The Ground Has Shifted

The Future of the Black Church in Post-Racial America

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Walter Earl Fluker
  • New York, NY: 
    New York University Press
    , November
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $35.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781479810383.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In this volume, Walter Earl Fluker offers a profound and prophetic analysis of the Black Church, the rhetoric of post-racialism, and the invariable dilemma of racism in the shifting socio-politico-cultural dynamics of 21st century America. Fluker blends together theory, Black American history, the prophetic tradition of the Black Church, and the current exiling of black youth with undeniable literary artistry and the poignancy of his own personal testimony. In three movements of memory, vision, and mission, Fluker advocates for a new prophetic calling of the Black Church, which requires a dialogue between theologians and church leaders, a death to broken metaphors, and a resurrection to a global perspective that also heeds to the current needs of the marginalized black youth. “[T]he kind of rethinking that we must do involves nothing less than a revolution of values and priorities—that is, a critique of black churchly and theological cultures and of the ecclesiastical and academic practices of transacting and bargaining in the basements of globalized capital while so many people perish from lack of basic life needs like food, education, natural environmental resources, safety and health” (179).

Yet, amidst undeniable virtues, Fluker presents some fundamental difficulties, which remain unresolved throughout the volume. First, it is decidedly unclear what might be the actual aim of this new prophetic direction for the Black Church. If the pursuit of social justice and equality, that is, the Promised Land from the previous metaphor of Exodus, is a “ghost” of the past (chap. 5) now defunct, what actually replaces the Promised Land? Presumably, for Fluker, “home” of the Promised Land is an elusive pipe dream. But “home” in the refreshed metaphor of Exile is identity in the struggle: “Home has to do with remembering, retelling, and reliving our stories in the quest for a sense of wholeness with ourselves (identity), others, and throughout creation that returns us to the struggle with humility, gratitude, and a scent of holiness upon us” (110). Undeniably, the struggle for true justice and equality is perennial and as long as we live and breathe—sin affects all (Rom. 3:10-18). Still, can an enduring and fortifying identity be situated only in the struggle or journey without a clear vision of the destination? Does not the vision of reconciliation inaugurated, but not yet consummated, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-22) provide both an immutable identity as co-heirs (Rom. 8:17; Eph. 3:6) and inexhaustible strength for resistance against oppression?

In coherence, the book’s second detraction is the near absence of attention to the subject of reconciliation. The problem of race in America and elsewhere cannot be effectively addressed without a dialogue with the other races, including whites. Notably, the “Other” for Fluker includes the “young and the restless,” the sexually marginalized (LGBTQIA), and African nations (135ff.; 177). Fluker, at no point, includes Asians, Hispanics, Native Americans, or even the sidelined whites (cf. Hillbilly Elegy). If the Church, regardless of ethnicity, is the epicenter for authentic reconciliation for both vertical and horizontal dimensions, should not the prophetic call to Black Churches signify reconciliation for all races? In failing to address comprehensive reconciliation, Fluker’s call to Black Churches to embrace a global vision points forward to a solution, and simultaneously confines the relevance of that prophetic voice for a truly global impact. Why not stand on the permanency of scripture and its proclamation for equally unshakeable reconciliation to expose prophetically the historic and present subterfuge of racist Christianity on all sides and its idolatry of money and power? Why not take up the divinely authorized mantle of scriptural tradition and call for repentance and restoration for all? Why relinquish such power, subjectivity, and agency to what has been and continues to be a distorted if not mangled representation of scripture in white Christianity? Why restrain this truly global prophetic calling for the Black Church? Why not capitalize on the truth that election in scripture is a call to exilic life (Heb. 11; 1 Pet. 1:1, 2:11) to give the lie to that great falsehood that white Christianity has somehow arrived in the Promised Land in America? In the exchange for earthly/worldly comfort, security, and power, collective Christianity has shamelessly mangled the Gospel truth and forfeited its heavenly/eternal inheritance (1 Pet. 1:3-25), which necessarily requires embodied testimony to the crucified Christ (1 Pet. 2:21; cf. Mk. 8:34-38).

Finally, the entire volume ultimately wrestles with the historic, present, and future identity of Black Americans. Fluker boldly calls the Black community to confront the various racial “ghosts” which continue to haunt American society: “It is manifest in the continuing challenges of income inequality, food deserts, incarcerated populations of black and poor youth, inequitable educational policies, public health disparities, and other signs that portray the ghost’s resilience and indirectness” (58). Indeed, for Fluker, confronting and conquering these ghosts will ultimately mean taking control of the spurious narrative of Black people, especially Black men, as “dangerous madmen, monkey men, and monsters” (209) through a strategy which fosters “character, civility, and community” (237). In such a way, Fluker himself prophetically cries out for self-examination and transformation within the Black community apart from sacrificing the necessary resistance against continuing oppression without. The long-awaited call to control the narrative through subjectivity and agency for Black Americans is nothing less than a critical “turning.” Yet, that ghostly narrative cannot be effectively eradicated as long as that narrative remains within the ethnocentric parameter; it must necessarily confront the terrain of other races in not only resistance, but reconciliation as well. Is there space where being Black in the multi-racial community is not betrayal of the past nor collusion in current racism? Can the Black Church epitomize its history paid in blood and freedom from the insanity of racism by representing all races? Fluker’s prophetic tenor cannot be denied, but it falls short of the true radical revision and reformation the Black Church already has by divine authority in scripture.

About the Reviewer(s): 

M. Sydney Park is Associate Professor of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Walter Earl Fluker is the Martin Luther King, Jr. Professor of Ethical Leadership, the editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, and the Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Initiative for the Development of Ethical Leadership (MLK-IDEAL) at Boston University School of Theology and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.

Keywords: 

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