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 , “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 d--n 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, “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).
Study closely the landscape of 21st-century evangelical social justice activism or, as I prefer to call it, social justicism, and you will find that much of what that agenda advocates ideologically is based on that same order of emphasis: reconciliation with each other over reconciliation to God. But that one point of contention notwithstanding, Wright does touch on something that I fear many black evangelical social justicians are either overlooking or ignoring altogether.
With all due respect to Wright’s utopian visage of humanity, the problem of the human race is that it has been attempting to “walk together” apart from God since the Garden of Eden (Gen. 3). As Christian author and apologist C.S. Lewis wrote , “[And] out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
In expressing their collective resentment over the current state of “racial discord” in America, one question no one seems to be asking is: by whose standard of morality must we be reconciled to each other in the first place? Perhaps a predecessor question would be: what is it that necessitates this ethnologic rapprochement to begin with? Was there a time in history when humanity existed in a universal state of conciliation with one another? If so, when did it cease to exist? What dismantled it and how? To answer to these and other such questions is also to find the answer to what is at the root of the anger that is being harbored by many black evangelical social justicians today; and only in the pages of Scripture is that answer to be found.
It was the Puritan Richard Baxter who said, “He who is not a son of peace is not a son of God. All other sins destroy the church consequentially; but division and separation demolish it directly.” Conversely, the 19th-century preacher and evangelist D.L. Moody remarked, “I have never yet known the Spirit of God to work where the Lord’s people were divided. ” In our efforts to achieve reconciliation, whether ethnic, social, political, cultural, or otherwise, what we must remember first and foremost is that the very idea of reconciliation is wholly antithetical to our nature as fallen human beings. As God said to Noah, “…the intent of man’s heart is evil from his youth (Gen. 8:21b).”
Contrary to the teachings of Scripture, the world would have us to believe that we are capable in and of ourselves of bringing to fruition the kind of reconciliation being called for by many evangelical social justicians. But if that were remotely possible, I would not be writing nor, conversely, would you be reading, this commentary. God’s Word is clear that the reason we hate each other is because we are sinners. We enslave one another because we are sinners. We discriminate against each other because we are sinners (Mk. 7:17-23). To ignore this truth is to be willingly naïve to what is truly at the heart of the sinfully biased structures, systems, and institutions that have cast a pall over this nation for hundreds of years.
The Word of God declares immutably that “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God (Jas. 1:20)." If the righteousness of God–which essentially is what every black evangelical social justician wants–is ever to be realized in today’s society, it is not through anger that it will be accomplished. God’s people, of every ethnicity, are told to “let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice (Eph. 4:31).” Those words of the apostle Paul are expanded upon by Jeremiah Johnson of Grace To You, who says , “Clearly corruption, depravity, and sin aren’t the most delightful things to think about. That’s why many pastors avoid such topics like the plague. But it is vital to have the right perspective on those issues because a biblical understanding drives us to guard against distraction and keep at the work of God’s kingdom. Rightly understanding the world around us ought to motivate us to invest in God’s people and work for His purposes in this ruined world.”
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 Christ (Gal. 2:20).
Anger-infused demonstrations do not accomplish this. Vengeance-driven protestations do nothing to mortify the sin that gives birth to the discriminatory attitudes that seek to divide God’s people (Rom. 16:17). Only as sinners are converted by the supernatural power of the gospel of Jesus Christ–the same gospel that changed your heart from one of stone to one of flesh (Eze. 36:26-27)–will there be the kind of reconciliation that is real and lasting, that leads not only to changes in laws and policies but in hearts and minds (Rom. 12:2-3; 1 Jn. 4:20).
By the grace of God, I am a Christian (Eph. 2:8-9). By the providence of God, I am a black man (Acts 17:26a). I share the righteous indignation of my brothers and sisters in Christ over the injustices that occur in this sinful world. Nevertheless, as followers of Christ, we are called to respond to injustice not in anger, but in a manner that testifies to an ungodly world the power of the gospel to reconcile us to God so that we can be reconciled to one another (Eph. 2:14-18).
Humbly in Christ,
Darrell B. Harrison
This post first appeared here on Darrell B. Harrison's blog site and was reprinted with permission.