From God Is to God Is a Concept Peter Bjork TheHumanist.com

The earliest memories of my childhood, growing up in Southwest Atlanta, Georgia (I was born in 1977), encompassed two institutions: my nuclear family and the Black Baptist Church. Belief in an all-mighty, powerful, and merciful God was integral to my very existence. We prayed before every meal. I still hear my father’s voice over dinner, “Father, bless this food we are about to receive for the nourishment of our bodies, in your son Jesus name. Amen.” As young children, we prayed every night before going to sleep. My mother would get on her knees with my older brother and me, holding our hands and reciting, “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, and if I shall die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.”

Beulah Baptist Church, in the heart of Vine City, is where our religious and spiritual training from home went broader and deeper. I still hear the Gospel Chorus Choir singing the late James Cleveland classic “God Is”:

“God is the joy and the strength of my life. He moves all pain, misery, and strife. He promised to keep me, never to leave me. He never, ever comes short of his word.”

Beyond the church and home, God and his son Jesus were omnipresent in our lives. At school, we pledged allegiance to the United States flag every morning, to a nation “Under God.” I went to camp every summer at the Butler Street Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). After every Gresham Park football game, we took a knee with our helmets off and bowed our heads, while our  Coach led us in prayer, whether we won or lost.

Our place in the world as the descendants of formerly enslaved African people was connected to God through his saint, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King’s voice from the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 is still woven within my unconscious psyche as he ended his “I Have a Dream” oration with words from an ole Negro Spiritual, “Free at last, free at last, thank God-Almighty we’re free at last.”

This Judeo-Christian milieu of my youth, while professing the ethos of peace and goodwill to all humankind, is one I found repressive at times and, through lived experience, to be downright abusive of young people. Children in this environment had no rights that any adult was bound to respect. For young people, to act and speak against the authority of their parents was to subject themselves to the lash sanctioned by God through the Law of Moses. The Baptist adage held that sparing the rod spoils the child.

My parents sat in different spaces within the church: my father up front in the third row and my mother in the back pew to the far right. By the time I was four years old, I was sitting with my father, as he was displeased with my mother for beating me in the church bathroom due to supposed disobedience. By the age of six, I rebelled against beatings by any means necessary. The beatings were mostly administered by my stay-at-home mother since my father worked more than twelve hours each day in his HVAC business. When I ran from the switches or belt, my ever-obedient older brother would catch and hold me. Once my mother caught up to me, I would yell obscenities at her, at times catching the belt and biting her wrists, drawing blood. By the time I was nine years old, I would run out of the house screaming for someone to help me, but no one ever did. My mother would always say God would curse me for my insubordination and for going against his commandment to honor my parents. Sadly, yet unforgettably, the worst beating I ever received was for going to see my father without my mother’s permission a year after their divorce in the summer of 1988. With the help of her sister Mary, my mother beat me beyond recognition, scarring and swelling my left eye. From that day forward, I dreamed every day of flying away and finding my own place in the world.

Despite the beatings and the breakdown of our nuclear family, I found hope in the passion and resistance of the late Hosea Williams. One of Dr. King’s chief strategists during the height of the Civil Rights Movement, in contrast to his contemporaries, Hosea still had on his plaid shirt and coveralls in the 1980s, ready to do battle against oppression wherever he found it. It was the Anti-Racist Marches Hosea led in Forsyth County, Georgia in early 1987 that captured my attention and inspired me to dream beyond my immediate situation. In Hosea, for the first time in my young life, I witnessed a human being defying and resisting oppression, standing up to unrighteous authority, and being celebrated within my community for his courageous stand. In Hosea, I not only had a hero, but someone I could emulate.

In contrast to my foundational youth, the hallmark of my teenage years was our family constantly moving, finally landing in Chattanooga, TN during my junior year of high school. Unbeknownst to me, Chattanooga would serve as the launch pad I had dreamed of since age eleven. I worked very hard those last two years, capturing the attention of my guidance counselor and key philanthropic organizations in the city. I set my sights on Howard University and by graduation, I had just enough scholarship money and federal financial aid to finance one year at HU. I figured if I could get to “the yard,” I’d find a way to stay.

By my sophomore year, I was a Resident Assistant (RA) in the freshman male dormitory as well as serving as the Volunteer Coordinator (VC) for the Howard University Student Association (HUSA). Being VC made me the de facto lead for a campus-wide voter registration and mobilization initiative, known as Operation Vote Bison (OPV), which successfully registered 3,000 students to vote, 1,800 of them in the District of Columbia. It was during this campaign that I met and befriended a living pioneer from the Civil Rights Movement, the late Lawrence Guyot who lived in a neighborhood adjacent to the university. As Chairman of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) at the height of the struggle in the early 1960s, Guyot endured merciless beatings at the hands of white racist authorities, along with a jailing that prevented him from being in Atlantic City, NJ in 1964 for the historic challenge to Mississippi’s all-white exclusionary Democratic Party delegation.

My relationship with Guyot imbued me with enduring organizing principles, namely that one can build power from anywhere in society once they’re politicized. The most critical aspect of politics I learned from Guyot is that ultimately, in struggle, one must embrace choosing sides and always be ready to throw down for your constituency and beliefs no matter the consequences.

I operationalized this latter principle my junior year as the President of HUSA in a successful political battle with HU’s central administration, preventing the University from gating off the campus to the mostly Black working-class community which surrounded it at the time. We built a strong coalition between community civic associations, the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, and the General Assembly representing Howard students—a struggle captured by then undergraduate student writer Ta-Nehisi Coates in the local Washington City Paper.

Organizing alongside Guyot, I not only grasped the power of my own agency but also came to understand that my childhood rebellion against parental beatings was not ungodly but rooted in humanity and my strong desire for justice, fairness, and autonomy over my own body and existence. The early organizing victory against the HU street-closings demonstrated on a practical level that real power is not external to me, but actually begins at the level of one’s conception.

Nearly a decade later, in early 2006, I was an enlisted United States sailor fighting racism onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) off the coast of Iraq. Due to both lived organizing experiences and intense study, I concluded that God and the state were synonymous and antithetical to the forward progress of our shared humanity.

It was during this time within the Navy, that I deeply internalized the words of both Mikhail Bakunin via his political treatise God and The State, and John Lennon’s early 1970s classic “God is a Concept”. John beautifully sang, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain.” Bakunin, considered by many to be the progenitor of modern day Anarchism, summarized my deepest sentiments when he said,

“If God is, man is a slave; now, man can and must be free; then, God does not exist.”

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Follow organizer and writer Jonathan Hutto’s journey from a Black Baptist childhood to the civil rights pioneers and philosophers who changed his life at Howard University.
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