Two faiths tackle blacks' struggles

August 9, 2010 

Few would deny the nation's African-Americans have suffered. And few would deny they have looked to faith as a source of solace and comfort.

At a forum at UNC-Chapel Hill this weekend, a group of scholars and community participants pondered the age-old question of why God would permit such suffering.

Although Christian theologians have tackled the issue before - most recently during the civil rights era - the "Black Theodicy Forum" at the FedEx Center for Global Education brought together Christians and Muslim scholars to tackle the question jointly. The two faiths represent the twin strains of the African-American religious experience in the United States.

About 75 people showed up for the two-day event, organized by the Institute of African American Research. Among them was Umar Muhammad, a former assistant basketball coach at N.C. Central University in Durham.

"I came here to learn about how both religious traditions have common solutions to the problems of African-Americans," said Muhammad, who is Muslim and lives in Durham.

As a sports consultant to young black men, he said, he wanted to be in a better position to offer spiritual solutions to some of the questions the men are asking.

The forum considered a host of African-American disparities. As a group, black Americans experience poorer health, lower educational achievement and higher unemployment rates.

But in their conclusions, both Christians and Muslims at the forum agreed that fighting injustice is part of what it means to be a believer in God.

The Muslim scholars at the forum went one step further. They concluded that the struggle against oppression - be it slavery or discrimination - is a transforming religious experience.

"There's a reward for this struggle, and it's a source of purification," said Zaid Shakir, scholar-in-residence at Zaytuna College in Berkeley, Calif. "Engaging in the struggle is an end in itself."

Scholars also pointed out that the collective suffering experienced by blacks in the United States has allowed for the flowering of art forms, such as jazz or hip-hop, that might never have been born.

"We have developed a very sophisticated continuum of resistance," said Amad Shakur, director of the Center for the African Diaspora in Charlotte. "We've made our accomplishments based on suffering."

Participants recognized there were many possible explanations for the suffering of black Americans. While some believe it is a punishment for sin, others said human beings cannot understand God's purpose for suffering.

"There are multiple responses," said Cheryl Kirk-Duggan, professor of theology and women's studies at Shaw Divinity School in Raleigh. "It's not a simple answer."

She also pointed out that it is difficult to speak of the African-American experience collectively. African-Americans are not all alike. In the Christian discussion group, there was at least one agnostic, a self-described "humanist."

"We questioned whether theodicy was a lens to get at black suffering in all its varieties," said Julia Robinson-Harmon, assistant professor of religious studies at UNC Charlotte.

In between sessions, participants heard group drumming and reflected on lyrics of old Negro spirituals printed out in their guest packets.

Yet if the reasons for black suffering were varied, so too were the solutions.

Muhammad Harisuddin, an imam, or prayer leader, from Augusta, Ga., drove to Chapel Hill with one of his followers from the Muslim Community Center of Augusta, just to listen in on the discussion.

Harisuddin was looking for a fresh perspective on the subject and hoped the forum would go beyond the staple reiteration of the symptoms such as rates of incarceration or high school dropouts.

To his mind, part of the African-American experience was a psychological problem of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Yet he was equally adamant that anger was not the solution.

"If we can reconcile ourselves to our situation," he said, "there's no problem in the world that's too big."

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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