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.