This is a post in a series of reflections for the Black Lives Matter movement. To read other reflections, please go to the Black Lives Matter page.
The summer interns have reflected on “Subversive Joy and Revolutionary Patience in Black Christianity,” a chapter from a book written by Cornel West. The chapter depicts the faithful perseverance of the Afro-American community, and their ability to find joy in life, despite their suffering.
Today’s text was both complex but very profound and I really enjoyed reading and reflecting upon it. Cornel West peeled back the layers of African American Christianity and exposed the foundation and core of the religion: suffering. It’s heartbreaking to realize that the early African Americans had adapted the predominant Western religion of Christianity as a means to endure and cope with their suffering. While I believe that religion in general exists as an escape from life’s inevitable suffering, the pain of the African-American community was so immense and mutual within the community that they were able to transform Western Chrsitianity into a very different entity.
West’s point about religious freedom from suffering having 3 aspects: existential, social and eschatological is something I’ve never heard or thought about before. The idea of faith acting as liberation from existential dread is very interesting. I used to think faith and religion negated the existential philosophy (that if one has faith they shouldn’t ever have to suffer with existentialism), but I see that it could also be the other way around. That people who suffer from existential dread can turn to religion in a desperate attempt to relieve their suffering. Actually, now that i’m reflecting, I see that I was centered around my own point of view without looking at it from a bigger perspective. Since, I am lucky enough to have been born and raised in a Christian household, I’ve never had to grapple with the reason for my own existence. The belief that God had molded me and placed me on Earth with an intended purpose has basically been an accepted fact for my whole life. If anything, instead of suffering with the reason for my existence, I suffer with trying to discern how to live up to my intended purpose and meaning in the world. It’s funny because those 2 things are very similar but in a sense not at all. At the root though, not only does religion/faith alleviate the suffering of just simply existing it also acts as an anchor in the suffering of trying to answer why we exist.
The social aspect was much simpler for me to understand which made it easy to see the lack of in my own life. For the African Americans, religion and faith acted as a solace from society’s hate and pressure to assimilate and lose their self identity. Their culture and heritage was something that made them unique and gave them a sense of self. It acted as a vessel in which they were able to celebrate and be proud of who they inherently are. A line that stuck out to me from the text was “The common black argument for belief in God is not that it is logical or reasonable, but rather that such belief is requisite for one’s sanity and for entrée to the most uplifting sociality available in the black community”. When I first read this line I felt almost disappointed. Sure, religion is often not logical or reasonable at first glance, but was the strongest motivator for people to attend church really the social scene? This made me realize the absence of the social aspect within my own faith. Especially when I was a little younger, the social aspect would often be a deterrent in me attending church, not a promoter. Not to mention that I realize how out of touch I am with my own heritage and culture. I know next to nothing about Korean history, culture, history etc.. yet the weird thing is that I don’t feel an urge to want to know about it. I’ve grown up in a very caucasian, western environment, from my neighbourhood, my school, my extracurriculars, my friends, they have all been predominantly westernized. I feel thoroughly assimilated in Canada and have never felt out of place or confused about who I am. Maybe it is my privilege and shelter life that has allowed me to avoid any social suffering in a western environment. This may sound very ignorant, but I believe that a person’s environment impacts them more than their inherent culture and background. I often wonder if I will one day want to start learning and understanding more about my culture.
I view the third aspect, eschatological freedom, as very interrelated to the first aspect of existential freedom. It is as if one cannot not exist without the other. In terms of the African Americans, eschatological freedom allowed them to endure the suffering and tragedy of their life, while also finding joy in the belief that they will one day be liberated and born again in heaven. While at first I struggled to really understand this notion, I think I am beginning to wrap my head around it. I may be misunderstanding, but it seems that if one is able to genuinely believe and have faith that their suffering will cease and that they will find liberation and joy in the afterlife, then they will be able to not only endure but find joy in their wait. It is like a kid the night of Christmas eve: they are able to endure the agonizing wait and boredom in night because they know that they will receive a gift the next day. Without that belief the wait can be tortuous, filled with uncertainty and anxiety, but with that belief that wait becomes exciting and the child is able to enjoy the Christmas festivities. In a way, the existential and eschatological aspect of religion is truly the foundation for faith. In order to have faith in God, one must fully believe that they were put on Earth by God, for a reason and that once they have died and fulfilled that purpose to the best of their ability, they will be rewarded with eternal life.
One last thought/question I had was about faith and the existence of it. Why do we believe? Is it different for every person, or does the human experience cause us to believe for the same reasons? For example, after reading this text it seems that the African American community had faith because it was the only thing available to relieve their suffering. It almost feels as though they skipped over really reflecting and reasoning as to why they believe, and just forced themselves to blindly do so in order to maintain their sanity. Is that really faith then? Will these people actually obtain the life in heaven that they so desperately want? Is their religion and faith nothing but a vessel of pain alleviation? Or perhaps through their desperate do or die acceptance of God these people were able to learn to love God and cultivate genuine faith?
To be quite honest, the content of which we read and talked about today, was a bit difficult to fully comprehend. Even though I read the same sentences over and over again, the author’s wide vocabulary range stopped me from grasping the key points he mentioned. The discussion we had afterwards cleared up my misunderstandings and I was able to understand the key points at least.
There are still some parts in the text that boggle me and leave me with many questions, but I’ll explain what I understood. Firstly, while reading the text, I learned that, for the Black Christian community, when they were under severe oppression and even now, their time with God gave them that sense of self-identity and self-esteem despite feeling greatly inferior in the American society. They saw Jesus, not just as a symbol of resurrection, but as a human example of pain and agony, which they could relate to so much. The fact they could relate their experiences to the characters in the Bible, and find comfort and hope in that, is simply incredible. It shows their resilience, and strength despite the horrors of their reality.
When the author dived into the three conceptions of freedom in Afro-American Christianity, that’s when my mind scrambled and everything started to make less and less sense. I was confused for the most part, but I’ll still share my reflections. The most interesting part about existential freedom, in my opinion, was learning the meanings behind their actions, and the sounds that they make in order to release the pressures and desperation, as well as to be relieved from the daily pains of humiliation and degradation. In one way, as he mentioned, their joy and their beliefs kept them from losing their sanity, and feeling completely hopeless. When I heard that they simply rejoice in the fact that they are alive, as much as it shows their resilience and gratitude, I can’t help but feel a bit upset. Life is a blessing, and we must all rejoice in the fact that we are alive, but that can’t be the only thing that we rejoice about. And, I can’t help but think that, during those very difficult times of slavery and segregation, their only source of joy was their existence.
On the topic of how Korean Christians and Afro-American Christians benefited from the church, I see many similarities. In the text, the author explained that Black people would mostly attend church, not only to find God, but more to gather so that they may share and expand their rich heritage. This is very alike to what Korean immigrants did when they first came to North America. Both groups found comfort in having a community, or perhaps, of having a refuge to escape the hardships of being part of a minority. The major difference between both groups is that one group expresses their feelings collectively with such painful yet hopeful emotions. On the other hand, us Koreans keep those pains to ourselves. This, as David mentioned, was probably because of years of being oppressed and colonized, and being stripped of our ways of expression. We’ve adopted very conservative ways, and we’ve lost our sense of uniqueness, unlike Afro-American Christians.
My last point brings me to the topic of how Black Christians viewed tragedy. The Greek version of tragedy involves accepting the fact that it happened, while being conscious of the intense suffering. It is simply,”the affirmation of the worthwhileness of life”, and that suffering is meaningful, and even noble in a sense. For the Black Christian Community, that definition is simply unacceptable as they focus less on total acceptance, but on resistance and opposition against those odds. They are a people who look forward, therefore, having been oppressed for many years, that mentality is degrading. What I thought was very interesting, was how they thought of tragedy, and suffering as a “stepping-stone to liberation”. I think that that kind of thinking should be relevant in how other oppressed groups act today as well.
P.S The last conception of freedom (eschatology) was the most difficult to understand but what I mostly got from it, was that they are oriented against suffering, and as much as they don’t reflect on it, they don’t distance from it either. They believe that their suffering may be overcome, with the help of divine forces (which I would assume is God).
Reading today’s reflection, I had trouble understanding certain parts of it because of words that I didn’t know or couldn’t understand using in a sentence, but there were multiple parts that interested me in. One part was where Cornel west mentions that america attempts to strip all black culture, religion and language and 4.5% african came to america and the rate was quadrupled due to the slavery industry. It’s surprising to imagine just a random group of people visiting your community and taking people like your friends or family to a new place and you may not be able to see them ever again. The thing is that this happened in Canada few years ago, couple foreign settlers came and made a city and developed a colony there and few years after that they started sending indigenious people to residential schools to try to erase all evidence of indigenious culture and language, it was a cultural genocide but luckly it was put to a stop before it was completely eradicated. Although it was stopped, it caused major damage, like the majority of our generation that are indigenious have lost their culture and language and the government doesn’t do much to help them regain their culture even though they are the ones who caused this problem.
Another thing that stood out to me was that it mentions “African-American Christianity” and how they made their Christian gospel appropriate to them. I thought that we Christians had the same belief and that there were dominations but didn’t know that there were types like “African-American Christianity” and now that I think about it, I don’t know much about Korean Christianity and the difference between these different types of Christianity. This confuses me because I don’t know if there is a pure “Christianity” and the difference between Korean Christianity and pure Christianity. Would my faith and perspectives of things be different if I were to be exposed to “African-American Christianity” rather than “Korean Christianity”?
As I read today’s text, I honestly struggled to fully grasp and understand all the ideas behind the philosophy of African-American Christianity. I often found myself googling all these words I’ve never seen before and having to reread sentences multiple times to slowly understand the meaning. However, one thing that I took away and never thought about was the roots of black Christinianty and the history of its culture. Whenever I used to think about black churches, I would think of the stereotypical hand-clapping gospel choir and the loud, booming and powerful voice of the minister stating messages of freedom and hope. I never realized that all of this stems from their long and painful history of oppression and their hope for freedom and equality. At first glance, this is heartbreaking; their faith is centred around so much desperation and pain. But as I think and reflect more, I see the beauty and power of their faith. In spite of their suffering and pain, they created their own beautiful form of ministry and used it as a way to connect their people and create a beautiful community. Instead of simply assimilating into the moderate and conservative form of Chrsitinity that white folks tried to pass down to them, they chose to embrace their traditional ties and created a more kinetic and lively worship.
When I think of myself and my heritage, I can only automatically draw parallels and similarities to the history of Korea. Although such a strong country today with a significant global presence, it’s history also has thousands of years of pain, oppression and suffering. Especially when I think of my grandparents and those who left Korea during those difficult times to start a new life, I can only imagine how this shaped their faith and their relationship with churches. Both cultures used the Church as a place of community; the Church was a safe environment where they could briefly experience that last connection they had to their home country. However in contrast to how the black community decided not to assimilate to the western style of Christianity, Koreans almost fully embraced it without many changes. I began to think and wonder why this was the case. As I reflected I thought about Koreans and our unique ability to adapt to our environments more easily than others, I think this is one reason why Korean immigrants all over the world are successful. As a nation who had been occupied for hundreds of years and then suddenly freed after a long and divisive war, we suddenly wanted to find peace and a place where we could succeed. When Koreans came to Canada they just wanted to work hard and create a comfortable life for their families. The best way to do this was to assimilate Western culture and simply become one with their communities. This caused Koreans to assimilate our form of Christianity based on Western roots and when I look at our Church today, especially the ESM, I can really see how that has affected us in so many ways.
Today’s reading was a pretty difficult read and I’m not sure if I fully grasped the entire message behind it. But, Sarah shared with me a metaphor she thought of when we were discussing this reading. It’s like losing weight: you have an end goal that you look towards, so you can still celebrate the little steps of progress you make but you’re not completely satisfied so you still struggle to reach that end goal. In the end, you don’t give up, because if you give up, you won’t reach that goal. When I think of it in these terms, I feel like we need to have this kind of outlook on life and with faith.
I’m amazed at how the African-Americans could creatively appropriate the Christian gospel and make it their own. They were able to find joy in their life despite the reality they faced and through this, they were able to develop patience and resilience. I find it interesting how they were able to celebrate what’s happening right now while still struggling, and look towards an attainable future of freedom. Even though a lot of their culture was stripped away, they were able to incorporate a lot of it into Christianity through how they worship (dancing, singing, crying, shouting), and it’s evident that their faith is deeply rooted in their culture and the pain they’ve been through.
In contrast, it’s also interesting to see how different our Korean Christian faith is. I don’t think we were able to appropriate the Christian gospel and fully make it our own. Our history and Korean culture isn’t as deeply rooted into our faith. So, something that I hope for is that we can live with this hope for what is to come, while still enjoying and persevering through the struggles we face.
After reading the assigned reading, I was immediately reminded of my time spent last year studying the roots of Korean-Christianity and how it has modified over the centuries. It is really interesting to see the similarities and differences between Korean-Christians, and African-American Christians. We are both people who have experienced great oppression over the years, and it made me wonder what Christianity is like for those who have not suffered under oppression. When we look at the bible, the israelites were oppressed and had to suffer for many years. The bible is full of stories of suffering and then healing, struggle and then overcoming that struggle. For those who have not experienced much suffering, how does their faith differ from those who have been oppressed? Is it possible for them to truly believe? When I look at people like Trump and pastors/churches that support him, it makes me question whether they are truly Christian or if they are merely using Christianity to fit their agenda.
The three dimensions of African-American Christianity were very confusing at first, but after our discussion I think I have a better understanding. It seems like all three have a unique balance with each other, where it would not really make sense if one of the three were missing. It is very interesting to me how Cornel West has identified these dimensions and how they play into each other.
The existential dimension does not seem sustainable without the other two dimensions. Without the social and cultural solidarity with one another, as well as the hope of things getting better in the future, I find it hard to believe that one could get by the tremendous suffering they have undergone by simply celebrating human existence by dancing and singing. Without the social and eschatological dimensions, even their very existence being a joy could be questioned. Is it worth living a life of suffering? Especially while feeling alone and with no light at the end of the tunnel.
In a similar way, the social dimension could not exist without the existential and eschatological dimensions. It is through God that the African-American peoples could have a place of their own, without interference of the white man. As I learned in the discussion, the church was one of the few places African-Americans could maintain their sense of cultural identity. The celebration of human existence through existentialism, and the hope of the future in eschatologicalism and Christ gave the African-Americans a reason and a place to gather together and maintain cultural solidarity.
Eschatologicalism is the main reason that allows the other two dimensions to exist, and yet it also needs the other two for itself to be sustainable. Without the release of pressures and desperation of existentialism, and the culture and community the social dimension provides, it would be tough to keep up the hope of the future without the joys of the present. I think it is near impossible to suffer your whole existence and be content with that for the sole reason of having hope in the future. While this may be possible, it would be very difficult for many.
When I look at the history of Korean-Christianity, I wonder about the role and function of the church in Korean society. It feels like much of Korean culture and identity has been lost quickly after the industrialization of Korea. I don’t really know much about Korean culture, but the only thing that really comes to my mind is the hanbok. Surely there must be more to Korean culture than that? When I look at other cultures of the world, there are so many interesting differences which make that culture unique. However, when I look at Korea and its culture in recent times, the things that come to mind are K-pop, excelling at certain sports/video games, and dramas. Much of these are not really from Korean origin, mainly imitating the culture of the United States and other countries. What has caused Korea to imitate the success of other countries?
Looking at how different Korean Christianity and Afro-American Christianity are, I wonder why they are so drastically different. After hearing what Simon said, it seems like Korean people came out of oppression meeker while Black people came out of it stronger and ready to fight and struggle, and it shows in our religion and every day expression. I wonder if Korean culture being a collectivist culture could have influenced the need to belong and for everyone to express themselves in the same way. The text we read mentioned how singing, dancing, and moaning was something that was unique to each individual, and helped them feel a sense of ‘somebodiness’, which was essential because they were denied humanity outside of church. I imagine that this lack of ‘somebodiess’ was also present for Korean people, but instead did we turn to denying our individuality? I guess I viewed Korean culture as trying to be perfect in order to be successful, such as the pressure to get perfect grades. However, I now realize that a lot of other things have to be perfect that don’t directly affect success such as looking perfect, and having a perfect image. I think it stops people from being vulnerable or being different. Did our desire to be perfect stop us from appropriating Christianity in our own way? Did we need it to be exactly as we saw? I wonder where this need for things to be perfect comes from, and I wonder why it’s so different than how the Black Christians came to see things. I don’t think I ever thought of end times as something I would influence or be a part of. It actually seems very far away, almost unimaginable and unattainable. However, Afro-American Christianity was able to envision what they thought would come in the future, and they fought to work towards that as something they were a part of, something they could affect.
I find it amazing that they could think this way, even though their whole lives would be filled with suffering, and they probably knew that. I think this kind of mindset is what was missing, and why I felt so discouraged before when we reflected on current issues. I was only focused on what would probably not happen right now, and what little progress we have really made and I didn’t see how I could contribute to change. But complete change won’t have to come during my lifetime. One day, maybe there can be justice and equality, but it won’t happen if we all just sit on our butts and focus on how little we can do. I hope that I can keep that kind of mindset even as events unfold and other bad things might happen.
When I read the text, it was really hard to understand and grasp what was being said. There were a lot of words and concepts that I didn’t understand and still don’t fully understand. When I finished reading the text, a couple things stood out. The first was that Afro-Americans were able to take Christianity and make it their own to get through all their suffering. They needed the church to stay sane and used the opportunity to “expand together the rich heritage they have received.” I think it is especially great how they used their music as an expression of lament and hope instead of self-pity and self-hatred. I think it’s amazing how they were all engaged in the music and how they used it to feel like “somebodies” in a world where they were oppressed. Their music was an outlet for their pressure and desperation and even allowed them to bond in solidarity. I admire the African American Chirstian community for being able to express themselves freely and be engaged in worship. Nowadays, not as many people are actively engaged in worship. I think it’s hard for people to open up and not be as disconnected. Maybe people are fearful of being vulnerable and exposing too much, but it’s hard to be connected to people without opening up. Whatever the reason, I feel as though worship is not together as it was described. Even when we sing praise in church together and I can actually hear other people singing, it’s really uplifting, so I wonder what a worship service would be like where everybody participated and engaged.
I still don’t understand what the existential and eschatological concepts mean. I think it relates to the present and the end.
The other thing that stuck out in the text was how the author described suffering. He described it as a step-stone to liberation, but liberation doesn’t fully remove the suffering. Suffering was described as something that must be resisted. This was interesting because usually I think of suffering as something that you have to fight and struggle through.
It is truly admirable, the strength and perseverance that black people have lived with and continue to pass down from generation to generation. Their Christianity reflects how much passion they have in life, which seems to be a very stark contrast from the passive existence of us Korean Christians. Their existential freedom and the way they preach and worship said to me, “Here I am. Alive.” And they celebrated their existence through expression, using this as a way to embrace their pain and put it all into their actions. First, I thought of how different their worship is from ours – we tend to be very subdued and conservative with our expression, mostly clapping along to praise songs with a few of us singing, and listening silently to whoever is speaking. The image of black people praising during service is so vibrant and expressive compared to this that we seem much more dull and almost uninterested. After, I thought about what David said about how he couldn’t imagine being able to celebrate his existence if he were in their shoes and going through the same experiences. I agreed with this, I genuinely believe I wouldn’t be strong enough to be able to celebrate and find joy in such a position. But their ability to do this relies on the other aspects of their belief: social and eschatological freedom. I don’t think that black Christians would be able to endure everything if they were missing any aspect of their freedom.
I don’t really know what to think in response towards learning about their culture and also about our culture. How could we Korean Christians appropriate and develop our own Christian faith? Is it possible? Is it too late? I don’t know.
One part of the study that still stands out to me is the sentence that states their perspective of eschatological freedom “precludes political disillusionment and its product, misanthropic nihilism.” In this one sentence, I can really see the difference between their faith and my own. I just can’t comprehend being able to do this. They don’t put any blame towards the people who are causing them pain and suffering and do not dwell on this, but instead focus on how there will be triumph in the end through divine intervention. I feel like I would only get lost in the present and see anything that happens to me on a personal level. Even now, I get angered with the way things are and I always question why the world is the way it is, why people are the way they are, why can’t people be more loving and less selfish, etc. to the point that I wonder if I’m almost misanthropic. When I study global issues or read articles about different problems, I feel disappointed and question how people could consciously partake whatever I was reading about, I question what God is doing or feeling about this. I think I was shocked to read that black Christians were able to do the total opposite from me.
This is a post in a series of reflections for the Black Lives Matter movement. To read other reflections, please go to the Black Lives Matter page.