Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sermon: "African Contributions to American Religion" (Delivered 2-3-08)

The reading this morning comes from a book entitled Black Preaching by Henry Mitchell. In the Black church tradition to have never heard of Henry Mitchell is like being a Catholic who has never heard about the Pope or being a Protestant who has never heard of Billy Graham.

In Divinity School I took a class under the same title: Black Preaching. I was one of two white students in the class. It was fascinating. One day, Dr. Mitchell just sort of showed up in the class. Our professor, Bishop Bobby Franklin, stepped aside cordially and Dr. Mitchell presided for hours. We all sat in rapt attention and remained long after the class was supposed to end. Besides being one of the finest preachers in the world, Dr. Mitchell is also a distinguished academic.

The reading comes from the first chapter of his book on Black Preaching:
“Culture is the accumulation over time of all the wisdom and methods of a given cultural group… Each group has a menu of acceptable foods, a collection of proper hairstyles and attire, a way to greet people, ways to sing music and tell stories, and ways to build homes and rear children. In addition to language, and included in the language, is a way to view the world – a belief system….

“There have been widespread rumors that African Americans were fully stripped of their culture by the middle passage and the breaking-in process to which slaves were subjected, but this belief is rightfully dying out. Too much evidence affirming the contrary is visible to the eye of the American Black who goes to West Africa… If American Blacks sound remarkably like some traditional Africans in worship, it is only natural. Slave bosses could change the length of the hoes and the manner of cultivating crops, but they could not change how the slaves believed. Nor how they prayed and sang at night in their cabins, or in unlawful gatherings in brush arbors and the like.

“The great strength of Black Christianity today, therefore, is not due to any great missionary activity, but to independent, clandestine meetings which adopted their African Traditional Religion into a profoundly creative and authentically Christian faith. [It] has the tremendous momentum of a faith deeply embedded in the culture.”

[Since I preached this sermon, on Super Bowl Sunday, I couldn’t help but begin with a digression…]

I don’t have many bad habits, but one of them is that I am a frequent listener to Sports Talk Radio. I am especially partial to the programs with the most screaming and shouting and ranting. The king of this format is a guy named Jim Rome. He is actually far more interesting for his cadence, tonality, and speech patterns than for the content of his thought.

So, this past week I was listening to Jim Rome interview a football player named Chad Johnson who plays for the Cincinnati Bengals and is one of sports’ most outlandish personalities. Johnson’s new nickname is “Ocho Cinco,” a linguistically incorrect reference to his jersey number 85. The interview begins and Chad Johnson starts speaking Spanish. Jim Rome answers in Spanish and they spend the first minute or two of the interview conversing with each other in Spanish, albeit poorly. Later, I reflected on how odd this was. An African-American football player and a white radio host carrying on a conversation in Spanish.

Our Super Bowl experience is instructive about some of the points I want to make about culture this morning. If you eat popular game-watching foods, you will be participating in cultural mixing. Pizza, I would argue, is neither authentically Italian nor authentically American. It is a result of the meeting of traditions. Nachos are neither authentically Mexican nor authentically American. They are “Tex-Mex” – they occur at the intersection of cultures. So, unless you are like my white friend who always eats a Vietnamese noodle-dish called “Pho” while she watches the Super Bowl, you are likely to eat a dish that is Mexican-Texan, Italian-American, or some poor American knock-off on two things Germans do better: pretzels and beer.

February is African-American history month and I decided in honor of this fact that I would devote a sermon to speaking on how African religious traditions have impacted the religious landscape in the United States. A huge subject to explore in twenty odd minutes, especially when I waste the first few minutes blabbering about the Super Bowl.

Saying “African Religion” is a bit like saying “American Music.” John Philip Sousa is American music, but so is Willie Nelson, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, Eddie Vedder, Kurt Cobain, and Philip Glass. African religion includes ancient forms of Christianity developed in Egypt and Ethiopia. Athanasius, the most instrumental of the early church fathers in formulating the doctrine of the Trinity, was born in Alexandria. Saint Augustine was born in Africa.

Africa was also a cradle for the development of Islam. Seven hundred years before Harvard was founded and two hundred years before Oxford, the Islamic University in Timbuktu in modern-day Mali was perhaps the world’s greatest intellectual center. And then there is the enormous variety of native religious traditions including ancestor worship, animism, cattle worship, shamanism, and similar practices of the widest variety imaginable.

When European slave ships brought West African slaves to the Caribbean and the American South, they brought Christians, Muslims, and practitioners of African tribal religions. Sometimes, these tribal religions blended with Catholicism to create fascinating hybrid practices like Santeria and Voodoo. Other times, a particular aspect of African tribal theology enhanced religion in the Americas.

Let me give a couple of examples: Some religious traditions from West Africa have a concept called Nommo. Nommo means word or name, but it also has to do with the power of naming and the power of the spoken word. Nommo is the concept that helps to explain the power and style of traditional black preaching and oratory, including tonality, also known as “whooping.”

(In my experience taking that course on Black Preaching I must say the whooping was sort of the Holy Grail, the style and talent that every member of the class aspired to. Whooping held a magical aura and appeal. Whooping refers to that moment in black preaching when one ceases to speak and instead tones the words. [Click here for an example.] Whooping fascinated everyone. Someone would mention a preacher and someone would say, “Well, does she whoop?” I was once asked, “Thom, do Unitarians whoop?” I replied, “Man, I don’t even know what that is.”

Nommo is the theological basis for styles of African American oratory and preaching, but how does it play out in the world? One way is in the emphasis on names and naming. In slavery, slaves were forced to abandon even their own names and adopt the names of the masters. Malcolm X took the last name “X” to signify his African name which had been stolen from him. When African Americans began to covert to Islam, naming had just as much power. Cassius Clay and Lew Alcindor became Muhammad Ali and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar respectively. It may be a little bit abstract to think about this theology of naming, so let me share a bit about another African theological concept.

This next one is a bit timely, because Obama’s first name is a variation on the word. The word is Barakah. The word Barakah originated as an Islamic term but was then translated into Swahili. It is also similar to the Hebrew word Baruch, meaning "blessing." Loosely, the term means “wisdom,” but means something different than how we would use the term. (I learned about this from my colleague Rob Eller-Isaacs, who I paraphrase in the rest of this paragraph.) Barakah can refer both to people as well as to inanimate objects. For example, a wooden spoon that has been passed down through the generations of a family acquires Barakah. A musical instrument, expertly played, acquires Barakah. The term has to do with a quality of holiness and power that can dwell within the material world. What in your life has Barakah? How does this term make you rethink the value of the things in your life?

Finally, I might say just a few words about how African American biblical interpretation has shaped American religion. Probably the most powerful way has been in how we interpret the story of Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. How we understand that story is severely influenced by the experience of slavery and racial prejudice in the United States and Apartheid in South Africa. How we understand Exodus and other passages in the Bible that have to do with freedom are deeply shaped by our Nation’s history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights movement. We read the Bible in terms of our Nation’s deeply-mixed history of freedom and bondage.

Let’s review just a little bit here: As part of African American History Month, we’ve taken just the shortest of glimpses at the tremendously diversity of African religious expression – Christian, Islamic, and tribal – and also come to understand that theological aspects of these traditions survived the middle passage and the efforts by slave masters to stamp out those traditions. We’ve focused on two concepts from African theology: Nommo, or the power associated with the spoken and names, and Barakah, or the wisdom that can take root in animate and inanimate objects within the material world. We have also given just a brief example of how African American history has the power to shape how the Bible is read and understood. Over-arching all the things we have learned this morning has been this idea that cultures are not so much fixed as in flux, not so much bounded but dynamic, drawing in elements and ideas from wherever they might come. Just ask “Ocho Cinco” or take a look at what you are eating during the Super Bowl.

Well, I hope I have given you plenty of mental stimulation this morning. I hope you learned something and can take away with you more understanding and more knowledge than you came with. I hope that I’ve been a bit thought-provoking. I leave you with these words of imagination:

Imagine standing on the coast, standing there right next to the water, and gazing West across the Atlantic Ocean. Yes, I said West across the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe you are standing in Senegal, Liberia, Sierra Leone. The sun rises behind you shooting its rays towards the West, lighting the way to what was once called the new world. A great nation of incredible power sits on the other side of the great ocean.

Generations ago, your ancestors were held captive, shackled on this beach, awaiting the slave ships that would bring them to the sugarcane plantations of the Caribbean and the cotton farms of the deep South.

You stand there now holding sorrow and reverence for these ancestors who would be made to face death and disease, dehumanization, rape, whippings and lynchings, economic exploitation, cultural exploitation, despair, and all of the sleights and humiliations of institutional racism. You stand there and you observe the variety of strategies your ancestors and their descendents created in order to maintain their humanity and dignity. You remember worship in the brush arbors, songs in the fields, and fomented insurrection. You remember political movements: the movement to re-colonize Africa and the founding of Liberia, the talented tenth of DuBois, Black separatist movements, the creation of new linguistic forms – jive and ebonics.

To mind also comes those moments that are not steeped in sadness and bitterness. Jesse Owens single-handedly proving the notion of racial superiority absurd; the creativity of the Harlem Renaissance; the tenacity of the boxer Jack Johnson; the wisdom of Thurgood Marshall; King, X, Booker T. Washington, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman. Plus, all of those names only known in the oral histories of communities, churches, families. In addition, those millions of lives not remembered, names erased by history. So many X’s. This is Nommo by the way, the power of the spoken word and the spoken name. And, just as a wooden spoon passed down from grandmother to granddaughter acquires Baraka, just as a blues guitar has Baraka, so too do we acquire Baraka in our expanding wisdom and our expanding understanding of the history on this side of the Atlantic. In doing our moral duty to learn the history of our nation, our city, our community.