11.18.16

A Theology for the Black Lives Matter Generation: Truth-Telling

Article 2.2 of The Ferguson Declaration reads:

2.2 “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” and “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me. If ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also: and from henceforth ye know him, and have seen him.” (; ) We reject the false doctrine that love of country means avoiding telling the Truth about our history. Neighborly love mandates that the Black church speaks truth to power, in love, so that the Church Universal and the World can see where Christ is (): in the lives of the oppressed ().

“What is truth?” The Roman governor Pilate spoke those infamous words during his interrogation of our Lord Jesus Christ. The question was not sincere. It forecast a kind of postmodern subjective view of truth, an agnosticism born of political expediency in Pilate’s case.

As Pilate soon discovered, truth is that statement that best explains all the facts and describes life as it actually is. Truth possesses internal coherence and external validity. It comports with accuracy and objectivity. What is true for me is also true for you, though we may need our partial truths to compose the entire picture. In that way, truth writes all our stories.

The Gospel Truth

The Ferguson Declaration lays some emphasis on truth. In citing , the authors call to mind both the epistemological accessibility of truth—“ye shall know the truth”—and the liberating power of truth—“the truth shall make you free.” According to Jesus, the truth can be known and knowing it changes us.

Moreover, the Declaration makes it clear, as the Lord Jesus did, that truth is actually a Person. The Lord claimed, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Jesus is Truth Incarnate. Jesus is God’s lifestyle or culture (“way”) incarnate. Jesus is “the life”—true, everlasting and abundant life, that life that really is life (). No one has life unless they have God. No one has God unless they have Jesus. And no one has or knows Jesus unless they embrace the truth about Him (). Such truth-embracing frees us from the world, the flesh, the Devil, sin, judgment and hell.

The Historical Truth

And the Truth also frees us from our histories. The old man passes away and the new man comes (). That truth-produced transformation should allow every “new creation” to tell the truth about the old creation. The most loving act we take as ministry to Christ is speaking the truth. One characteristic of being in the body of Christ is this ministry of speaking the truth in love, the result of which is the entire body growing into maturity in Christ (). Our very oneness as the body of Christ obligates us to truth-telling. As Paul puts it, “Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another” ().

The Ferguson Declaration focuses this truth-speaking ethic on the history of our country. It declares, “We reject the false doctrine that love of country means avoiding telling the Truth about our history.” When they write this, the writers simply channel the understanding of love for country long held by disenfranchised African Americans. As James Baldwin once put it, “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” Love speaks the loving but critical truth about our history. It doesn’t mollify or excuse. While it doesn’t bludgeon, it’s also blunt. Truth-telling love doesn’t mince words and yet it doesn’t mangle people. Truth-speaking love gets into the unseemly so that the hearer and the speaker are freed together from the clutches of a broken past. If we truly love our country as Christians, and if we are to escape “God and country” idolatry, we must learn to tell the whole truth about ourselves.

Few people would challenge the virtue of truth-telling. But they may disagree about what precisely is the statement of the truth. The world is full of visions and revisions, versions and perversions, narratives and counter-narratives. In all the competing claims, the truth can and often is lost. So it’s all the more important that a Christian creed and ethic concerned with these warring depictions of reality call people to talk to one another. To not only share our stories but to also listen, accept, adjust, amend, reflect as we welcome the stories of others. From a Christian perspective, it can no longer be acceptable that “history is written by the victors.” We must subvert those mythologies by inviting, allowing and demanding that history be co-authored with the vanquished. For they have a story to tell, too. And it often fills in the self-promoting blanks left out by the “victors.” It’s the only way to prevent further victimization of the defeated and the continued self-deception of the powerful.

Speaking the Truth

So section 2.2 ends with a call to the Black Church: “Neighborly love mandates that the Black church speaks truth to power, in love, so that the Church Universal and the World can see where Christ is (): in the lives of the oppressed ().” Before we reject or question this on the grounds that it’s “political,” we might do well to remember that the truth is inherently political though not partisan. The moment we declare, “Jesus is Lord,” to the would-be caesars and rulers of the world, we have made an explosive political claim. The moment Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he sat political orthodoxy on its head, feet waiving in mid-air. When Paul beseeched Philemon “on the basis of love” to free Onesimus and receive him as a brother, that was truth being political, even economic, setting free the captive and the captor. That all Christians and the Christian Church (not just the Black Church) have a responsibility to “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute” () seems as plain as the words written in the Bible.

If it seems strange that “Christ is… in the lives of the oppressed,” that tells us something about how we view God and how we view ourselves. It tells us we have not taken seriously God’s just character (; Is. 5:16; ) or His repeated insistence that He cares for widows, orphans, sojourners (, passim) and “works justice for all who are oppressed” (). It also tells us that we have not properly conceived Christianity as a “true religion” or ourselves as “true Christians.” reminds us, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” Not until we have served “the least of these, Christ’s brothers” have we fully served Christ himself (). The Church had better begin to see Christ as revealed in and among the poor and oppressed just as much as He is revealed in His creation or in His providences.

And yet, a distinction must be drawn if we are emphasizing truth. Contrary to some theological claims, Christ’s identification with the poor never associates Him with the sin of the poor. We are not excused from repentance and truth-telling simply because we may be marginalized. The poor must repent of their sins as much as the powerful. Decisions that inflict the self must be truthfully resisted as much as the decisions of others that harm. For The Ferguson Declaration to carry all the weight it should, it must call the Church to speak not only about the sullied history of the country but also the painful, sordid, and self-destructive things that take place in and among oppressed communities themselves. Those aspects of the community may be complex and result from many factors. But that complexity is what necessitates clearer truth-telling, including the truth about self-destruction. That truth makes us free, too.

32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (ESV)

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (ESV)

15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, (ESV)

25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (ESV)

32 and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (ESV)

19 thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life. (ESV)

For everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world—our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world except the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?

1 John 5:9-12

If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that he has borne concerning his Son. 10 Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning his Son. 11 And this is the testimony, that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. 12 Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life. (ESV)

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. (ESV)

15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, (ESV)

25 Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. (ESV)

15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, (ESV)

25:1 “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. 11 Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ 12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.

14 “For it will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away. 16 He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more. 17 So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. 18 But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them. 20 And he who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 And he also who had the two talents came forward, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me two talents; here I have made two talents more.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, 25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’ 26 But his master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed? 27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest. 28 So take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents. 29 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. 30 And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (ESV)

Open your mouth for the mute,
for the rights of all who are destitute. (ESV)

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
just and upright is he. (ESV)

The Lord within her is righteous;
he does no injustice;
every morning he shows forth his justice;
each dawn he does not fail;
but the unjust knows no shame. (ESV)

16 The Lord is king forever and ever;
the nations perish from his land.
17 O Lord, you hear the desire of the afflicted;
you will strengthen their heart; you will incline your ear
18 to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more. (ESV)

The Lord works righteousness
and justice for all who are oppressed. (ESV)

27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (ESV)

34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

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