Regardless of one’s personal religious affiliations or leanings (or lack there of), any person with even a cursory knowledge of black culture understands why the location of Dylann Roof’s terrorist attack was particularly cruel—and why the spate of church fires that have followed are so troubling. No matter how distant you are from actual houses of worship and the beliefs that fill their pews, if you are African-American, the black church is likely tied in some way to who you are.
And yet as someone who was raised outside of the church, my own relationship to Christianity and its role in black life is a complicated one. Minus a brief stretch as a frequent guest at my best friend’s church while in third grade—visits that were the result of feeling left out from what my peers were doing on Sundays—I never had any real desire to be a churchgoer.
My thoughts on the church as a teenager and as a young adult were clear: Christianity was the religion of our enslaver. It was the justification for our bondage, and so long as we continue to pray to White Jesus, we will continue to be in chains. This spirit guided me to give great consideration to adopting Islam, which represented black liberation to me in ways that the love thy enemy teachings of Christianity did not. I went through the obligatory I’m more of a Malcolm than a Martin stage, through which many black radical thinkers pass, before exploring King as more than the sanitized, “I Have a Dream” ghost of himself we have come to know since his death.
As I got older, I came to have a more nuanced take on the church and its role in black freedom movements, from slavery to Ferguson. The number of mega-churches that have brought great wealth to their leaders via flocks that are too often filled with poor people still gives me great pause. But I have come to acknowledge the ways in which church has provided sanctuary (no pun intended) for our people and how the best of those institutions have brought needed resources into our communities: day care centers, elder care, financial planning, tutoring, food for the homeless.
So when something happens that puts the black church in the blindingly white glare of national spotlight, a number of complicated emotions follow. I can’t help but feel protective and defensive at times, when media makers and their consumers treat black churches like museum instillations at best, zoos at worst, dissecting rituals and over simplifying historical context. From the televised funeral of Whitney Houston to the massive homegoing for State Senator Clementa Pinckney, something about allowing the world access to these sacred expressions of black grief just feels uncomfortable.
At the same time, the AME massacre also triggered my own anxiety and frustration around the black church—and then guilt for allowing myself to experience anxiety and frustration on the occasion of such a horrific loss of life. The Christian institution of forgiveness is one I have found to be particularly cruel to my people; it seems that we are compelled to forgive our transgressors almost immediately and in a way that does nothing to demand accountability and change.