Reconciliation that results in fruit that is in keeping with a repentant heart does not happen in a vacuum (Matt. 3:8). It is only as you and I are brought into right relationship with God through faith in His Son Jesus Christ that we are reconciled to one another (2 Cor. 5:18-19). Only as our hearts are made new by the power of the gospel of Christ are the prejudicial attitudes that foster ethnic discord among us are rooted out and crucified at the cross of the One whose life we are to selflessly and consistently model before a lost world (Gal. 2:20; 6:14).
As I write this, a line from the Prince song “1999” echoes in the recesses of my mind, “I was dreaming when I wrote this, forgive me if I go astray.” And though I’m not actually dreaming as I write this, I was awakened from my sleep with a sense of urgency to broach a subject that is of great concern to me personally. I do so in full awareness that it is a very sensitive topic for many, and it is my earnest prayer that I will not “go astray” in opining on it (Eph. 4:15a).
It could be argued, I believe, that the “black church”, a term which, according to PBS documentarian Marilyn Mellowes, “evolved from the phrase “the Negro church,” the title of a pioneering sociological study of African American Protestant churches at the turn of the [20th] century by W.E.B. Dubois”, was founded on anger–an anger that is entirely justified when understood against the biblical doctrine of the imago Dei (Gen. 1:27, 5:1).
As an entity, the black church came into existence by necessity not choice. It is the ecclesiastical by-product of an evangelicalism which, for decades, lived a lie, having been intoxicated by the moral rotgut of slavery, what Constitutional Convention delegate Gouverner Morris described in 1787 as a “nefarious institution”, as well as other forms ethnic discrimination against God’s darker-skinned image bearers. Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, exposed this hypocrisy when he said that, “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master. Revivals of religion and revivals in the slave-trade go hand-in-hand together. The slave prison and the church stand near each other.”
Conversely, abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison said in 1854 that, “If the slaves are not men; if they do not possess human instincts, passions, faculties, and powers; if they are below accountability, and devoid of reason; if for them there is no hope of immortality, no God, no heaven, no hell; if, in short, they are what the slave code declares them to be, rightly” deemed, sold, taken, reputed and adjudged in law to be chattels personal in the hands of their owners and possessors, and their executors, administrators and assigns, to all intents, constructions, and purposes whatsoever”; then, undeniably, I am mad, and can no longer discriminate between a man and a beast. The slave dealer gives his blood-stained gold to support the pulpit, and the pulpit, in return, covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity. Here we have religion and robbery the allies of each other—devils dressed in angels’ robes, and hell presenting the semblance of paradise.”
It is in light of this discriminatory milieu that the aforementioned Dubois confessed that he regarded the [white] evangelical church as “an institution which defended such evils as slavery, color caste, exploitation of labor and war.” It is that shared perspective of [white] evangelicalism that served in 2008 as the impetus for black liberation theologian and former pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, to pronounce the anathematic “God damn America!” upon this nation because of its history of slavery. And though not usually expressed in such malevolent terms as Wright’s, the sentiments inherent with his imprecatory malediction are nonetheless shared by many black Christians today. It is an indignation that is grounded not in actual sins committed against them personally, mind you, but a tribalist ethos which proffers that a shared ethnicity equates to a shared experience, regardless if that experience is historical (e.g. slavery) or contemporary (e.g. police violence).
It is an ethos to which I do not subscribe.
In a 2008 article published by The Atlantic, Jeremiah Wright declared that, “The prophetic theology of the black church has always seen and still sees all of God’s children as sisters and brothers, equals who need reconciliation, who need to be reconciled as equals in order for us to walk together into the future which God has prepared for us.” There is much in Wright’s theology that I find problematic. But what I find most concerning is that he exalts the need to be reconciled to one another “as equals” above the need to be reconciled to God (Rom. 5:10; 2 Cor. 5:20).