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Book Review: Unfinished Business: Black Women, the Black Church, and the Struggle to Thrive in America by Keri Day. Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY, 2012.
I would like to thank Orbis Books for sending me a review copy of this book. In the first part of this book review, I offer a brief summary of Day’s work. I don’t want to give to many spoilers away, just enough for the audience to want to read more as I highly recommend this text. In the second part of my review, I would like to offer a brief theological proposal as it pertains to transcendence, economics, and ecclesiology.
When I first met Dr. Day, it was at the student interview. Brite Divinity School was searching for a Black Church Studies professor and ethicist, and I had concerns about an assortment of economic justice issues in the Fort Worth area, and yes, even the Texas Christian University community. After Day gave her presentation, we the students were allowed to have an question and answer time. I asked Dr. Day what were her thoughts on the prosperity gospel. Although I do not recall her answer at that time, I would like to believe that this book, Unfinished Business is an answer to my inquiry. Day introduces her project by defining terms such as Black Church; in this case, Black Church means the activity of Black churches in the United States (3). Right away, I think that this definition establishes an inclusive ecclesiology and history. Rather than strictly defining Black Church/Black Church traditions as monolithic or as only those denominations established by African Americans, one could include in Day’s definition of Black Church, the number black churches within predominantly white denominations. Keri Day questions historians in their view that the Black church has always served as a prophetic witness (Chapter 1), and whether it is a Wilderness Experience or Surrogate world, Day argues these terms have been over-utilized when discussing Black Church. Whether we are talking about radicals like Adam Clayton Powell or Dr. Rev. MLK Jr. or the Reverend Jesse Jackson, at the forefront of civil and economic rights struggles have been the progressive strain of Black Baptist tradition. I wonder if there is something theological here, that makes Black Baptist both the most radical and possibly regressive (when it comes to women’s ordination especially) more adaptable to political activism. I’ll give you a hint: the Free Church tradition!
I like the term that Day uses for the Black Church, as a community of transcendence. While I will talk further about the theological implications of this notion, the way that Day and Victor Anderson understand transcendence, as seeing ultimate value in the world, being open to this value, and rejecting Ayn Rand selfishness in order to work for the good of others (28). While this use of transcendence does allow for womanist and liberationist theologians to be open to the experiences of others outside of the church, the use of the term “church” itself is exclusive to the Christian experience. Transcendence, in this light however, can be very helpful in discussing the Church’s relationship with the World, other social institutions that are non-confessional but that have become spaces for poor black women to use their agency.
In the second chapter, Day gives an overview of the history of Faith-Based initiatives and arguments for and against charitable choice programs/FBIs when it comes to public policy. As a strict church/state separationist, I find the Faith-Based Initiative whether it is ran by President Bush or Obama to be offensive and more likely a bribe from the state to religious institutions to silence them. Day is right that the danger of the Faith-Based Initiatives lies in the promotion of neoliberal values as absolute, without any challenge or critique. I think that’s the danger in charitable choice/FBIs in the first place; since the state and the economy are tied together since there has not been, as Optimistic Chad noted months ago, a separation of corporation from state, CC/FBIs silence criticisms of both the government as well as the economy.
My favorite chapter was chapter 3, which included a critique of Dinesh D’Souza. Day recognizes that D’Souza is an example of how free market values get racialized into racial social Darwinism, that the poor black people are this way because their culture is naturally inferior (page 52-53). Ronald Reagan’s attack against black welfare queens was a purely racially ideological move; it is ideological because it goes against all logic, and the facts. Whites have had the most benefits from social programs. Especially during legal segregation and the New Deal, whites received their Social Security checks on the backs of poor blacks. Day also ends her criticisms by exposing the new Jane Crow, how the state invests money in imprisoning black women (page 79-80). I was also shocked to learn that some states are going out of their way to link forced sterilization of black women with welfare policy (81-82). In the culture wars, social conservatives are the ones who oppose sex education classes in public schools and they are the ones who want cut backs in welfare. When it comes to race, however, commitment to whiteness, neoliberal values and advanced capitalism are to be preferred over pro-birth/anti-sex ed religious commitments.
Keri Day’s constructive proposal is found in the last three chapters. She has a discussion on the Poor People’s Campaign (its history and its failures in terms of gender inclusion), a discussion on redefining the prosperity gospel informed by the womanist principle of wholeness, and lastly an informed chapter on asset-building for the impoverished here in the U.S.
Overall, I would recommend this text for academic and church audiences.
A Brief Theological Proposal On Ecclesiology
I would like to return to the idea of Black Church as a Community Of Transcendence. The conversation about the “Woman Thou Art Loosed” portion of Bishop T.D. Jakes’ ministry gave me a lot to think about. To be honest, I actually felt convicted since I see it has highly problematic, but given the state of the world, where Don Imus can be a racist/sexist bigot and still have his own tv show on Fox Business, there are some benefits to the idea of women seeing themselves as “God’s leading ladies.” However, this is only a short-term solution to the long enduring problem of racism and sexism in America. What may need to happen is that the Black Church see itself as being in the Image of the Triune God, a Community of Transcendence initiated by a God who is Infinite, Incomprehensible, and at the same time Incarnation. The Black Church must resist things like racial stereotype of being the large group of angry black men (“prophetic”) and the Faith Based Initiative because that means others have defined our role in the world. The Black Church should be the community of the “I Am Somebodies”; for the Black Church, as it is for the Church Universal, it is YHWH the Redeemer and Liberator who sends Christ to give us meaning in the world.