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I Won’t Say Amen: Three Black Christian Clichés That Must Go

In a Black Christian worship experience, you are both expected and encouraged to engage in dialogue. To generate a desired response, the speaker will at times use certain catch phrases to fan the flames of worship. So popular are some of these dialogical exchanges that a Mad Libs-like paragraph was circulated by email giving many Black Church-goers laughs because a number of them could easily fill in the blanks with sayings they’ve heard since their youth.

One such phrase is “Let the church say amen.” Often said by a minister with leadership authority, the anticipated response from the congregation is “amen”—meant to demonstrate understanding and/or agreement. Often, this phrase may follow an important announcement, gentle chiding, or even a joke. This saying and its expected response are so familiar that even if a churchgoer hears something with which they strongly agree outside of the context of a church, they may unconsciously give the response. The phrase and response is, in this sense, a marker of cultural unity and identity. One often doesn’t even consider to what they are assenting. The response pours out unconsciously and swiftly.

Unfortunately, over-familiarity with this dialogic expectation can be theologically dangerous. The elicitation of “amen” can lead congregants into agreeing with statements and ideas that are problematic. People are often unaware of the problematic nature of these popular phrases, and ultimately assent is granted with no conscious or moral consideration of what is actually being said. This is both disturbing and ironic, particularly since Jesus states in Luke 10: 27 that people should love God with their heart, soul and mind (NRSV). That is, we are to be thoughtful about our worship.

Some of the Black Church faithful, however, are concerned about the propensity to say amen to statements undeserving of such assent and choose to be more critical in the context of worship. We authors are two such persons, and that is why we have written this piece.

It is our intention to examine a few of these popular phrases and articulate why they are dangerous. We do so with the aim of fostering a more critical and authentic Christianity amongst those who belong to Black churches. There are many sayings in the Black-American Christian tradition that need to be reconsidered before an “amen” is given, and the following three must go.

 

“When the praises go up, blessings come down.”

This phrase is often used to elicit an exuberant response from people in a congregation. If a minister finds him or herself unable to get a hallelujah from a room full of sleepy congregants, he or she might utter this phrase to bribe them into participation. The only problem is that it is dangerous theologically and socially.

This phrase turns the Divine into an ATM machine. It paints God as a being hungry for empty compliments and willing to pay for adoration. That’s not how God works. Psalm 19: 1 reports, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows His handiwork” (NRSV). We should see praise as an honor, not as a down payment on a new house.

Further, this phrase has dangerous socioeconomic implications. Does this mean that those who are impoverished are in that condition because they have not sufficiently praised God? Does it mean that the wealthy are all living righteously? Of course not. This cliché has to go.

“Favor ain’t fair.”

This is the kind of statement one may make after getting a job for which many have applied. It’s a statement that communicates the inability to influence divine grace. Yet, it also declares that while one cannot persuade the divine to extend grace, the speaker just happens to be the recipient of an incredible amount. Put bluntly: it’s a humble brag.

It’s similar to how one may get on social media and say, “Let me brag on God,” and then just brag on themselves. Usually the statements end with an obligatory “Ain’t God good?” or “You can’t tell me God isn’t real.” These statements aren’t fooling anyone. They imply that God isn’t good unless you have a large bank account or that one would have legitimate cause to doubt the existence of God were it not for the new car in the driveway.

The phrase “favor ain’t fair” is reminiscent of the song I’m Walking in Authority. When Donnie McClurkin says, “I’m walking in prosperity, living life the way it’s meant to be,” I wonder if he realizes this statement would not apply to Jesus. The same is true of “favor ain’t fair.” There are no set of circumstances that would lead the first century Jew we know as Jesus to look around and say anything resembling a humble brag. If he wouldn’t do it, then neither should we.

“The Bible says…”

The Bible rightfully holds a significant position in the life of the Black Church. Historically, Black-American Christians have cherished the scriptures for their messages of divine liberation, justice, and instruction on how to treat one another. Many Black Christians hold that the Bible is the Word of God, given to human beings from Heaven to guide lives and provide the message about salvation. As such, quotes from scripture carry a weight rivaled by no other source, literary or beyond. To say “the Bible says,” then, is to address something important by appealing to God-given words.

Danger lurks, however, behind the use of these three words. Oftentimes, no citation is coupled with the phrase, thus denying a hearer the opportunity to not only read the scripture for his or herself, but also to read the scripture in its broader context. Further, the phrase “the Bible says” robs the scriptures of their multivocal beauty by treating the Good Book as univocal, despite the fact that the name “bible” is derived from the Greek pairing ta biblia, meaning “the books.” If you are unwilling to do the work required to cite the text holistically, then leave the biblical pontificating alone.

This is not an exhaustive list. There is more to come. But the next time you say ‘Amen,’ make sure it is something to which you agree.

 

Lawrence Ware is a professor of philosophy and diversity coordinator for Oklahoma State University’s Ethics Center. A frequent contributor to the publication The Democratic Left and contributing editor of the progressive publication RS: The Religious Left, he has also been a commentator on race for the HuffPost Live, CNN, and NPR. Marcus T. McCullough holds degrees in religion, divinity, and sacred theology from Morehouse College, Harvard Divinity School, and Boston University School of Theology, respectively. He is an ordained AME minister and hospital chaplain. His hometown is Seattle, WA.

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