It is my conclusion that the black church has become socialized to suppress free and progressive thought, to keep Black America in ignorance and bondage so we'll keep writing tithe checks every week. The most effective way a pastor can secure his long-term well-being is to keep you as ignorant as possible. Church Folk aren't interested in truth so much as they're interested in spectacle. Barack Obama's mere existence as U.S. president removes the excuses and puts the lie to the insipid commonality of ain'ts and y'alls flung from black pulpits every Sunday, proving spirituality and intellect are not mutually exclusive. Our God is not the God of ignorance.
My guess would be eight out of ten black preachers you'll
encounter in your path are either (a) complete phonies, (b)
corrupted, (c) lost or burned out or, most certainly, (d) mired
in the quicksand of tradition and religiosity. Nine out of ten
black pastors I am acquainted with lack intellectual curiosity
of any kind. They have stopped learning. Therefore, they have
stopped growing. They no longer look for fresh revelation from
God, and their leadership reflects a value set cemented in
1960's-era social values which they equate with biblical
principle if not biblical morality. It's fairly simple to tell
where a pastor is at: just look at his photo. In most cases, if
he's blinging—wearing a gold watch and/or gold bracelet (it's
usually both, often two bracelets), diamond pinky ring and
Masonic-style block gold ring—any of that, in any combination,
suggests, in the most benign possibility, a well-meaning man who
is dangerously undereducated in the divine example of Jesus
Christ. In the worst supposition, we are looking at a complete
It is possible your pastor is simply caught in the Matrix, trapped in the Old School pastor-as-pimp sensibilities of the 60's and 70's. But it's also possible you yourself are the one caught in the Matrix: that you are making excuses for a man totally out of touch with the God he purports to serve. This isn't rocket science: all it takes is courage. Courage to actually live the faith you claim and to simply ask yourself: would Jesus ever take a photo like that? Would Jesus ever wear all that gold and lord it over the poor He came to serve? Arguably, there is nothing wrong with owning gold jewelry or wanting to wear it. But it is selfish and childish, a kind of cultural immaturity that advertises how insecure you are, how desperate for external validation you are. People who drive luxury cars are, to me, just idiots. The purpose of a car is to get you from point "A" to point "B," but we, like children, have turned simple math into yet more childish, un-Christ-like behavior as we get in over our heads, spending fifty, sixty thousand and more for a vehicle. Get a regular car. Stop being an idiot.
Showing off your wealth (or pretend-wealth) undermines your testimony. Tooling around town in a huge luxury car, sporting all your gold and so forth, has a kind of violence to it. It is oppressive to people who have nothing. Now, nobody's asking anyone to take a vow of poverty or to wear rags all the time, just ask yourself, "Would Jesus drive a Lexus?" "Would Jesus sport a Rolex and diamonds?" Jesus was God incarnate; He could have worn gold and diamonds and, yes, He could have driven a Lexus. But Jesus had no home. owned nothing but the clothes on His back. He relied on the kindness of strangers for a bed to sleep in, for food to eat. The incongruity between the pastor's luxury and the biblical tenants he preaches presents a stark conflict which requires a resolution, but none ever presents itself. Instead, like lemmings, we continue to applaud this guy, even when everything about him seems contrary to the imitation of Christ. We shower him with accolades and these ghastly annual celebrations where we take up offerings—often multiple offerings—and give the proceeds to him. Would Jesus ever allow His followers to present Him with a briefcase full of cash to evade taxes on it? Would Jesus ever enrich Himself off the sacrifice of the poor? Boy, are we stupid.
Or, are we? I'm beginning to suspect that, in overwhelming measure, Church Folk are simply gullible. Church Folk really aren't interested in truth so much as they're interested in spectacle. We're interested in the narcotic that makes us feel good about ourselves without requiring all that much of us. Anything that requires sacrifice, that requires us to confront ourselves and make important choices, is really not welcome. Of particular interest to me is how we tend to tune out cogent thought: intellectual observations delivered in a sober and thoughtful manner.
Many church folk I know simply mock anything they don't understand. Their maturity level is about that of a child in third grade, which allows for eye-rolling, finger-pointing and snickering. Most of this behavior is, simply, a compensation for fear. We fear that which we do not understand, and most Church Folk find comfort and, frankly, authority only in the folksy Southern drawl of back woods good 'ol boys who, themselves, mock intellect from the church pulpit. It astounds me that many of these men have advanced degrees, a great many calling themselves "Dr.," when so many of these guys are just as ignorant, just as immature, just as childish, as the day is long. Their fear compensation is a stern hostility, the edge of rebuke constant in their comport. I'm never sure what Cracker Jack box these guys pulled their doctorates from, but the sophomoric, grade-school level of academic thought exhibited by many of these men suggests their degrees are as phony as they are. Forget theology and homiletics, many of our pastors need to take English courses. These guys flaunt their letters of accreditation in biblical studies but their handwriting is illegible and they have almost no writing skills whatsoever. Even some of our most anointed ministers are, in a practical sense, illiterate. Messages from the pastor have to get cleaned up on his secretary's desk or, even more horrifying, arrive in newsletters or on websites unedited, revealing an alarmingly poor command of the English language. That the pastor isn't embarrassed by this, isn't striving to set an example of academic competence (if not excellence) for his congregation, suggests a guy lost in the bubble of his own hero worship. Pastors: if you love your congregation, set a reasonable example for them. Don't just take their money. If you write like a fourth grader, if your handwriting looks like hieroglyphics, do something about that. Lead by example.
What I have found to be true is people who participate materially in organized religion tend to skew, in the aggregate, toward the more insecure and less intellectual. It's almost as if we (all of us) are forced to choose between faith and intellect, as though they were mutually exclusive. I don't see a lot of Christians (well, black Christians, as Christianity tends to be fairly well segregated) who promote intellectual pursuits, science or literature. The black church, to my experience, exists largely within an anti-intellectual culture where discussions like this one are greeted with suspicion and hostility, where progressive thinking is discouraged and technology is outright mocked.
It is, literally, as though you have to park your brain at the door. Like you have to make a choice. That, to belong to our particular African American Baptist tribe you have to hide your intellect under a lamp. Or, for true intellectuals, you have to forego much of a spiritual life because so much of who you are is not valued. Most black church folk I know have absolutely no intellectual curiosity and absolutely no appreciation for art or literature. They are, in most cases, lemmings who do not read or study the Bible and so have only a basic Sunday School grasp of theology— good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell, which is not at all true.
They are people looking to fill their lives with meaning and looking for a balm for their emotional pain. They find both in our comforting Sunday tradition, but it is, in many ways, a panacea more than a relationship, as the church's failure to promote philosophical or intellectual pursuits suggests the system is designed to keep black congregants dependant on their weekly fix rather than finding and embracing deeper truths and becoming less co-dependent on the infrastructure of the organization. It's reasonable to conclude that, becoming “free indeed,” as Christ suggests, would include freedom from dependency on the pastor and pulpit; that both would become an inspiration moreso than a narcotic.
Scientific analysis and philosophical examinations work against the kind of gilded bondage practiced within our tradition, a slave mentality that tells us we're helpless without the pastor, and demands our obligation to the physical organization be the preemptive commitment in our lives. The problem is certainly not limited to black churches, but black churches have historically been the fulcrum of black social life. A failure of leadership here impacts black America—an underserved segment of society—in a much more severe way than failure of leadership in white churches. The majority culture can sustain such failures easier than the minority culture. Inevitably, what I am seeing, at least, are black intellectuals leaving the church, young black thinkers regarding the church as more of a historical or cultural icon than as a vital part of their lives.
Absent our acceptance of and adherence to this anti-intellectual standard, many of these churches would go out of business. It is my conclusion that the black church, at least, is socialized to suppress free and progressive thought, to keep Black America in ignorance and bondage, so we'll keep writing tithe checks every week. The prime objective of these organizations, in the great majority, is to keep us writing those checks so the pastor, in specific, can live in relative luxury with fairly little work time invested. Many pastors refer to this as “full time ministry,” when it is, in fact, a lot more like retirement: the pastor maintaining a fairly light schedule of this and that during the week, while living fairly well at the church's expense (this is, of course, not universally true and certainly not exclusive to the black church).
There is certainly lip service given to the value of education, but there is virtually no emphasis given to science, philosophy, art (beyond music), literature, other cultures and religions, and absolutely no value placed on intellectualism as a pursuit in and of itself. In order to support the organization, the system is designed to keep us right where we are—lost somewhere in 1965, and the dumber the better. Intellectual pursuits or philosophical thinking— anything that challenges this system— is treated as a threat. By most any objective standard, this might be called “a racket.”
As I wrote in an earlier essay:
At the end of the day, it may be impossible for intellectuals to find God, or to have a thriving spiritual life and relationship with a higher power. But, perhaps, at the very end of intellect and reason, there is a precipice beyond which no rational thought exists. Perhaps faith involves leaping into that abyss and, in so doing, elevating our thinking beyond what we can prove on paper. Without dismissing intellect and reason, we can evolve both and, in so doing, find that small piece of ourselves that we've been missing.
I practiced as a minister for almost 30 years before actually becoming officially licensed as one. I never wanted to be called “Reverend,” and, even now I regret having taken that step. It was just easier for my friends and I to accomplish things ministerially if I actually had a piece of paper that officially called me “Reverend.” But this is a club I never wanted to join because, as I feared, here in Ourtown, I’m as big a joke as every other “reverend,” most of whom have succumbed to ghastly moral failure, typically rampant whoring. The vacuum of moral authority has caused an evaporative effect as more and more churchgoers shift from church to church, looking for the security and authority of the church they remember from their youth but finding only reprobate pastors and those who enable reprobate pastors.
But, I believe God sent me here. I think God gives you a love and thirst and passion for the things He wants you to accomplish. Colorado Springs is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful places in this country. A place where even the poorest people have grand mountain views. I also believe God will be raising up prophets to put a stop to all the foolishness going on in His name. These prophets will likely not be local church pastors, as these pastors are voted in by congregations so used to The Same Old Thing that they deliberately seek it, considering only candidates who perpetuate that to which they have become accustomed.
The only surefire solution to the anti-intellectual morass the black church is in rests with each one of us. I've never been sure how to spark the flame of intellectual inquisitiveness in people, young or old. I know far, far too many people content to live in the Matrix, to go about their drone lives with no dreams and no aspirations, just doing what they are told and repeating the same staid patterns week in and month out. My challenge to us would be for us to simply wonder why. All intellect and reason begins with a simple, childlike wondering. You've got this book—the Holy Bible—that you drag back and forth to church as if it actually meant something to you. Look at Who Jesus is, look at His example. Then look at your pastor. Look at Ephesians 5 and then look at your pastor. If he passes the smell test, you're likely in a good church and a good place. If he doesn't, you need to ask yourself why you're listening to that guy.
The election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States has likely done more to increase academic goals among minorities than any event in history. Obama is a thoughtful man, an intelligent man, who is also knowable, approachable and grounded in a reality we ourselves can relate to. Obama himself is the living compromise between intellect and humanism, proving we don't have to become robots or nerds to be intelligent, and that being intelligent does not intrinsically separate us from our community or our humanity. Obama's mere existence as the U.S. president removes the excuses and puts the lie to the insipidly stupid commonality of ain'ts and y'alls flung from black pulpits every Sunday. From the pot-bellied half-wits running around calling themselves "Dr." while belittling new thought and new technology.
It is reasonable to examine yourself, your family and certainly your church. To wake from your coma and simply wonder why. Why doesn't my pastor look like Christ? Why doesn't my church look like Christ? Why are we still laboring with outdated technology while throwing bags of cash at the pastor to blow on Cadillacs? Beloved: that is all ignorance. Our God is not the God of ignorance, does not endorse or bless ignorance. But, in far too many cases, we are sitting in our pews, waiting for the pastor to lead us out of ignorance, which he is not motivated to do because an end to ignorance will impact his wallet—which is, sadly, often a pastor's first priority. Oh, it's the church—the church finances—but in our tradition, the pastor himself is often the biggest line item on the church budget. His investment in the church's well-being is, therefore, selfishly motivated. And the most effective way he can secure his long-term well-being is to keep you as ignorant as possible.
Get mad at me if you want. But I challenge you to prove me wrong.
Christopher J. Priest
9 January 2006 / 7 June 2009
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