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Looking back on childhood in Trinidad, CLR James called himself the “little Puritan.” His family, jet-black descendants of slaves, carried themselves with the utmost dignity. His father, the schoolmaster, with suit and tie, his mother and distinguished aunts, dressing up with special effort for church, that is, “C of E.” Like other Episcopalians of the colonies, come of age late enough to remember slavery in a grandparent but also dress, talk, enjoy literature and music and even themselves dance in modern, early twentieth-century fashion, the Jameses had a culture of religion or a religion of culture at the center of their lives.
For “Nello,” a diminutive bestowed upon him by an encouraging mother, the moral code embedded in Church allowed him to shrug off racial disparagement or discrimination. These existed but would not hold him back. After he reached his teens, the theological core shriveled down, but the moral code remained. And there was something more.
In a 1960 series of lectures at the public library in Port of Spain, Trinidad, where James had temporarily resettled at the call of his former student and soon premier, Eric Williams, James explained. His own historical world began with Greece, the early democracy, philosophy and drama (including sports), but proceeded to Rome and the colonies. There, the Bible’s St. John had predicted, in the mystical “Revelations,” the course of Empire’s Fall. “He was a Jew whose country was ruled by the Romans; and he was anti-imperialist and anti-colonialist.” In the vivid pages of the Bible, the erstwhile Little Puritan suggested, lay the prediction for the Fall of modern empires, specifically British and American. It was not the anti-imperialism alone, but “the strength of his vision, his grasp of fundamentals, and his kinship, despite he peculiar form that he used, with great philosophers like Plato or Aristotle.” An extraordinary statement: James read Revelations as a prose poem.
Christianity, he insisted repeatedly, had been in its beginning a rebellious religion that promised its followers equality after death. Recent historians have been at pains to note the wealthy Christians who lost no time using the new religion as a means of pacifying a restless slave population. But this evidence is no disproof of the larger phenomenon. Christianity arrived amidst Empire and was swallowed up by Empire, but not without large adjustments.
For James, the Victorian Englishman (such was his training, with Thackeray’s Vanity Fair his first literary clue to the absurdities of class society), the class revolts in seventeenth century England had been decisive in modern society. Something like a bourgeoisie pushed aside the Royals. But not without religion—varieties of Christianity, at the center of the picture. Catholics (the crown) versus Presbyterians (the gentry) argued in theological terms the class struggle emerging. Cromwell’s New Model Army, unwontedly setting in motion the Levellers and even the Diggers, brought a more radical democratic impulse to the surface. The Leveller Party leaders, including the revolutionary journalist Richard Overton, offered the first versions of what would become arguments for democracy. These were Christian arguments and could not have been otherwise.
Religion offered a form and format for understanding the world and overcoming class society. James had said so clearly in his A History of Negro Revolt (1938), looking at African anti-imperialist uprisings that might well take the form of seemingly strange religious ideologies (even the followers of the Salvation Army) but were political to the core. Failure to understand the religious impulse would be dangerous, failure to see the political impulse beneath would be fatal.
Christianity, a James long separated from church-going observed, suggested if it did not specify or monopolize the quest for freedom. No matter how long or successfully that quest had been perverted. And freedom, not material wealth, had been the human impulse driving history forward, despite everything. Other religions had much to contribute, positively and negatively. But for James, Christianity was central to the history of the West—and the history of the slaves; yet, Black American Christianity finds itself at a crossroads. The rise of a gospel wedded to capitalistic definitions of blessedness has infiltrated many black churches to disastrous results.
In prosperity theology, the notion of communal liberation from social oppression has been combined with capitalistic notions of individualized wealth creation. As a result, liberation now means access to wealth and social status—but this is not new.
In the 1970s and 1980s, Kenneth Copeland, Frederick Price, and Kenneth Hagin used the burgeoning platform of televangelism to popularize a problematic conception of the gospel. Contemporarily, preachers like T.D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Creflo Dollar articulate a version of the prosperity gospel grounded in a postmodern, self-help hermeneutic to millions of people.
When oppressed people are told that God wants them to be “blessed and highly favored” or that they need to “take back what the devil stole from them,” they are being fed the idea that capitalistic gains are the goal of religious life. Grace is measured by the size of one’s bank account, and faith is determined by one’s ability to attain creature comforts. Creflo Dollar has gone so far as to say that the only way one can have influence in America is through signs of wealth, and that is part of the reason why he needed a new multimillion-dollar jet. (God would clearly be displeased if a preacher flew coach.)
Thousands of black preachers saw the success of this type of preaching, and were influenced by its message. As a result, many black churches are so tied to an understanding of blessedness and liberation grounded in personal success that they have difficulty galvanizing collective social action. On any given Sunday, a version of the prosperity gospel is preached from hundreds of black pulpits. This mishandling of the gospel keeps many black Christians from thinking productively about communal social liberation.
James remained critical of Christianity, but, nevertheless, saw its revolutionary potentiality. When recounting a meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr. in a letter, he wrote approvingly of how his preaching “always emphasized a social gospel, that is to say preaching with an emphasis on the improvement of the social situation of the community, and not with the emphasis on individual salvation.”
Black churches must eschew the notions of evangelism emphasized by white Southern Baptists and see work in the community addressing social sins as an embodiment of social evangelism. Individualist spirituality will not liberate us from social oppression—the church must do that work by advocating for policy and protesting in the streets.
CLR James, while not a Christian, has much to teach the Black American Christian Church today.