The truth is there is no gospel and, conversely, no church – regardless of ethnic composition or denominational affiliation – apart from the life-changing message that ‘Jesus Saves’. It is that message which, I fear, is being lost as increasing numbers of black Christians become convinced that their primary loyalty is to an ecclesiastical legacy rooted in a socio-ethno missiology that emphasizes societal reformation apart from spiritual transformation.
“Big Bethel”, as it is affectionately and reverently known, was founded in 1847, the same year educator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass began publishing his anti-slavery newspaper The North Star, and the slave Dred Scott filed a lawsuit in St. Louis Circuit Court claiming his temporary residence in a free territory should have made him a free man.
But, I digress.
For all its notoriety as the oldest predominantly black congregation in Atlanta, Big Bethel is equally renown, if not more so, for a simple two-word message which, for nearly a century, has stood conspicuously affixed atop the church steeple against the backdrop of an ever-expanding Atlanta skyline.
It reads: Jesus Saves.
The message that “Jesus Saves” has been the clarion call of black Christians in America since their earliest exposure to Christianity in the 1600s. It is this unwavering, and perhaps unfathomable, faith in the redemptive power of the gospel that was the impetus for slave-poet Jupiter Hammon, the first black person in America to publish a work of literature (1760) and whose entire earthly existence was as a slave, to comment:
“Now I acknowledge that liberty is a great thing, and worth seeking for, if we can get it honestly, and by our good conduct, prevail on our masters to set us free; though for my own part I do not wish to be free, yet I should be glad, if others, especially the young Negroes were to be free. For many of us, who are grown up slaves, and have always had masters to take care of us, should hardly know how to take care of ourselves; and it may be more for our own comfort to remain as we are. That liberty is a great thing we may know from our own feelings, and we may likewise judge so from the conduct of the white-people, in the late war, how much money has been spent, and how many lives has been lost, to defend their liberty. I must say that I have hoped that God would open their eyes, when they were so much engaged for liberty, to think of the state of the poor blacks, and to pity us. He has done it in some measure, and has raised us up many friends, for which we have reason to be thankful, and to hope in his mercy. What may be done further, he only knows, for known unto God are all his ways from the beginning. But this my dear brethren is, by no means, the greatest thing we have to be concerned about. Getting our liberty in this world is nothing to our having the liberty of the children of God. Now the Bible tells us that we are all, by nature, sinners; that we are slaves to sin and Satan; and that unless we are converted, or born again, we must be miserable forever. Christ says, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God, and all that do not see the kingdom of God, must be in the kingdom of darkness.” – An Address to the Negroes of the State of New York, 1787
In excogitating these words of Hammon, the question naturally becomes: what could possibly have possessed a man, whose every breath of his existence on this earth was as someone else’s property, to see beyond his station in life to something that was of infinitely greater significance to him?
I believe this question to be germane to the current milieu in America, as many black Christians have begun to advocate a purely activist theology borne of a soteriology that proffers the idea that the preeminent, if not sole, mandate of the gospel is the pursuit of “social justice”, the manifestation of which is evidenced primarily by the bringing about of such realities as socio-ethno egalitarianism and the eradication of all human suffering and oppression, particularly of those whose melanin happens to be of a black or brown hue.
There are many black Christians today who, believe it or not, would assert that, collectively, the plight of black people in 21st century America is tantamount to that of Jupiter Hammon in the 18th century. This, I believe, is because words like slavery and oppression are applied so flippantly and, dare I say, ignorantly today as to divest them of their historical significance with regard to legitimate injustices that were perpetrated against God’s black and brown-skinned image-bearers (Gen. 1:27; Acts 17:26).
But at the risk of incurring the wrath of many who will read this blog post, particularly those who self-identify as social justice warriors (SJWs) or “race workers”, not every perceived injustice involving black people can be attributed to ‘racism’ (another term which, like slavery and oppression, is losing its force due to overuse.) Nonetheless, that is secondary to the matter of how blacks who profess to be Christian are to respond when injustice – as defined objectively in Scripture – does, in fact, rear its sinful and ungodly head (Lev. 19:15; Jer. 22:13).