason for his defense of Sterling. Jenkins was later forced to step down from his position, the week after Sterling’s racist audio was heard. Jenkins confirmed that he had planned to give Sterling a second Lifetime Achievement Award after giving him one in 2009, likely wooed by donations from Sterling.
But Sterling wasn’t the first episode of black church forgiveness. Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Church was forgiven for his alleged sexual transgressions with underage boys dating back 10 years. Ironically, Long preached against gays, homosexual sex and marriage. He even led a march against it in Atlanta, once describing homosexuality as a “spiritual abortion.” Still, Long – who seemingly was unable to forgive gays – was revealed to be a sexual predator of young gay men. And was in turn, forgiven by the black church. Those who spoke out against him were shunned by the greater part of the congregation. He was eventually placed upon a throne and paraded around the church in a display of pompous religious theater.
For me, the deterioration of its connection to my heart, and dare I say soul, in terms of supplying practical tenets to real life matters goes back to my early childhood. Good kids got jumped. Ergo, these tenets got you jumped in the hood. I struggled with the idea of turning the other cheek, and applying that to a neighborhood of felons. A forgiving heart gets you targeted. They say we are the sum of our experiences, and that was a part of me. But it was a tenuous balance. Wise administration of respect to those who should be respected, and defense against those who feel you should not be. I learned the hard way to always keep your head on a swivel, keep your hands up, and know when to run. But respect? In a small, overcrowded hood? For a 12-year-old church kid? Your boy had problems, Black Church. Church wasn't going to keep me from getting jumped. If anything, it was a "jump me" marker.
That very early keep-your-hands-up lesson was a crack in my faith. The idea of eternal enemies crept into my soul. Some, I thought, were beyond forgiving, based upon my early experiences. It was there that the church kid in me suffered a crippling blow and died. Being revitalized only, intermittently, throughout my early life at weddings, on Easter, New Years and baptisms. Today, I am a heathen with a fighting spirit.
Upon leaving school in 1996, I moved in with my then fiancée and her parents. She was from a very traditional Puerto Rican family. They lived in a conservative Long Island community with a significant yet aging Italian population. Her father, though Puerto Rican, had a plethora of Italian friends who would often speak frankly about economics, race and religion over an ice cold beer. The most boisterous, and often offending, of the crew was a man they called, Bruno. Rumors of mafia conspiracies often painted their conversations as well. He was a stereotypical “boda-boom, boda-bing” type of guy straight out of a Goodfellas movie. But I couldn’t call him a complete racist because his wife was Puerto Rican, his stepchildren were half black, and he loved them very much. He adored my child as much as he did his own, and showered them with gifts and affection at the spur of the moment. So I soldiered through his clearly bigoted dialogue whenever he would stop by. “How come black people are so forgiving?” He asked one day. “I mean, you guys forgive everything. It couldn’t have been Italians going through all that sh*t. Couldn't have been us," he reiterated. "It just couldn't have been.”
These were my dread-wearing, four-years out of high school, wanna be activism days, and I wasn’t used to white people being racially honest in a face to face conversation. “Black Christian folks will always forgive those in power,” I answered, “and will pray with a boot heel pinning their necks to the ground.”
To the novice historian of the black experience, the Christian religion was long used as a control mechanism by slave masters for slaves and their descendants, because of its teachings of forgiveness and noble suffering in the current realm for a reward in the afterlife. In the meantime, during the span between birth and judgment, African slaves’ only hope of redemption was to serve GOD and man as a beast of burden until death. I feel it is no coincidence that the only book slaves were allowed to possess was the Holy Bible.
So I ask as I write this, Dear Black Church, when is it “okay” to forgive and not forget?
This age-old practice may have helped our forefathers soldier their way through Old Jim Crow. But the unmitigated forgiving of those who have transgressed against common decency in the current socio-economic environment is a road toward perpetual victimization without consequence in the contemporary age. To forgive is divine, but there are things that are unforgivable in the lexicon of a people’s history, are there not?
Forgiveness is a gift to self rather than the offending individual. Giving up that negative energy is a physical and emotional relief. However, there are sins that are so heinous that reconciliation cannot be made without acknowledgement of wrongdoing, a suspension of contact between the forgiver and the forgiven, and taking real steps to prevent these offenses from occurring again. Time heals all wounds, but some gashes fester and require lengthy treatment.
The Christian religion is based on repenting and the divine forgiveness of sin. And it would be truly hypocritical for you, Black Church, to be unwilling to forgive those who transgress against your members. Especially when no human is beyond reproach when it comes to “back sliding” and doing things that run counter to the dogma of the church.
Far be it from any man, be they Christian or atheist, to besmirch and ridicule something that is deemed holy and sacred by anyone and does others no harm whether they number in the hundreds or the millions. For me, the task is particularly daunting having been raised by my grandfather, a Baptist Deacon, and great grandfather, a Pastor and Sunday school teacher. Even in disbelief or indifference toward a particular philosophy, it would do the outside observer well to think deeply before speaking, and I respectfully tread lightly.
It is to that end that I respectfully ask the great institution that is the Black Church, in all of its many incarnations, to reevaluate the manner in which it reacts to issues of racism, as well as its internal practices of forgiving and coddling known predators, adulterers, pulpit pimps and other repeat offenders in the modern age. Failure to do so, in my heathen opinion, will increase the growing disenfranchisement that many African-Americans have with not only the brick and mortar institutions, but the spiritual concept of forgiveness as well.
Forgiveness is indeed a gift to self, but forgiveness without taking pragmatic steps to defend the moral integrity from these internal and external threats up to its own lofty standards is a waste of time and makes you look useless and ineffective, from my miniscule and historically irrelevant point of view. Try as I may, I struggle with my connection to you as it pertains to my worldview.
An Admitted Heathen Still Loving the Idea of You
PS: Will you forgive me for this, Black Church?