Black humanism’s response to suffering

Black humanism’s response to suffering

Suffering is not redemptive; we must take human responsibility for eradicating it.

Colin Bossen


We humans are naturally curious creatures. Confronted with the reality of suffering we want to know why we suffer. What, we wonder, is the reason for disasters like the earthquake in Haiti, Hurricane Katrina, or the tsunami that struck Indonesia?

Many of us blame God, thinking that such calamities are, in the words of one minister in Haiti, “the will of God.” It is easy to blame God. It allows an escape from human reality and responsibility. Suffering exists because that is the way God created the world. It is not something that we humans have much control over. If it is to be alleviated then we must turn to God to alleviate it.

Humanism offers a counter explanation. Instead of arguing that suffering is the product of some divine plan, humanism posits that suffering has two sources: human action (either through folly or malice) and the randomness of nature. Under this scheme, it is not God who has the power to end suffering but humanity. True, humanity might not be able to eliminate all suffering but humanity can at least limit much suffering.

So much of the pain that exists is of a human origin. Writing in the New York Times about the tragedy in Haiti, David Brooks said, “This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story.” Brooks notes that an earthquake of similar magnitude to that in Haiti struck the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989. In that instance only sixty-three people were killed. The final death toll in Haiti has not yet been calculated but will almost certainly exceed 200,000.

The difference between Haiti and the San Francisco Bay Area can be accounted in the vast disparity of wealth between the two locales. When the discrepancies are taken into account the reason for the current suffering in Haiti becomes clear. It is not “the will of God” as the pastor said. It is the result of the very human decision not to share the world’s resources and work to eliminate global poverty. This may be, in the pastor’s words, because “human beings are too wicked” but if so it is not because that wickedness is punished by God. Blaming God for the situation lets human beings off the hook. It does not hold those responsible accountable for their actions and their failure to act. The tragedy is not a result of God’s disapproval of human wickedness. It stems from the structural violence—the violence of poverty, racism, and economic colonialism—that comprises much of human wickedness.

Whether one places responsibility for suffering with God or with humanity is a theological issue. It belongs to the field of theology known as theodicy, which seeks to explain why suffering exists in the world. The African American and Unitarian Universalist theologian the Rev. Dr. William R. Jones argues that everyone has a functional theodicy that “relates to his prevailing beliefs about the nature of ultimate reality and man” and that individuals make a fundamental judgment about the character of specific sufferings, whether they must endure that suffering or should annihilate it, and whether suffering can be eliminated or is an inevitable part of the human condition.

Exactly what your theodicy is has a lot to do with the overall shape of your theology. If you assign responsibility for suffering to God then you are almost certainly a theist. If you see suffering as redemptive in a cosmic sense then chances are you are some type of Christian. Most humanists reject both these views and place responsibility for suffering squarely in the human realm.

Some humanists even go so far as to argue that those who assign responsibility for suffering to God or declare that suffering is either redemptive or restorative are themselves involved in propagating further unnecessary suffering. Jones’s Is God a White Racist? posits that suffering is not redemptive and that describing it as such makes the oppressed complicit in their own oppression. It is foundational for the development of black humanist theology.

In Jones’s view any form of Christianity that denies human responsibility for suffering or conceives of the pain of the oppressed as salvific is not Christianity at all. It is “Whiteanity—a religion of oppression.” The antidote is not a more liberal form of Christianity or a Christianity that places priority on the needs of the oppressed. These theologies still do not place enough responsibility for ending suffering in human hands. Instead, the antidote is to pay special attention to the reasons for suffering and, if possible, to try to combat it. It is to embrace the humanist position that something can be done about human suffering because so much of it is a human creation. Since, for people of color, a large portion of the suffering they experience is a result of society’s racist structures a special kind of humanism is called for, one that takes into account the particular types of suffering the oppressed and marginalized experience. For Jones and some other African Americans this type of humanism manifests itself as black humanism.

Black humanism is not just the humanism of people who happen to be of African descent. It is a distinct theological tradition that emerged from the African American experience. Anthony Pinn argues that it has five basic principles, some of which it shares with humanism at large and some of which are unique. These principles are: “(1) understanding . . . humanity as fully . . . responsible for the human condition and the correction of humanity’s plight; (2) suspicion toward or rejection of supernatural explanation and claims . . . (3) an appreciation for African American cultural production and a perception of traditional forms of black religiosity as having cultural importance as opposed to any type of ‘cosmic’ authority; (4) a commitment to individual and societal transformation; (5) a controlled optimism that recognizes both human potential and human destructive activities.”

The Rev. Lewis McGee, one of the first African Americans to be ordained a Unitarian minister and founder of the Free Religious Fellowship, an intentionally interracial Unitarian religious community on Chicago’s South Side, summarized his humanist theology in these words: “We believe in the human capacity to solve individual and social problems and to make progress. We believe in a continuing search for truth and hence that life is an adventurous quest. . . . We believe in the creative imagination as a power in promoting the good life.”

For humanists, particularly for black humanists, it is the creative imagination that provides hope to alleviate suffering. The “map to a new world is in the imagination, in what we see in our third eyes rather than in the desolation that surrounds us,” writes Robin Kelly.

In the case of black humanists it is the imaginations of, in Kelly’s words, “aggrieved populations confronting systems of oppression” to which we should turn in seeking solutions to suffering. Since suffering in these communities is most pronounced, the logic goes, the solutions they have found and the visions that they have created are some of the most informative.

To offer an example, the maroon colonies served as havens for escaped slaves. They became places where the divisions of race found in the slave holding society were erased. Those of African descent mingled with the Native American population and distinctions between mulatto and recent African arrival disappeared. In these communities forms of African culture and religion, unrestrained by the brutality of slaveholders, re-emerged. Some maroon colonies lasted for decades, made alliances with local Native American tribes, and sued for peace with their white neighbors.

Black humanism has provided me with inspiration. While I speak as an outsider I also speak with a deep appreciation for the forms of black humanism I have encountered. A lover of techno and house music, I frequented dance parties in the electronic music scene in Detroit where social barriers between race and class often broke down. Music and dance created a space where social norms were ignored. Many of the artists involved in developing this music scene would not identify as black humanists. Nonetheless, the black humanist principles that Pinn describes were and are present in their work.

Alice Walker represents a form of black humanism that might be more familiar than maroon colonies or underground dance parties. She writes, “I seem to have spent all of my life rebelling against the church or other people’s interpretations of what religion is—the truth is probably that I don’t believe there is a God . . . Certainly I don’t believe there is a God beyond nature. The world is God. Man is God. So is a leaf or a snake . . . ” Such sentiments are shared by many Unitarian Universalists. So too is Walker’s emphasis on the possibility of human goodness as an antidote to the suffering we inflict upon each other. As she writes, “There is / Indeed / A Buddha / In / Every one / Of us / Loving humans / With all / Our clear & / Unmistakable / Reluctance / To evolve / Makes this hard / For most humans / To see.”

The end to suffering, or the elimination of the suffering we humans inflict upon each other, may not be possible. But the dream of it, a dream found in liminal spaces and our human fellows, can spur us to action. It can cause us to accept responsibility, as we can, for the wrongs of the world and seek, somehow, to right them. When the paralysis of inaction or despair threatens us our imagination can provide the paths forward. This is the lesson I take from black humanism.

Adapted from a sermon delivered February 7, 2010, at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland in Cleveland Heights, Ohio.