The Notion of Race in Light of History, Current Events and Comparative Religious Outlooks
Second of an 8-part Series
By Cleran Hollancid, May 23, 2017: Yes indeed, race and its foul corollaries have impacted the church in a much deeper and extensive manner than perhaps many are aware of. There is a history of anti-Black prejudice and anti-Black discrimination, including deep-seated segregation attitudes and practices in American religious history in general, and in the American Adventist Church all the same. But before we take a closer look at the Adventist historical context, a rather quick (comparative) look at the nature of the racial beast in American religious history will suffice. Unlike the Methodists and Baptists (particularly from the nineteenth century onward), for example, that have had complete religious racial schisms, the Adventist Church contains a partially segregated structure within the ambit of its total denominational framework. Some may recognize names like Richard Allen and Absalom Jones. It was men like these who came out of the Methodist Church (around the turn of the nineteenth century) and instead formed churches like the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and the African Methodist Episcopal Church Zion (AMEZ), due to entrenched racial oppression and exclusion in the White-dominated church itself.
In the story surrounding the Methodist racial schism, essentially while kneeling in church in the middle of prayer, some Blacks (including Richard Allen) were told that they were not allowed there, i.e., in the space preserved for Whites. Absalom Jones was being pulled off his knees by a trustee, while pleading to finish his prayer. Instead of acquiescing, the trustee called for backup; needless to say the Blacks left ruffled and more than disturbed. (Wilmore) It is such episodes (which were part of the broader system of privilege and tyranny) that mark the transformation of segregation from the pews to the churches. (Emerson and Smith, chapter 2) At first Blacks and Whites were segregated in the same building, but over time the lid was blown off and segregation developed full-blown as it spilled out into the churches, due to racial oppression. And so, a host of racial divisions across denominations emerged – Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, you name it – picking up that precedent, including the Adventist Church. Such phenomena on a societal scale account for much of the heritage of the well-entrenched religious segregation saga in America today. Thus, the same racial attitudes and actions were (and are) wholly present in the church, in bulk. Hence a type of revolving mirror effect – from society to the church and back to society again, since the church has evidently remained an indispensable part of all social institutions.
Speaking of race, religion, and society, the nation was recently reeling in shock, in a mass shooting that occurred June 17, 2015 in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine people were killed after a suspected White gunman entered an AME church, sat first with the worshiping and welcoming company for Bible study for about an hour, and then opened fire on them. Law enforcement agencies converged on the scene, including local Charleston police, from the county and surrounding municipalities, the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms), and the FBI. The suspect was caught June 18, 2015; 21 year old Dylann Storm Roof. The court proceedings are underway.
The pastor of the iconic Emanuel AME Church, the Rev. Clementa Pinckney (a state senator), was also gunned down in the massacre. And this is not about picking sides, as if Whites commit all the crime and Blacks are totally innocent. Such is not the thrust of this article, but rather the aim is to look at what the system of privilege and concept of race have produced in the nation and in the church.
The ‘racial’ night is only getting darker and has taken a turn for the worse. Could it be that the racist history of America never phased out, but rather is continuing to haunt the nation and the church? Will America and Americans ever be healed and really begin to look at each other with true respect and value; as brothers and sisters; as another fellow human being, rather than meditate on skin color, or the pigeonholes that society has arbitrarily assigned? How many more people have to die before Americans come to their senses? Or will America continue to let the yoke of race hang around its neck enslaving it forever? The truth of the matter is, as long as America upholds the exploitive myth of race, a monster which it has helped to create and has maintained for centuries, then the delusion will only appear more fantastic, as it continues to morph into various forms, programs, and narratives. Meanwhile, the public is fed the rhetoric of change, while on the one hand continuing to witness the escalating explosions and clash over widespread racial incidents, and on the other hand never understanding exactly what needs to change. And so, in a perpetual cycle, everyone just keeps getting more and more firmly planted in their own myopic mindset, which society has so preconditioned.
People are brought together to mourn, demonstrate against ‘racial’ inequality and injustice, and express outrage every single time a ‘racial mishap’ occurs. Then what? Immediately afterward, people are actually trying to figure out why we keep going back to square one, as the vicious cycle just continues to propagate itself. You would think that by now more and more people would get it. The trick is to keep you blinded, by making it appear that society has moved on and is color-blind, etc., when in fact the root of the problem is never addressed. Why should it be addressed when many continue to benefit from race privilege and divisiveness, while interpersonal relations in local communities across the nation continue to deteriorate? Why does the public keeps getting frustrated over the issue? Why do people keep pressing the wrong button, every time without fail, and expect different results?
Back in Richard Allen’s era, some 200 years ago, there was the cold-heartedness of grabbing Blacks off their knees in prayer by a White deacon or trustee. Today, Blacks are shot while kneeling in prayer by a White gunman. What’s more, this transpired in the physical church building where Blacks worked hard, struggled, and sweated to end slavery; a church even implicated in the planning of a major slave revolt which ended as a suppressed insurrection in 1822, engineered by the freed slave and civil rights activist Denmark Vesey in the same Charleston. Both before and after Vesey, the nation was riddled with slave rebellions, some successful, some suppressed; and one that would impress its mark into the very soul of the nation was that by the ‘Prophet of Doom,’ Nat Turner and his famous rebellion, only a few years after Vesey’s plot.
Emanuel AME Church (a.k.a. ‘Mother Emanuel’), with Vesey as one of its founders, is said to be the oldest AME church in the South,[i] and it dates back to around 1816, right around the time that Richard Allen founded the Mother Bethel AME Church in Philadelphia. The two are historically linked. The AME Church itself, said to be the oldest independent denomination in the world founded by Blacks, emerged among Black Methodist congregations seeking independence from the humiliation and racial harassment of White Methodists.
An observation of the recent scene, however, shows the 2015 Charleston gunman reported in the news as wearing a jacket decked with the flags of two former White supremacist regimes, that of apartheid-era South Africa and Zimbabwe. What immediately struck me is the fact that the Seventh-day Adventist Church in both South Africa and Zimbabwe, in particular, are known to have directly reflected apartheid policies and practices of their respective societies. Should the American Seventh-day Adventist Church be more aware and more self-critical of its own apartheid?
It is critical to point out that there are varying levels of attitudes and actions (overt and covert) with respect to the racialization of society, including its ruthless impact on the church. To put that in perspective, take Revivalism and the Abolition Movement (of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) as a case in point. Firstly, some Christians justified slavery, as in the case of Rev. George Whitfield of the First Great Awakening, particularly due to the economic benefits of the system, besides the attitude that they were also doing the heathen slaves a favor by having them become saved while in bondage. (Emerson and Smith, 25-27)
Secondly, some Christian abolitionists advocated strongly for the end of slavery; but by that same token would have nothing to do with integration of Blacks and Whites, which was considered amalgamation, an undesirable unification. This was the attitude of Charles Finney, the renowned preacher of the Second Great Awakening. To some like Finney, slavery was a sin, but racial prejudice was not. (Emerson and Smith, 30-33)
Thirdly, there is the other camp who advocated against slavery, who were all for integration, but were opposed to intermarriage between Blacks and Whites. They believed in social distance (i.e., the level of comfort between people up to certain points).
Until about the late 1960s, even after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and various civil rights acts, anti-miscegenation laws were still enforced or on the books in some parts of the U.S. The case of Loving v. Virginia and the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 will suffice to illustrate this point. Interracial marriage was a crime, attempting to uphold “racial integrity.” I urge you to look study that story, to understand a fraction of that which continues to plague the soul of American life. Read about the ‘one-drop rule’ and laws passed based on eugenics and race, or race mixing. This is the sort of nonsense and race propaganda that has left its influence hanging over all spheres of American society, including the church.
But just to give you an idea of the false hope of, and underlying deceit of the race concept – if any married couple, for example, were to trace their lineage far back enough, husband and wife would soon realize that they are actually blood relatives. What does this mean? It brings to the fore the concept of ‘monogenesis’ as opposed to that of ‘polygenesis.’ Monogenesis says that we all originally came from the very same parents. Yet there are all sorts of twisted and ideologically bankrupt views running around wild in society, like the notion of miscegenation, and the idea that there is more than one species of humans.
This type of reckoning comes from a deep prejudicial and corrupt mindset, to say the least, as some declare or believe that since humans are not all fundamentally the same – which means that some are either sub-human or a different type of human – then certain features like successful reproduction between any female and any male may not be tenable if one is a different type of human or species.
You might be itching to find out what all of this actually means, or the implications of such thinking and deep-seated attitudes. But do people actually think that way? You’d better believe it! Such is the kind of thinking that adds to the perverseness and shallowness of our social sphere, and believe it or not, it resides in the church.
Emerson, Michael and Christian Smith (2000). Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Originally from Christian History 2:1, 1992.)
Wilmore, Gayraud S. (1972). Black Religion and Black Radicalism. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Cleran L. Hollancid is a life-long Adventist who belongs to a congregation in Michigan. He is a PhD candidate in the sociology of religion at Western Michigan University. His research has focused on racial segregation in the Adventist Church in the United States of America. He completed a BA in theology at Caribbean Union College, the Master of Divinity in the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary at Andrews University, an MA in anthropology and an MA in sociology at Wayne State University. Is an adjunct professor in the Religious Studies Program at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Michigan. The purpose of this eight-part series is to offer beginning steps toward racial reconciliation in the Adventist faith community.
Next in the series:
Legacy of Race: Implications and Historical Considerations in Seventh-day Adventist Culture