Our movement’s teachings apply universally, but the often glossed-over truth is that for some, the outcome doesn’t live up to the promise of our principles.

For one of my grandmother’s birthdays, we gave her a print of a Black Jesus to replace her faded copy of the famous 1940 painting of Jesus of Nazareth by American artist Warner Sallman. We would probably all recognize it—not the Black Jesus, the other one: the white Jesus. By 2020 it had been reproduced a billion times worldwide, from wallet-size prayer cards to enlarged copies made to hang in churches and homes.

My grandmother didn’t like the Black Jesus. Her white Jesus had been hanging for who knows how long, and she wasn’t about to change it. It didn’t matter that white Jesus wasn’t created for her (a Black woman in Barbados, only three generations removed from legalized slavery in a British colony), or that Jesus wasn’t even white. It was the only face of Christianity she knew. She’d seen enough change in her lifetime. She probably couldn’t handle changing her Jesus as well.

It’s a strange thing to embrace symbols and teachings and theologies that do not reflect our lived experience. More and more, many in New Thought are coming to terms with this realization. On one hand, the principles may feel as if they are meant for all of us, revealing a connection to, relationship with, and embodiment of the Divine that equips us (or at the very least invites us) to transform ourselves and transcend our experiences. On the other hand, many also feel dissatisfaction, even cognitive dissonance, when our outcomes do not live up to the promises of the principles.

The problem may not be with the principles per se, but rather our understanding (or misunderstanding) of what their application might mean for us, and how they are taught. In New Thought, we believe that reality coexists in two realms: the Absolute (spiritual, invisible, metaphysical, constant, unchangeable) and the relative (intellectual, emotional, visible, temporary, flexible). We believe that as we live the principles of the Absolute, we will have an enhanced experience of the relative, even bending it to our will. “We live from the inside out” and “As within, so without” are quips that reflect such a belief. We believe we can manifest experiences in our outer and inner worlds, from parking spaces to a cancer-free body.

I say “we” and “us” because I not only believed it, but I taught it as a Unity minister for years after my 2011 ordination. However, during my time as an itinerant preacher, the senior minister of a spiritual community, and everything in between, I noticed that people’s lived experiences—including my own—didn’t quite turn out as straightforwardly. They didn’t always get the job they wanted. Their chronic illnesses persisted. They never did quite manifest that mini-mansion on the beach. The explanations for the lack of “miracles” ranged from the nonchalantly dismissive “It wasn’t meant to be” or “It’s in divine order” to more harmful implications of spiritual failings: “What’s been going on in your consciousness?” “You manifest according to your faith.” “Our movement was founded on a healing miracle so why are we concerned about Covid?”

It often felt as if an individual’s experience was entirely their responsibility, and if it wasn’t a positive one, they were to blame. To be clear, this isn’t just a New Thought issue. It’s a form of religious abuse found in all faith traditions. It’s also a convenient bypass around questioning a faith’s tenets and principles. The problem may not be with the tenets per se, but with how such universal principles are taught: as a one-size-fits-all panacea. The truth is that one-size-fits-all is not a thing. We don’t all start from the same place, and while some of us have a clearer track ahead, the rest of us have near insurmountable hurdles to overcome.

A Closer Look

Let’s take prosperity teachings, for example. In Unity cofounder Charles Fillmore’s classic book The Revealing Word (Unity Books, 1959)—a glossary of metaphysical terms Fillmore defined—we read, “In demonstrating prosperity, you should praise and give thanks for every little evidence of financial improvement … The divine resource never fails. God is the omnipresent, unfailing resource for all who trust and who make all their thoughts chord with divine mind. God is your prosperity. Stamp this thought daily on your mind and you will reap financial success.”

This might be difficult for Black Americans to reconcile as they face historical and contemporary barriers to financial success that their white counterparts do not have to consider. Slavery and Jim Crow eras enriched whites while denying wealth accumulation and generational transfer to Blacks and other minorities. Lack of generational wealth makes it more difficult to secure loans to start businesses, buy homes, or secure a path to higher education. Political disenfranchisement resulted in not electing justice- and equity-oriented officials. Black households were often charged higher rates for mortgage loans than white borrowers in similar financial situations. Black borrowers were more likely on average to receive subprime mortgages during the housing boom, and less likely to be approved for mortgage refinancing during the Covid-19 pandemic.

How about teachings around our health and healing? Fillmore defines health as follows: “A state of being sound or whole in mind and body. Oneness with the Christ mind assures perfect health. Health is the normal condition of human beings, a condition true to the Truth of our being.” About healing he writes, “All healing is based on mental cleansing. When the mind is free from error thoughts, harmony in the body ensues.”

While health may be the normal condition, the conditions that create ill health are certainly not evenly distributed. According to a report from the NAACP and the Clean Air Task Force, Black people are 75 percent more likely to live in communities that are next to industrial facilities and be directly affected by their pollution. Is this additional obstacle to healing acknowledged in sermons and classes? How about the fact that Black women are almost three times as likely to die in childbirth as are white women because of well-ingrained racist and sexist tropes in the medical establishment?

When I think of religious or spiritual movements known for activism, New Thought does not come to mind. The unintentional message is that the teachings of the Absolute transcend relative concerns. It’s a message that ignores the lived existence of many of its participants. As I pointed out in my July/August 2023 column, Unity was founded in the late nineteenth century by a white couple in Missouri with likely no intentional thought of racially diverse participants and their specific concerns. Unity even upheld some segregation practices in the 1950s and 1960s. Contrast it with Black liberation theology, which from its outset around the same time fused Christian theology with the vision of liberating Black Americans from all forms of social, political, economic, or religious injustices.

The Both/And Approach

Shortly after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, America appeared to be embarking on a journey of racial reckoning. Much to the frustration of many non-white Unity congregants, the conversation didn’t reach their churches. Some churches, in fact, explicitly forbade the formation of Black affinity groups, saying it would foster further separation. This was undoubtedly the result of mostly white ministers struggling with their own discomfort around racism and their inability to explain how the teachings fit. For many, their attempts to reconcile the understandable rage of those from targeted and marginalized communities with a message of love seemed to bypass the reality of those communities.

So how do the teachings fit? Fortunately, many are beginning to realize the need for a both/and approach as demonstrated by none other than Jesus the Way Shower. New Thought teaches the principle of oneness, both as a state of the Absolute and the relative. Unity author Eric Butterworth tells us, “The whole of God-substance is present in its entirety at every point in space and time.” There is only One, and that One is therefore also us—all of us. It is counterproductive to see ourselves as separate from anyone else. Jesus, the embodiment of love and compassion, taught this in his parable of the Good Samaritan, which he used to illustrate perhaps his greatest (and most-challenging) commandment: Love our neighbor (that is, everyone) as we love ourselves. Yet Jesus also called the Pharisees hypocrites and a brood of vipers—to their faces! He also chased the money changers out of the temple with a whip after he flipped over their tables. New Thought does an admirable job of embodying Jesus’ message of love and oneness, and I doubt many would disagree that the movement falls short when it comes to emulating his action toward justice for the oppressed.

Philosopher and political activist Cornel West, Ph.D., reminds us that “Justice is what love looks like in public.” Civil rights activist and ordained minister Rep. John Lewis challenged us to “Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” It’s way beyond time for New Thought movements—including congregants, ministers, and both regional and national leaders—to get in good trouble and flip some tables. It begins with acknowledging that the physical matters as much as the metaphysical, that every group’s experience is not the same, that the teachings of the Absolute aren’t intended for escape, and that personal transformation without social justice is selfish and fear-based.

It’s time for a reformation. It’s time to embrace a Black Jesus.

This article appeared in Unity Magazine®.

About the Author

Rev. Ogun Holder is an ordained Unity minister, certified spiritual coach, teacher, and podcaster. He is the author of Rants to Revelations (Unity Books, 2012) and the cofounder of an online spiritual community called project_ SANCTUS. For more information, visit revogunholder.com.


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