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Dr. Boyce Watkins

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Has Christianity Become a "Get Out of Jail Free Card" for African Americans?

Posted: 01/17/2012 9:40 am

There's nothing more awkward than to be the one southern black man in the room who says that he's not quite sure about Christianity. No one attacks you for asking questions, they just "pray" for you. Some will talk to you like a mentally disabled 2-year-old who has never been taught to see the light. You might even get the crooked brow and pursed lips of concern, like they feel sorry for you or that your parents somehow didn't raise you right. If only you could understand the consequences that come with thinking for yourself and questioning the ideas that have been accepted by everyone else around you, you might be better off.

It's not a matter of being criticized for how you actually live. Rather, the penalty comes from your unwillingness to play the game, sort of like the teenage girl who actually admits that she likes having sex, instead of pretending that she's a virgin to make her daddy feel better.  While most of my devout church-going friends don't openly attack me for having a unique perspective, they certainly feel that I've somehow been led astray.

When someone asked me how I feel about Christianity, I said, "I respect it. My father is a Baptist minister. When I do go to church, I choose a Christian church. But one concern I've always had is that Christianity has become a 'get out of jail free' card for those who are choosing to live an unethical existence.  It doesn't appear (to me) to be a true, untainted quest for spiritual clarity, but instead appears to be a club that you join if you want to get into heaven."

I knew a man who was a thief, a liar, an adulterer and even a child molester. He did things to others that no decent man would ever do. Yet, he loved to thump bibles against my head to remind me that he's going to heaven and I'm not.  Why?  Because of the "Get out of jail free card" he received when Jesus died for his sins. Whenever he did something wrong, all he had to do was pray for forgiveness and all sins would be washed away. And since all sin is apparently equal in the eyes of God (his pastor told him so), his actions were no worse than my own.

I tried not to judge the man, but I couldn't help but question what he was telling me. He said, "Why can't you simply accept what I'm saying to save your eternal soul?"

I told the man, "Because my spirit tells me not to, and I believe that God speaks to me too."

It was difficult to accept the idea that no matter how horribly or righteously I chose to live my life, my existence was somehow tainted because I'd refused to participate in a set of rituals. In contrast to my Christian upbringing, my spirit could not accept this to be the truth, at least not the only truth.

When I told my friend what I thought, he explained that my spirit was simply wrong. Somehow, while all of us are encouraged to find our own personal relationship with God, it's not truly meant to be personal unless your "personal" conclusion happens to be the one that correlates with the "personal" vision that is shared by your relatives who all go to church on Sunday and give their money to Pastor Smith. If your "personal" search for God leads you anywhere other than the church down the street, then your spirit has told you a lie.

One of my friends called me on New Year's Eve, probably feeling sorry for me because I spend most New Year's Eves at home by myself. Sure, I get invited to a lot of parties every year (I guess a few people know me), but I typically enjoy starting the year alone, connected with my core. But I don't judge others who choose to have fun. So, I asked my friend what her plans were, and she said that she was "going to church and then to the club." After joking about her challenge of finding a dress she could wear to both locations, she asked me what I was doing. I simply told her, "I'm searching for God."

After hearing my answer, my friend said, "You can find God at church." I then replied, "Is it possible that I am most likely to find God by looking outside the church? If the relationship with God is truly personal and my spirit leads me in a direction that is different from those around me, then perhaps that's God's way of telling me that his/her existence is more complex than what we've been led to believe."

The bottom line is this: If a man's spiritual journey leads him to a unique place, this message from God is no less authentic than the one received by those who've been socialized since birth to buy into a set of rules and protocols that get them into heaven in spite of any dastardly thing they've done.  Part of the allure of a faith can be the rewards of conformity, as well as the threat of punishment from deviation. There is nothing more tempting than to know that saying a few simple words can clear my soul of any horrible things I've done to others. There is also nothing more frightening than to hear that my lack of compliance will result in burning in hell for all of eternity. That, my friends, is a very powerful marketing plan. At worst, it is a form of coercion that would lead Michelle Obama to call the anti-bully police.

Let's be honest for a second: Most black folks would not be Christians were it not for how we were raised. Our mothers took us to church and threatened to beat us if we didn't go. Some find that the consequences of living a double life are less painful than the price of questioning your mother's beliefs. If you see the world in a unique way, you can be chastised, attacked, preached at and told that you've somehow been tainted by too much education. Being given a set of beliefs before you were able to think for yourself is not quite the same as an open-minded search that leads you to conclusions that are not impacted by the actions of those around you.  In other words, it is no coincidence that nearly every black person in the south is a Christian, that nearly every person in the middle east is a Muslim and that the vast majority of people in Brazil are Roman Catholic.

When I was set to be married five years ago, I recall some members of my fiance's church turning their noses up at the wedding. It didn't matter that I loved this woman more than anything in the world, or that I was devoted to treating her like my personal princess. All that seemed to matter was that I didn't attend her church or practice her faith. When I was confronted on this issue, I simply said: "The love I have for this woman could only have been created by God. The hatred, disdain and unnecessary condemnation being thrust at us is nothing less than pure evil as far as I'm concerned. So, if you're looking to extract Satan from your life, you might want to start by looking in the mirror."

My point is that if faith is truly a personal spiritual journey, then one man or woman's spiritual conclusions are no less valid than the ones that have been backed up by social norms, peer pressure, pyramid marketing and thousands of years of paperwork. If I search for God individually and come to my own understanding, this cannot be written off as meaningless or incorrect just because I don't do what my neighbors are doing.

Maybe it's ok for us to rethink how we view religion. In fact, I believe that it was God who woke me up this morning and told me to write this article. So, following the orders of the "higher power," I put on a pair of sweats and a T-shirt, walked into my office and let my spirit do the typing (just like the authors of the bible, right?). I personally deem this message to be no less authentic, honest or spiritually driven than the messages being heard by Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long or anyone at my daddy's church. None of us has a monopoly on truth.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your e-mail, please click here. 

 

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