Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The Legacy of the African-American Church: Faith

How would you define "faith"? How would you know faith when you see it?

Though I think many people could give some general definition of faith, I think it remains a misty concept for many others. It's an intangible. Most folks think you either have it or you don't. Even though we may talk of little faith or great faith, do you feel that sometimes "little faith" is simply a nice pseudonym for "no faith in reality"?

Sometimes life is harder than steel. Sometimes life mangles and twists us like so many guard rails smashed by speeding, out-of-control vehicles. And in those times of hardship, we discover what faith is and whether we have it.

I'm convinced that perhaps the greatest example of genuine faith in American Christian history is the example left by African Americans who love the Lord. The situation most African-Americans live in now was the stuff of dreams just 50 years ago. Recede further into the history, past Jim Crow, past Reconstruction, past the abolitionist movement, on back to Jamestown and you find a people dragged into "history as terror" or "daemonic dread" as one author put it. He asked, "Who do you pray to in the bowels of a slave ship?"

It's a good question.

In time, many Africans sold as chattel in the New World prayed to the One True God through Jesus Christ His Son and entered into eternal life. Howard Thurman, a famed theologically liberal African-American pastor and educator, had it right when he pointed out that the greatest irony of American history was that the slaves should pray to the master's God.

But that irony is why the African-American church's legacy of genuine, biblical, God-centered faith is so rich and necessary to recover and esteem. Read slave conversion testimonies in a work like Clifton Johnson's God Struck Me Dead, or the poetry of Phillis Wheatly, and all you find is soul-deep, God-longing faith in the face of life as hard as steel, as stinging as the lash, as cruel as pregnant bellies ripped open, as horrendous as black bodies burned and swinging from trees, as tragic as young men hobbled and amputated, as wrenching families split and wives raped.

How do you survive such an existence? How do you survive such an existence without checking out of reality? How do you survive such an existence without checking out of reality while knowing that "trouble won't last always"? How do you survive such an existence without checking out of reality while knowing that "trouble won't last always" and simultaneously working for a better day? How do you endure such an existence without exploding in hate toward others? How do you endure such an existence and make any sense of "love your enemies"? How do you endure such an existence and sing and dance and love and create and laugh?

Only by believing that God is good, that He controls all events, that His justice will prevail, that vengeance belongs to Him, that He hears the cry of the oppressed, that social standing is no proxy for God's love, that life in His image is infused with dignity even when others don't think you're human. Only by believing those things and trusting God himself do you survive such atrocities, and not only survive but thrive and contribute.

It was faith in God through Jesus that sustained the African-American church. I sometimes think we don't know how to trust God deeply because we've not suffered deeply. In fact, God thinks that of us. That's why suffering is such a central part of the Christian experience. It breeds trust in God and distinguishes genuine faith its superficial counterparts.

So where does a rich and largely suffering-free generation like ours look for instruction in persevering faith? We have to look to those who have suffered horrifically yet trusted God implicitly. Modern examples exist. But as the U.S. celebrates African-American history month, the domestic parable so glaring and glorious is that of the African-American church which by faith endured bombings, lynchings, cross burnings, sharecropping, Jim Crow, Bull Connor, the Ku Klux Klan, chattel slavery, disenfranchisement, Black Codes, auctions, marches, sit ins, ghettos in the north, plantations in the south with no visible means of support, only a sometimes quiet, sometimes singing, sometimes mourning, sometimes active, sometimes ridiculed, sometimes shut out, sometimes demonstrating, all the time preaching faith in God.

If Hebrews 11 were still being written today, the chapter would be twice as long for its inclusion of now forgotten black faces that would have to be included for their heroic faith in God. What did Moses have on Harriet Tuman, Abraham on Jupiter Hammond, Gideon on Nat Turner, Isaac on Denmark Vesey, or Sampson on George Liele? Nothing.

At her finest, the African-American church offers the most compelling example of centuries-long persecution-triumphing trust in God. May we learn from her and live like her.


Jerry Wall said...

Thanks, Thabiti, for a powerful post. What powerful examples of faith! In the midst of such a cloud of witnesses, may we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus.

Anonymous said...

Thabiti, thanks for doing this Black History Month series on the Black Church. i'm looking forward to reading more.

BUT, i'm gonna have do to you what you did to Deepak-- Not so fast. You can't include Nat Turner and Denmark Vessey in the Hall of Faith "and then just move on like that was some obscure footnote to an archaic Latin manuscript. We want the goods man!" Ha! Ha!

Anyway, i think you hint at this point in your post, but just to make it more explicit-- i think that the doctrine of the Incarnation was pivotal in helping black Christians endure such hardship and affliction. i remember having a conversation with an (atheist) friend several years ago and we were discussing how so many of her ethnic people have retreated to atheism in response to the horrific sufferings they have endured. It occurred to me that blacks in America during slavery and Jim Crow could have responded the same way, but on the whole, did not. Why? i think faith in the Incarnation, in part, helps to answer this question. The professed God of the slave master was still Immanuel—-God with us. And this makes a profound difference in the face of suffering. And even more, this Incarnate God became the Suffering Servant. The life giving and hope-sustaining force of these realities for those who believe seems to be the idea that is captured in the Negro spiritual "Nobody knows the trouble i've seen...nobody knows like Jesus." Negro slaves retreated to the reality of these words long before Edward Shillito ever penned the lines "But to our wounds only God's wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone" or John Stott (in the Cross of Christ) compared the detached Bhudda to the "twisted, tortured figure on the cross" and said "That is the God for me!"

Viola Larson said...

Thanks for this, I have linked to it on my blog. Naming His Grace