Saturday, May 19, 2007
Religious Education in an African-American Context
(The class members on the last day of class having survived and yes, even thrived in our semester course entitled, Religious Education in a Multicultural Context - from left to right Renee, Qiyamah, Dr. Julia Speller, Lynn, Jade and Francisco)
By Their Fruits Shall You Know Them: Religious Education in an African-American Contextby Qiyamah A. Rahman
April 26, 2007
The following essay identifies and discusses the social, psychological, biblical and theological foundations of Religious Education (RE) in an African-American context. The researcher offers a cautionary note that African-Americans, like any other ethnic group are not a monolithic group and thus these models and comments do not presume to apply to all African Americans.
The initial presence of Africans in the early settlement of what is now known as the United States of North America, Central America, West Indies and South America is the result of Africans capture and forced relocation. Slave ships brought Africans to the western hemisphere via the Atlantic middle passage to the Caribbean where they were “seasoned”, that is, made manageable, and then re-exported and subsequently sold on auction blocks and purchased by white southern plantation owners. The forced breeding of slaves for economic purposes resulted in racially mixed ancestry among most Blacks that is evident today.
Characteristics of African Americans - Social and Psychological Foundations
As stated, African-Americans are not a monolithic group, however they do share some general characteristics as a culturally distinct group bound by ideological unity and a functional system of values and beliefs. A definition of African American in its broadest sense is anyone of African heritage whose ancestry is linked to Africa and self identifies as an African American. Race according to Exum, et. al. is a central factor in most African American’s lives and it is the lens through which they view the world and through which they are most often viewed in race conscious society’s such as the United States of America. One is struck by the resiliency that African-Americans have demonstrated despite enormous assaults on their humanity. Franz Fanon, noted Algerian psychologist, in describing similar patterns of oppression exacted by the French refers to these racist assaults as “psychological warfare” and the resulting deleterious effects as “mental disorders” that included social and economic deprivation. Many African Americans have never the less remained resilient and have clung to their cultural heritage. Exum ‘s research findings substantiate this claim that the core elements of African American culture and their African antecedents still persist. Some of the survival qualities evidenced in African Americans include: endurance, drive, determination, rebelliousness, and the ability to tolerate pressure. Common values taught in African American families include collective responsibilities and interests; emphasis on harmony and helping and sharing. A.A. Hilliard pioneered research on North American culture in which he identified two distinct behavioral styles: atomistic-objective and synthetic-personal. The atomistic-objective style breaks down experiences into component parts that can be understood. This approach perceives the observer as separate from the phenomena being observed. European Americans tend to favor this approach reflecting permanence, regularity, predictability and environmental control. According to Exum, et.al., the atomistic-object behavioral styles is similar in form and operation to the analytic-cognitive style described by another researcher, J.E. Hale-Benson. The majority of African-American’s appear more compatible with synthetic-personal and relational-cognitive style that reflect many of the trends indicative of African American behavioral patterns. African- American fundamental cultural and philosophical premises are derived from their West African heritage and include some of the following: 1) oral transmission of knowledge, 2) emphasis on the group rather than the individual; 3) experiential rather than numerical time; 4) use of folklore; 4) adult-child relationships; 6) strong sense of justice and 7) hospitality.
An examination of African-American ontology includes: 1) notions of interrelationship between all elements of the universe; 2) a synthesis of self, phenomenal world and spiritual world; and 3) less emphasis on individual and personal competition and more on community. A review of the African American worldview reflects the following: 1) preference to respond to and with “gestalts” than with atomistic “things; 2) impatience with unnecessary specifics; 3) preference for inferential reasoning to deductive reasoning; 4) approximations over accuracy in minute detail; 5) focus on people and their activities rather than on things; 6) seek acceptance and integration with the environment; 7) tend not to be world bound or time bound; 8) emphasis on non-verbal communications and 9) value style of presentation more highly than content.
Theological and Biblical Foundations
Religion and the African-American church have been pivotal institutions in the African-American community. The purpose of RE is to help African-Americans interpret their faith in light of their experiences of American racism and their status as relational refugees. Thus, RE serves as a vehicle to find hope and liberation in the midst of a hostile environment and to answer questions such as, “what does it mean to be Black ad Christian/Jewish/Muslim/Unitarian Universalist etc. where people are hostile in the larger society and also while claiming allegiance to a shared faith tradition. Additionally, the role of the Black church includes the following values: 1) transmission of traditional values of piety, love, compassion, hospitality and inclusivity; 2) strengthening family ties, 3) the belief that everyone is a child of God and 4) no one is a unredeemable or a bad person. The role of African-American ministers in the civil rights movement is well documented. Historically, African-American ministers served as teachers, counselors and political activists. Thus, to summarize the purpose RE in the Christian of African Americans is to teach members that God loves and cares for them and has entered into covenant with them as children of God. Thus to be Gods Child is to be of value and an affirmation of ones humanity.
African-American religious beliefs run the gamut from Christianity to Islam. However, the majority of African Americans are Christians. Religious practices contain elements of African spirituality, including the belief in the “direct link between the natural and supernatural, significance of music to invoke the supernatural, importance of human intervention in supernatural world through possession and spiritual control and importance of participatory verbal performance.” Food is a central focus and the source of community and connectedness and an important form of hospitality in the African American community. African Americans, particularly southerners and so called third world people similarly have a strong sense of hospitality and heartily welcome the stranger in their midst and exemplify a sharing spirit regardless of the paucity of their resources.
Religious Education Implications as Informed by Biblical and Theological Foundations
Spirituality is an important dimension in African-Americans lives as has been noted. It has been shown that spirituality is the engine that fuels and drives the well being of most African Americans. Organized religion serves as a mediating structure according to Wimberly. It is a mediating structure that stands between the individual and the larger institutions of the public sphere. Everyday new information is reported that draws the connections between spirituality and a positive outlook in life and a strong immune system. This positive outlook contributes to a sense of hope and a balanced mental health/state of being. Because of strong religious roots, African-American RE, adult’s or children’s, usually reflects a narrative spirituality informed by stories from the Old and New Testament. This approach is particularly effective in teaching about lifecycle transitions and conveying values. Some dominant Biblical narratives that have assisted African-American Christians include: stories of the Exodus, experiences in the wilderness and Jesus’s life, death and resurrection. Other faith narratives such as the story of Job, Abraham’s faithfulness and Ruth’s loyalty have inspired generations of African-American Christians. Likewise, tapping into the passing down of family stories, images and values from one generation to the next permits a continuity and reinforcement of cross generational roles and maintains connections across generations. African American women have developed a particular affinity to Hagar and her story as told in Genesis. Hagar was a slave that was given to Abraham when his wife Sarah could not conceive a child. Ill feelings between the two of them resulted in Hagar running away into the desert where in a state of hunger, thirst and despair the angel of the Lord spoke to her and revealed a divine plan for her life. Hagar returned, bore a son named Ishmael.
According to Wimberly, the elders are responsible for ensuring that the next generation has what it needs to negotiate its life-cycle tasks and to build meaningful life structures. Yet, at the same time, societal changes have increased the separation of family members from their relational roots, thus resulting in nihilism and meaninglessness. Children, youth and young adults today are negatively impacted by these changes as their parents loose their familial support systems and informal networks that often include college friends and other long time friends. Such changes weaken the family structure and make adult and children more vulnerable than previous generations. Spirituality and relational support enable African American families to deal better with life in general and specifically marital and family transitions. Furthermore, networks of support for identity formation are important countervailing forces that support wholeness in an unfriendly world.
African American cultural norms begin with the belief that they and all of humanity are part of God’s eschotological family. Wimberly contends that religious life is very important to African-Americans for the following reasons: 1) it provides the language and symbols that integrate the life of the people 2) human beings are viewed as spiritual and religious beings who interact and participate in community where central values are to be celebrated 3) the role of communal stories and biblical stories is critical in the growth and development of persons and 4) ritual is significant because it is fundamental to the communal life of the people.
The ability of the Christian faith to help African-Americans interpret their faith in light of their experiences of American racism in a hostile environment has been foundational to RE in the Black church. Thus, effective RE has to acknowledge the psychological, sociological and theological implications of their historically marginalized status and a sense of hope for the future. According to Wilkerson, RE in an African-American context is characterized by three dimensions: 1) identity formation, 2) relationship and 3) social context. The identity component provides alternative constructs for self and group location in a hostile environment. To be God’s child is to be of value and thus an affirmation of ones humanity. Examples of this component in RE is evident in emphasizing the worth and value of individuals and God’s love for humanity. Jesus the liberator was one of the initial attractions to African slaves and it appears that the liberatory grace of the bible has not dimensioned over time.
Again, it cannot be emphasized enough that in the African American community the relationship component is inherent in the culture. Everything is relational, including ones relationship with God. The existence of community is thus relational and based on a personal contact with its members. Thus, role models, that is, teachers and mentors as encouraged as extended and surrogate family essential to deliver the foundational faith to its members, particularly the children. The church’s role to call African American’s to spiritual wholeness and to the family of humanity is based on the kinship of all people and constitutes an essential message in the gospel.
An exploration of the social, psychological, biblical and theological foundations of Religious Education (RE) among African-Americans revealed that effective RE has to acknowledge the psychological, sociological and theological implications of African Americans historically marginalized status. Thus, an essential element of RE is to help African Americans interpret their faith in light of the experiences with racism, and we might add, sexism, classism, heterosexism, ageism, globalism, internalized oppression and any –isms that threaten the recognition of the sacredness and value of African Americans as people of God. A spiritual cosmology and experiences of adversity have generated values that include faith and resilience. The African American culture of hospitality, mutuality and compassion are transmitted through RE along with other biblically inspired messages of faith, hope, love and community to name a few. It appears that the universal nature of these themes would be justified and relevant whether the congregation in question is a culturally specific congregation of African Americans or a culturally diverse one comprised of African Americans and other racial and cultural groups. Thus, because cultural formation and identity is such a crucial part of healthy human development it would be equally important to provide opportunities for African American members to sustain and reclaim their cultural identity utilizing RE. Inspired by the role of the Black church in the lives of African Americans this researcher poses a final question, “How can the church/synagogue/temple/house of God continue to be faithful to itself and others in a world of injustice and oppression, so that the gospel of hope and renewal prevails?”