Wake Up, Everybody! Black Christian Experience in (and out) of Church

When I’m asked to respond to a scholar-practitioner of black church life, my first inclination is to sit down, shut up, listen carefully, and to ask:  What is it that I need to learn, as a white Christian?  What do I need to see, to hear, to change, as someone who strives to be in solidarity with black folks in a time of resurgence of anti-black violence? (Of course, recent violence is not exceptional: it’s been the norm in United States history). I am a white Christian whose segregated churches schooled me to be racist, in Sunday School classrooms, at church conferences, and during Sunday morning sermons. No matter the occasional sweet talk I heard about racial “reconciliation,” the churches of my youth suckled me on anti-black racism, and I’ve spent the better part of a lifetime, with the help of Jesus and so many others, confronting and undoing that legacy.

Black Christians in the U.S. have followed Jesus not in any kind of uniform way, as Farris Blount reminds us, but in complex and diverse pathways that constitute what is often called “the black church tradition.”  Blount’s insights come as a much-needed reminder that what many of us outsiders see as sameness is not at all monolithic.  Context is crucial, and demonstrates, Blount insists, the reality of diversity within black Christian experience.

I deeply appreciate the way Blount emphasizes the dynamic of other-worldly versus this-worldly, a way of understanding black Christian experience that he picks up from the distinguished scholars Lincoln and Mamiya and recognized by many other participant-observers. This dialectic is woven into the fabric of black church life.  I’m a white minister on the pastoral team of an all-black church, and my experience of this dynamic is not as an either-or thing but as a productive, creative both-and tension, at work within the very same congregation. Most folks at church love singing the standards that have brought comfort and strength to their ancestors – When We All Get to Heaven, or We’ll Understand It Better, By and By – but within the same service they’ll hear a sermon about concrete expressions of Jesus and justice in this world.

What I’ve notice is that so many of the young folks at church are increasingly impatient with the dynamic and have decided to put the thumb on the scale of this-worldly action, for quite understandable reasons. Is this a trend? In an age of Black Lives Matter, how widespread is this insistence on following Jesus primarily not in the sweet by and by, but right here, right now?  Does this reality represent a sea change in black church life, or a recent eruption of ongoing currents?

Black Christian experiences of following Jesus are not just confined to historically black churches and denominations, a reality too often overlooked. As Blount reminds us, black folks have made significant contributions to every single tradition we’ve explored in this set of sacred conversations. The influence of people of African descent may have been strongest in Methodist and Baptist spheres – after all, most black people in U.S. contexts have been Methodist or Baptist or Pentecostal, or as we say tongue-in-cheek at the church where I serve, Methobapticostal – but there have been prominent black presences within Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican, Reformed, Pietist, and every other Christian tradition we’ve examined, and even in those we haven’t (e.g., the Christian wings of Unitarian-Universalism).

My litany of black saints is long and growing, as I’ve become more attentive and attuned to the contributions of black folks in just about every U.S. Christian tradition. The litany includes names such as the Lutheran Rosa Young, the Reformed preacher Lemuel Haynes, the Episcopal Church’s Pauli Murray, Albert Raboteau of the Orthodox Church in America, Roman Catholic Sister Thea Bowman, and countless others from every generation whose names might be lost to us but are certainly known to God.

A question for me is whether, how, and to what extent these persons, and so many more black folks like them, brought ethical concerns, theologies, and experiences of black church life with them into predominantly white spaces, whether they were raised within those traditions or joined by conversion?  And what difference has it made? What have they taught, by thought, word and deed, about what it means to follow Jesus?  Was their witness received by white Christians?  Ignored? Misunderstood?  Sidelined? Such complicated questions can’t be answered in the abstract, of course, but only with the kind of keen attention to context that Blount urges.

A related question for me involves how our understanding of predominantly Euro-American churches would change if we foregrounded the experience of black folks as we narrativize those traditions, in considering what it means to follow Jesus within those structures. Not as an add-on exercise – It’s Black History Month, let’s learn about black Lutherans! – but as an integral rethinking of Christian witness considering the experience of black people within these traditions.

Finally, I’m curious about the scope of black expressions of Christian faith, which leads me to ask to wonder how the theology, ethics, and experience of black Christians have made their mark on the wider world, even outside of churches themselves.  Do we underestimate the influence of black Christian experience when we focus on religious institutions alone?  To explain what I mean, let me first come out as a lover of R & B and every kind of soul music, from doo wap to disco to deep house, including that old-school anthem, Wake Up Everybody.  First recorded in 1977 by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, it’s one of the most beloved hits of the genre, a familiar oldie covered by countless artists over the years, its uplifting socially conscious lyrics a balm for brittle, cynical times then as well as now.

Admittedly, this isn’t the place to explore the complicated web of connections I’m gesturing toward, but in short . . . like so much of black popular music, Wake Up Everybody has its roots in the experience and witness of people raised within and/or influenced by black Christianity.  Its sound – listen to that rhythm, the tambourines, the organ, the soaring vocals! – as well as its message of resilience, possibility, solidarity, and hope amplify countless performances of music and the preached word, particularly in Methobapticostal contexts.  Sure, many black preachers called out the blues, funk, disco, and other “secular” music as the Devil’s work – did they see Saturday night in competition with Sunday morning? – yet the gatekeepers never stopped the endless, creative back-and-forth flow.

John Legend’s cover of Wake Up is especially powerful in highlighting the black church roots I’m talking about.  On that cover, Melanie Fiona’s hip hop riffs draw out even more explicitly the original’s theological visions of lament, accountability, hope, praise, possibility, and co-creation with God.  Is Wake Up an example of what Prof. Josef Sorett calls “spirit in the dark,” a subterranean cultural current that runs between the spiritual practice of black churches and so-called “secular” cultural productions? Who knows how many who hear music like this in so-called “secular” spaces understand or receive the Gospel they’re given?  But that’s not the point. The power and presence of black ideas and practices nurtured in what we call “the black church” extends far beyond the church’s four walls, witnessing to the power of resilience, moving through suffering, experiencing joy, calling on the possibilities of justice and love, even in a society as brittle and fragile as ours.

So, Wake Up, Everybody!

The pathways of following Jesus don’t just run through the churches, black or otherwise, but often hide in plain sight, outside the places we call “church,” waiting to bless those with ears to hear, calling us closer toward the kin-dom that was the heart of Jesus’ message.

Walking in His Steps: How Latter-day Saints Seek to Follow Jesus

 It is not difficult for persons who has received academic training in such fields as Christian history, theology, or religious studies to lose their focus on the fundamental purpose of scripture itself—to come to know God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3). The Apostle Paul expressed such a concern in his second letter to the Corinthians: “I’m afraid that your minds may be corrupted from the single-mindedness and purity which the Messiah’s people should have” (N. T. Wright, The Kingdom New Testament). This is why I have enjoyed so much being a part of this e-dialogue: the focus is on what we do, in our respective traditions, to follow Jesus. In this essay I hope to be able to express what members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been counseled to do in order to follow the Son of God and thereby come to know Him.

I begin with what Latter-day Saints are probably charged to do most often by Church leaders—to search the scriptures daily as individuals and as a family, to speak of them and teach them to one another. There is a power inherent in scripture, a power unlike anything else we may read or study. Lew Wallace’s Ben Hur makes for fascinating reading (and a pretty fair movie, as well), but it cannot stir the soul like Isaiah 53 or the 23rdPsalm. Reading Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe is a sweet experience, but its influence and impact are nowhere near what one can encounter in the Gospel of John. God has placed his seal of approval on scripture, and as Paul taught, it is Spirit-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). The current President of our Church, Russell M. Nelson, pointed out that “To reach our objective of eternal life, we need to follow teachings . . . received from prophets of God. . . . In our journey through life, you meet many obstacles and make some mistakes. Scriptural guidance helps you to recognize error and make the necessary correction. You stop going in the wrong direction. You carefully study the scriptural roadmap.”

Second, Latter-day Saints are a praying people. Indeed, we believe that no one can come to know Christ and acquire a Christlike nature unless they regularly and consistently offer up their petitions and their gratitude in prayer. Members of the Church are encouraged to have personal prayer in the morning and before retiring to bed, as well as having a prayer in our hearts throughout the day. We are counseled to gather our family around us in the morning and the evening to kneel in family prayer.

For us, prayers are not merely a time to make requests of the Almighty, but also a time to receive personal guidance from God. In particular, when an individual is in the process of making a very significant decision, he or she is encouraged to lift up their voices in prayer but then to remain on their knees for a while to “listen” for how God may choose to prompt or guide one’s thoughts or feelings. One of the most beloved hymns in the Church’s hymnal is “Ere You Left Your Room this Morning, Did You Think to Pray?”

Third, Latter-day Saints seek to follow Jesus by serving and loving others as he did. That is, we strive to walk in His steps (1 Peter 2:21). Jesus came to earth to carry out both His mission and His ministry. When I refer to His mission, I have in mind those matters to which only He could attend—redemption from sin and resurrection from death. The ministry of Jesus pertains to how He dealt with people—how He led them, loved them, lifted them, liberated them, and lightened their burdens. And it is the ministry of Jesus that we can in fact emulate. He put people first, and so can we. He was willing to be inconvenienced, and so can we. He reached out to those on the margins of society, and so can we.

In a rather comprehensive overview of what our Lord and Master did, Matthew wrote: “And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing all manner of sickness, and all manner of disease among the people” (Matthew 4:23; emphasis added; see also 9:35). In speaking of those who are called to teach the gospel, especially the youth, one Latter-day Saint leader, Jeffrey R. Holland, stated: “I do believe that Christ wants our teaching to lead to healing of the spiritual kind. . . . As with the Master, wouldn’t it be wonderful to measure the success of your teaching by the healing that takes place in the lives of your students?

“Let me be a little more specific. Rather than just giving a lesson, please try a little harder to help that blind basketball star really see, or the deaf homecoming queen really hear, or the privately lame student body president really walk. Try a little harder to fortify someone so powerfully that whatever temptation the devils of hell throw at her or him, these students will be able to withstand and thus truly in that moment be free from evil. Can you try a little harder to teach so powerfully and so spiritually that you can take that student—that boy or girl who walks alone to school and from school, who sits alone in the lunchroom, who has never had a date, who is the brunt of every joke, who weeps in the darkest night—can you unleash the power in the scriptures and the power in the gospel and ‘cleanse’ that leper, a leper not of his or her making, a leper made by those on our right and on our left and sometimes by us?” People matter, very much. God and Christ are in the “business” of people, and so must we be, if we are to follow where Jesus leads.

I am personally very concerned, as I know each of you are, about the enormous exodus from faith that has taken place within the last decade or so, the purported 27% of the American population who have chosen to cut all ties with organized religion. These “nones,” who speak of themselves as being “spiritual but not religious,” often say that they do not find religion to be relevant to them. Others, especially young adults who have left the faith, have expressed to me how weary they are of the theological battles, the name-calling, the everpresent tendency to draw lines in the sand, to belittle, to exclude, to render harsh judgments against those who may believe differently. In so doing, we have given Christianity a bad name and demonstrated attitudes and behavior that are anything but Christian. There is a great need for a kinder, gentler form of Christianity, the kind that Jesus Christ displayed so beautifully.

Fourth, Latter-day Saints are deeply committed to the value of church attendance, of meeting together with “the body of Christ.” We need the Church. What takes place within the Church, and what takes place within each of us as we become enthusiastically involved in the Church, is essential in keeping ourselves “unspotted from the world” (James 1:27); it is a vital part of coming unto that perfection of the soul for which all followers of the Savior strive. Christianity entails more than prayer, fasting, and searching the scriptures—more than an individual effort to live the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. As vital as personal devotion and individual effort are, Christianity is fully lived out only in community. God designed, for example, that the various offices of the Church of Jesus Christ had been put in place “for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man [or woman], unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12-13). In short, the Church is given to assist and empower us toward that spiritual maturity that is the perfection of which the scriptures speak.

Each Sabbath Latter-day Saints come to church and partake of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We do so in remembrance of the life and mission of Our Master, Jesus Christ. More specifically, we partake of the sacred emblems in remembrance of His bruised and broken body and His spilt blood on the cross. We believe and teach that if an individual comes to sacrament meeting (our main worship service) in a spirit of humility and repentance, that he or she can, through the ordinance of the sacrament, experience a remission of sins and enjoy the peace that accompanies the presence of the Holy Spirit. Sermons or spiritual messages that are delivered in our worship service help us learn or be reminded of the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Singing the hymns and great anthems of praise lift our souls heavenward like nothing else that we might do.

Without the Church, one cannot develop those Christ-like qualities and attributes that come only through association and affiliation with other men and women, boys and girls, who are striving for basically the same things we are. Nor can one participate in the ongoing service and organized sacrifice that come through working closely with others. Without the Church and Church affiliation and involvement, one simply cannot cultivate the gospel light that emanates freely and enticingly from those who are on the path to life eternal.

“Since Jesus is at the very center of it all,” one of our Church leaders observed, “we must make Him and His ways the light by which we steer and the light we hold up to others. To proceed in any other way is to proceed with less light—much less light.” It is the sweet labor of a lifetime to learn how to place the Savior at the center of our lives and to keep Him there. As we look more consistently and reverently to Him as the Captain of our souls and our salvation, we discover the abundant life that He alone can give (John 10:10). That abundant life here is but a foretaste of the eternal life that awaits us hereafter.

The Orthodox Fellowship of St. Moses the Black

Dear Farris,

Thank you for your words about Black Christianity, and your deep concern about the wounds from the bitter experience of slavery in our land that have yet to be healed, and which continue to impede racial reconciliation here.

I think my most helpful contribution to the ongoing discussion might be to share a prayer service concerning that experience from the treasures of Orthodox hymnography.  This service, following the traditional form of hymnological poetical-prayer known as the Akathist Hymn, was composed fairly recently by an interracial fellowship, comprised of clergy, male and female monastics, and laity, within the Orthodox Church in America known as the Fellowship of St. Moses the Black (http://mosestheblack.org).

Here’s how this service begins:

Akathist to the Merciful Savior,

Healer of the Wounds of American Slavery

O Lord, Who didst will to be sold as a slave for thirty pieces of silver in Thy plan for the redemption of all the sons of Noah, thus removing the shame of the African sold into bondage in the American lands, trusting in Thy boundless compassion we cry out to Thee:

“Remember, O Merciful Savior, the souls of those who died in bitter bondage,

And hear the intercessions of Thine American Saints both known and unknown.”

The Angels were struck with dismay on seeing slave ships pull up to the shores of Africa, that mighty land that had fed the Hebrew children in days of old.  She nourished them through lean years of famine, collecting their tears and sweat when cruel taskmasters were put over them; nevertheless, they multiplied and waxed strong.  Heaven wept seeing pillagers from afar docked off the shores of Africa, that mighty land that had held the infant Savior in her sanctified embrace.  She protected Him from the murderous King Herod, who in his mad jealousy foamed a the thought of a rival king.  Heaven wept seeing pillagers hold council with man-stealing tribesmen, evilly agreeing on the price of human flesh while villages and families were rent apart.  Lamentation and bitter weeping were heard, as in Ramah in days of old.

“Remember, O Merciful Savior, the souls of those who died in bitter bondage,

And hear the intercessions of Thine American Saints both known and unknown.”

And here’s the link to the entire service:


May this heartfelt communal cry to our Long-Suffering Lord Jesus, the One Who endured and bore all human suffering to the end, bring consolation, strength, and renewed resolve for many to keep working and praying for interracial healing and harmony in our land!

Yours, in Christ,

David Ford

The Complement of Sacramentalism

Many thanks to Ferris Blount for his nuanced discussion of the Black Church, and especially his reminder that the Black Church is anything but monolithic. Indeed, I see extraordinary diversity, from the relatively dignified African Methodist Episcopal Church to the rollicking expressions characteristic of Pentecostalism. When I taught in New York City, one of my favorite places on a Sunday morning was the storied Abyssinian Baptist Church, and I shall never forget Pastor Elder Andre Ramsey and his congregation of the True Bibleway Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, in Natchez, Mississippi, memorably captured in the first episode of Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory.

I was particularly struck by Mr. Blount’s statement that “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.” I guess I’d like to add that this tradition of advocacy in the Black Church dates to the days of slavery, when the Black preacher served as spokesman for slaves for the simple reason that other avenues of leadership within the slave community simply were not available.

This circumstance has reverberated through the decades, the centuries. It explains why, for example, until very recently the Black Congressional Caucus consisted primarily of ordained ministers (Senator Raphael Warnock of Georgia, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, would be the most recent and prominent example). Also, while white evangelicals for most he the twentieth century dithered about whether they should engage in politics, Black churches simply didn’t have the luxury of remaining politically or socially somnolent.

And, as Mr. Blount points out, is it any wonder, given the history of suffering that African Americans have endured, that the Black Church is inordinately sensitive to the suffering of others? Christians of all stripes could learn a lot from the Black Church.

While I recognize the importance and the centrality of music and preaching in the Black Church, as an Episcopal priest I’d like to recommend a more salubrious sacramental theology and practice – and, to be fair, I’d probably offer the same suggestion to most of my Christian sisters and brothers in other traditions as well, Catholics and Orthodox excepted. The reason I make that suggestion here is that a robust appreciation for the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, invites the faithful to transcend worldly cares and commune with the Almighty in an almost mystical way. For a people who far too often live with “their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman said, I believe that a healthy sacramentalism would serve as a worthy complement to the hallmarks of the Black Church: music, the sermon, and social action.

I acknowledge the presumption of my suggestion, and for that I apologize. The Black Church has its own traditions and integrity; it has flourished for centuries without my help! Still, as someone whose spiritual life has been enriched immeasurably by a robust sacramentalism, my evangelical self cannot help but recommend it to others.

Justice and Piety in the Black Church: A Both/And Tradition

When I started my undergraduate studies at the College of William and Mary, there wasn’t anything like a “Pietist” church within walking distance, so I found myself defaulting to the low church option closest to campus: Williamsburg Baptist. Though its founding date of 1828 seemed ancient to this Midwesterner, I soon realized that there was an older Baptist church in town — right across the parking lot, in fact. The congregation of First Baptist first gathered in 1776: at virtually the same time that a slave-owning graduate of William and Mary named Thomas Jefferson appealed to fundamental human equality to justify revolution, a group of free and enslaved Black Virginians came under the leadership of an itinerant preacher known as Reverend Moses.

Learning the story of First Baptist convinced me to take a course on African American Christianity, taught by a Baptist pastor who drove in from Richmond one night a week. As I’m sure most of my students would say about my courses, its details have mostly disappeared from my memory. But reading this month’s essay by Farris Blount III brought into relief two themes that I still recall clearly from those evenings in a William and Mary lecture hall.

First, that the faithful, often prophetic witness of the Black Church in America is one of the greatest miracles in church history. How else to explain that a religion of peace and liberation was brought to these shores in the baggage train of imperial conquest and human trafficking, yet nonetheless took root in a place like 18th century Virginia, where most of the indigenous population had long since been killed or forced west and the colonial legislature meeting in Williamsburg had long since declared that enslaved Africans could only be baptized on the understanding that that sacrament “doth not exempt them from bondage”? How else but by the unfathomable depths of God’s grace can that origin story continue to inspire a Christian tradition whose faith, hope, and love not only survived what Frederick Douglass called the “corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land” but came to be best known for what Blount calls its “historical belief in and commitment to the freedom and liberation of all those who have been oppressed”?

At the same time, I appreciate how he emphasized the diversity of a tradition that is no monolith. In that evening class at William and Mary, our pastor-professor clearly came from the branch of the Black Church that Blount says “define[s] following Jesus as a call to fighting for those who are taken advantaged [sic] of or disregarded at every stage of life.” But we also had Black Christian students in class who attended majority-white evangelical congregations, spoke the language of racial reconciliation rather than racial justice, and emphasized personal rather than systemic sin. One evening, for example, a few of those students invited the other men in the class to a rally by the evangelical parachurch organization Promise Keepers, whose speakers didn’t entirely ignore racism, but tended to blame problems in their community on absent fathers and faithless husbands.

That “there is no such thing as the monolithic ‘Black Church’” should be no surprise. No tradition in this conversation is a monolith, but most of them do branch off from each other because of some disagreement over doctrine, worship, church polity, or another debate over orthodoxy or orthopraxy. But Blount says that the Black Church tradition is shaped primarily by its members’ “social location as Black people in America.” That distinctive historical context “creates alternative understandings of what it means to follow Jesus” —  understandings, plural, including the one emphasizing that “being a disciple of Jesus is chiefly about one’s individual salvation” or “living a pietistic and morally upright life.”

(As always, I want to protest that “pietistic” as used in this sense does not equate to “Pietist” as I’ve described it. But I’ll still concede the truth of Blount’s observation that Pietists may struggle to “deal with and pursue collective action to create systemic change,” since we often find it easier to address the tragic effect than the insidious cause of a problem like racialization.)

In the end, I appreciate that Blount can’t “avoid the fact that Jesus was a social revolutionary if we look at the scriptures and His engagement in His world,” but still refrains from “condemning [the privatistic or pietistic] approach to following Jesus.” Indeed, as a Pietist, I’d like to believe that there’s something here beyond the reality that “no one person falls into one camp and never oscillates between the two.”

I wonder if the two approaches (or, perhaps, emphases) don’t actually reinforce each other. For example, in his book about Letter from a Birmingham Jail, journalist Ed Gilbreath emphasizes the interconnectedness of spiritual discipline and social action in the story of Martin Luther King Jr., whose famous “vision in the kitchen” confirmed for him “that times of struggle and uncertainty are often precisely the times when God visits us as we seek him through solitude and prayer” (Birmingham Revolution, p. 52).

As importantly, Jesus-followers who practice the pietistic discipline of individual or small group Bible study regularly immerse themselves in what Blount calls “a guidebook that instructs Black Christians on how to model Jesus’ own ministry of compassion, liberation, and freedom.” But precisely because they found “alongside the story of the God of the exodus the God of Leviticus, who calls his people to a holiness of life,” says New Testament scholar and Anglican priest Esau McCaulley, “the formerly enslaved managed to celebrate both their physical liberation and their spiritual transformation, which came as a result of their encounter with the God of the Old and New Testaments” (Reading While Black, p. 17).

I don’t take Blount as arguing that there’s an either/or decision between private piety and the public quest for justice. On the contrary, his essay on the Black Church tradition deepens my conviction that following Jesus requires a both/and response.

Choosing the Only Option: A Radical Inclusiveness

Reading Farris Blount’s essay was a sobering and soul-stirring experience. I am especially grateful to Farris for sharing his heart, in describing the inherent pain and frustration associated too often with being a black Christian.

I was born and raised in the southern states and consequently encountered racism and bigotry very early on in my life. I remember, for example, one occasion when our family drove from our home town (Baton Rouge) to New Orleans to spend time on the beach and at the amusement park. After several hours of rides and cotton candy and hot dogs, I realized that I needed to make my way to the nearest rest room just as quickly as I could. It was then that I witnessed what must have been all around me for years but which I suddenly saw and felt for the first time: signs that read “Men,” “Women,” and “Colored.” Only moments later I noticed two different water fountains: “Whites” and “Colored.” As a white kid who simply hadn’t paid much attention to my surroundings (I suppose I was six or seven years old at the time), my eyes were suddenly opened to a phenomenon that seemed to me at the time to be so very, very wrong. I asked myself, “Why?” I later asked my parents why there would be a separate rest room and a separate faucet for people with black skins. I certainly didn’t have an answer, and my parents’ answer was, as I recall, not very satisfying.

Segregation was a way of life in the small community where I grew up (about ten miles north of Baton Rouge). I don’t remember seeing one black student in the four years that I attended high school there, although I was very much aware that there were many African American families in our area. In fact, I had no idea where they attended school. When I was about fourteen years old, I remember Mom and Dad and I were coming home from a school activity one evening when I saw what I had never witnessed before—a large cross burning in the front yard of a family that lived only two blocks from our home. It frightened me and my mother, and I remember it angered my Dad; he was really upset. On inquiring what was going on, I learned that a black woman had worked for several years for a white family on that street. She and her husband had become very close friends with the white family and had become social acquaintances whose family members had begun to spend a great deal of time together. The Klan had simply let it be known that such was unacceptable in our community. The whole experience both scared and sickened me.

Mom and Dad were both raised in the Baton Rouge area, and both of them had been brought up by parents who were in so many ways wonderful, caring people, loving neighbors and contributing citizens, but whose negative attitudes and speech toward blacks bespoke an ingrained racism that had persisted through many generations. In looking back, I realize that my folks were much less prone to speak or act in racist or prejudicial ways than their parents had been. Somehow I concluded as a teenager that I would do everything in my power to escape speech, attitudes, and behavior that are not just un-Christian but anti-Christian in every way, so foreign to all that Jesus had taught and embodied.

By the time I was about seventeen years old (1963), racial tensions in our area were hot and heavy. I remember sitting in a meeting held after our main worship service composed of the men and boys in our congregation. The man conducting the meeting reminded us of the racial tension in the air and asked a most unusual question: “What do we do if some black men or women try to attend church in our building?” There was a long and very uncomfortable pause while those in attendance did some pondering on the matter (I have no idea why it took so long for someone to reply to the question). Thank heavens, one of the men, a middle-aged gentleman, responded simply: “Well, we welcome them in, don’t we? Isn’t that what Jesus would do?” I was so grateful to observe that most of the men there nodded in agreement, while I could see and sense that a few were uncomfortable with the idea.

The issue of race and religion has not been an easy one to deal with for members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Beginning in the 19th century, Brigham Young, second president of the Church, announced that from that time forward the priesthood (the authority to act in the name of God) would no longer be conferred on black members of the Church. Sadly, since it was the 1800’s there was not a great deal of negative reaction to that announcement on the part of Latter-day Saints, given that racist sentiments and actions were rife throughout the nation, particularly in the south. The members of our Church carried that onerous burden for a century and a half, until in June of 1978 the restriction of who could and who could not hold the priesthood was removed by the presidency of our Church.

In recent years, Church leaders have met with and sought to build stronger bridges between leaders of the NAACP and our Church. Russell M. Nelson, 17th President of the Church, stated at the October 2020 general conference: “Each of us has a divine potential because each is a child of God. Each is equal in His eyes. The implications of this truth are profound. Brothers and sisters, please listen carefully to what I am about to say. God does not love one race more than another. His doctrine on this matter is clear. He invites all to come unto Him, ‘black and white, bond and free, male and female’ (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 26:33). I assure you that your standing before God is not determined by the color of your skin. Favor or disfavor with God is dependent upon your devotion to God and His commandments and not the color of your skin. I grieve that our Black brothers and sisters the world over are enduring the pains of racism and prejudice. Today I call upon our members everywhere to lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice. I plead with you to promote respect for all of God’s children.”

In an essay written to address the Church’s current position on race, we read the following: “The structure and organization of the Church encourage racial integration. Latter-day Saints attend church services according to the geographical boundaries of their local ward, or congregation. By definition, this means that the racial, economic, and demographic composition of Latter-day Saint congregations generally mirrors that of the wider local community. . . . Church members of different races and ethnicities regularly minister in one another’s homes and serve alongside one another as teachers, as youth leaders, and in myriad other assignments in their local congregations. Such practices make The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints a thoroughly integrated faith. . . .

“Since [1978], the Church has looked to the future, as membership among Africans and others of African descent has continue to grow rapidly. While Church records for individual members do not indicate an individual’s race or ethnicity, the number of Church members of African descent is now in the hundreds of thousands.”

Many years ago, I read a book by Philip Yancey entitled The Jesus I Never Knew (Zondervan, 1995). As one who had taught university-level courses in New Testament for about twenty years at that point in time, reading the book was for me a transformative experience, one in which I came to see and understand Jesus of Nazareth in a more profound way. If I may paraphrase something that Yancey wrote, he asked: “What was it about Jesus that drew people to him, especially those on the outskirts and the margins of society—the shepherds, the publicans, the prostitutes, the ‘sinners,’ in general, the disenfranchised? And then he posed the following question, one that sent chills down my spine: “And why is it that those same kinds of people too often feel uncomfortable among us?” Yancey explained that he feared that as a Christian community we had created “a society of respectability,” one that is not as welcoming and loving as the circle that surrounded our Lord.

As Farris Blount stated: “I do not believe we can avoid the fact the Jesus was a social revolutionary if we look at the scriptures and His engagement in His world.” In that spirit, I have a strong desire to be a part of a counterculture that manifests the depth of the love, acceptance, and inclusion of the only perfect Person to ever walk the earth. And if I truly want to one day be where He is I must actively search for occasions to be as He was and act as He did toward all.

What Would it Take for Lutherans to Become Better Partners with the Black Church?

     Serving the Black church for three decades in its largest accredited seminary in the States, I’ve been asking this question of friends, colleagues, and students quite frequently.  And so on the basis of his thoughtful presentation, I now turn to Farris Blount to get his read on what the Lutheran tradition needs to do to become a better colleague for the African-American community in following Jesus and working for freedom and justice.  Of course my friends in the too-small segments of African-American Lutheranism largely do not think we need to abandon our core theological commitments, that what is needed is for the Church as a whole to become better Lutherans, to become more engaged with the Black community, and to get the word out among members and the public of Luther’s indebtedness to Augustine and other segments of African Christianity (Albert Pero and Ambrose Moyo, eds.,  Theology and the Black Experience; A. Trevor Sutton, “The Reformation’s African Roots,” Oct. 31, 2019, at www.thegospelcoaltion./org/article/reformation-african-roots/).  But since that is obviously what this son of Norwegian immigrants is only too happy to hear, I wanted to learn if from a different segment of the African-American church, Rev. Blount might see some things in Lutheranism that need to be reformed in order for its members to be helpful partners with the Black church.  A couple of these points I have previously raised with Rev. Blount in private correspondence, but perhaps it is useful to make these points more public here for the sake of our overall dialogue.   

     Of course justification by grace and freedom from the Law entailing the spontaneity of good works are the core commitments for Lutheranism (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, IV.2-3; Luther’s Works, Vol.31, pp.333-377).  I note that those themes were not noted in your comments on the Black way to follow Jesus, Rev. Blount.  Was that deliberate, or would you agree with Albert Raboteau’s characterization of early Black spirituality (at least through the 19th century) as freedom-loving to the point of objecting to preaching which is devoted to morality (Canaan Land, p.66)?  Or is your filure to mention these themes the result of a concern that too much emphasis on freedom from the Law leads to a faith only concerned about personal salvation?  Clearly sometimes in history, Lutherans have (erroneously) interpreted their heritage in that way.  But my concern on the other side is that teaching morality can readily lead to further oppression or feelings that your value is determined only by what you produce for the master.  (I like to think that the Lutheran sense of the spontaneity of good works when you are wrapped up in worship and in the stories of Jesus and the Bible is not unlike the spontaneity of response that happens in Black church worship.)  Or are those concerns and Raboteau’s analysis not relevant for the Black church today?       

     Another commitment that is precious to Lutherans who know their heritage is an appreciation that that Bible is not the sole legitimate source for the politics of freedom, that social policies need to be formulated through the use of reason and the natural law (Apology of The Augsburg Confession, XV).  Such an approach allows for cooperation across religious lines like the Jewish-Christian congregational dialogue described  in the paper.  Yet I note no reference to these themes in the paper, but rather to a Christocentrism, with hints that perhaps only the Bible can give us insight about seeking justice.  In interests of justice and partnership with the Black church, should Lutherans side with this Christocentrism?  Is such a social ethic taking guidance from reason and the natural law deficient in our quest for a just society?   Am I reading Dr. King incorrectly when at several points in his career he seems to have endorsed an appeal to the natural law as a norm for the movement’s quest for justice (“Letter From a Birmingham Jail”), and Lutherans need to get over this hang-up? 

     Two or three other items characteristic of Lutheranism were not noted in the paper, and I wonder if this is a sign that they are    better de-emphasized in interests of Black-church-Lutheran cooperation.  Rev. Blount’s paper did not elaborate on the kind of economic justice we need in society and did not address how worship and the Sacraments facilitate following Jesus.  Both in European Lutherans  and the non-Americanized segments of Lutheranism in America Lutherans have a definite bias against capitalism (The Large Catechism, I.7; Luther’s Works, Vol.45, pp.159-194).  Is that not a commitment where Black church-Lutheran concerns overlap, or are the economic preferences of DuBois and Ransom no longer relevant for the Black church today?  As for Sacramental liturgical worship, are these Lutheran commitments better de-emphasized in favor of more Pietist styles?  Of course, I would want to point out how these emphases characterize the ancient African churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, to remind ourselves that liturgical worship is itself rooted in early North African Christianity (The Didache).  But is such Afri-centrism not as useful in ecumenical dialogue with the Black church as a sensitivity to the call-  response piety of many in the Black church?   

     One last point of contact between the Black church and large segments of Lutheranism is worth noting, because I fear that this is a characteristic which could divide us, and so I come seeking advice regarding how to avoid making this similarity a problem.  We are both largely ethnic churches.  American Lutherans with German and Scandinavian roots largely still (though less and less) identify with the cultures of the motherland.  It is this feature of the Black church that makes this Norwegian American feel so at home in the Black church.  The Black church historically has had such a wonderful way of maintaining these ethnic and cultural features while always welcoming white worshippers.  German and Scandinavian Lutheran congregations would profit from Black church advice regarding how we could celebrate these cultural links (too many of us have just submitted to a white version of “Americanization”) and still send the message of welcome to our sisters and brothers with ethnic roots to the South and Far East of us.  If Lutherans could learn to act on that advice from Black church quarters, we’d be a lot better partners.   

     Of course the Black church seems to have an advantage in celebrating its members’ ethnicity without that ethnicity becoming oppressive insofar as to celebrate Black culture in America is counter-cultural.  But Lutheranism’s character as an ethnic/immigrant church has made it counter-cultural in America too at least to some extent.  I wonder if the counter-culturalism of Luther’s Theology of the Cross, the awareness that faith goes against ordinary socio-cultural and philosophical expectations (The Heidelberg Disputation), could help Lutherans get a little less “white American” and more counter-cultural in the way the Black church has in nudging America away from all its unjust “isms.”  Are there other ways in which the Lutheran church in this country could join the Black church in counter-cultural protest to follow Jesus and seek justice?                                     

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.

Methodism and the Liberative Heart of a God Who is Love

If Pietists and Pentecostals are like cousins, then certainly Pentecostals and Methodists are even closer in family formation. After all, it was the revivalist Wesleyan movement, blended with a dose of Moravian Pietism, that gave birth to Methodist, Holiness, and Pentecostal forms of Christian faith and practice.  In the United States by the early 20th century, Methodism’s political influence and spiritual imprint were so prominent that some wags spoke of the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC), the largest expression of American Methodism, as the nation’s unofficially established church.

For a small movement that arose in the 18th century as a religious society within the Church of England, Methodism’s mark on the global Protestant enterprise is immense. No wonder David Hempton has called Methodism a global “empire of the spirit,” driven by a deep missionary impulse and an Arminian Gospel that proclaimed salvation freely offered (if not always accepted) by all.

Despite the influence of Reformed traditions on Anglo-American Pentecostalism, it was Methodism’s musical passion, its theologies of holiness, and its emphasis on the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit that became (and remain) central to global Pentecostal thought and practice:  Is entire sanctification possible in this life?  What is the baptism of the Holy Spirit, a second blessing? What expressive behaviors count as authentic expressions of the indwelling Spirit? Which ones aid the Enemy? These questions were asked and variously answered in Holiness and Pentecostal circles, in ways that probably would have surprised Father John Wesley.

Like Pentecostalism, the Wesleyan movement is riven with divisions and has been from the beginning. Its eponymous founder, labored to guard the society during his lifetime, but there were still schisms:  between Arminian and Calvinist Methodists, between those who wanted to leave the Church of England and those who wished to stay.  There were those Wesley smeared as “antinomians,” Methodists who possessed a radical understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work and those who, like John & Co., understood the Spirit’s power to overturn proper order.

Methodist divisions grew more potent over time. The fissures involve everything from arguments over theology (is entire sanctification possible in this lifetime?) and polity (do we need bishops to govern us?) to the scourge of racism, slavery, and American apartheid.  In the early 19th century an MEC preacher, Richard Allen, led his black flock out of the MEC. The push was white racism, and the pull was the promise of a church – the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AMEC) – where black folks would create an African expression of American Methodism.  Like so many other U.S. Protestant denominations, the MEC fractured again in the run-up to the Civil War, leading to northern and southern jurisdictions. Those sectarian wounds weren’t stitched up until 1939, but even then, racism was institutionalized within the Methodist Church through its racially segregated Central Jurisdiction.

So much for following Jesus.

I’ve placed the fractures of Methodism in the foreground of my remarks because these divergences invite us to the central question of this respectful conversation – what does it mean to follow Jesus? In our sacred conversation so far, I’ve often reflected on how different answers to that question are just as likely to be expressed within a given tradition as between traditions. Nothing better illustrates this than the forty-year war in the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful global Methodist institution, the United Methodist Church. The UMC is dramatically breaking apart.  Even in this very moment a large and well-funded “traditionalist” wing is leaving the UMC to start the Global Methodist Church, which comes into existence on May 1st of 2022. Some within a fractured left flank have either left the UMC, or stand suspended in an in-between space, like the Liberation Methodist Connexion.

I appreciate Dr. Sarah Lancaster’s words offering a Wesleyan understanding of sanctification: “a renewal of holiness brings with it the happiness for which we were made.”  Yet in an era when fault lines widened over gender and sexual justice, Methodist leaders generally have not lived into the happiness of holiness. Factions within the UMC have fomented a battle royale on how (or even whether) to live out the UMC’s unofficial motto: Open hearts, open minds, open doors.  This intramural war has led to great spiritual harm, as the testimony of queer Methodists and their families attests.  The infliction of spiritual harm violates the simplest expression of Wesleyan ethics – do no harm; do good; stay in love with God.  Surely, then, inflicting spiritual harm is exactly the opposite of what it means to follow Jesus.

Lancaster’s discussion of her tradition is a hope-filled reminder of the spiritual and theological resources that Wesleyan/Methodist traditions offer to people struggling to follow Jesus. Among those resources are rich theological ideas and practical expressions of holiness, sanctification, even love, the heart of Christian life.  Competing sides claim these central Methodist ideas differently, and often put them into practice in wildly divergent ways.

As Pentecostal kith and kin to Methodism, it’s obvious to me that the way of holiness, openness to the Holy Spirit, and the process of moving toward perfect love has all-too-often devolved into rigid holiness codes that have forbidden (at various times) novel reading, theater going, card playing, drinking alcohol, using makeup, television-watching, and dancing. Strict holiness codes are another “gift” to Pentecostal life, via the Holiness wing of Methodism – an ambiguous gift, since the gatekeepers of holiness codes have lost sight of what they were meant to inspire: alignment with the liberative heart of a God who is love.

Christ, Community, & Challenging Injustice

In Dr. Lancaster’s reflection about the Wesleyan tradition of following Jesus, I was most intrigued by what I consider to also be a fundamental aspect of following Jesus in the Black Church tradition – a commitment to an understanding of justification and sanctification as a communal process in which disciples of Jesus hold one another accountable. I appreciated her acknowledgment of what appears to be a critical aspect of the Wesleyan faith because I believe it can be a resource to help reimagine what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. However, I would be interested to hear more from Dr. Lancaster about different manifestations of Wesleyan expressions of love. More specifically, I wonder: what does it mean for Wesleyans to consider that following Jesus is something that can be expressed differently, even if there are certain tenets of the faith I believe are required, and not optional?

Dr. Lancaster offers a significant insight in her exploration of the Wesleyan communal commitment to justification and sanctification. When she writes that with justification comes a “new birth” in which we “may begin to model our lives after the one we follow, learning from Jesus how to love properly,” she inadvertently provides the rationale behind the need for followers of Jesus to be in community with other believers (even before she makes official mention of it in the subsequent paragraph of holiness being “social.”). If we consider this idea of a “new birth” of a believer who has chosen to follow Christ, then she must be in relationship with people who will instruct her on this Christian journey (as the old folks in my tradition would say). Just as no child can grow up into a well-adjusted and functioning adult without parental guidance and support, so too will no person, new or old, in the Christian faith fully mature in their understanding of their belief without a group of persons who are there to rejoice with them in times of joy, mourn with them in times of sadness, and provoke them to love and good works.

Such a perspective of the communal nature of the Christian faith is foundational to many people who identify as followers of Jesus in the Black Church tradition. Even though there continues to be an ever-increasing emphasis on the individual over the collective in the language, programming, and structure of churches (Black churches included), there are still many Black congregations that embody Dr. Lancaster’s words: “following Jesus to grow in holiness, then, was not finally individualistic and private, but rather took place in community.” Black mothers and fathers teach kids what it meant to live for God so that God could one day declare to them “well done, my good and faithful servant.” If Black people were struggling to make ends meet or with a vice that was harming their loved ones, other Black believers would (and still do) pray with them, asking what might be needed to assist them in their time of suffering.

In other words, the communal nature of following Jesus in the Black Church tradition is nothing new. However, Dr. Lancaster did reiterate the importance of small gatherings and groups as we work to be faithful witnesses to Christ in the world. I do not think it is a coincidence that Dr. Lancaster writes the movement to conceive of holiness as social “was organized in small groups for members to talk openly with each other about the state of their souls, to encourage and if necessary admonish one another to follow Jesus more faithfully.” More often than not, it is more feasible to develop a relationship with someone in a smaller rather than larger setting because of the increased chances for conversation and deeper engagement. A person cannot be on the hide-out in a more intimate congregational space; typically, she is not another number on a pew (as opposed to many people in megachurch settings) but rather someone that people will recognize week to week, creating more opportunities for she and them to engage more deeply. While it is no guarantee that people will participate in a smaller congregation, I believe Dr. Lancaster is highlighting the possibilities of the depth of interaction that can be found when people in small groups choose to be open and vulnerable. And in a day and age in which many followers of Jesus appear content to just attend worship services and leave, Dr. Lancaster suggests there is a better way forward for growing together as disciples of Jesus.

But upon investigating Dr. Lancaster’s piece further, I left wondering about the different manifestations of Wesleyan theology when it comes to expressing holiness as love. More specifically, Dr. Lancaster writes that people will seek holiness through various behaviors or actions, with one such behavior being a commitment to protesting injustice. I struggled somewhat with this perspective because to follow Jesus, in my opinion, means being concerned with the plight of those who are experiencing oppression or inequality – pursuing justice is not simply a choice a follower of Jesus selects depending on how she is feeling but central to what it means to be a Jesus-believer. Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Luke 4 echoes his commitment to upending systems that dehumanized those on the outskirts of society, and His earthly ministry reflected His desire to speak life into those whom so many others disregarded or rejected. So, being concerned with justice in the world is not an option for a follower of Jesus but a requirement.

I realize such a statement evokes a wide range of reactions, from agreement to outright rejection. I am not saying that everyone will have the same method of challenging injustice in the world, nor will we all embrace similar levels of commitment. We each have different risk tolerances that actively impact how we choose to show up in support of those who are discriminated against. However, Dr. Lancaster’s reflection reminded me that all followers of Jesus have a responsibility to speak out and fight against inequality wherever we may see it. This commitment is part of what it means to be holy – it is not optional. I then wonder: what would the Church look like if we fully lived into this Jesus that often goes missing from our sermons and teachings about what it means to follow Him?