On the Relevance of the Church
May 19, 1971
By Dr. Huey P. Newton
Since 1966 the Black Panther Party has gone through many changes; it has been transformed. I would like to talk to you about that and contradictions. I would also like to talk about the Black Panther Party’s relationship with the community as a whole and with the church in particular.
Some time ago when the Party started, Bobby and I were interested in strengthening the Black community–rather its comprehensive set of institutions because if there’s one thing we lack it is community. We do have one institution that has been around for some time and that is the church. After a short harmonious relationship with the church, in fact a very good relationship, we were divorced from the church, and shortly after that found ourselves out of favor with the whole Black community.
We found ourselves in somewhat of a void, alienated from the whole Black community. We had no way of being effective as far as developing the community was concerned. The only way we could aid in that process of revolution–and revolution is a process rather than conclusion or a set of principles, or any particular action–was by raising the consciousness of the community. Any conclusion or particular action that we think is revolutionary is really reaction, for revolution is a developmental process. It has a forward thrust which goes higher and higher as man becomes freer and freer. As man becomes freer he knows more about the universe, he tends to control more and he therefore gains more control over himself. That is what freedom is all about.
I want now to talk about the mistakes that were made. I hate to call them mistakes because maybe they were necessary to bring about change in the Party, the needed transformation. I am sure that we will have other kinds of contradictions in the future, some that we don’t know about now. I am sure they will build up and hurl us into a new thing.
But the church also has been going through phases of development. It too has found itself somewhat isolated from the community. Today, the church is striving to get back into favor with the community. Like the church the Black Panther Party is also trying to reinstate itself with the community.
A short time ago there was an article in the Black Panther paper called “The Defection of Eldridge Cleaver from the Black Panther Party and the Defection of the Black Panther Party from the Black Community.” I would like to concentrate now upon the defection of the Party. That is, the larger unity. I hate to place blame upon individuals in our Party particularly since they are always governed by a collective called the Central Committee. Even when I disagree with the Central Committee (and I did much disagreeing and arguing when I was in prison, but I was outvoted), after the vote I supported the position of the Party until the next meeting.
I think, at first, that we have to have some organized apparatus in order to bring about the necessary change. The only time we leave our political machine or our institution altogether is when we feel that we cannot bring about the necessary change through the machine, and the very posture of the organization or the institution will strip us of our individual dignity. I felt that this was true of the Party, and although it could be argued, I personally thought that the Party should still be held together. I knew if I left we would have to form a new Party, a new institution, in order to be that spur or that guiding light in the community. Also, I would have to contend with new contradictions.
We always say that contradictions are the ruling principle of the universe. I use that word time and time again because I think that it is responsible for much suffering. When things collide, they hurt, but collision is also responsible for development. Without contradictions everything would be stagnant. Everything has an internal contradiction, including the church.
Contradiction, or the strain of the lesser to subdue that which controls it, gives motion to matter. We see this throughout the universe in the physical as well as the biological world. We also see this in cultures.
Development comes with the phenomenon we call acculturation. That is, two societies meet and when their cultures collide because they have a contradiction, both are modified. The stronger shows less change and the weaker more change. All the time the weaker is attempting to gain dominance over the stronger. But something happens, they both will never be the same again because they have reached a degree of synthesis. In other words, it is all working toward the truth of the trinity: thesis, antitheses, synthesis. This principle of contradiction, this striving for harmony, operates in all of our disciplines.
The Black Panther Party was formed because we wanted to oppose the evil in our community. Some of the members in the Party were not refined. We were grasping for organization. It wasn’t a college campus organization; it was basically an organization of the grass roots, and any time we organize the most victimized of the victims we run into a problem. To have a Party or a church or any kind of institution, whether we like it or not, we have to have administrators. How an institution, organization, or the Party in this case, functions, as well as how effective it is, depends upon how knowledgeable and advanced in thinking the administrators are. We attempt to apply the administrative skills of our grass-roots organization to the problems that are most frequently heard in the community.
History shows that most of the parties that have led people out of their difficulties have had administrators with what we sometimes call the traits of the bourgeoisie or de-classed intellectuals. They are the people who have gone through the established institutions, rejected them, and then applied their skills to the community. In applying them to the community, their skills are no longer bourgeoisie skills but people’s skills, which are transformed through the contradiction of applying what is usually bourgeoisie to the oppressed. That itself is a kind of transformation.
In our Party we are not so blessed. History does not repeat itself; it goes on also transforming itself through its dialectical process. We see that the administrators of our Party are victims who have not received that bourgeois training. So I will not apologize for our mistakes, our lack of a scientific approach to use and put into practice. It was a matter of not knowing, of learning, but also of starting out with a loss–a disadvantage that history has seldom seen. That is, a group attempting to influence and change the society so much while its own administrators were as much in the dark much of the time as the people that they were trying to change. In our Party we have now what we call the Ideological Institute, where we are teaching these skills, and we also invite those people who have received a bourgeois education to come and help us. However, we let them know that they will, by their contribution, make their need to exist, as they exist now, null and void. In other words, after we learn the skills their bourgeois status will evaporate once the skills have been applied.
As far as the church was concerned, the Black Panther Party and other community groups emphasized the political and criticized the spiritual. We said the church is only a ritual, it is irrelevant, and therefore we will have nothing to do with it. We said this in the context of the whole community being involved with the church on one level or another. That is one way of defecting from the community, and that is exactly what we did. Once we stepped outside of the church with that criticism, we stepped outside of the whole thing that the community was involved in and we said, “You follow our example; your reality is not true and you don’t need it.”
Now, without judging whether the church is operating in a total reality, I will venture to say that if we judge whether the church is relevant to the total community we would all agree that it is not. That is why it develops new programs to become more relevant so the pews will be filled on Sunday.
The church is in its developmental process, and we believe it needs to exist. We believe this as a result of our new direction (which is an old direction as far as I am concerned, but we’ll call it new because there has been a reversal in the dominance in the Central Committee of our Party for reasons that you probably know about). So we do go to church, are involved in the church, and not in any hypocritical way. Religion, perhaps, is a thing that man needs at this time because scientists cannot answer all of the questions. As far as I am concerned, when all of the questions are not answered, when the extraordinary is not explained, when the unknown is not known, then there is room for God because the unexplained and the unknown is God. We know nothing about God, really, and that is why as soon as the scientist develops or points out a new way of controlling a part of the universe, that aspect of the universe is no longer God. In other words, once when the thunder crashed it was God clapping his hands together. As soon as we found out that thunder was not God, we said that God has other attributes but not that one. In that way we took for ourselves what was his before. But we still haven’t answered all of the questions, so he still exists. And those scientists who say they can answer all of them are dishonest.
We go into the church realizing that we cannot answer the questions at this time, that the answers will be delivered eventually, and we feel that when they are delivered they will be explained in a way that we can understand and control.
I went to church for years. My father is a minister and I spent 15 years in the church; this was my life as a child. When I was going to church I used to hear that God within us and is, therefore, some part of us: that part of us that is mystical. And as man develops and understands more, he will approach God, and finally reach heaven and merge with the universe. I’ve never heard one preacher say that there is a need for the church in heaven; the church would negate itself. As man approaches his development and becomes larger and larger, the church therefore becomes smaller and smaller because it is not needed any longer. Then, if we had ministers who would deal with the social realities that cause misery so that we can change them, man will become larger and larger. At that time, the God within will come out, and we can merge with him. Then we will be one with the universe.
So I think it was rather arrogant of my Party to criticize the community for trying to discover answers to spiritual questions. The only thing we will criticize in the future is when the church does not act upon the evils that cause man to get on his knees and humble himself in awe at that large force which he cannot control. But as man becomes stronger and stronger, and his understanding greater and greater, he will have “a closer walk with Thee.” Note the song says walk–not crawl.
So along with the church we will all start again to control our lives and communities. Even with the Black church we have to create a community spirit. We say that the church is an institution, but it is not a community. The sociological definition of a community is a comprehensive collection of institutions that delivers our whole life, and within which we can reach most of our goals. We create it in order to carry out our desires and it serves us. In the Black community the church is an institution that we created (that we were allowed to create). The White church warred against us, but finally we won the compromise to worship as a unit, as a people, concerned with satisfying our own needs. The White church was not satisfying our needs in human terms because it felt that we were not human beings. So we formed our own. Through that negative thing a positive thing evolved. We started to organize fraternities, anti-lynching groups, and so forth, but they still would not let our community exist. We came here in chains and I guess they thought we were meant to stay in chains. But we have begun to organize a political machine, to develop a community so that we can have an apparatus to fight back. You cannot fight back individually against an organized machine. We will work with the church to establish a community, which will satisfy most of our needs so that we can live and operate as a group.
The Black Panther Party, with its survival programs, plans to develop the institutions in the community. We have a clothing factory we are just erecting on Third Street, where we will soon give away about three hundred to four hundred new articles of clothing each month. And we can do this by robbing Peter to pay Paul. What we will do is start to make golfing bags under contract of a company, and with the surplus we will buy material to make free clothes. Our members will do this. We will have no overhead because of our collective (we’ll exploit” our collective by making them work free). We will do this not just to satisfy ourselves, like the philanthropist, or to serve, or to save someone from going without shoes, even though this is part of the cause of our problem, but to help the people make the revolution. We will give the process a forward thrust. If we suffer genocide, we won’t be around to change things. So in this way our survival program is very practical.
What we are concerned with is the larger problem. Therefore we will be honest and say that we will do like the churches—we will negate our necessity for existing. After we accomplish our goals the Black Panther Party will not need to exist because we will have already created our heaven right here on earth. What we are going to do is administer to the community the things they need in order to get their attention, in order to organize them into a political machine. The community will then look to the Party and look to those people who are serving their needs in order to give them guidance and direction, whether it is political, whether it is judicial, or whether it is economic.
Our real thing is to organize across the country. We have thirty-eight chapters and branches and I would like to inform you that the so-called split is only a myth that it does not exist. We lost two chapters in that so-called split and I will tell you that the burden is off my shoulders. I was glad to lose them because it was a yoke for me; I was frozen. Even though I couldn’t make a move I wouldn’t get out of the whole thing then because certain people had such an influence over the Party. For me to have taken that stand would have been individualism. Now we’re about three years behind in our five-year plan, but we will now move to organize the community around the survival programs.
We have a shoe factory that we’re opening up on fourteenth and Jefferson. The machines and everything else were donated. We’ll use it to get inmates out of prison because most of us learned how to make shoes in prison. So it will serve two purposes: we can make positions in the shoe factory available and thereby get somebody out on parole; and since the parolees must agree to give a certain amount of shoes away each week, we will have a “right to wear shoes” program. We’ll point out that everyone in the society should have shoes and we should not have a situation like the one in Beaufort County, South Carolina, where 70 percent of the children suffer brain damage because of malnutrition. They have malnutrition because of the combination of not enough food and parasites in the stomach. The worms eat up half the food that the children take in. Why? Because the ground is infested with the eggs of the worms and the children don’t have shoes to wear. So as soon as we send a doctor there to cure the illness, they get the parasites again. We think that the shoe program is a very relevant thing, first to help them stay alive, then to create conditions in which they can grow up and work out a plan to change things. If they have brain damage, they will never be revolutionists because they will have already been killed. That is genocide in itself.
We will inform this government, this social order, that it must administer to its people because it is supposed to be a representative government which serves the needs of the people. Then serve them. If it does not do this then it should be criticized. What we will not do in the future is jump too far ahead and say that the system absolutely cannot give us anything. That is not true; the system can correct itself to a certain extent. What we are interested in is its correcting itself as much as it can. After that, if it doesn’t do everything that the people think is necessary, then we’ll think about reorganizing things.
To be very honest I think there is great doubt whether the present system can do this. But until the people feel the same way I feel then I would be rather arrogant to say dump the whole thing, just as we were arrogant to say dump the church. Let’s give it a chance, let’s work with it in order to squeeze as many contributions and compromises out of all the institutions as possible, and then criticize them after the fact. We’ll know when that time comes, when the people tell us so.
We have a program attempting to get the people to do all they will do. It is too much to ask the people to do all they can do even though they can do everything. But that is not the point. The point is how do we get them to do all they will do until they eventually get to the place where they will have to be doing all they can.
We organized the Party when we saw that out of the Movement was what was called a cultural cult group. We defined a cultural cult group as an organization that disguised itself as a political organization, but was really more interested in the cultural rituals of Africa in the 1100’s before contact with the Europeans. Instead of administering to the community and organizing it, they would rather wear bubas, get African names and demand that the community do the same, and do nothing about the survival of the community. Sometimes they say, “Well, if we get our culture back then all things will be solved.” This is like saying to be regenerated and born again is to solve everything. We know that this is not true.
Then the Party became just as closed as the cultural cultist group. Many churches are very reactionary and can be described as religious cults. They go through many rituals, but they’re divorced from reality. Even though we have many things in common with them, we say they isolate themselves from reality because they’re so miserable and reality is so hard to take. We know that operating within reality does not mean that we accept it; we’re operating within it so that the reality can be changed. For what we did as revolutionists was abstract, and the people are always real. But we know that reality is changing all the time, and what we want to do is harness those forces that are causing the change to direct them to a desirable goal. In other words, developments will continue, but we have no guarantee that they will be developments that allow man to live. We have no guarantee that the bomb won’t be dropped, but we know that there are certain ways that we can plan for the new reality. In order to do this we have to take some control over the present. So the people who withdraw, like the religious cultist group, do the same thing as the cultural cultist group.
These are words that we have coined. The Panthers are always coining words because we have to keep defining the new reality, the new phenomena. The old words confuse us sometimes because things have changed so much. So we try to stay abreast by developing or stipulating definitions. The old lexical definitions become so outdated after the qualitative leap (the transformation) that it does not match at all what we are talking about now.
One new word related to what we have been talking about describes something I was guilty of. I was guilty of this when I offered the Black troops to Vietnam. I won’t talk about whether it was morally right or wrong, but I will say that anything said or done by a revolutionist that does not spur or give the forward thrust to the process (of revolution) is wrong. Remember that the people are the makers of history, the people make everything in their society. They are the architects of the society and if you don’t spur them on, then I don’t care what phrases you use or whether they are political or religious, you cannot be classified as being relevant to that process. If you know you’re wrong and do certain things anyway, then you’re reactionary because you are very guilty. Some of us didn’t know. I keep searching myself to see whether I know we were going wrong. O couldn’t influence the Central Committee and maybe I should have risked being charged with an individual violation and said that they didn’t know. I think most of them didn’t know, so they’re not as guilty as I am. I’m probable more guilty than anyone. But anyway, the new word that describes what we went into for a short length of time— a couple of years—is revolutionary cultism.
The revolutionary cultist uses words of social change; he uses words about being interested in the development of society. He uses that terminology, you see; but these actions are so far divorced from the process of revolution and organizing the community that he is living in a fantasy world. So we talk to each other on the campuses, or we talk to each other in the secrecy of the night, concentrating upon weapons, thinking these things will produce change without the people themselves. Of course people do courageous things and call themselves the vanguard, but the people who do things like that are either heroes or criminals. They are not the vanguard because the vanguard means spearhead, and the spearhead has to spearhead something. If nothing is behind it, then it is divorced from the masses and is not the vanguard.’
I am going to be heavily criticized now by the revolutionary cultists and probably criticized even more in the future because I view the process as going in stages. I fell that we can’t jump from A to Z, and we have to go through all of the development. So even though I see a thing is not the answer, I don’t think it’s dishonest to involve myself in it for the simple reason that the people tend to take not one step higher; they take a half step higher. Then they hang onto what they view as the reality because they can’t see that reality is constantly changing. When they finally see the changes (qualitatively) they don’t know why or how it happened. Part of the reason reality changes around them is because they are there; they participate whether they like it or not.
What we will do now is involve ourselves in anything or any stage to introduce some insight into it. Then we will work very hard with the people in the community and with this institution so that it can negate itself. We will be honest about this and we hope they are honest too and realize that everything is negated eventually; this is how we go on to higher levels.