Over the years, I've become privy to the truer relationship between the church and black people. Initially, I thought only black people went to church - or at least mainly black people - and white people didn't. I was clearly wrong. The church is filled with every colour, and that is an amazing thing. But, though colour is celebrated in the universal church, it is not so much celebrated in some individual ones. I've been in many different church environments to know implicit segregation and minor aggression when I see it... and sometimes, even outright racism.
Whether I've been in predominantly black or white church spaces, I see the sociological impacts that race has on that space. I see how sociology impacts not only theology and doctrine, but also the application of faith.
Over more recent times, I've seen many black people leave the church and stop believing in Jesus... because they are black. They perceive that there is a mismatch in the idea of being both black and Christian. For them, the two labels open up a can of worms, leaving many unanswered questions like:
How can I read the same scriptures that were used to justify the horrenderous treatment of my ancestors/ancestral counterparts?
Why must a black man pray to a white Jesus?
Don't the KKK believe in Jesus too?
How can I go to church with explicitly/implicitly racist people?
Why do so little Christians that speak up against racism?
Is being black and being a Christian even compatible?
There are so many questions that are asked and that I've asked myself. But, I've not left the faith. And that got me thinking. I spent a whole year at Bible a College and received heaps of minor aggression. I received a few shouts from afar in Southern Accents with racial undertones. One of my roommates during my first semester had some confederate flag merch. But I still believe in Jesus with full conviction and faith. My main aim is still to proclaim His death, burial and resurrection. But, why?
That's what I want to answer in this post. How is it possible to be black and Christian? There are some reasons I have for you to consider.
Before I start I'd like to note that my reasoning does not naturally answer all the questions above, and that's not my intent. Some of the questions deserve more attention and are complicated.
I would also like to make a few things clear. I am not an 'Uncle Tom', nor am I a slave to the white man's religion or to the white man's psychological whip. I am not blind to the world's history of racism, nor am I blind to the church's history of treatment of people of my own skin colour. I am not and never have been in the sunken place. I am a black man, wide awake to injustice, and though I do not see all things or have all the answers, I know the One who does. I am a brother who was searching for truth, and has found it in - not the white, brown-haired and blue-eyed Jesus - but in the immigrant, unappealing-looking, son of a Jewish mother, pre-eminent, incarnate Jesus.
It is also important that I give my truest sympathy. And to let the reader that disagrees with me know, I understand where you're coming from.
I have 4 points. I don't aim for them to be exhaustive.
Point 1: There is not a black absence in Scripture.
Often, when we think of biblical characters, we think of white - or at least lighter-skinned - men with long beards wearing biblical looking clothes. We’ve seen these since we were young. We still see them. When we see Roman Catholic Art that depicts the hand or the face of God, or Jesus and the disciples or Mary or Angels, they have the usually lack of melanin. Even in TWO THOUSAND AND FOURTEEN, Ridley Scott couldn’t even get it right in his latest biblical film, Exodus: Gods & Kings where almost every main character was white white white… in Egypt.
This causes many to think that the Bible doesn't really include black people at all. But, it must be said that this is not the fault of Scripture, but whitewashing is man's doing. This is very evidently so in the whitewashing of biblical characters. We literally grow up thinking the Bible is full of just white people - but such a notion is absolutely false.
I want to demonstrate this with one biblical character in particular. We’ve seen this biblical character, almost in all his glory (and his wife in almost all her glory too). The first biblical character you met when you were a child… Adam.
As always, when you picture Adam in your head, you picture a white man with brown hair. This is typically what you’d see in Children Bible Stories or Bible Illustrations. However, if one pays attention to biblical interpretation, that depiction doesn’t match up with what scripture has to say.
I’m not going to dig incredibly deep, but some strong inferences can be made. The meaning of Adam’s name describes it not only as ‘mankind’ but also as ‘the red one’, ‘ruddy’, ‘red’ or ‘hue’, which is in strong agreement with the fact that Adam was made from the dust of the earth (Gen. 2:7). For certain, according to the Bible, Adam was a man of colour. Probably not what we might describe as white. Other studies show that it is certainly not unreasonable to infer that Adam was what we would refer to today as black. What may be unreasonable would be to infer that Adam and Eve were white.
Now, this point in particular is not to connote black supremacy or superiority, but is to show from the get-go, black people or people of colour are at the beginning of the biblical narrative. This potentially opens up the heart of many who feel rejected by scripture and deceived by those who claim to accurately depict scripture. Black people are not ignored by the Bible and shouldn’t feel like we are. It is a shame that many children’s Bible-book creators whitewash biblical characters. Such behaviour is highly insensitive to the identities of black and ethnic families and their children.
This point also rains on the parade of white supremacists who believe that those of white skin are inaugural or superior, yet claim to hold on to biblical truths. The two just don't match up.
Adam and Eve surely are not the only characters of colour in the Scriptures, so we can infer that there are plenty other coloured characters that are present in other biblical stories.
Knowledge that black people are not absent in the biblical narrative, and are therefore not absent in the sight of God revitalises my faith, because it denotes that God knows the struggle of black people well. It also reminds me that we are not to say ‘I don’t see colour’, but we are able to acknowledge and celebrate God’s unique and particular creativity through the creation of the colour palette of humanity.
2. Modern black Christianity does NOT start with slavery
There is a popular misconception that the Atlantic Slave Trade was the introduction of Christianity to the continent of Africa. In a few words, this is untrue.
Whether many people like to believe it or not, Africa was one of the first places to be impacted by the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have two scriptures from Acts.
Acts 8: 26-40: Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. The Gospel is shown to be preached here to an Ethiopian, an African. He is shown to have accepted the message of the Gospel (v. 37)! A heart changed by the Gospel will share what has changed the heart, and there is some relation between this event and the fact that Ethiopia is one of the first Christian countries as a result of God’s grace through this instance. The Gospel was carried back to the continent of Africa! That's not something your local five-percenter would tell ya.
Not sufficed? Then let's turn to Acts 2:6-41. The Holy Spirit having descended upon the disciples causes them to speak in different languages and share the truth of God’s goodness in the mother tongue of many others. (God cared about colour, ethnicity and language!) There were Greeks, Jews, Arabs, Asians (particularly within the region of modern day Iran, Turkey and so on), and yes, there were black people, and in particular - Egyptians and Libyans (v.10). After Peter spoke, 3000 people believed upon the name of Jesus (v.41). Here, we see the Gospel has reached Africans, and we can infer that they went back home and spread the good news of Jesus in their own home land. (We can infer this also from Coptic Christianity in Egypt and Christianity’s presence in Libya since the Roman Empire).
Unless one is willing to deny this in the face of evidence, it is clear the Gospel of Jesus reached the continent of Africa wayyyy before the Atlantic Slave Trade ever did. More evidence shows that Christianity’s growth in the Roman empire would have affected many who lived within the Empire (which included black citizens and other citizens of diverse ethnicities). Many would have heard the Gospel or known of it from Christians who were on mission.
Not only is the black face in the general biblical narrative, but it was included in and also contributed to the redemption narrative through the spreading of the Gospel within the first century! Not the fifteenth, the first.
3. Christ and His Scripture stand against injustice
It is common for a naysayer to bring up the injustices of slavery to disregard and indict the Bible’s teaching. But scripture is clear that it contextually condones, but is against slavery, especially that of the Atlantic slave trade.
What is not common is for naysayers to bring up how the scripture calls for peace; how it looks forward to the final judgement for all sinners (including racists and wicked slave owners), how it hates injustice and sin, and the fact is, the Holy Scriptures paved the way for many pushes toward racial reconciliation. Many look to MLK without noticing that his driving force was based upon Christ and His scriptures. This movement produced monumental change even if those changes have not gotten us where we want to be even in 2017.
But even before that, naysayers don’t even think to acknowledge that it was the BIBLE and God's Holy Spirit that convicted hearts and prompted the abolition of slavery. It was not an Islamic or Atheistic thesis that brought to light the fact that black people are dignified humans made in the image of God, it was the infallible word of Christ that brought that to light. The abolition of slavery was pioneered by many Christians!
Jesus Christ throughout His earthly life showed love to those that were belittled and neglected by society, and He still does. He hates oppression (Prov. 14:31, Ps. 94:1, Zec. 7:10), yet loves justice (Ps. 103:6, Ps. 146, 7-9, Ps. 9:9); He cares for His people (Ps. 72:4, Matt. 6:32); He cares for those who believe in Him, and not only that they may see eternal life, but He cares for their earthly life also (Luke 12:7, Matt. 7:9-11). Jesus in no way condones the racism we see today. Scripture calls for the vindication of the afflicted. (Is. 1:17, Ps. 146:7, Matt. 5:4), it condemns and warns those who commit injustice (Is. 10:1-3); Scripture reminds us that though while the justice system is unjust, God is not (Ps. 146:7-9, Is. 61:8), he cares for those who are oppressed (Ps. 9:9), and He is not blind to affliction (Ex. 3:7). This God can be trusted, and so can His scriptures. His scriptures address the issue of social justice.
What must be clearly and openly noted is that there are many misuses of scripture. This is evident in slavery: the bible never called for a slave trade and can not aptly justify one; it speaks contextually on the issue and outworking of slavery within the Old Testament historical setting and the Greco-Roman world which is immensely different to our 21st Century conceptions. However, none of these ultimately or sufficiently take away from the authenticity and inspiration of the Bible, but only proves to show how detrimental it may be if not used properly.
Though these truths from scripture are present, it might be added that many members of Christ's body do not speak up about racism and injustice. It is difficult hearing/seeing white brothers and sisters in the faith say that “maybe if he complied they wouldn’t have shot him”, or paying near-religious homage to old church and historical christian authors, but never acknowledge that some of those authors were racist, and even owned slaves. However, scripture makes it clear that neglect of and silence toward social issues is wrong and unloving. And such is sin (Habakkuk 1:13). I believe the Lord Himself is working upon the hearts of racist brothers and sisters in such a time in where the conversation on social justice is much more prevalent.
4. The reality of the human condition
My final point is the hinge upon which all the other points sit.
The fact is, race is not everything. Race is only one part of life. Race is not and cannot be the driving force behind why I believe anything, and if it is, I may fall into the danger of having race as my god, rather than the god I say I believe in. With that said, I am certain that though race is not the driving force behind belief or what I think about God, true Christianity is not ignorant of race - it does not dismiss race with a colourless indifference, but it addresses it and provides answers for it.
Now, many people (especially those who were formerly Christian) have turned to Black, Pan-African religions or to some kind of black spirituality. Some believe that the black woman is god. Some believe the black man is god. Both are interesting concepts but are so heavily wrong it doesn’t qualify a response. Some have sought to study Egyptology and delve into how that relates to the black struggle today. In my personal opinion, many black religions/spiritualities in the West (again, in my opinion) fall into one of two categories that sometimes overlap. These categories are: pretentious belief and racial defensiveness.
Pretentious belief refers to those who spend a lot of time on social media talking about blackness and social issues while bashing the Bible, Christianity and white people, pretending to be intellectual and socially conscious. The funny thing about these people is that they usually don't have that much of a clue about what they're on about, and follow trends with meaningless jargon. A lot of their claims hold very little basis, and are strung upon presumption and straw-man arguments that help them to deny or attack Christianity (I say Christianity in particular because no other religion is condemned by such people like Christianity). I’m being a bit harsh but the truth is the truth. People these days chat rubbish.
The other category, racial defensiveness, describes the formation of a religion in reaction to racism and oppression. This is evident in Black Liberation Theology which reinterprets most, if not all of the Bible in reaction to the oppression felt by blacks. Other beliefs in effort to combat the racist god-complex of white supremacists or aryan religions gain a god-complex themselves and create black supremacist beliefs. It is very understandable as to how such a belief can be formed, especially in oppression. But if a belief is only based upon race or interprets everything through the lens of racial oppression, then it is easily and foreseeably shorthanded.
Like I said earlier, race is not everything, it is only one part of life. The fact is that race and the problem of racism is social constructed. Human beings are more than their colour and ethnicity. Race only has so much significance in defining who we are, and at some point we must put it aside and consider the ultimate question: how has God revealed Himself to us and how have I responded?
And this is the reason why I haven’t turned to black religions or spiritualities. Racism is only a symptom of a greater problem, which is sin. If a doctor gets rid of a symptom while a terminal disease is underlying, it would be fatal. In the same way, if the only goal of religion is racial conquest or superiority, then it can not do any of us any good. What many black religions/spiritualities fail to address is the issue of sin. Sin is universal in all people regardless of their colour. If we believe in God and that He has attributes not only like love but others such as goodness, righteousness or justice, we must face up to the question, how do I fair with God? Do I walk rightly with Him or have I forsaken His laws and teachings? Sadly, all of humanity is the latter, not the former. WE have all broken God’s law and if we stood before Him, we would be condemned to hell. That is what is neglected by race-focused religion. It becomes so focused on this life it cannot fathom the next.
Christianity addresses not only the issue of race, but it shouts on the issue of salvation because it is infinitely more important. Mankind, who is in sin cannot please God or get into heaven by good deeds. But God, in His love for sinners, both for the oppressed and oppressor gave Himself to pay for their sins that guilty sinners may be presented innocent before God, with the assurance that He will not only save them but keep them until the end of time. In this life, through God's purifying and sanctifying work in the believer, He can even turn the heart of prejudice and racist people.
No matter your colour, you have to stand before God in judgement. Who do you place your hope in? This question cannot be answered by your colour.