A Tradition that Interrogates Us
I’m writing this response to Farris Blount III’s clear and helpful post from St. Croix, U. S. Virgin Islands, where I’m assisting an RCA congregation here for a month as it looks forward to receiving a new pastor. And I’m writing in the immediate wake of the terrorist shooting in Buffalo. Context always matters.
By the ocean at the heart of the historic city of Christiansted, the National Park Service oversees a National Historic Site including several buildings from the Danish colonial era. On one of their explanatory signs, I read that in 1754, under Danish rule, King Frederik V allowed various churches to be established here, including the Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Moravians, Catholics, and the Dutch Reformed, the beginning of the St. Croix Reformed Church that I’m presently assisting. But then I read on: “Methodist and Baptist churches were not allowed because they did not support slavery.” The others, including the Dutch Reformed Church, did.
This historical signpost of the National Park Service then adds this sentence: “Moravian missionaries taught enslaved Africans to read devotional passages to become closer to God, and more accepting of their bondage.”
Walking on to a customs building by the harbor’s edge, another historical sign is titled “The Danish Slave Trade.” It explained that between 1747 and 1802 50,000 men, women, and children were captured and brought here as slaves from Africa, primarily to work on the island’s lucrative sugar plantations. I viewed the prison cells in the nearby Fort where slaves breaking the “law” were sent, reminding me of the slave castles I visited, also by the ocean, on the coast of Ghana, where some brought to St. Croix started their journey. The historical Fort included the comfortable Officer’s Club right across the yard from the dungeons.
Any response to the Black Church Tradition from the Reformed Tradition, and others of a similar historical background, must begin with an honest confession of our complicity in America’s original sin of slavery, the crucible of cruelty out of which the Black Church had its origins.
There’s a direct connection between the entrenched worldview of white supremacists who were the soldiers and plantation owners on St. Croix, and the terrorist who opened fire at Top’s in Buffalo. An evil ecosystem of hateful and conspiratorial beliefs about white nationalism and supremacy is reinforced through social media and condoned by some influential politicians. When parts of the church condone and participate with nodding consent or even propagate such beliefs, or when any part of the church simply remains silent because it doesn’t want to engage in “politics,” it is just as complicit, in my view as the German national church during the Third Reich.
Therefore, this is how the response of the Reformed tradition to the Black Church should begin—by interrogating ourselves. The Black Church causes us to question whether we have been faithfully following Jesus before we raise any observation about how the Black Church is faithfully following Jesus.
On Sunday morning, following the Saturday terrorist shooting in Buffalo, I was to preach at the St. Croix Reformed Church. Before the service, an African American woman who is a congregational leader took me aside. She had an honest question to ask me. “Pastor, why do people hate me?” I struggled for an answer.
Since then, and after reading Farris Blount’s contribution, I’ve felt that unless those in the white church, and from traditions like my own, learn to hear and understand the trauma beneath that question, we won’t have much hope of an authentic relationship with the Black Church.
Farris Blount helpfully portrays the diversity in the Black Church, between the “other-worldly’ and the ‘this worldly,” or between the “privatistic and the communal” approaches to following Jesus. Again, I was drawn back to the lessons of history I’ve been learning in St. Croix. The privatistic, other-worldly expressions of faith in the Black Church did not take root in a vacuum. That version of faith was taught by their white masters and their missionary collaborators so that they might be “more accepting of their bondage.” It is, to this day, the legacy of white spiritual oppression designed to cancel the message of liberation and erase its biblical foundations.
The Reformed tradition has, at best, a very mixed history in its relationship to the Black Church. The example of the Dutch Reformed Church in St. Croix approving of slavery is just one of many whose early beginnings in North America were embedded in the economic outreach of the Dutch and its involvement in the slave trade. And in South Africa, the Dutch Reformed Church became allied with the government’s system of apartheid, providing theological and cultural sanction.
Yet, other biblical streams, like those cited by Blount in the liberation tradition of the Black Church, also reached into the Reformed tradition. In more recent history, the Uniting Reformed Church in Southern Africa, formed from the union of black and “coloured” churches, led the process of drafting the Belhar Confession, which became the theological litmus test for churches resisting, in theology and practice, the evils of the apartheid system.
Today, in my view, the Belhar is world Christianity’s strongest confessional statement denouncing the evils of racism and portraying the call to unity and reconciliation. It’s a catechetical and ecumenical confession of enormous importance for our time. The Reformed Church in America and others in the Reformed tradition have adopted it as an official Confession of their churches. In the case of the RCA, it is the first time a new Confession had been adopted since the 17th Century. This offers avenues of mutually enriching relationships and common witness between the Reformed Tradition and the Black Church.
In these Respectful Conversations, the interaction of the Reformed Tradition, and I suspect the other ten traditions, with the Black Church does not move primarily along theological lines. Rather, it is an existential encounter. The history of the Black Church, and its presence today, should cause us to ask, are we faithfully following Jesus? That is the gift which this tradition bestows on us.
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