We are in the midst of what I call the “New Holy Wars”. Whereas the old “Holy Wars” pertained to the conflicts between Jews, Christians, and Muslims; the “New Holy Wars” includes African Traditionalists and African American religious skeptics, such as atheists and agnostics, embroiled in withering battles with fellow African Americans who are Christians, Muslims, and (to a lesser extent) Hebrews. These debates often center around questions of legitimacy, that is the idea that only indigenous African spiritual practices can cure the cultural ills of our community and set us down a path of redemption; or they may focus on rationality, that is the idea that religion is an instrument of oppression, and that it is only by breaking with religion, or by embracing a more enlightened spirituality that we will be able to free ourselves. Given the partisan nature of these debates what is legitimate or rational diverge significantly depending on the point of view in question. Moreover, these discourses are often insulated and reinforced within their own respective echo-chambers, thus diminishing the degree of dialog that occurs, and heightening the level of criticism among those who are situated on these disparate (but typically digital) battlefields.
While I think that debate can be intellectually stimulating, our obsession with religion is confounding our ability to effectively organize across our differences, and around our shared interests. Focusing on what divides us does not necessarily make us stronger, it may actually weaken us. This is especially urgent given the myriad of crises that we face, none of which will be easily resolved by the triumph of any of the above partisans over the others. If the African traditionalists are able to vanquish the Black Muslims in these debates, will we then have a solution to the problems of food insecurity in our communities? If the Black Atheists martial their collective intelligence and crush the Black Christians in this discourse, will the problems of violence within the community be resolved? My point is that any perceived victories in this domain are hollow, making the war itself rather pointless.
I am struck by the fact that many of the would-be-champions of this “war” have taken the position that this conflict can only be resolved by a collective embrace of their particular system of beliefs. This amounts to a form of ideological uniformity which is both impossible to achieve and impractical to sustain. If we organize from the standpoint that we cannot collaborate absent ideological uniformity, then we severely undermine our collective capacity, and we demonstrate a fatal under-appreciation for the importance of devising and adhering to principles of “operational unity.” A Pan-African orientation necessitates this, it requires that we forge alliances across our supposedly vast differences for the sake of achieving a larger objective—liberation. A Pan-African orientation would also challenge us to seek the value or potential value in our cultural diversity.
The Haitian Revolution demonstrates the potency of Traditional African spirituality as a force for radical change, as it provided an ideological impetus for struggle and the attempt to concretize an African worldview both during and after the victory. The vanguard role of the African American church during the 19th Century, and leaders such as Bishop Henry McNeal Turner who exhorted Africans to take up arms in their struggle for liberation, are fine examples of the ways in which African Americans have sought to adapt Christianity to the political exigencies of the Maafa—the interrelated processes of enslavement, colonialism, and racial subordination. The legacy of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X, and the Nation of Islam in sustaining the spirit of Black Nationalism in the mid-20th Century, and creating a context which problematized America and the supposed promises of integration, were classic examples of how Black Muslims played and continue to play a role in the liberation discourse of the community. Finally, the impact of Black religious skeptics, people who were often atheists or agnostics is best exemplified by the work of scholar John G. Jackson, who sought to repair the shattered historical memory of Africans in America, and in doing so, offered a vision of history that could help us to better understand our present and extend ourselves into the future.
To be sure, I have been a participant in these debates at different points in my adult life. However I have come to believe that if we cannot unite around our common interests, then we consign ourselves to oblivion. My point here is simple. We are surrounded by a cacophony of ideas, a myriad of voices. I maintain that chief among all these is one singular objective—liberation. If our ideological positions precludes us from working in concert with our brothers and sisters, particularly those who think differently than we do, then we are not working in the interest of freedom, and are quite likely betraying our future.