The Veil of the American Church

W.E.B Du Bois writes in The Souls of Black Folk,

“So woefully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of ‘swift’ and ‘slow’ in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science…Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa? So long as the world stands meekly dumb before such questions, shall this nation proclaim its ignorance an unhallowed prejudices by denying freedom of opportunity to those who brought the Sorrow Song to the Seats of the Mighty?”

How do we understand our deficiencies in sociological understanding if we are living in a system predicated upon an inherently racist, white supremacist philosophy? As Durkheim, Weber, and Marx have so well demonstrated, philosophy and theology provide the scaffolding for the sociological orderings that come to define a society. So, in reflecting upon Du Bois’ question, I think it would do us well to admit that it’s not that we aren’t asking the questions. Rather, I think it’s more apt to say that privileged, white hetero-normative society has asked the questions and have decided that we are willing to stomach the sordid answer that White greed and White antipathy towards Black, Brown, and Asian peoples suffering ¬– as well as the suffering of the natural world – allowing White Europe and White America to excel.

The Kantian argument that race and country define a person’s worth, and not their ability to think and feel, or laugh and love, hung the Veil Du Bois spent his academic career trying to tear down. Kant and his Enlightenment peers surely did not invent racism but they did a wonderful job of codifying it. Their elitist rhetoric passed self-satisfying judgments upon their contemporaries, elevating themselves over the other, who, unlike them, did not pass the esoteric litmus test of defining reality with dialectical thought or philosophical tropes or metaphysical musings.

Enlightenment thinkers became privileged meaning makers. They assumed the roles once occupied by theologians, or, in the case of Christian Enlightenment thinkers, they were forced to re-evaluate Christian thought through the lens of Enlightenment maxims. And, in those maximal definitions of what reality must be, the implicit racism trailed along, polluting modern thought and insisting that White males stood on top of every conceivable heap.

Early understandings of Darwinism only helped to reaffirm Enlightenment conclusions on race. Eugenics, phrenology and social Darwinism were all products of a White male driven society obsessed with edifying its claims to supremacy. The tragedy for us today, as so well documented by Du Bois, as I contend, is the cultural willingness to live into these fabrications, or as Du Bois suggests, a complete inability to analyze the sociologies that allow these stereotypes to persist.
From a modern theological standpoint it is paramount that Christianity interrogates its own racism. That much is obvious. Ristchl knew it 100 years ago but his Social Gospel has been eclipsed by the Barthian pursuit for personal salvation and the American Prosperity Gospel. Looking at the self-satisfied state of the modern American Church, I cannot help but wonder if the Church is the best venue for modern Abolition movements, or for that matter, any modern movement towards social justice and civil rights. The Church continues to backslide into the recesses of history. It has staked its claim with androcentrism, ethnocentrism, racism that allows it to keep its grip, no matter how tenuous, on its scepter of power.

The Second Temptation of Christ was apparently too sexy, the power too intoxicating. I would like to believe that there is salvation for the Church but my doubt overwhelms my hope. My hope hasn’t vanished, though. It persists in the hope of the Absolute Spirit that has been made manifest in the corners of churches that continue to feed, house, and serve the poor no matter the affliction. My hope lies with the unquenchable thirst of young people to create a better society simply because it’s the right thing to do.

Du Bois lamented the deaf ears his kinsmen lent him when he attempted to teach, preach and advocate change. His African-American brothers and sisters could not and did not want to be taught. The Veil was heavy and cumbersome, enwoven with defeatism, depression, and doubt. I suppose this is how I feel about the Church. The American Christian sits behind their own Veil; one stitched together with apathy, nihilism, comfort, luxury, and disregard. Can the Veil be torn down? I don’t know. It seems woven into the very constitution of the church and I am unsure what, if any, process is capable of unraveling the ideologies, philosophies, and theologies that have brought to where we are today.

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One thought on “The Veil of the American Church

  1. A great read Andrew — and you’re right to question what the development of “Church” will be in America. I am more of the camp that asks what “church” does, and what “doing” church looks like.

    Even better to look for the roots beneath all of this too.

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