Editor’s Note: This is the third in a four-part series exploring “the seductive nature of white supremacy” and Black Christian identity and faith. Part 1, “The Hound of Hell,” asks: How, then, do Black Christians currently in, or coming out of, White Christian spaces maintain our hope in the face of a coercive self-hatred and of bitterness, hostility, and despair? We take up part of the answer now. Part 2, “Breaking White Supremacy’s Grip,” calls the Black Christian to resistance against White supremacy.
Anger is not inherently destructive. My anger can be a source for good. My anger can be creative and imaginative, seeing a better world that doesn’t yet exist. It can fuel a righteous movement towards justice and freedom.
– Austin Channing Brown, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
Conversations about race in the church oftentimes suffer from an unwillingness to fully renounce the entire legacy of White supremacy. Meaning, they often center the benefits of reconciliation and forgiveness for the majority while hardly ever discussing benefits and potential pitfalls for the marginalized. What I deeply appreciate about Howard Thurman’s insight is its clear application beyond such majority-centering talk. He speaks directly to the disinherited, offering instruction for all those who find themselves in a weakened state. Thurman posits that the deadly and bitter fruit hatred bears is “blind and nondiscriminating.” While hatred begins by focusing on those responsible for the offense, Thurman makes it clear, “once hatred is released it cannot be confined to the offenders alone.” This reality has important implications for Black Christians.
One danger of a hatred-informed fight against the insufficient witness of White Christian spaces is the repeated centering of White institutions. Focusing our efforts on reforming particular institutions may pose as advocacy, but such efforts can sometimes fail to speak to the Black Christians most directly affected by an insufficient institutional witness. And, sometimes, a hatred towards White institutions boils over into the demonization of Black actors in them. On the other hand, one danger of a hatred-informed posture towards the Black Christian expression is an elevation of Whiteness that demonizes the diverse streams of the Black Christian expression, of Black theology, and of Black-led social movements. In either scenario, the centering of Whiteness is evident. And neither bodes well for an intentional Black solidarity that aims to see Black people thrive. To avoid succumbing to a spirit of hatred, we must submit our hearts to the freedom we’ve been given in Christ.
Freedom and Hatred
Our freedom in Christ frees us from being captive to a spirit of hatred. We see the dangers that such a captivity to sin presents for us in Galatians 5:7-9. With reference to Hebrews 12:15 and Deuteronomy 29:18— where both persons and doctrines produce bitter fruit— we are reminded of the poisonous nature of desires rooted in our flesh and their tendency to influence our immediate community. Such toxicity blinds us from recognizing the necessity of being watchful over our faith so that we may faithfully pursue the holiness of God both individually and communally. Thurman knew this, and for the disinherited who’ve been delivered from the chains of hatred by the blood of Jesus, he saw forgiveness as the key to exercising the love of God.
[The disinherited are] penalized for what [they are] in the eyes and standards of another. Somehow, [they] must free [themselves] of the will to retaliation that keeps alive [their] hatred. …It is clear that before love can operate, there is a necessity for forgiveness of injury perpetuated against a person by a group.
The forgiveness of our sins through Christ’s death and resurrection frees us from our captivity in sin. And this forgiveness demands that we forgive others (Matthew 18:21-35). We go from being a slave to sin to being called to a righteousness that “leads to sanctification and its end eternal life” (Romans 6:17-18). We are called from a life that gratifies the desires of the flesh to walk by the Spirit of God, marked by a particular fruit of which love is a portion (Gal. 5: 13-26).
Freedom and Forgiveness
Freedom in Christ, then, provides the Black Christian with the capacity to forgive injury in White Christian spaces. This forgiveness certainly does not nullify accountability. It does, however, submit to the justice of God. Recall Jesus’ act of forgiveness in Luke 23. In that moment, Jesus’ forgiveness “does not rule out justice,” as Dr. Esau McCaulley says in Reading While Black, “it speaks to what happens afterward.” The “afterward” McCaulley references is the resurrection— where death is defeated and the Christian finds hope. Jesus’ act of forgiveness on the cross prior to his coming resurrection gives us reason for hope, and, thus, the capacity to forgive. And when we struggle with this reality of forgiveness, or find ourselves in a discouraged state, Thurman provides us with an exhortation:
At the moment of injury or in the slow burning fires of resentment this may be poor comfort. This is the ultimate ground in which a profound, unrelieved injury is absorbed. When all other means have been exhausted, each in his own tongue whispers, ‘There is forgiveness with God.’
In fact, the freedom that comes from the path towards forgiveness drastically changes our advocacy for Black people in our pursuit of racial justice and racial unity. When the posture of our heart is bent towards walking in the Spirit, we begin to see our circumstances through a different lens. This transformed transcendence helps us see the pitfalls of a hatred-filled advocacy and redeems our response to racial trauma (i.e., repeated and untreated–personal or second hand–incidents of racism). As the scars from Jesus’ crucifixion remained with him after the resurrection, the wounds we have from our racial trauma remain with us forever. But these wounds serve a purpose. They remind us of what we have suffered, and they act as a testament— to ourselves and others— of the healing power of God.
This transformation, however, does not guarantee for us an instant or permanent healing here on earth. When we have been traumatized by the evils of racism and White supremacy— when we witness injustice or begin advocating for our fellow man— it is almost inevitable that we will remember our own trauma. I was recently reminded of the all too painful reality of such protracted trauma— trauma that has a long term impact— by Dr. Waltrina Middleton. Middleton, who has provided insightful pushback against mainstream rhetoric on forgiveness, speaks of a narrative that describes many White Christian spaces’ approach to forgiveness. From her own experience, she shared of being silenced, pitted against another victim of violent trauma, marginalized in her suffering, having her personal narrative suppressed, and being rushed into forgiveness as an act of being a “good Christian.” Far too many Black people in White Christian spaces have been subjected to this violent and sinful practice. In an interview with Faithfully Magazine following the Charleston church massacre, Middleton posed a question vital for all Black Christians who have suffered from racial trauma in White Christian spaces:
How do we get to a place of healing when we’re not even granted permission to lament and even take ownership of our own narrative?
Freedom to Heal
Whether we leave or stay, maintaining ownership of our narrative is essential to finding healing from the wounds of racial trauma. This means we are not required to rush past our lament towards some pseudo-healing that is based on others comfort and expectations. In our own healing process, it is our own wounds that help to inform our love for other Black people who experience racial trauma. Through our own wounds we are equipped to serve others in love as we follow our respective paths towards restoration— lamenting with one another along the way.
Freedom in Christ does not mean that we will not boil with anger in response to the sin of injustice. As Natasha Sistrunk Robinson writes, “anger is an appropriate response to sin because sin makes God angry. The wrestling within our souls is what to do with our righteous anger.” Through the Spirit of God we find the strength to resist walking in bitterness and hostility. This freedom makes room for forgiveness so that we may walk in the fullness of God’s love. For it is in forgiveness, as Thurman writes, that we “learn how to destroy [hatred in order to] to render [ourselves] immune to its domination.” The Spirit of God redirects our anger away from hatred and towards a righteous indignation.