When riots erupted in major U.S. cities in the 1960s, a young theologian took up pen in an effort to provide theological reflection to guide protests for full civil rights. The burned out storefronts and urban unrest prompted James Cone to ask some hard questions about the relevance of Jesus Christ and the Christian faith to the cries of marginalized African Americans. Cone followed an earlier theologian and pastor named Howard Thurman, whose Jesus and the Disinherited grappled with the same kinds of issues and informed a young Martin Luther King, Jr.
Each generation has to reflect on the truth of God for its day. Since suffering and systematic oppression have been enduring features of the African-American experience, it’s no surprise that African Americans keep coming back to questions of theodicy and the relevance of the Christian faith. Though some may lament the theological conclusions formed in these movements, the Lord seems to repeatedly stick his head into the upheavals to force the mistreated to reflect on Him and to force those doing the mistreatment to rethink their standing.
The Black Lives Matter movement seems to be another such time wherein the Lord butts in. Not surprisingly, some are attempting to provide theological ballast to the movement so that Christians might chart a Christian path for engagement. The reactive and shallow responses simply dismiss the movement for its secular or non-Christian aspects. But the thoughtful are attempting to engage those very issues in a redemptive and hopeful way.
One such effort comes from Rodney Thomas, Pierre Keys and Friends in their “The Ferguson Declaration: A Black Lives Matter Creed.” First published August 1, 2016, the authors offer the document as “an appeal to Christian congregations and Christians worldwide.”
The document begins with this short preamble: “We, the heirs of the Black Churches and their traditions, in the Spirit of the Prophets, the Apostles, and the Early Church.” This tells you something about the authors while hinting at their view of the Christian faith. They regard themselves as “heirs of the Black Churches and their traditions.” They see themselves in the stream of that Christian expression born of hush arbors and evangelical revival giving rise to many Black Churches and a variety of traditions. In other words, the Black Church is not one thing and what it means to be the Black Church cannot be reduced to one tradition. One can hold a share in that lineage without at every point agreeing or embodying one thing. Black people and Black Christians are not all alike. Can I get an, “Amen”?
But the preamble lays claim to the prophetic and apostolic tradition as well. Every Christian creed must do this in order to rightly be considered Christian. But this start alerts the reader to the authors’ soon-to-be-revealed assertion that early Christianity is revolutionary religion. The authors hint at the idea that the prophets, apostles and early church—were they with us today—would have something to say about the concerns of Black Lives Matter.
By implication, we’re left to consider right from the start whether our Christianity properly belongs to the traditions of Black Churches and the early church. That’s a claim that interrogates Christians today. But it’s also a claim that itself needs to be interrogated by the witness of those apostles and prophets, the holy Bible.
The document should be read and thoughtfully engaged. In a series of blog posts, I hope to do just that. I’m convinced that deep theological reflection is necessary for sustained effort toward true biblical justice. And that reflection will happen using the resources of the long Christian theological tradition while asking some questions and engaging some issues that most systematic theology has cared to include. I hope you’ll join me as we parse this important theological statement.
Grab a chair on the porch. Sit a spell and read The Ferguson Declaration. Then come back to talk with us.