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 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 exuberant gratification just knowing our expensive car and expensive 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 completely unchecked, we snap into Loud Angry Negro 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: Jesus chasing the money changers from the temple.

But we're not Jesus, and we're not defending Mosaic Law. 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 almost comical over-the-top fashion. The severe pyramid power structure and the ruthlessness required to ascend it. The pastor, worshipped almost as a god himself.

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.

The pastor, simultaneously empowered and corrupted by a huge ego which is fed daily by the slavering, simpering, unconditional obeisance of his flock, is most typically lost somewhere in the tall grass, spending a great deal of time, energy and money to keep the church distracted from the fact he actually has not much in the way of a vision for the ministry and has few if any actionable goals or articulated objectives for the community his church is located within. Most of these guys are simply content to run in circles on the corner their churches are located on, being the star of their Sunday ritual and king of their respective donut shops. I doubt anyone could pastor a black church today without demonstrating both strength and resolve, though most can and do pastor churches without demonstrating much in the way of humility or compassion. As a culture, the crack of the whip is a sound perhaps diminished from our ears but deeply set into our psyche. It is something we respond to.

But Jesus never cracked whips to draw people to Himself. Jesus was and is not a taskmaster. This whip cracking, forced upon a great many pastors, handed down from generation to generation and manifested in us—this Church Folk mentality—is what it is: emotional and psychological bondage. The economic effects of slavery linger in our community, but the emotional scars are much harder to reconcile, detect, and heal. As a community, we are stuck in a kind of social adolescence, having been infants set adrift by the Emancipation, separated by a caste system of people telling us what to do and when to do it.

The white church's atmosphere reflects the maturation and spiritual growth of white America. The black church reflects the struggle and continued challenges of a race populated here at gunpoint. We are the product of a forced matriculation into a society that, in large measure, still does not value us. Where a great many white Christians see opportunities, a great many blacks see challenges. A great many whites see valleys, while a great many blacks see hills. The black church's knee-jerk, petty behavior—more apropos of high schoolers than deacons—makes it virtually impossible for us to grow and sustain mature social organisms.

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, Holla! at Neil Brown 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.”

Some relationships do, indeed, have expiration dates. And, in attempting to be a grownup, I have frequently labored with some people longer and gone farther than I should have. When a relationship becomes toxic, and you have exhausted avenues of fixing the problem, then, yeah, it's time to pull the plug. The fact is, you can often find yourself being in relationship with someone who is not in relationship with you. Being worried about someone who is never apparently worried about you. Constantly giving to someone who only seems to be taking from you.

These kinds of people are often classified as narcissists. Most of them never realize this is, in fact, what they are doing– taking without giving and draining your good will and your Christian love without giving anything in return. Relationships should, ideally, be a two-way street. Sometimes I pick up the check, sometimes you pick up the check. Relationships should be like Social Security: you pay into the system over the years and it should be there when you need it. Imagine the disappointment, the hurt, we suffer when finally it is our turn to lean on someone we've been propping up for ten years, only to discover they are not there for us.

Being friends with someone who is not being a friend to you is not a healthy relationship. It is more like co-dependence, where you are getting some kind of narcotic hit out of being this person's doormat, and they are getting a buzz out of your continued servitude. That is not a relationship worth maintaining because it is not a relationship at all, and you are being less of a friend to that person as an enabler: someone who feeds this person the narcotic they need to stay in this un-Christ-like state. More often than not, these narcissists are the ones who are so innately insecure that they will drop you like a bad habit the moment you stop providing their narcotic. They will invalidate years of servitude (let's call it what it is) on your part over the smallest perceived slight on your part. At the first sign of your asserting your own individuality over their voracious need for validation, they'll bolt and burn the relationship. These are people who can routinely use and abuse you, then exclude or otherwise take advantage of you— routinely doing you gross emotional harm— and will inevitably end the relationship before they will admit their wrongs or apologize for them. The fact is, narcissists are, for the most part, incapable of even seeing how self-absorbed they are, have no concept at all of the damage they routinely inflict on you, or the failing grade they earn as a friend. These are people so wounded, so damaged, so incredibly insecure, apologizing would cause them to burst into flames.

These are people who poison and eventually destroy one relationship after another and it's never their fault. You buy these folks a cup of coffee and they complain and complain and can never see the historical record of car wreck and house fires they have caused over the years, or the fact that their circle of friends seems to always be peopled by comparatively new acquaintances. They have few, if any, friends in their inner circle whom they have known longer than five years. If your circle of acquaintance consists mainly of people you've known five years or less (and you're older than, say, ten), then you have a relationship problem. It really is that simple. People certainly grow apart, and lives move on, but there is, to my observation, an increasingly pervasive problem within the black church community of rapidly-changing alliances and friends quick to burn bridges and trash relationships over petty differences.

I have friends in my life that I am, frankly, scared to talk to. When I am over their house, I feel uncomfortable in my own skin. For, I know, if I say or do the wrong thing, I could set them off fairly easily. These are people inclined to find fault and who are easily rubbed the wrong way. The best and easiest way to be around them, the way they enjoy me, is for me to agree with them. To be in a Zen Buddhist mode where I am one with their reality and their understanding of the world. What they can't understand is, this diminishes me as a living soul. I cease to exist because, for me to actually exist would be experienced by them as a threat. They experience singularity—opinions and understanding that do not agree with theirs—as violence. They experience me, the Actual Me as opposed to the Their View of Me, as an assault and they go on the defensive, getting their back up. I have friends who go from zero to agitated in a matter of seconds. Whose skin is so desperately brittle they can be mortally wounded by just a wrong look. I don't care to be around these people, because, when I am, I have an enormous knot in my stomach, and I am inclined to simply agree with them, with their reality, to appease them and protect our "relationship."

“It's no fun walking on eggshells,” says Jason Gaulden, a Senior Fellow at The El Pomar Foundation. “We don't want to talk about it, but a lot of our community's insecurity goes back to the plantation days, where we were made to believe we were nothing and certainly had nothing.

“It goes back to the old analogy about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence. But, you see, that's not the end of that analogy. The complete analogy would suggest that the grass is greener on the other side because the neighbor on the other side of the fence works harder at it. We are looking in from the brown side, without stopping to notice how much work our neighbor is putting into his lawn. We are often quick to blame, quick to envy and slow to forgive– not seeing the larger picture of what it took to get that grass as green as it is.

“The white community's green lawn is built on family tradition and resources going back generations, while the black community is still, in large measure, accruing resources and building their own infrastructure and sense of identity.

“Jim Collin's book, Good To Great [2001, HarperCollins; ISBN: 0066620996], has a chapter called, 'Confronting The Brutal Facts.' Before we as a community can overcome our own shortcomings in the area of relationships, this is what we have to do. “

To be sure, some relationships should be ended. I mean, the above mentioned “friendship” is no friendship at all. It's just me with this movie running through my head where these people are my friends. But they're not my friends, they're their friends. I don't exist as an individual but only as an extension of their narcissism. Reconciling narcissism and Christianity is a tough task. Christ could hardly be thought of as a narcissist. He was divinely aware of the individual beauty and purpose of each soul within His orbit. He accepted people as He found them. He didn't write anybody off. I have to stop and ask myself what I'm getting out of these relationships, out of expending energy and time going out of my way to make them feel secure, when they seem barely aware of my very existence.

I had this dream once where I was cooking dinner and, as I waited for my friend to arrive, I started tidying up the house. And, as I tidied the house, I suddenly realized– she wasn't coming. I just instinctively knew it. The phone would eventually ring and she'd have some excuse, but she wasn't coming over. And, it was as if I heard God ask me, Why are you cooking dinner for people who are not coming?

We need to stop cooking dinner for people who are not coming. Those of us who can maintain relationships need to stop enabling those who cannot: people who trade us like baseball cards and dismiss us when we no longer serve a useful function in their lives. People who take us, our unique purpose on Earth, and our special-ness, for granted, choosing only to use us as fuel for their chronic self-absorption. PraiseNet contributing editor Joy Banks, who holds a master's degree in Christian Counseling, asked me, “Yeah, but look here: Who's cooking dinner for you? You're so busy cooking for everybody else, but who's looking out for you?”

Jesus teaches us to espouse a kind of godly selflessness and humility, but Joy told me Jesus never intended us to cease to exist, or to exhaust our resources and our lives indulging the whims of narcissists. In fact, our Christian duty is to not enable un-Christ-like behavior. Part of learning how to maintain healthy relationships is the process setting boundaries, of pruning unhealthy or toxic relationships from our lives, as the unhealthy relationships will, certainly, choke out the healthy ones.

Of all the people in the world, we seem to forgive each other the least. We, who should be endowed with the power, the ability to imitate the limitless grace of our Creator, and who should exhibit gifts of the Spirit which include patience and longsuffering, are often the worst examples of human intolerance and, frankly, immaturity. A people of toes perpetually stepped on. We jump from church to church. From friend to friend. From relationship to relationship. From bed to bed. Often, without explanation, we simply stop calling. Stop speaking. There's been some damage, some hurt, but we feel (or know) holding the offending party accountable will mean the end of the relationship, so we just let it go. And then the next hurt, we let that one go, too. And the one after that. And the twelfth one.

Pastor Jim Dotson, of Trinity Missionary Baptist Church, said the reason we have such difficulty sustaining relationships is, “We don't fight enough. We repress our differences and eventually separate, rather than giving those differences a good airing out. Conflict inspires closeness, as in any conflict two or three will group together in one opinion, two or three in another. At the end of it all, at least two of you have strengthened your bond in some way.” Serving overseas in the Air Force, Pastor Dotson, a retired Colonel, said, “We had three common bonds that drew us together overseas: language, food and hair products. It was difficult to get hair products for people of color, and, of course our common language and desire for American food drew us closer together. People who arrived strangers, from different states and different communities, forged bonds that endure to this day.”

Dotson successfully defended his pastorate recently in a court battle that ended, sadly, in a church split with a group of people founding a new church two blocks east of Trinity, one block north of Relevant Word Ministries and one block east of St. John's Baptist Church which is, itself, one block north of Progressive Church of God In Christ. Five churches within a three-block radius. Five building funds. Five congregations who politely pass one another in the street.

Christopher J. Priest
15 November 2002 / 3 May 2009

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