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Black Power | Is it time for Black people to rethink their relationship with religion?

As the fight for freedom and equality intensifies, it’s imperative that we reach a collective understanding of faith and spirituality that is not classified by tradition or the conflicting paradox of religion.

Kanye West Rich Fury—Getty Images for Coachella

“Black Power” is a bi-weekly editorial series that explores how the Black community can use their collective power to design a new America.

During his powerful eulogy for Clementa Pinckney, the former South Carolina senator and beloved reverend of Emmanuel A.M.E. Church who was tragically murdered in a vicious mass shooting in 2015, Former President Barack Obama spoke with profound respect for his embodiment of spiritual principles.

“We are here today to remember a man of God who lived by faith — A man who believed in things not seen,” Obama declared. “Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer failed to understand what Reverend Pinckney so clearly understood: The power of God’s grace.”

While the gunman, then 21-year-old Dylann Roof, may not have factored the depth of his victims’ beliefs, he did proclaim that his intentions were grounded in the same religious faith. As a result, when Roof intentionally targeted the prominent Black church in hopes of inciting a race war, his killing took on a more dynamic context that personifies the modern paradox of religion.

Founded in 1816, Emmanuel A.M.E. Church long stood as a southern landmark for community, empowerment and spiritual transformation. Its doors regularly opened for fearless revolutionaries, civil rights leaders, and political peacemakers committed to eradicating racially charged hate.

More than a sacred place of refuge, the church further symbolized a source of strength that continuously pumped life into a resilient race of people. “The church is, and always has been the center of African American life - a place to call our own in a too often hostile world,” Obama further stated in his address.

Since the times of slave masters dropping bibles down to shackled Africans who couldn’t read or speak the English language, Black people have always developed a deeply personal definition of God and spiritual identity. Enduring extreme persecution and exploitation, they took a template of Christianity and reframed it to reflect their own interpretation of its teachings.

As a result, spirituality became the soul of Black artistry, the language of Black resilience, and an uncompromising backbone in the Black community. It has, and continues to instill a sense of power and purpose within a race of people who were historically deemed powerless.

“The church is, and always has been the center of African American life - a place to call our own in a too often hostile world.” - Barack Obama

In his acclaimed bestseller “Race Matters,” Dr. Cornel West elaborates upon the spiritual war that festers beneath racism. The renowned critical theorist asserts that the silent mass murderer of the Black community is nihilism, referring to the state of rejecting all moral and spiritual principles, living without a sense of hope, love or meaning.

“Nihilism is a natural consequence of a culture or civilization ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of people and nature,” West describes.

Nihilism is a psychological affliction perpetuated through poverty and oppression. It breeds greater levels of depression, addiction, and a numbing apathy that pushes Black people into a process of self-destruction. The Black church, as a culture and institution, has functioned as a combatant force used to fight against this nihilistic threat.

Consequently, history shows that malicious attacks against Black churches are acts of terrorism used by white supremacists and hate groups alike for several decades. Hooded Klansmen commonly set fire to homes, bombed buildings, burned crosses and praised Christ in the same instance — equating a fictitious racial hierarchy to a fictitious spiritual hierarchy.

Dating back to slavery, and evolving throughout the prime of segregation, Black people were overtly dehumanized and classified as lesser people. This notion of inferiority crossed over into religion, translating into the belief that Black people inherited a spirit of evil, needing to be “cleansed,” “saved,” or “delivered” from an untamable rage.

This positioned Christianity as a religious institution of governance forcefully imparted upon Black people as a means to mentally indoctrinate the race to a point of assimilation. The origin and practice of Christianity in America has deep ties to racism, classism, and other prominent ideologies of oppression.

Enslaved Africans were not expected to be smart enough, or posses enough ingenuity to take the Bible and create their own sense of spirituality from it. As such, understanding the complex mechanics of religion in America, the concept of God, religion and spirituality often get lost in translation.

“Nihilism is a natural consequence of a culture or civilization ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of people and nature.” - Dr. Cornel West

As Black America witnesses more unsettling and senseless murders, paired with the exhaustive nature of perpetually fighting for freedom and equality, it’s imperative that we reach a collective understanding of God and our faith that is not classified by tradition, or limited by the parameters of religion.

Though practicing a specific religious faith is a liberty that should not be compromised, we’ve reached a critical turning point in our history. It’s time to explore an expression of God that goes beyond institution, denomination or demographic. Regardless of religious preference, faith and belief are universal principles accessible to all people and play a critical role in transforming our future.

How would you describe your faith or belief system if church didn’t exist? How would you define your sense of spirituality without the construct of religion?

The issues actively eroding America are just as much internal as they are external. While we can justifiably point toward the atrocities and injustices that derive from corrupted systems and a history of marginalization, more emphasis should be placed on winning the war within ourselves.

Spirituality is a liberating concept anchored in boldly embracing who you are, developing your own sense of belief, and walking boldly in the fullness of your truth. Instead of succumbing to the pressure of pursuing an unrealistic idea of purity or perfection, be empowered by the process of your spiritual evolution.

Effectively eliminating issues of race and inequality in this country requires unraveling pre-existing concepts of religion, faith and belief in order to have honest dialogue about the greater wars plaguing America. When these transparent and uncomfortable conversations take place, we collectively take definitive steps toward reaching a common ground as to what truly connects us all rather than what separates us.

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