I have friends in my life that I am, frankly, scared to talk to for fear of losing them. I know, if I say or do the wrong thing, I could set them off fairly easily. These are folks who experience singularity—opinions and understanding which differs from theirs—as violence. Many churches experience a great deal of turnover as congregants go from church to church, forming and then severing bonds with extended families. Our emotions always close to the surface, the resulting petty behavior makes it virtually impossible for us to sustain mature social organisms. Of all the people in the world, we seem to forgive each other the least.
I find it curious that, in my Christian experience, the black Christian community is
often the demographic least like Christ. We are so very quick to
anger. We are so very thin-skinned. A community of toes
perpetually stepped on. We are competitive, envious and
vengeful. We hold grudges unto death. We over-dress for church
(the new trend in white Christianity being a more populist polo shirts and
khakis, with cappuccino machines in the lobby), wear too much
cologne, too many jewels, and go to great lengths and expense to
have a shiny new car at all costs. We look down our nose at
people who have less than we do. We experience a rush of
gratification just knowing our expensive car and
gregarious clothes sets us above our lessors in the congregation.
I'm puzzled by this, by the rude behavior, by the contempt we show one another. Many of us come to church and, gripped by the Holy Ghost, dance and wail and run and carry on, but no sooner have we hit the pavement outside than we are already tearing someone down, passing someone without a smile or handshake, or otherwise writing off someone's humanity. Like toddlers with car keys, our emotions are completely unchecked. We snap into Loud Angry Church Folk Mode at the drop of a hat, and feel justified in doing so. Shoot, who does she think she is? This dichotomy is so pervasive, so deeply entrenched in the black church, that it has achieved an odd level of common acceptance. It is ingrained in our communal DNA. Aunt Esther, the histrionic black church lady with the big hat, telling us off with fiery eyes and snarling tones: this is our African American Christian tradition. It is accepted, it is emulated, it is passed one generation to another.
But we're not Jesus, and we're not chasing loan sharks out of the Temple, but that's the example many of us rely on for being such hair-trigger maniacs. The truth is, we are emulating the abusive and exploitive behavior we ourselves have suffered under. From our parents and grandparents dating back to the plantation, the aggressive tone of the slave master, the vengeful demeanor, the darting, narrowed Clint Eastwood eyes, belong not to Jesus the liberator but to Massuh the repressor. My best guess about our white counterparts in the Christian community is their atmosphere is more a reflection of the social evolution of the last two centuries—khakis and cappuccino—while our atmosphere is, in large measure, not materially different from our churches of the late 1950's to mid 1960's. The giant, gregarious church lady hats. The sing-song preacher hoop. The comical, over-the-top fashion. The severe pyramid power structure and ruthlessness required to ascend it. The pastor, worshipped almost as a god himself, and his pushy, brassy, domineering wife who exploits our fear of her husband to prance about crushing spirits and barking orders: where is Christ in any of that?
We are a product of our experience, currents that run deep within us and we have, perhaps irrevocably, integrated the plantation experience with the Christian experience to the point where, in a great many black Christian circles, the two are one.
Many churches experience a great deal of turnover as congregants stay long enough to build relationships that ultimately come crashing down as alliances and agendas shift, or as people begin to feel threatened by new ideas or new people. Many people move through an ongoing cycle of going from church to church, forming and then severing bonds with extended families as they repeat an endless loop of finding happiness and common ground, only to have those relationships sour. The Reverend Neil Brown, Youth Minister of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church and author of the PraiseNet column, A Preacher's Confession, put it this way, “Relationships are like milk in the fridge,” Neil says. “You've got to maintain them. You've got to keep them from going sour. You've got to watch those expiration dates.”