In this series of posts, we’ve been attempting to think about defending the Christian faith (“apologetics”) with a special concern for the kinds of issues raised by urban religious groups and cults. Unlike traditional Christian apologetics that focus on theological and philosophical issues, urban apologetics often require Christians to deal with existential issues unique to the Black experience. Before we’re able to parse the intricacies of the Trinity (if we ever have to), Christians in urban contexts must be able to answer more fundamental questions about the existence and purpose of Black people.
Urban Efforts at Black Restoration and Well-Being
Not surprisingly, many cult groups offer origin stories designed to root Black identity prior to the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Closely associated with those origin stories are claims to collective restoration and well-being in the African-American community.
For example, the Nation of Islam does not stop with claiming that the Black man is “the original Asiatic/Afro-Asiatic man,” they claim implicitly and explicitly that the psychological, social, economic and spiritual well-being of Black people follows from accepting that identity. Such groups are trying to answer the question, “How do we get black people well again after the holocaust of slavery, Jim Crow, etc?” They recognize that many of the problems in the community (a) are indeed problems, (b) need to be corrected, (c) must be corrected by Black people, and (d) must be corrected despite continuing onslaught of anti-Black forces.
The Nation of Islam built its reputation and its movement on the promise of restoring black men and women, black families, and black communities. Indeed, the Nation has helped many men formerly addicted to drugs, incarcerated, and checked out of society regain a sense of self-respect, live “clean” lives, and engaged in building the “nation” of Black people in America. Malcolm Little turned Malcolm X is only their most famous example. You can see the NOI’s emphasis on restoration and well-being in books like Elijah Muhammad’s How to Eat to Live.
This same emphasis on well-being and restoration comes in non-religious forms as well. You may remember comedian and author Dick Gregory’s efforts at selling dietary shakes and supplements. Naturalist Llaila O. Afrika’s African Holistic Health has been in print for over twenty years. These are some of the forerunners to naturalist, vegan and alternative health lifestyles in the African-American context.
Our dis-ease goes beyond the physical to include the psychological as well. That’s why books like Dr. Naim Akbar’s Chains and Images of Psychological Slavery or The Community of the Self and historian Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro are still being read in the African-American community.
Black people know we are not well. Sometimes people in the urban community charge Christianity with being a major player in the destruction of Black well-being. That’s why it’s a mistake to try to simply slide by black suffering with vague promises of “healing.” Christians must recognize and deal with the human brokenness experienced on a wide scale in many urban communities. The brokenness is real and restoration to well-being is critical. Many deeply long for it.
What Is the Christian Defense?
So how can Christians in the urban context mount a defense of the faith in light of urban concerns for restoration and well-being?
Answer the longing Intellectually. First, we must become familiar with the brokenness Black people suffer in this country. We must know something about the origins of that suffering as well as the current manifestations. If you’re a Black Christian familiar with apologetics, chances are you came into contact with the discipline among evangelical authors and churches. If that’s the case, there’s also the chance that the only explanation you’ve heard for Black suffering is “personal responsibility.” While there are always personal actions at play, personal responsibility does not begin to explain all the negative outcomes experienced on so large a scale in Black communities.
The would-be apologist who cannot converse about the continuing effects of slavery, segregation, mass incarceration and other large-scale evils that impact Black health will not be able to gain credibility in apologetic discussions in the urban context and will not be able to aid holistic restoration. So, first, pick up some articles and books on the health and well-being of urban communities. You might start with something like Dr. Chanequa Walker-Barnes’ Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength.
Answer the Longing Spiritually. Second, we must develop and apply the Christian gospel’s claims about restoration. In Christ, those who believe become new creations (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15) as God himself continues to make all things new (Rev. 21:5). Through Christ, we become temples in whom God lives by His Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19), so we are meant to glorify God with our body (1 Cor. 6:20). Through our Lord’s Incarnation, our physical bodies are dignified and through His resurrection our physical bodies will one day be glorified (1 Cor. 15:35-49).
What we have through Jesus Christ is a way of affirming the importance of well-being, a way of promoting restoration, and a way of enjoying that restoration forever. We have a way of satisfying the spiritual longing so many have for being made whole. We need a good theology of the body, very often neglected in Christian theology. But we also need to learn to make contact between that theology and the way that longing forBlack health and well-being expresses itself in urban movements.
Answer the Longing Practically. Cults that emphasize Black restoration and well-being actively disciple their adherents in new ways of cooking, eating, grooming and discipline. For example, Elijah Muhammad’s How to Eat to Live was a manual for changing the diets of NOI members. Christians enjoy freedom in many of these matters. But we do well not to destroy others by our unexamined use of freedom.
Churches in the urban context will need to add to their discipleship efforts some information and teaching on proper diet, healthy habits, and restorative lifestyles. Many do. But we’ll have to go farther in connecting our teaching on well-being to the biblical account of restoration in Christ and restoration for African-Americans in Christ. And we’ll have to help people walk that restored (or redeemed) life out practically. Texts like 1 Peter 4:1-6 will need to be more commonplace:
Since therefore Christ suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves with the same way of thinking, for whoever has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live for the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God. 3 For the time that is past suffices for doing what the Gentiles want to do, living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry. 4 With respect to this they are surprised when you do not join them in the same flood of debauchery, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.
The really wonderful thing is the Bible gives us sufficient instruction for not just refuting urban teaching but also embodying the best aspirations of that teaching. We don’t say it often enough, but the Bible offers the best prescription for the restoration and well-being of Black communities. We may overturn centuries of oppression from without and neglect from within by returning our communities to the Bible’s applied teaching on redeemed living.