A Tale of Many Options: Following Jesus in the Black Church Tradition
As many of my colleagues have noted during this series on following Jesus from diverse Christian traditions, there is no uniform structure or pattern to such a task. Following Jesus is primarily informed by the context of a people and the needs, desires, and goals of that people. This reality remains true within the Black Church tradition. As C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya write in their groundbreaking book, The Black Church in the African American Experience, “Black churches are institutions that are involved in a constant series of dialectical tensions.” The theological emphasis of Black congregations, and therefore Black Christians’ understandings and expressions of following Jesus, have sometimes shifted over time depending on the social environment. While some in the Black Church tradition have primarily highlighted how following Jesus prepares us for life after death, others have been more focused on how Jesus models how we should be concerned with social concerns here and now (a dialectical tension that Lincoln and Mamiya call “other-worldly versus this worldly”). These tensions still remain, because although people might believe that following Jesus in the Black Church tradition can largely be defined by a historical belief in and commitment to the freedom and liberation of all those who have been oppressed, there are still others in this tradition that would suggest being a disciple of Jesus is chiefly about one’s individual salvation.
To begin, it is important to note that there is no such thing as the monolithic “Black Church.” We often talk about the “Black Church” using this singular phrase, but if we are not careful, we run the risk of reducing or ignoring the complexities inherent across these institutions. Throughout this series, we have written about following Jesus from various Christian denominational traditions, but in some of the discussions, there is arguably a unique Black Church experience that adds further nuance to the conversation. There are, of course, Black Baptist congregations. But there are also Black churches in the Wesleyan tradition and Black parishes that identify with the Roman Catholic church. There are African-Americans who have their own experiences within the Anglican tradition. I believe, therefore, that to articulate what it means to follow Jesus in the Black Church tradition is a monumental task because one must recognize that Black Christians can have such varied interpretations of such a topic due to our diverse denominational affiliations and our experiences of being Black in the world. For instance, some African-American Methodists most certainly would agree with various points made in the Methodist reflection due to their shared denominational identity. And yet those same individuals might contend that their social location as Black people in America, who must deal with racism and discrimination even in their congregational life, creates alternative understandings of what it means to follow Jesus.
In fact, the historical mistreatment and marginalization of African-Americans can explain how many Black Jesus followers have understood that to follow Jesus means working towards the liberation of all those who are oppressed, particularly Black people. Such a perspective has been molded first by our historical experiences. Our Black Christian forebearers could not understand how a loving and redeeming Savior, who sought to restore our relationship with God and free us from the penalty of sin through His crucifixion, could support the brutal institution of American slavery. Throughout history, African-American Jesus believers could not make sense of how some people could worship a God on Sunday that made humankind in God’s image and declared that this creation was good (Genesis 1) but then treat Black people like second-class citizens unworthy of rights and resources on Monday. Because of these realities, Black Christians have argued that the Jesus we serve laments with us as we process through the trauma that racism creates and fights alongside us as we work to create a world where all God’s creation can thrive. In Jesus, we see someone who is our kin, as He lived as a minority under Roman oppression under constant threat of retaliation, ultimately resulting in His death at the hands of the state.
As one might be able to tell from above statements, the Bible is also a critical component to how we in the Black Church tradition understand following Jesus means working for the liberation of all those who are imprisoned by the “isms” (racism, sexism, etc.) preventing them from living the abundant life Jesus desires for all of us. Black Christians hold a high respect for the Bible; the majority, if not all, of Black churches will reference multiple Old or New Testament texts during our worship services. As our ancestors pushed for slave emancipation, the liberating ethos of the Exodus narrative was a rallying cry. During the Civil Rights Movement, the words of what has been called Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4 rang through many a Black Church as pastors and faith leaders galvanized people, Christian or otherwise, to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “set the oppressed free.” African-American Jesus followers read, recite, and preach biblical texts that demonstrate how Jesus spent time with and healed those whom society had rejected as an indication of His condemnation of discrimination against any people group. The Bible then is a guidebook that instructs Black Christians on how to model Jesus’ own ministry of compassion, liberation, and freedom.
The Black Church’s commitment to justice and equality is not only historical; I have seen firsthand how countless Black congregations embody the belief that following Jesus translates into an active effort to challenge discriminatory policies and practices here and now. I currently attend a Black church in which the leadership and many of the members participated in protests following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020. My church has a social justice committee that facilitates opportunities to learn about local efforts to combat economic inequality, police brutality, and housing discrimination. In fact, in the immediate aftermath of George Floyd’s death, my congregation partnered with a White Jewish congregation as we examined Isabel Wilkerson’s book Caste and investigated how race has contributed to the creation of a caste system in America that forces non-Whites to the bottom of the social, economic, and political ladder. As I consider the national landscape of Black congregations, some are working to address food insecurity in Black communities while others are finding ways to pay down the obscene medical debt that disproportionately impacts Black Americans, making it hard for many of us to access basic necessities. Still other Black churches are embracing the literal words of Jesus’ sermon in Luke 4 and advocating to “set the oppressed free” from misdemeanor marijuana drug convictions in jurisdictions where the use of marijuana has now been legalized. These examples are not exhaustive but are meant to illustrate that Black churches across this nation define following Jesus as a call to fighting for those who are taken advantaged of or disregarded at every stage of life.
However, despite the myriad ways in which the Black Church tradition echoes this commitment to justice in following Jesus, such a commitment does not reverberate through the halls of every Black congregation. In fact, the disagreement between how African-Americans should respond to discrimination can be explored through a polarity that Lincoln and Mamiya call “the communal and the privatistic.” If striving for equal and fair treatment of Black Americans in all areas of life is considered a “communal” approach to the Black Church tradition, then the privatistic approach is one in which there is a “withdrawal from the concerns of the larger community to a focus on meeting only the religious needs of its adherents.” While communal approach advocates echo that following Jesus involves active engagement against oppression, privatistic approach proponents contend that following Jesus is all about an individual public declaration of belief in Him and a resulting shift in behavior (i.e. no cheating, stealing, etc.). Communal believers see Jesus as a liberator that desires for us to experience some Heaven on Earth right now through just relationships and equitable policies, while privatistic believers see Jesus as someone who came chiefly to liberate us from sin and its penalty – eternal separation from God.
In other words, there are some Black congregations that believe following Jesus has little, if anything, to do with justice but rather living a pietistic and morally upright life. These Jesus followers are not at the front of the protest line or advocating for better healthcare treatment for Black mothers. Instead, their emphasis is on developing consistent spiritual practices that demonstrate their commitment to Jesus as their Lord and Savior. These Jesus believers will normally focus more on what God is sharing with them about their job, their dreams, aspirations, and their personal relationship with God than what God might be saying about our modern injustices and their responsibility in addressing them. For some Black Christians then, following Jesus in the Black Church tradition could be defined by using some of the same words in my colleague’s reflections.
To be clear, I am not condemning such an approach to following Jesus. On the one hand, there are spiritual practices, such as prayer and scripture reading, that should undergird the life of a believer, no matter what one believes it means to follow Jesus. These practices give us the strength to keep serving and following Jesus amid life’s difficulties. On the other hand, Black Christians who have dedicated themselves to fighting for justice have sometimes done so at tremendous personal sacrifice. Some have lost their jobs, families, and even their lives. Contrary to popular belief of the media’s portrayal of the Civil Rights Movement, many Black congregations chose not to participate openly, if at all, in the Movement out of fear of retaliation from the Ku Klux Klan and others who rejected African-American demands for equality. Even Jesus Himself suffered at the hands of the state as He worked to upend social structures that marginalized women and the poor. In other words, if we in the Black Church tradition articulate that following Jesus is also a call to speak out against oppression, then we must name the significant risks at stake.
However, I do not believe we can avoid the fact that Jesus was a social revolutionary if we look at the scriptures and His engagement in His world. And if that is the case, we in the Black Church tradition who call ourselves Christians and attempt to model the life of Jesus, must ask ourselves – what am I willing to sacrifice and give up to follow the Jesus that came to give humanity life and life more abundantly right here and right now?
 I realize these are generalizations – no one person falls into one camp and never oscillates between the two. However, this framework is meant to show that although many Black congregations believe fighting for justice is critical to following Jesus, others do not and choose to focus primarily on living a pietistic life to follow Jesus.
The footnote here seems to get to the heart of this discussion, the tension between the life of piety and a life of action. This is a tension in Christianity with very long roots, of course. It’s true that we all spend time in both camps. Mary and Martha provide poignant examples of both, and Jesus engages in a respectful conversation providing some indication of who has chosen the better part.