From nuisance calls to police for existing while Black to a 65-year-old Black elder being dragged from her vehicle during a routine traffic stop, there’s no shortage of Black misery in the headlines. True to cultural form, we’ve managed to find humor in our distress as a means of survival. Living daily under the threat of white folks weaponizing their police forces against us, we have no choice but to find joy where we can. We’ve even rejoiced in the turning of the tables of calling cops on white people…well white peopling. When the memes grow old, however, we’re still left with the same bleak reality: our humanity is precarious and subject to the temerity of whiteness within this society.
As exhausted as I am of begging white people to relinquish the power structures that they’ve created and maintained for generations, so too am I exhausted of crying in the hope that God is indeed on the side of the oppressed. I am tired of burying my deepest fears and disappointment in our repeated regressions of progress in the hope that God is embodied in our fight for liberation. How long will we be the trash? When do we rise and get our freedom or at least some humanity? How many generations of Black people will be forced to hope for better on the other side as our bodies remain fettered by oppression in this life?
How many generations of Black people will be forced to hope for better on the other side as our bodies remain fettered by oppression in this life?
How much time have we wasted in discussing who God is to us without understanding who and what God could/should be through us? We’ve worked to convince others of God’s affection for us, yet we still have no deliverance to show. Our existence in this country has been both as the enslaved and the embattled. We have fought valiantly to build our communities in spite of the omnipresence of white supremacy. We’ve had our thriving communities bombed, burned, and buried in the annals of history and instead fed stories of our inferiority, lasciviousness, and commodification for the sustenance of capitalism. Is our resounding answer to this a faith that we reimagine as God being the God of and for the oppressed?
Moreover, it’s time to ask if our Black lives matter to God. For so long we’ve imagined our penultimate overcoming through the God who raised Jesus from the dead for our redemption. Is our Black skin the crimson stain that marks sin that not even the death of Jesus can overcome in the eyes of God? Are we God’s modern Israelites in the exodus simply awaiting redemption? Or are we God’s Canaanites whose land is stolen while they’re slaughtered and enslaved?
It’s time to ask if our Black lives matter to God. Are we God’s modern Israelites in the exodus simply awaiting redemption? Or are we God’s Canaanites whose land is stolen while they’re slaughtered and enslaved?
I draw my own re-imagining of God on the rock of Black Liberation Theology. The survival of my Christian faith is contingent upon the hope that God is indeed on the side of oppressed Blacks in our fight for liberation. Yet, even Rev. Dr. Cone, forefather of Black Liberation Theology, acknowledges the conundrum found in the answering of a basic question: “If God is liberating Blacks from oppression, why then are they still oppressed?” (Cone, 1997)1. Even in Cone’s work of relating the gospel to the Black lived experience, Cone asks us not to forfeit consideration of the role that historical and social context plays in framing our questioning of and to God. And even 40 years after the release of God of the Oppressed, current social contexts remind me that I’m still Black, still mad, and still not liberated.
For how many generations have we fallen on our face and beseeched deliverance from the heel of white supremacy? We have equated our ability to survive as salvation yet we’ve preached Jesus as the messiah who, through our acceptance of Him as the son of God, will lead us out of bondage. How do we navigate that we have taught acceptance of Jesus as the path to freedom and prosperity when the only ones who have gained that are the same people who sit as oppressors rather than the oppressed?
How do we navigate that we have taught acceptance of Jesus as the path to freedom and prosperity when the only ones who have gained that are the same people who sit as oppressors rather than the oppressed?
We’ve built devoted followings to charismatic Black Pentecostal ministries that emphasize prosperity – health, wealth, and happiness. While our pastors began to prosper beyond the socioeconomic statuses of their congregants, we continued to build our hope on nothing less than the promises of our own prosperity despite our consistent failure to rise from poverty. In our desperation for relief, we rush to adhere to religious ideology that centers cash, not Christ, as the promised reward for our devoted obedience. We are preached into the hope that if we are faithful, God will provide the acquisition of money and material possessions and with it will come respect, equality, and recognition of our humanity by white consciousness at large.
Religion and capitalism are no strange bedfellows. To criticize Prosperity Gospel as a new phenomenon pulled from thin air is to ignore history. In Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), Weber argues that we can attribute modern capitalism to the ethics of ascetic Protestantism. In 2012, 53% of Americans identified as Protestant (Gallup, 2012)3 which includes Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, and Calvinist churches among others. Weber argues that capitalism sees profit as an end in and of itself, pursuing profit is therefore seen as virtuous. Because of the shared Protestant belief in predestination – that God has already determined our outcomes before we reach them – Weber argues that early Protestants developed a need to look for clues of their salvation. Enter “success within capitalism” stage left. Weber concludes that the Protestant ethic views success – through hard work and thriftiness – as a personal duty and such success as a sign of salvation.
Basically, the more successful one is, the more evidence of their salvation and favor by God. As we’d say in the Black church, “favor ain’t fair.” If the statistical averages of our collective indicators are of any note, maybe we’re not God’s favorites after all.
If the statistical averages of our collective indicators are of any note, maybe we’re not God’s favorites after all.
As Daisy L. Machado (2010)2 states, “in reality, capitalism in the United States is a deeply entrenched ideology (belief system) that has survived and benefited from slavery, immigrant labor, and other forms of exploitation.” It stands to reason then that the trappings of capitalism – the acquisition of wealth, that is – can only survive by maintaining oppression and exploitation of beliefs. The growing income and wealth divide between BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and whites make it clear that our speaking in tongues and shouts of “money cometh to me” aren’t working. Yet even in the face of inadequate pay, executions at the hands of the police state, dismal maternal mortality rates, lack of housing, and lack of access to basic needs, we continue to push prosperity as God’s plan. Without any irony, we push ourselves into a “belief that what we speak is equivalent to what God will do, chang[ing] the way we understand our present economic reality into one that is about a hopeful anticipation of the “blessing” that is to come” (Machado, 2010).
With the lack of divine intervention, it would seem that God is content with our marginalization and yet keeps a dangling carrot of salvation that we signify through our homes, cars, jobs, and physical well-being. We’ve married religious faith to our hope of belonging within capitalism. We believe that if we as individuals work hard enough, American capitalism will provide equal opportunity for us. We undergird that individualistic hope with a belief that prosperity is God’s inalienable predestination for our lives. As the oppressed, we only understand freedom through the lens of accumulated capital that buys us access to new social classes. Even when this shows itself to be untrue, instead of questioning our beliefs, we simply shift to belief in streets paved with gold and wealth untold in the afterlife. Certainly, we can’t be leading these decades-long lives to wait on our just reward at the time of death.
We’ve sacrificed self-reliance and self-determination on the altar and replaced it with a faith that we think calls for loving forgiveness and reconciliation. Perhaps this is why we continue to measure the success of our contributions to humanity by the litmus of a culture that was never created to include the recognition of our right to fully exist as a people. Where is the God of the oppressed to break the yoke within us that binds us to the conditioned acceptance of white supremacy as our benchmark? I acquired the degrees and the $70,000 in student loan debt to show for them. Yet, I still feel my heartbeat quicken at the glimmer of blue flashing lights in my rearview mirror. I still code switch my tongue in hopes that it will allay the fears of white people who fear my big Black body. I still am just a job loss away from losing middle class status. Those accomplishments didn’t give me access to the grace and ease of navigating systems created to enable life and liberty for white bodies. Nor does it reflect the glory of a God who rejoices in my liberation from institutions of harm.
If God is indeed on the side of the oppressed, why then is it that the very foundation of Christianity is wrought with oppression of the adherents of the early church? Oppression is not just the perversion of the gospel at the hands of white supremacy but is literally the bedrock of Christian faith. Jesus, the very son of God, was born into oppression. The Jewish community lived under occupation by an unjust regime, the same community of Jesus’ parents Mary and Joseph. This same Jesus was born into poverty; His literal birth taking place in a born without the aid of community birth doulas or midwives. Jesus himself experienced life as an undocumented immigrant seeking asylum and refuge in a strange land. Jesus’ life is ended at the hands of the state who sought to suppress liberation of marginalized people who might be empowered by His teachings. Paul, though problematic he may be, spends most of his writings teaching the early church how to navigate the very real suppression/oppression of its beliefs.
Is this God of the Oppressed the same Christian imagining of God who would root its global headquarters in the site of its messiah’s oppressor? Was Jesus not crucified by the very same Romans who had the legal authority to and preference for crucifixion? It is comforting to assume that God’s favor falls first on the marginalized. We’ve leaned on the promise that Jesus was sent to “bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release the prisoners” [Isaiah 61:1 NRSV]. Yet our lives and socioeconomic status within this country reflect us a the red-headed stepchild rather than the favored.
While it is an empathetic sign that God would embody Herself in human form among the least of us, I cannot help but wonder why generations of Black people have only experience varying degrees of oppression. Jesus’s birth, life, and death exemplify God’s empathy on the side of the oppressed, but certainly there is only one example needed. If we’ve established that God is both empathetic and sympathetic to our plight, why does it feel that we’re fighting battles that were supposed to already be won by generations before us? Is it possible that this idea of God on the side of the oppressed is one of historical imagination?
Perhaps it is not that our lives do not matter to God, but that She is wholly disinterested in helping us to merely Blacken the face of an establishment that neither serves nor aids in the betterment of Her people.
What is liberation for Black people in the realization that American Capitalism will never enlarge itself to include our success? Perhaps it is not that our lives do not matter to God, but that She is wholly disinterested in helping us to merely Blacken the face of an establishment that neither serves nor aids in the betterment of Her people. That is not to say God is anti-wealth. It is to say that She has better things to do with Her time than enable us to fight for liberation that seeks only to gain access to and acquisition of the material trappings we’ve assigned as “whites only.” How do we fight for our liberation in the wake that God is either disinterested in advancing capitalism at best and disinterested in us at worst?
Maybe it’s time for us to admit that white supremacy will never pay us what the owe us. They never intended to. They didn’t even believe they owed us respect as human beings when they began and continued the transatlantic slave trade. The literal and figurative blood of our bodies runs deep into the roots of this nation. It is time to shake ourselves from the slumber that tearful prayers lacking actionable faith, standard English, college degrees, and a 401K are edging us closer to our 40 acres of restitution and a mule named justice.
It is time to shake ourselves from the slumber that tearful prayers lacking actionable faith, standard English, college degrees, and a 401K are edging us closer to our 40 acres of restitution and a mule named justice.
1Cone, J. H. (1997). God of the oppressed (6th ed.). Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books.
2 Machado, D. L. (2010). Capitalism, immigration, and the prosperity gospel. Anglican Theological Review, 92(4), 723.
3Gallup, Inc. (2012, December 24). In U.S., 77% Identify as Christian. Retrieved May 14, 2018, from http://news.gallup.com/poll/159548/identify-christian.aspx