Black Christianity Has Saved the Credibility of the US Church

As I ponder Farris Blount’s thoughtful, fair-minded reflections, I respond as a repentant white Baptist of the South. I recall that when I wandered into that Southern Baptist congregation in summer 1978, and that William & Mary Baptist Student Union in 1980, and into Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1984 and again as a professor in 1993, and into the faculty of McAfee School of Theology in 2007, no one ever said this:

“You should know that the denomination which you are joining was founded in 1845 in a fight among white Baptists over whether enslaving another race of people was compatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Southern Baptists voted yes, and the split with Northern Baptists and Black Baptists of the South was never repaired.”

Nor did they say: “Slaveholders played a key role in forming Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and many of the Baptist colleges and congregations of the South. Profits wrung from the labor of enslaved people built much of the South’s religious life.”

Nor did they say: “Southern Baptist congregations were segregated for generations, our people fully involved in every stage of American racism. We struggled mightily to accept federally mandate civil rights legislation, and for that matter, to get to the point of welcoming Black sisters and brothers in Christ into membership of our churches.”

Nor did they say: “When ‘fundamentalist-conservatives’ and ‘moderates’ in the Southern Baptist Convention split in the 1980s and early 1990s, the SBC’s history of supporting slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation was not the focus of the dispute and therefore did not fundamentally shape the ethos of the new post-SBC Baptist schools and agencies.”

Nor did they say this more radical thing which I believe now with all my heart: “Slaveholder- and slavery-complicit white Christianity was theologically and morally corrupted because it was necessary for white folks to concoct a version of Christianity that could bless systemic social evil while also enabling evildoers and bystanders to feel good about their supposed personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

In the light of all of the above, I would describe the resistant, prophetic, justice-demanding versions of Black Christianity to be among the few longstanding expressions of Jesus-religion in this country that retained any moral credibility. I try to study closely this resistant version of Black Christianity, and I see it in figures as diverse as Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, Howard Thurman, James Cone, Martin Luther King., Jr, Lisa Sharon Harper, Emilie Townes, Stacey Floyd-Thomas, William Barber, and scores of others. I see it even in more Christianity-ambivalent thinkers like James Baldwin, whose writings I find absolutely compelling.

I concede the existence of more otherworldly and privatistic versions of Black Christianity. I certainly do not believe any white Christian is in much of a position to critique them. Perhaps it was inevitable that over 400 years of systemic oppression in this country, some African Americans would develop versions of Christianity that turned private and otherworldly. After all, when you can do little to control what others do to you, maybe you focus on what you can do for yourself and what God will do for you now and in the life to come.

I would like to thank God for faithful Black Christians who have kept alive authentic Jesus-following in times and places when that was very hard to come by. I will always seek to learn from you.

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