I was always an intelligent person. Always seeking knowledge, always reading, always thinking and debating with myself. For as long as I can remember, I've allowed myself to wrestle with and work through any intellectual phenomena that piqued my interest. Thankfully, Christianity is not a mindless religion. I understand God most in my intellectual person. I enjoy the emotional and communal parts of my Christian experience, but I know Jesus more when He allows Himself to be known by me. The kind of knowing that makes logical sense. The kind of knowing that answers all my questions while creating more. Ever since I could read, I've always approached God and His Word as something to discover and unfold through study and inquiry. I simply LOVE theology!
I also love being Black. I love Black music. I love black television and movies. I love Black books. I love Black history. Our people, our stories, our heritage! My God! I get goosebumps just thinking about His grace toward me in choosing me to be Black. This is not the moment where I create a disclaimer about how great other races are. I am unapologetically Black and nothing else, and therefore I only experience other cultures to the extent I want to. I don't have the credibility to say being ___________ is amazing. That's your job, if you live in another cultural context. As for me, I continue to praise God for writing this melanin into our personal love story.
Anyway, as with anything in this world, there are also some things I struggle with as a Black person and Christian. Both identities share some horrendous legacies. Whether you are Black or are Christian, or both, there are things about our peoples' pasts that we are ashamed of. It is particularly complex for me as I identify with a particular theology that is mainly occupied by the White middle-class and has been traditionally upheld by the oppressors of my race. I still enjoy reading the theological reflections of the Puritans. I appreciate the theological commitment of 20th century Protestant churches, but I remain a bit bitter about their actions (or lack of) during the Civil Rights Movement. Even now, some of us Christians treat other humans, who we are called to love, very poorly in the name of defending the truth of God. Some of my supposed brothers and sisters, who are called to share my burdens, will take a "gospel-centered" stance on everything except whether or not I matter. On the other hand, my heritage as a descendant of Africa is not spotless. Africans enslaved other Africans. Africans sold other Africans to the traders that got me here. Black people have sabotaged their own freedom from Nat Turner to now. We have glorified the very things that kill us and villainized those of our own who didn't conform to our degradation. More recently, Black people have made Christianity an enemy, and attempted to insult or even slander anyone who, like me, is unapologetically Christian.
How then am I, in view of all of this, to reconcile my love for God, His Word, and His people with my love for the Trans-Atlantic descendants of Africa? How is Christianity going to help me survive and succeed as a Black woman? How should these two identities meet and dignify a person? Since I can't escape being Black, why should I label myself as Christian?
In his book Beyond Liberation, Carl Ellis Jr. does an UH-MAY-ZING job of explaining how Christianity has helped shape the most beautiful and dignifying parts of my Black heritage and has the power to further create the truest liberation for my people, the way God intended for us to enjoy. More than anything, he affirms the belief that God gives common grace and one of the ways we see that most is in the beauty of different cultures. My cultural heritage as a descendant of Africa allows me to express my love for God in distinctly African ways that are true to my identity as a Black woman, but also loyal to my love for God and His Word.
More than anything, Paul reminds us of our duty to boast in nothing but the cross. So my purpose is not to boast in being Black or Christian. Neither of those things were accomplished of my own accord. This is an opportunity for you to praise God with me for His great gifts.
I know that was a long intro, but it's important to say this because I know I'm not alone with these thoughts and I'm still working through them. So finally, here are 5 reasons I love being a Black Christian:
1. Black Christians have the best music.
Black Christians produced the first authentically American music, the Negro Spiritual. From then we wrote some dope hymns, then gospel music, and now Christ-centered Hip-Hop and Reggae with so many sub-genres in between. In the early 1900s, the hopelessness of a Saturday night blues tune was met with the joy of the Sunday morning gospel. Similar sounds, different
message, same messengers. You can't name too many Black artists who didn't get their start or find inspiration in the Black church. Our music permeates every genre. Our music inspires, encourages, glorifies, teaches. It was the mechanism that secured our freedom through slavery and the Civil Rights movements. It has a power that is incomparable with any other genre.
Moreover, it is one of the only connections we have to the continent of our origin. It is no secret that the culture that surrounds our music is a direct descendant of West African traditions. Our sounds and dances are similar. The technique of call and response seen in every form of Black music, from the spiritual to all forms of hip-hop and beyond, comes from Africa. When we sing, when we dance, when we join our hearts together in choral glory, we honor the ones who didn't make it to this side of the ocean. We resurrect the spirits of our ancestors. We exemplify cultural fidelity to our Transatlantic ancestors in worshipping the One True God through song and dance.
2. Black Christians have a legacy of visibly loving the real Jesus.
Orthodoxy has always been of great importance to the Black church. That's why most of our Sunday services extend from 5AM until dinnertime, not to mention Wednesday Night Bible Study, Tuesday Night Prayer Group, and the plethora of weekly gatherings for different social ministries. The gathering of the body for teaching and learning with a high view of Scripture has stood at the center of our religious identity and experience. However, our theology challenged us to follow God in practical endeavors as well, be it that of justice, missions, or mercy. We could never stand to worship a God that was righteous and holy without fighting in this realm for justice due to opressed people. As a Black Christian, I inherited a faith that had feet. A faith that
saw my mama feed the whole block after church with $20 in food stamps like Jesus fed thousands. A faith that remembered how the Black church was the center of social services for the poor long before anyone's governmental agencies gave a damn. Jesus said, "Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me." A part of loving Jesus has always meant service to the poor. In fact, it has meant prioritizing the poor. The purity of our theology displays a wholeness that is evident in our love for mankind.
3. Black Christians communicate the gospel in the most creative ways.
This should go without saying if you've ever attended a Black church service. The preaching, the music, the beauty and melody of our congregational worship is a thing to be felt, not read about. But it doesn't stop there. The poetry of Black Christians, in the tradition of Phillis Wheatley Peters, maintains a level of theological depth and cultural fidelity that cannot be imitated, though many have tried. Christian Hip-Hop, despite its current cultural decline, made such an impact on millennial Black Christians that one could argue its centrality in our statistically higher participation in religious exercises than millennials of other races. Our fond memories of Lil iRoCc, Out of Eden, and P4CM captivated us at a time when our peers may have fallen away. Many of us have a song by Lecrae, Da' T.R.U.T.H. or Shai Linne that helped introduce us to our current theology, and to the day, "I Will Wait For You" by Janette-ikz plays in the background of a 30-year-old Black woman's daily prayers for her future spouse. Praise dance turned mime ministry. Hymns remixed with a Micheal Jackson hook in a youth church service. Graffiti and "Who Said You Can't Juke for the Lord?" We recognized the common grace of God in all cultures and were never afraid to bring Him glory in ways that were authentic to our collective identity.
4. Black Christianity is the only construct that allows me the freedom to remain true to all of my identities.
I spent a great deal of my life in the white reformed tradition. I learned the creeds, prayed the prayers, read the books, and sung the songs. And I appreciate those experiences. It sharpened parts of me that I did not know existed. But Black Christianity in its fullness gave me all the theology I needed, while still speaking to parts of my soul that Edwards or Spurgeon never could. Black Christianity empowered me as a woman. It never pigeon-holed me into preparing to be someone's wife. It recognized the beauty in my intelligence and boldness. Fannie Lou Hamer reminded me that I could be intelligent, bold for Christ, an advocate for my people, and still fully woman. My art, my personality, my politics, my family history, my convictions, my dreams. All were introduced, affirmed, and sharpened in the Word in the Black church.
5. Being a Black Christian allows me access into two distinct communities that empower me to carry, with grace and hope, the burden that each identity guarantees.
I remember where I was when the case against Zimmerman had been decided. I was living in Nashville, where I was attending a predominantly white church with my (then) boyfriend. That day, I was with some friends (most of them white) from church at a small gathering. We were in a house and I spent about an hour discussing the Zimmerman case with this one white guy. He just didn't get it, and I knew that if he sat on that jury, Zimmerman would have remained just as free. There I stood. Six months pregnant with my first Black child, a son no less, arguing the value of life and the meaning of justice with a supposed brother in Christ. It was in that moment that I'd had enough.
Being a Black Christian comes with its unique set of burdens. To be doubly committed to justice and righteousness, humility and ministry, forgiveness and justice is hard to bear some days. That's why God created us for community. Being a part of the Black Christian tradition means that our collective pain is understood and comforted. We share in the generational efforts of our forefathers to bring peace to earth, but when the load gets heavy, and our feet are weary, we have always known on whom we can rely. If you know, you just know, and it feels good to be known.