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WE GOT OPTIONS: BEYOND BLACK CHURCH-SANCTIONED VIOLENCE

There’s no limit to what life could be beyond Black church-sanctioned violence. The harvest is plenty and has always been here.

By Rebecca A. Wilcox

One night, my cousin and I were reminiscing about what life was like growing up in our Grandmother’s house. Warburton Avenue, a place where everyone ate, big cousins protected little girls from predatory men, and all kinds of people—under the psycho-trauma of poverty—were consumed by love. I remember asking her, “How come we hardly went to church?” She replied, “…we ain’t need that.”

Since March, we have watched Black preachers perform virtual sermons, panels, and protests to adjust to challenges posed by COVID-19. Black churches across the nation have been forced to fundamentally reimagine themselves, their relevance, and sustainability in this new era. Although progressive shifts have been made, we, the people, remain underwhelmed. There is a looming myth that the institution of the Black church is necessary for Black liberation. The Black church amplifies its historical precedence in Black liberation movements to justify its existence, or as Dr. Eddie Glaude states, “its memory as its currency.” If historically, the Black church was what it claims to be, the residue would not be a surplus of harmful testimonies and a lack of presence in Black, non-christian, poor, LGBTQ+, disabled, and, particularly, ghetto women’s freedom narratives. The jig is up, and the mask is being unveiled.

For too long, we have allowed the Black church to perform their way into the spotlight acting as the primary symbol for Black liberation while it continues to weaponize our vulnerability, capitalize off the elderly, queer, and poor, and use nonsensical christology to undermine our ways of knowing the world. I am not here to argue that the institution of the Black church must “become all things to all people so that it might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:22). I am also not committed to constantly checking the Black church’s pulse to ease the spectral fear of its death. I am just here to state that it is not, nor has it ever been, our only viable means to survival. This notion that Black people would fall victim to existential crisis without aid from Black churches is a faulty assumption that erases all the people who, as my cousin stated, “ain’t need it.” We must illuminate the faith-freeing practices of those who live beyond Black church-sanctioned violence; for we have always been the source of our own survival and strength.

The church demonizes survival practices that do not align with the problematic christ-gaze. For example: At the height of this global pandemic, we witnessed firsthand the Black church’s exploitation of Black suffering. Black preachers all over the nation detested the idea that liquor stores were deemed essential, but churches were not. Some even had the unmitigated gall to refuse to close their churches, putting their congregants at risk, to protest the idea of a non-essential church. Governors had to deploy sanctions and fines mandating churches close to protect the people—which only further criminalizes and stigmatizes the very people the church claims to care for. 

This outcry and abuse of religious autonomy led to visceral theological attacks against alcohol-dependent people. Many religious leaders refused to consider what alcohol-dependent people needed to live. If liquor stores closed, people would be forced to undergo massive withdrawals that would spike the present health crisis amidst a global pandemic. Understand the severity of this; people could die without the opportunity to self-medicate. To evangelize with the christ-gaze inevitably leads to people being abused. This act of moral superiority is inextricably linked to the Black church’s structure and its unwavering commitments to the christian industrial complex that it demands complete abolition. It also further unveils the myth of the historical precedence of the Black church.

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Black church leaders have made distinctions between progressive and fundamentalist churches to vindicate themselves from such criticisms, while engaging lucrative forms of social justice. Not only is it ahistorical to claim that Black churches have acted in service to all Black lives, but the christian church’s lack of  plurality is what enforces its supremacy. These distinctions parallel arguments such as, “not all cops.” It is not about good versus bad. It is about how all Black churches function under the hegemonic structures of christendom as all cops function under a punitive state. If there is any need for an organized Black church, it is to organize its parishioners toward abolishing christian supremacy. If you need help understanding how to do this, you can check out a website by Candace Simpson, a Queer Baptist minister.

So, why is it important to render visible that we have other viable options? In the words of Avery Gordon, from her book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, “We need to know where we live in order to imagine living elsewhere. We need to imagine living elsewhere before we can live there.” No space alone can hold the complexity of Black suffering. We need a variety of liberating vehicles, because the truth is that not all Black people are going toward the same freedom. We are at a critical moment in time where we cannot afford to just have faith and trust Jesus. We really need to know who the hell we can depend on. We are no longer believing that it will get better; we demand that it will be otherwise. 

We need options that have clear commitments to a revolutionary alternative; options void of Black suffering. Options that do not continue to act like suffering is not happening. Options that are not still trying to figure out basic human rights. Options rid of hierarchical structures and willing to acknowledge that no elements of imperialism are working for Black folks. Options willing to acknowledge that Black folks are sometimes complicit in white supremacy and must be held accountable. Options where people are committed to showing up and being transformed. Options where love transcends. Options that do not deem our survival strategies as sinful for the sake of respectability. 

If people cannot understand by now that families are dying, friends are in prison, children are being domestically terrorized, mothers are the lab experiments of a global health crisis, and the christian narrative is no longer inspiring for conditions of despair, then they are not being present with real-lived experiences. Faith should not be void of herbs, libations, city girls, sex, and non-binary worlds. If people and structures cannot understand and accept what we desire and need, then they do not have the tools we need for liberation. We need to start with options that have the tools, the range, the guts, and desire to create a path toward freedom. Options that are starting at revolution and not at reform; anything less is inadequate.

So, beyond Black church-sanctioned violence and spiritual neglect for many, what are our options? Where can we go to be our whole selves? What places do not require us to give God our broken pieces because every piece of us matters? To echo the sentiments of Toni Morrison, “our lives have meaning beyond the christ-gaze.” In the process of my cousin reminding me what we did not need, she also reminded me of what we always had. We had a praxis that is best illustrated in what Dean Emilie Townes names in her book, Womanist Ethics and the Cultural Production of Evil, as “the everydayness.”

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On Warburton, everydayness looked like: Sitting between my sister’s legs as she yanked my neck from side to side to craft braids from one angle of my head to the other, while I begged her to add beads. Creativity! Lighting candles on the block for all the ancestral real niggas. Rituals! Twelve grandchildren sleeping in one bed horizontally to fit everyone. Mutual Aid! Cousins fighting in hallways because one got too slick at the mouth, but just because I fight my cousin doesn’t mean you can. Justice! Showing up to a Yonkers protest where a rapper named Jae yells, “Fuck the cops, they don’t give a fuck about us!” And New York protestors respond with, “Facts Only, B!” Abolition! Having sex and raising kids with baby fathers/mamas/non-binaries who act right. Pleasure! And Training up New York Black girls in the way that they should double-dutch so that they might have the Olympics shook! Black!

There’s no limit to what life could be beyond Black church-sanctioned violence. The harvest is plenty and has always been here.

Everydayness: our sabbath, our daily bread. On Earth, as it was on Warburton.

Rebecca A. Wilcox is a PhD student at Princeton Theological Seminary where she focuses on Religion and Society, Ethics, and Critical Theory. Her research explores Black, radical,  epistemological frameworks honed out of underground economies. Wilcox is from the Bronx, New York where she was raised by her mother and five siblings. She is also a proud HBCU alumna of Clark Atlanta University. Beyond schooling, Wilcox enjoys pleasure — pleasure that reduces her proximity to harm.She is a proud puppy parent to her red toy poodle, Assata. She dedicates her revolutionary awakenings to her college professor Illya Davis, and her favorite author, Toni Morrison. 

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