A month ago I wrote a poem for my writing group that used the term “Black Christian”. My friend, Kwanzaa, asked what I meant by it. So for an entire month her question has rolled around the back of my mind—time to bring it to the front, and just in time for the March on Washington. I write this to define what I see in myself as a Black Christian, but all Christians of every color and background, shaped by all sorts of historical and socio-political forces, are called to the work of reconciling all things back to God.
Parsing the term, I want to deal with what Black means, ambitious though that is. I reject the term African-American; I don’t know Africa and it doesn’t know me, separated as we are by more than 400 years. Anyone may feel free to argue, as it would be a worthwhile discussion, so the following is my personal analysis.
‘Black’ is first and foremost a social construct created by the confluence of historical, social and political forces acting upon people of the African diaspora in America. These forces are subtle, powerful, entrenched and expansive, working on me and others of a certain color to create what we call ‘Black’. Something stirs deeply in my soul when I stand before the Lincoln and MLK Memorials. Something wrenched my heart when I saw the slave quarters underneath the first “White House” of George Washington in Philadelphia. Simply because it may be a social construct does not make it wrong or to be rejected—only defined.
What does it mean to be Black? Jesus is the light by which I see everything as it is, so it is impossible for me to define Black to you outside of the revelatory light of Jesus. God is sovereign over the long arc of history, and thus, over these forces I mentioned. God does not cause suffering, people do. What God has done in the history of Blacks in America is to take sufferings and work out good for those that love him. He carved out of history a prophetic people—Black people.
God has a record of working history to make a people for himself. He has always selected certain individuals, certain peoples, for certain times, in certain places, to achieve certain objectives. God used the enslavement of Abraham’s descendants in Egypt to judge that nation and deliver a people for himself. He gave them laws, culture and identity that set the stage for Jesus. Ancient Israel was a down-payment on the coming kingdom of God. An imperfect one to be sure, but it set the stage for Jesus.
Paul said that at just the right time, Christ died for the ungodly. God selected out of the long arc of history Joseph and Mary, born of the tribe of Judah, descendants of David, citizens of Judea, a backwater province of the Roman Empire. He took on flesh and became a man, born in Bethlehem, raised in a nothing town like Nazareth, in the early 1st century. At just the right time God did much more than carve out of history a people for himself, he broke into history and created an entirely new people for himself—Christian people.
Christians are new creations born from the blood of Jesus Christ as sons and daughters of the Father God, inheritors of the kingdom of God empowered by the Holy Spirit to redeem all things back to God and usher in the fullness of the kingdom. The kingdom of God is not a place with boundaries, nor a people with their institutions or divisions, nor is it the Church—the kingdom is wherever Jesus is, and he is still at work, filling all things with his active, powerful presence.
America stands at a certain place in history. From our founding the “slavery question” and the “Negro problem” has haunted us like a specter. Long ago sinful choices were made to enslave Africans to work cotton fields in the South, to institutionalize racism, and to exploit the poor to enrich the powerful. But the kingdom of heaven has been at work to redeem America back to God since that time.
It started with the gospel’s spread among Black slaves who defied norms and punishments to read the Bible. The story of Moses and the deliverance out of Egypt resonated with us and we saw in Jesus our deliverer, putting our hope in him. God broke into history and created for himself a prophetic people uniquely designed to call America to its better angels and usher in the kingdom.
There is no haughtiness in this. This calling has brought a war on the Black community in the form of slavery, racial terrorism, Jim Crow, crack cocaine, ghettoes, and the visiting of other trials and temptations. We suffer and persevere through these that we may carry around in our bodies the death of Jesus, so that we may present his life.
So what is a Black Christian? She carries on the work of Jesus within his unique place in history as a Black person. He has an obligation inherited by those who went before to preach justice, redemption, forgiveness, nonviolence—the Sermon on the Mount—and the kingdom coming to a nation bent on hellish exploitation of the poor, marginalized and defenseless. Surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, she has no recourse other than to fulfill the vow inherited from the Lord, and to resist sin until the shedding of blood, for without it there can be no forgiveness of sins.
There are two kingdoms in the world: the kingdom of sin and the kingdom of God. The latter has already supplanted the former and is filling all things. The question is: will you and I join with Jesus in his mission to redeem all things back to God?
We have an opportunity before us as America commemorates and continues the March on Washington. We march on not just to achieve Dr. King’s dream, or even to fulfill the ideals of our Constitution, but to fulfill the mission of Jesus to bring the kingdom of heaven to earth. Let us march on ‘til victory is won.