Editor’s Note: I’m at the #Thriving/Frequency conference in Philadelphia this weekend. Lord willing, I’ll bring some live blogging (is that still a thing?) to The Front Porch. These will be raw notes and something approaching rough transcripts. They won’t be edited and the reader is cautioned to check out the audio when it’s available so that context and meaning can be maintained.
The conference featured many concurrent breakout sessions. I had the privilege of attending Dr. Charlie Dates’ session entitled, “The Legacy of the African-American Church.” Here are my notes from the workshop. Again, keep in mind context is key for meaning. I did not capture everything. But I hope it’s helpful in some way.
Thesis: Hope is discovered in the very conditions that cause despair. Being black in the context of the systemic oppression that is clear and real is a good thing. In that environment people discover real hope.
Romans 8:24—For in hope we have been saved. But hope that is seen is not hope, for who hopes for what he has seen?
Men are saved by hope. But men are also damned by hope. Hope in the wrong things cannot save. Part of the beauty of the African American church has been its pointing to hope in the correct thing. The church has pointed people to eternal life and heaven, but God also cares about the oppression and the bodies of men.
Some of the frustration of those who matriculated or matured in white evangelicalism comes from running into the fact that just because you have good orthodoxy it doesn’t mean you have good orthopraxy. You can be so caught up in chasing right doctrine that you can forge that the purpose of right doctrine is to teach people to live right.
I don’t think the gospel needs adjectives—prosperity gospel, social gospel, etc. But I do think we need application. The reason we have some of these adjectives is that people are looking for application.
The church I grew up in built the largest Sunday school in the country. The church ran 13 school buses that picked up children throughout the city.
The church then noticed that a lot of the small children needed a Christ based quality education. Because of property tax funding of public schools, these children would not get that education. So the church built a school from the ground up. It was the first AA church in Chicago to build a school. The members put their money where their hearts were. In worshipping the Lord, they developed a conviction about how their children should be treated. They wanted to give all the children a real shot.
The church does not run from despair but into despair preaching and proclaiming hope.
I’ve been to many places where people commend me for being faithful to both the scripture as a preacher and faithful to the Black cultural ethos and context. So I’ve been on a crusade to push back against the notion that there are no faithful black preachers in appreciable numbers around. We need to push back against the paternalism that says white evangelicalism gave us Jesus and we didn’t have Him before that.
“Chocolate people were believers before the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.” I’m not claiming all of Africa was Christianized—but neither was Europe. But on the continent of Africa there were people who were believers. Check the work of Dr. David Daniels.
Piper’s comment’s on the Truth’s Table interview with Lecrae proves we must understand our convictions biblically and socially even when they don’t comport with broader evangelicalism and Protestantism. The best way to handle our current moment is to have a deep grasp of the African American church’s history.
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows[a] there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
7 Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
8 O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
9 Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
The legendary Jasper Williams has a sermon on this text called, “Too Sad to Sing.” The argument he makes is “Can we be pushed to a point where the circumstances of culture and life make us too sad to sing the Lord’s songs?” In some regard, as Howard Thurman described us, we are the disinherited of this land brought here against our will. And yet in many Black churches you will find people singing and praising the Lord. We are “Singing in a Strange Land.”
There’s something about the calculated providence of God and His unstoppable sovereignty that gives us the freedom to keep singing even when we find ourselves in a strange land. Our forefathers not only felt that but did their best to flourish in the midst of it.
Frederick Douglass is one of my heroes. He was the first one to say in his own way, “Not my president.” In 1876, Douglass spoke at the commemoration of Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.
Fellow-citizens, in what we have said and done today, and in what we may say and do hereafter, we disclaim everything like arrogance and assumption. We claim for ourselves no superior devotion to the character, history, and memory of the illustrious name whose monument we have here dedicated today. We fully comprehend the relation of Abraham Lincoln both to ourselves and to the white people of the United States. Truth is proper and beautiful at all times and in all places, and it is never more proper and beautiful in any case than when speaking of a great public man whose example is likely to be commended for honor and imitation long after his departure to the solemn shades, the silent continents of eternity. It must be admitted, truth compels me to admit, even here in the presence of the monument we have erected to his memory, Abraham Lincoln was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man.
He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country. In all his education and feeling he was an American of the Americans. He came into the Presidential chair upon one principle alone, namely, opposition to the extension of slavery. His arguments in furtherance of this policy had their motive and mainspring in his patriotic devotion to the interests of his own race. To protect, defend, and perpetuate slavery in the states where it existed Abraham Lincoln was not less ready than any other President to draw the sword of the nation. He was ready to execute all the supposed guarantees of the United States Constitution in favor of the slave system anywhere inside the slave states. He was willing to pursue, recapture, and send back the fugitive slave to his master, and to suppress a slave rising for liberty, though his guilty master were already in arms against the Government. The race to which we belong were not the special objects of his consideration. Knowing this, I concede to you, my white fellow-citizens, a pre-eminence in this worship at once full and supreme. First, midst, and last, you and yours were the objects of his deepest affection and his most earnest solicitude. You are the children of Abraham Lincoln. We are at best only his step-children; children by adoption, children by forces of circumstances and necessity. To you it especially belongs to sound his praises, to preserve and perpetuate his memory, to multiply his statues, to hang his pictures high upon your walls, and commend his example, for to you he was a great and glorious friend and benefactor. Instead of supplanting you at his altar, we would exhort you to build high his monuments; let them be of the most costly material, of the most cunning workmanship; let their forms be symmetrical, beautiful, and perfect, let their bases be upon solid rocks, and their summits lean against the unchanging blue, overhanging sky, and let them endure forever! But while in the abundance of your wealth, and in the fullness of your just and patriotic devotion, you do all this, we entreat you to despise not the humble offering we this day unveil to view; for while Abraham Lincoln saved for you a country, he delivered us from a bondage, according to Jefferson, one hour of which was worse than ages of the oppression your fathers rose in rebellion to oppose.
How did African Americans handle this dichotomy and incongruence in what America promised and what it delivered? Again, Frederick Douglass, in the appendix to his autobiography, show us how this incongruence was handled:
I find, since reading over the foregoing Narrative, that I have, in several instances, spoken in such a tone and manner, respecting religion, as may possibly lead those unacquainted with my religious views to suppose me an opponent of all religion. To remove the liability of such misapprehension, I deem it proper to append the following brief explanation. What I have said respecting and against religion, I mean strictly to apply to the ~slaveholding religion~ of this land, and with no possible reference to Christianity proper; for, between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference–so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels. Never was there a clearer case of “stealing the livery of the court of heaven to serve the devil in.” I am filled with unutterable loathing when I contemplate the religious pomp and show, together with the horrible inconsistencies, which every where surround me. We have men-stealers for ministers, women-whippers for missionaries, and cradle-plunderers for church members.
There is a distinction that even our forefathers made between Christianity proper and the Christianity practiced in this land. I bring that up because we have to do the same thing. Patriotism to this land is not the same as being a Christ follower. Even though justice is a biblical idea, somehow or another we forgot that the words for righteousness and justice are in the same domain. But the evangelical has separated the two in the name of the church.
What about the sisters? You have heard of Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman. You remember Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. Women’s rights, liberation from slavery, these are consistent themes that have been strong throughout our history.
Harriet Tubman taking her gun to free more than 500 slaves and saying, “I would have freed more if they only knew they were slaves.” She dedicated her estate to an AME church in New York. She was a woman of faith.
What we have been bequeathed is not a church that got the gospel wrong. They got the culture right because they got the gospel right. The unrest we feel right now comes from recognizing that getting the doctrinal metrics right does not mean you get justice correct.
The question I have wrestled with is: How does Black theology empower our church practice and preaching to fully present the ethics of the gospel to a new generation?
Two years ago Laquan MacDonald was shot in Chicago and the young people of the city are outraged and ready to march. Black Lives Matter comes up and creates a separate march alongside a march led by church and civil rights leaders yelling, “Y’all don’t belong here. Your work is irrelevant.” I was wondering to myself, Who came up with marching as protest anyway. What kind of short historical memory must you have to say something stupid like that.
The motivation of the Civil Rights stalwarts was the Book (the Bible). The classic protests were founded on the truth of God. Now we have a generation ready to protest but not founded on biblical righteousness and justice. Here is the problem: You can never have justice where there is no righteousness.
This is why we need to be woke. This is why we need biblical fidelity and ethics in our DNA. If we don’t and if we get free, then we who were oppressed will become the oppressors.
This is where I think some things from Black theology must be appreciated. Cone was trying to say, “God cares about oppressed people,” to a religious American people who would not say this. This is my problem with the roots of American fundamentalism. This is my problem with the roots of American evangelicalism—which tried to rebrand itself from fundamentalism. It was never courageous enough to say these truths. Part of the reason why is certain people in American have benefitted from the oppression of other groups and it’s hard to let that advantage go.
We can make an argument that God cares for oppressed people but also the oppressors. And we can both experience the freedom that the gospel and Scripture brings us.
I’d recommend The Divided Mind of the Black Church. If you have evangelical convictions, you will not agree with everything. But you also need to read some things from outside evangelicalism. The question he raises is brilliant: Should we care about the slavery of sin or should we care about the sin of slavery? We have people so concerned about our slavery to sin that all we got to Romans 7 in a spiritual, ethereal way. Yes, that’s important because we can’t do anything if we don’t get liberated from the slavery of sin. But should we not also care about the sin of slavery? We need to care about both!
This is why we need young, emerging, passionate believers to study and write because we need more biblical and theological and social resources that come from people with indigenous black experiences. As long as we let others write our theology for us, as long as we leave that to people who have been dead from Europe and North Africa, we will miss helping a new generation catch an understanding of God’s word from a black framework and experience in a social context. There’s nothing wrong with that because every theologian writes from a social location.
The question, “Can all people do black theology?”, makes some privileged assumptions. It assumes that your theology isn’t white. How can I do your theology and you can’t do mine?
The formulation of doctrine, the exploration of relationships between doctrines, and the commitment to applying can lead to very different emphases, then you will forget your own people while you study the Bible. You will forget your neighbors who are trying to figure out how the word speaks to them in a relevant way and you’ll be trying to live in a world you’re not even in.
Black theology has effected and should affect how we preach. The rivers of our theology are impacting our preaching sometimes in ways that are unhelpful to the people we’re preaching to. Not every justice issue should make it into your sermon. But LaQwan MacDonald can be murdered with 16 shots down the street from your church and you don’t hear about it in your church, then something is wrong with that. If we don’t lovingly challenge our non-Black brothers and sisters who miss it, then we fail them too.
Current protests staged during the anthem ain’t about patriotism. It isn’t about the flag. Black people have fought in every war of this country. It’s about what many whites—including Christians—are missing. We cannot be afraid to preach and teach what the scripture requires regarding righteousness and justice.
When did concrete action to alleviate suffering and pursue justice become separate from our preaching? It’s not. It shouldn’t be.
Chicago, where I serve, is like the Black metropolis. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wife is from Chicago. We keep hearing “What about Chicago?” The reason stuff is broken in Chicago is not gun laws but systemic issues that have crippled the city. In five years 500,000 people left the south for Chicago alone. In 1966 the population of Blacks in Chicago had grown by 600 percent. More African Americans live in Cook County Chicago alone than the entire state of Mississippi. There are more black people living in housing projects of Chicago than Selma, Alabama.
That’s why King comes to Chicago to fight against housing inequities. The residue of this history of migration and broken social policy continues today.
The thing that thrived the most in Chicago was the Church. L.K. Williams of the historic Olivet Baptist Church hired two social workers to migrants at the trains during the Great Migration. They worked to help people find housing, jobs and community connections. The church saw their work as not just preaching on Sunday but meeting people right where they were.
This is how gospel music emerges from Chicago. The confluence of folks from the south with blues and jazzy sounds with Baptist churches ends up with Thomas Dorsey writing “Precious Lord” and the birth of Gospel.
This is not a political statement. It was the church (Salem Baptist Church of Chicago) that gave him the platform when nobody knew his name. The church gave him a leg up in the state. The night he won the U.S. Senate seat the first place he visited was the church. The first African American president didn’t have capital in the state capitol; he got it from the black church.
Don’t forget the black church. Don’t forget to serve her, give to her, and to become a part of her.