Afrocentricity and the Church, Part 2
In the first post we asked, “What is Afrocentricity?” To answer this, we leaned on Dr. Molefi K. Asante’s definition and explanations. One thing we saw was that the Afrocentric worldview espoused by Asante places value in the Black Church only as it is able to further the cause of the Afrocentric movement. It can do this not only by political and cultural activism, but by recognizing that it is the place where the religious aspect of the continuity of the one African Cultural System is vividly seen.
In this view, the Black Church is not a place where souls are saved and set free from the bondage of sin in order to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. Rather, it is a place where, if it does right, people can be saved and set free from the bondage of Eurocentric thought and oppression.
Irreconcilable vs. Useful Aspects
It’s easy to give a simple response and say, “that’s not right!” But certainly the gospel of Jesus Christ has something to say about oppression, doesn’t it? We want to take time to assess irreconcilable aspects and useful aspects of Afrocentricity. So, let’s step back and ask, “What is the Church?”
Volumes have been, and can be written in response to that question. In this brief post, I want to approach it in the following way. The Black Church has rich history of song in a body of work called the “Negro Spirituals.” According to James Weldon Johnson (who wrote Lift Every Voice & Sing), the Spirituals were:
[A] body of songs voicing all the cardinal virtues of Christianity—patience—forbearance—love—faith—and hope—through a necessarily modified form of primitive African music.
Against Asante’s declaration that religious expression of the Black Church represents the most authentic contact with the pagan gods of our ancestors, Johnson says the following:
[W]hat led to this advance by the American Negro beyond his primitive music? Why did he not revive and continue the beating out of complex rhythms on tom toms and drums while he uttered barbaric and martial cries to their accompaniment? It was because at the precise and psychic moment there was blown through or fused into the vestiges of his African music the spirit of Christianity as he knew Christianity.
At the psychic moment there was at hand the precise religion for the condition in which he found himself thrust…The thought that the Negro might have refused or failed to adopt Christianity…leads to some curious speculations. One thing is certain, there would have been no Negro Spirituals.
While there is rhythmic continuity, there is the greatest discontinuity between “the gods of our ancestors” and the Black Church. Simply put, the difference is the saving, transforming, and renewing power of the Spirit of Christ. The Westminster Confession of Faith, 25.1 states:
The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all.
The Afrocentrist would say that using the Westminster Confession to define the Church is inherently problematic because it is a document formulated from a Eurocentric viewpoint. The beauty in the Confession’s definition here, however, is that it is rooted and grounded in the Scriptures. Jesus told Peter that he would build his church and the gates of hell would not prevail against it (Matt. 16:18). Jesus told the Jews that his sheep hear his voice and follow him, and no one will snatch them out of his hand (Jn. 10:27-29).
The Bible is not a Eurocentric book, nor an Afrocentric book. Neither is Christianity a “white man’s religion,” or a “black man’s religion.” The Bible is a Christocentric book that tells the unfolding history of redemption. Note that I did not say the Bible was a-cultural. It’s not. God’s word is given to us in cultural context. But what the formulators of the Westminster Confession, Eurocentric though they were, have captured here is the essence of the one Church. It transcends culture and language. Indeed, it is comprised of men, women, boys and girls from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation (Rev. 5:9).
The Church submits to her Head and Husband, Jesus Christ. She must, however, be as diverse, culturally speaking, as those who are found on her roll. That is part of the wonder of the Church. Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility (Eph. 2:14), not just between Jew and Gentile, but between all peoples. All are one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Yet, God has not destroyed cultural distinctions. In their redeemed form they are expressions of the breadth and depth of God’s creative power. So we can say simply, with all of our cultural distinctions, “Essentially, the church is the people of God in all ages.”
Simultaneously, we recognize that there is always a need for some type of reform in the visible Church. This is because while every expression and embodiment of Christianity is contextualized, it is contextualized inadequately. So the real question is not a question of the validity of cultural contextualization, but it is a question of error. To put it another way, any aspect of culture or of any worldview that compromises the truth of the gospel, also compromises the Church. That’s why we will next address the aspects of Afrocentricity that are irreconcilable with Christianity. Stay tuned.