How Christianity Affirms My Blackness – Sojourners

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“Christianity is a white man’s religion,” one of my classmates said matter-of-factly during one of our classes at Spelman College. At the time, I was 19 and taken aback by her remark; I didn’t think of my faith as something that didn’t represent me. At that moment, I was forced to confront the tension found between the intersections of religion and race. How can religion reveal one’s understanding or acceptance of their racial identity?
Prior to attending seminary, I always viewed my Christian faith as tethered to my Black identity. Growing up as a first-generation Nigerian American, my parents taught me that having a relationship with God was nonnegotiable and necessary to thrive in every area of life. And in moments when I experienced racial discrimination, misogynoir, and challenging seasons of my life, my Christian faith has been there to sustain me. Spiritual practices such as praying and reading the Bible not only grounded me in my faith, but also affirmed my experiences as a Black woman and helped me regain a sense of who I am and who God is. But I knew my own experience with faith only represented one perspective on Black spirituality.
Recently, I found myself reflecting on my classmate’s comment. While serving as a research fellow at Springtide Research Institute, I worked with Nabil Tueme, Springtide’s senior research associate, on Navigating Injustice, a project that combined more than 3,000 surveys and 19 interviews from Generation Z (ages 13 to 25) on their experiences navigating race and faith.
The American Survey Center reports that Gen Z is the “least religious generation yet,” but Springtide’s study found that Black Gen Zers reported the highest rates of religiosity when compared to their non-Black peers. In 2022, 38 percent of Black Gen Zers said they attended religious services at least once a month, compared to 33 percent of their white counterparts. Hayley, a 17-year-old Black woman continues to attend her church since it provides her with opportunities to engage in community service: “A big social issue in my community is homelessness … I go out with my church to shelters on a weekly basis and we do [community service] based on our love for God and our love for God’s people.”
Springtide’s study found that over half of Black Gen Zers claim that a divine being has a plan for their lives. Caleb, a 22-year-old Black man said, “Based on my personal beliefs [as a Christian], I believe this life that we are living currently is not the end [and] it’s not everything that life is supposed to be. So [I find] comfort in knowing John 16:33, which says, ‘In this world you have many trials and sorrows, but take heart for, I have overcome the world.’”
In addition, 6 out of 7 Black young adults between the ages of 13 to 25 strongly believe their Christian identity is intertwined with their Black identity.
Zion, a 20-year-old Black woman said, “I feel like Christianity and Blackness are the same thing. I [don’t] see any difference between worshipping God as a Christian and worshipping God as a Black person. It’s the same thing to me.”
My interviews with participants reminded me how the Christian faith in the U.S. has often acted as a vehicle of social transformation and affirmed Black identity. In A History of the Black Baptist Church: I Don’t Feels No Ways Tired, church historian and theologian Wayne E. Croft Sr. argues the Black church emerged as a response to an oppressive system that annihilated Black people’s spirits and hopes for the future. The Black church has served to restore Black people’s personal dignity and worth through its faith practices of prophetic preaching, prayer, worship, and belief in the social gospel — a gospel focusing on economic and racial justice. All of these things have influenced Black people’s engagement in social justice movements in hopes of ending the racist treatment they have endured since the start of this nation.
Mystic and theologian Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited provides the theological context for understanding how the Christian faith affirms Blackness: A person’s identity and esteem must be rooted in God’s likeness and image. Thurman writes, “The awareness of being a child of God stabilizes the ego and results in a new courage, fearlessness, and power.” This notion of being a child of God, is not temporary nor is it linked to human evaluation. Rather, it is linked to the stabilized ego that allows people of African descent to reclaim their power over those who oppress them.
There are a number of Black millennials and Gen Zers who have left Christianity altogether because of the church’s stance on sexual orientation, gender identity, and respectability politics — the idea that Black people must conform to mainstream standards to be accepted. Many Black millennials and Gen Zers are embracing “Hoodoo” — a mystical set of spiritual practices and beliefs that was created by enslaved Africans in the South — and other African religious traditions that affirm their African heritage and reject the policing of sexuality and gender identity. I often find myself wrestling with the ways the Black church has affirmed my cultural identity but has been slow to affirm other intersecting identities that have been historically marginalized.
Theologian Pamela R. Lightsey’s Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology explores the historical marginalization of Black LGBTQ+ women but also provides a womanist theological framework challenging the idea of Christianity being a “white man’s religion.” Lightsey argues the marginalization of LGBTQ+ identities within Black Christian spaces is a consequence of biblical interpretation and is rooted in the tradition of white enslavers. The enslaver’s interpretation of the Bible is based on the exclusion or erasure of marginalized identities, a contradiction to Jesus’ gospel message of invitation to the outcast.
Black and brown Christians are often told they need to give up aspects of their identity in order to truly be a Christian (Galatians 3:28 is often referenced to support this). But Jesus’ gospel is rooted in transforming the lives of the disenfranchised without stripping them of their cultural identities (Luke 4:18-19; Matthew 29:19; Acts 8:26-40). As I reflect on my identity as a Black Christian, I am grateful for millennial Black theologians like Angela N. Parker, Willie D. Francois III, and Candice Marie Benbow whose work has given me the language and tools to articulate how faith, race, and mental health intersect.
The Christian faith tradition has been a vehicle of social transformation that has affirmed Black identity in the face of constant racial discrimination and opposition. My hope is that the Black church will continue to make concerted efforts to show Black millennials and Gen Zers how the gospel of Jesus is a transformative tool to address modern-day injustices that target Black Americans, helping them find authentic ways to navigate injustice while affirming their Blackness.
Cassandra Ogbevire is the 2022-2023 BIPOC Research Fellow at Springtide Research Institute, where she investigates the ways religious and spiritual practices can serve as a protective factor for Generation Z youth of color as they navigate inequities.
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Written by: Christianity Today

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