Tribalism is a deeply-ingrained instinct. The tradition of the strong father figure is so deeply ingrained into our cultural DNA that, many of us, many of our churches, routinely disregard scripture when conducting a pastoral search. Rather than find God’s man, the anointed one ordained for our work, we go out of our way to find the least Christlike sonovabitch we can find and install him as our pastor. Many of these men see themselves as gatekeepers of a precious legacy. This is not the role of the pastorate. It is, in fact, idolatry. These men have made an idol of tradition. They routinely deny God’s true nature—which is that of progressive self-revelation to His people—by placing immovable stone objects, manly themselves, in the way of progress.
You see, every barber shop has its own rules, its own rhythm,
its own pace. Spending as much time alone as I do, I am hardly
in tune with these rhythms, and I often don’t know how to “be”
in new spaces. So I either say nothing and end up seeming aloof,
disinterested or potentially hostile, or I charge into whatever
conversation is going on, trying to be one of the guys, which I
clearly am not. As a result, I hate getting my hair cut.
Having gone through that Thursday, I left thinking that, even if I don’t actually fit in, that I should receive credit for having tried. I mean, these men and women could see, clearly, the effort I was putting into at least trying to get to know them and trying to like them. I know nothing about sports and I don’t watch TV, so a lot of the conversation just leaves me out. Thursday one of the barbers was raving about how much he enjoyed the new Green Lantern film, and I almost said, “Thank you, I wrote it.” Not that I was looking to brag but I was trying to join in the conversation. But such a statement would upset, completely, the dynamic of this particular tribe because it would sound absolutely preposterous. And, if I explain that scenes in Green Lantern were based on my comic book writing, and I bring those comics in for show and tell, the statement will shift from being preposterous to being self-serving. The best possible scenario would be, for the rest of my life, my being hassled about comics and heroes every time I set foot in the place. So I let Green Lantern, the one topic of conversation I felt comfortable with, go. And I continued to make awkward stabs at chatting with these guys who I’m sure mocked me when I left. I am a geek. I am not of their tribe.
I urge you to live a life worthy of the
calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be
patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort
to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. 30 And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. 31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. —Ephesians Chapter 4
Last night I was watching the making-of features
of The Constant Gardner, where the producers talked about
their decision to shoot the film not in South Africa, where most
film companies go, but to shoot in the deeply impoverished
villages of Kenya itself. Kenya has extremely limited support
systems for film companies, which made shooting there both
challenging and potentially dangerous, but the payoff was simply
spectacular. Kenya is a splendid and beautiful space, and the
faces of the wonderful people there are absolutely amazing. It
is also among the saddest places on the planet, with
unimaginably poor people routinely victimized by whomever is
strongest. AIDS and tuberculosis run rampant there along with
dysentery and other health problems associated with the lack of
proper sanitation facilities for the poor folk who populate
rusting shanty towns in the inner cities. These same poor
villagers walk miles to work in the middle and upper-class homes
of Kenya’s bourgeois class, often bringing their diseases with
The behind-the-scenes piece showed documentary footage of the film producers meeting with several committees spontaneously made up of these Kenyan villagers. Putting a polite spin on it, the producers said these committees spring up on their own, villagers wanting to ensure their citizenry benefitted from the film production as opposed to being exploited by it. My takeaway was these were the village shot-callers, people who could organize and jam up the film production unless they got what they wanted. It’s quite possible these impoverished villagers benefitted in some way from the film production, but my suspicion is the committee benefitted, while it remains to be documented how and in what way the average man or woman on these feces-strewn muddy, unpaved alleys benefited from the white men with cameras.
Progress has almost always been about dealing with the shot callers. A later scene in tie film depict Kenyan men with guns, tribal warlords, executing a routine sweep on an unarmed group of women and children, destroying a medical clinic, stealing supplies for resale, shooting people simply at random, stealing children, raping girls and women. Preying on their own people, people they’d never met and people who had done them absolutely no harm. When Ralph Fiennes, the film’s star, attempts to bring a female child onto the rescue plane, he is ordered to let her go because the terms of the plane’s operation is that it can only transport rescue workers, not the villagers. And we see the shamefully exploitative shot of the little girl running alongside the plane, waving good-bye, as the men with guns approach.
is the reason these warlords exist, the
follows them. It makes no sense, none at all, for African people
to, time and again, choose these unhinged bullies to lead them.
They do it because unhinged bullies are all they've ever known.
It's Groundhog Day over there; over and over they do precisely
the same thing while hoping for different results. In the run-up
to most any election, it is inevitably the candidate who
projects the most terror—not even strength, terror—who wins.
Or who assassinates his rivals. This image, this fierce
arrogance, has come to be associated and evenly synonymous with
leadership. It is what Africans seek in a leader: a lion of pure
resolve. But the cycle is sadly obvious: strongmen overturning
the previous dictator by promising liberation and change, only to
bring neither. He is everything, you are nothing. While his
early intentions may have been noble, his focus and drive
inevitably becomes only about amassing more power and more
wealth for himself. We've seen this time and again: King Saul,
King Solomon, no different from Charles Taylor, Robert Mugabe, Issayas Afeworki, or any number of thousands of tribal warlords
roaming a continent afflicted by poverty and disease, robbing,
raping and killing at will.
This image of the lion, of the strong tribal leader who commands by instilling fear, rushes through the bloodstream of most Africans, including us. It is the model our pastors built upon back on the plantation, that of the strong tribal chief and/or the cruel slave master. His heart was reputedly kind, but his demeanor was one of war. Ours is a largely oral tradition; we don't read so much as we listen. In church, we listen to the pastor rather than read and study and learn God for ourselves. Our model is not Christ but Pastor which, because of our innate tribalism, can often be a flawed model at odds with the personal example of Jesus Christ. But this is the image handed down one generation to the next. It is imprinted upon our global identity and defies even the word of God, which paints a much different picture of both strength and masculinity.
This is precisely the same tribalism that exists today. I suppose there are some who might say all I do is compare the white church favorably to the black church. I don’t think I’m doing that so much as I am holding all of us, black and white, accountable for who and what we say we are. Change comes very slowly, most especially to the black church. Tribalism is a major stumbling block in that, for a new idea to be embraced or even presented to a white church, the
presenter has to win the
hearts and minds of that particular church. For change to come
to a black church, the presenter must first pay tribute to the
The pastor of a black church is, as often as not, like one of those African warlords, a ruthless and unchallengeable dictator who rules with an iron hand. We’re so used to the lash of the taskmaster’s whip, this tradition of the strong father figure is so deeply ingrained into our cultural DNA that, many of us, many of our churches, routinely disregard scripture when conducting a pastoral search. Rather than find God’s man, the anointed one ordained for our work, we look to the guy’s doctoral degree as a measure of this guy’s relationship with Jesus Christ. We look at his college transcripts. His credit rating. His performance in the pulpit. Does he love puppies. Things there is absolutely no biblical model for. Time and again we select men who fit the model of Saul rather than that of David. Saul was the confident, strong leader, a warrior-type who looked every inch the king. David was so skinny and young and brash that his father left him out in the yard, omitting him from the potential king lineup. But, early on, the Spirit of God left Saul [I Samuel 16].
But, that's our guy. That’s who we want leading our ministries. That’s the model: abrasive, arrogant, intimidating, can never admit wrong, can never apologize. This is the traditional mold of the black church pastor. He is usually nothing at all like Christ and demonstrates few if any of the fruits of the Spirit [Galatians 5]. Part of the reason is tribal: we pick guys like this because that, in our mind, is what a church pastor should be. Because that’s all we’ve ever seen. White pastors seem weak to us: too accessible, too knowable. We can call them, “Bob.” We bow to black pastors. We genuflect. We clean up our act when he enters a room, thus showing our pastor more respect than we show God Who has always been in the room to begin with.
In our culture, we socialize each successive generation to treat the pastor as though he were a wizard or a leprechaun. Like the guy is somehow magical, a shaman, a witch doctor. We spell his title, for no grammatical reason, with a capital “p,” and are offended when others do not. We usually have this guy so high and so lifted up, believing him to have mystical abilities and special grace, that we believe whatever he tells us, do whatever he says, and, most ignorantly and sadly, overlook his failings. We know less about God than we do about the pastor. For, if we knew God, if we at least knew God’s word, we’d understand that Paul’s list of Christian attributes found in Galatians 5, the fruits of the Spirit, must apply, first and foremost, to the pastor. But church after church after church I’ve been to are led y men who exude absolutely no love, no joy, no peace, absolutely no patience or gentleness. Our pastors are, from my experience, men of iron. Arrogant. Taskmasters. Competitive. Vain. Many if not most of these guys check off more attributes from verse 19-21 than they do 22-24. And, for change to come to the black church, step one is stroking these guys’ ego and paying them tribute—both in terms of recognition and material substance. Certainly not every black church pastor is this way, and not every black church is organized this way. But a great many if not most of our churches are little fiefdoms run by dictators whose first concern is what’s in it for them. If he doesn’t sign on, the proposal never gets to the church.
I have, for better or worse,
the time in my life when I could see church pastors as being
anything more than what they are: human beings. We all have the
best of intentions, and we all fail. Our mistake, as Christians,
is to repeatedly elevate these men to the stature of gods. The
worship of the pastor offends God, yet this is what we do. This
is our tradition. It’s in our bloodstream, so much so that we go
out of our way to find the least Christlike sonovabitch we can
find, and install him as our pastor.
This is tribalism, our programming overriding our logic and even our understanding. This is the two-faced divide of the black church: claiming Christ while acting a lot more like Muslim fundamentalists. The behavior many of us demonstrate: the hostility and aggression, the intolerance and impatience—where’s that coming from? From a productive and mature walk with Christ? No, it’s coming from the clown in your pulpit. Black preaching must be laced with rhetorical thunder or it is considered bland. That look on Bishop Long’s face—black preachers have to learn that look if they intend to be successful. That imperial glower, that haughty self-righteousness, is an integral component of our culture.
Tribalism is a deeply-ingrained instinct. Like salmon swimming against the current, we move against the very word of God in idolizing these men—any men, but these most of all. It was difficult for me, at age 13, to accept Christ because accepting Christ meant overcoming my tribal instinct which told me salvation was hardly free and could not be as simple as asking Christ to come in. I’d grown up in church. Never, not one time, had any Church Folk, any deacon, any church mother, even once explained the plan of salvation to me. Why? Because they likely didn’t know it themselves. There wasn’t a lot of bible-reading going on. We listened. We listened to the arrogant, self-absorbed, fiery pastor to whom we all but bowed whenever he entered a room. My mother bought my first bible when I was eight, but at 13 I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, of scripture. until a white man showed it to me. And I refused to believe him, even after he made me read those passages of scripture on my own. This had to be a mistake. Some trick of the white man.
This vision of the Imperial Pastorate is so much a part of who we are that we have difficulty even imagining voting in some young guy with no degree, no matter how anointed he is. All of which works against logic: the seasoned war horse (of whom we should be suspicious since such a candidate is without a church) is likely fairly intractable and untrainable. Meanwhile, David, the unlikely choice, is still open, still learning, still malleable. We can send him to school for that degree, we can build him into the pastor the church needs. But our tribalism drags us to Old Paint, defying logic or reason. It surely defies the Word of God which would trouble us if we actually knew what the bible had to say about such matters. Our tribalism is the main thing impeding our progress, as a church, as a people, because time and again we abandon reason because the echo inside our skull demands we swim against the current.
This is what’s kept the black church marching in place for generations. Many of our pastors have a huge emotional and visceral investment in the traditions of the black church. As a result, they filter their choices and their sense of progress and of God’s revelation through the prism of our African American tradition. Yes, we will move forward, but only under these strict conditions, only in this certain way, and only so long as we retain this flavor and this identity. Many of these men see themselves as gatekeepers of a precious legacy. This is not the role of the pastorate. It is, in fact, idolatry. These men have made an idol of tradition. They routinely deny God’s true nature—which is that of a progressive self-revelation to His people—by placing immovable stone objects, manly themselves, in the way of progress. Many of our pastors see theirs as a permanent job, pastor-for-life. There is absolutely no scriptural model for this. I believe pastors probably should move on after a decade or at most a generation. Churches need to refresh, need to renew, need new voices. But we leave these guys in place until the ambulance comes, and the church’s progress is arrested at whatever year these guys came in—usually the 50’s and 60’s. Even sadder, the newer generation of voices tends to emulate what they know. So now we have the 50’s and 60’s mindset once-removed, young pastors in 1965 Emulation Mode.
God speaking to us is, in many ways, like this film crew landing in Kenya. They bring good news. They ring progress. But first they’ve got to sit down with people far more interested in tribute than in actually seeing to the needs of their people. People who are easily confused and to whom much of what the film company is offering is a foreign concept. They see, mainly, white men with checkbooks. And, as “community coordinator,” or whatever made-up title they gave themselves to get a seat at the table, their first mission is to make sure their position is properly recognized and therefore validated, and that, of course, they personally receive some remuneration for their tireless and selfless efforts on behalf of the people.
All of which explains why, nationally speaking, the black church has all but vanished off the radar of social and political change.