Jesus as Social Revolutionary: Engaging Farris Blount’s Prophetic Invitation

Thank you, Farris Blount, for an accessible yet multi-layered overview of the Black Church in A Tale of Many Options: Following Jesus in the Black Church Tradition. The “many options” of your “tale” of the non-monolithic Black Church tradition captures well both central emphases and the many variations.

Your first words fit well with my own take on Anabaptist-Mennonitism and other traditions:

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.

Rightly emphasized are ways denominational theologies, church models, and forms of following Jesus arise from particular geographical, cultural, and social locations. Amid much that overlaps with ways given situations have shaped my and my tradition’s forms of following Jesus, it’s vital to note your stress on the historical mistreatment and marginalization of the Black Church. Because so much rides on one of your core paragraphs, let me quote it in full:

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.

I’m a member of a tradition born amid persecution and death so significant that the massive classic, The Martyrs’ Mirror (assembled by Tieleman Van Braght in the 1600s), tells story after story of Anabaptists chased down, burned, drowned during the Reformation. I was ridiculed as a first-grader for not bearing toy guns in a school play because my peace-committed Mennonite parents forbade it. I feel in my bones the traumatic potential of mistreatments and marginalizations. I resonate with your statement that “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.”

However, precisely because for me and many in my tradition the age-old persecutions involved primarily beliefs, not race, I struggle fully to understand. I imagine beyond a certain point I can’t grasp the depths of trauma intertwined with slavery and racism persisting both in historical memory and still so often actively inflicted today.

Then add the complexity of how African-Americans have themselves, as you report, found their way through that history and present racisms:

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.[1]

It makes sense, as you describe Black Church diversities, that this polarity of the communal and the privatistic would name and form alternative expressions of Black Church experiences. The polarity is also strongly applicable to other traditions. I grew up in what I’d consider a privatistic form of church. I remember its members criticizing Martin Luther King Jr. for focusing on social justice rather than, as these Mennonites believed was more crucial, bringing about change through inviting Jesus into our hearts as personal savior.

In contrast, some Anabaptist-Mennonites have emphasized communal approaches. I’d understand Mennonite Church USA to be trending in this direction in its statements and resources on “Undoing Racism” introduced with these sentences: “Racism, antipathy and alienation stand in the way of Christ’s kingdom of love, justice and peace. As missional communities we will seek to dismantle individual and systemic racism in our church.”

Crucial to my own quest to follow Jesus was Vincent Harding, whose journey included speech writing for Martin Luther King Jr. (such as King’s historic “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence“) and significant involvement with Mennonites. He increasingly became a critic of Mennonites (for reasons likely related to the privatistic side of the church) yet also at one point with first spouse Rosemarie directed a Mennonite service unit in Atlanta. In the 1970s he changed my and my wife Joan’s life when in a presentation at Eastern Mennonite University, our alma mater, he urged Mennonites, so often agrarian, to become more meaningfully involved in cities and communal concerns. His invitation catalyzed our spending some 14 years training, working, and living in Philadelphia.

I’d see the privatistic/communal pendulum going back and forth in Anabaptist-Mennonite circles depending on era, given congregations, denominational variations, and so forth. Interestingly, this might be illustrated through how our Following Jesus conversations have been received. I’ve been sharing my posts on Facebook and elsewhere. When I posted my response to Pietist Christopher Gehrz, one FB commentator observed that “I too have heard Mennonite leaders opine about how Pietist sentiments can lead to a me-and-Jesus instead of an us-and-Jesus mentality. I find those comments suspect. It ignores, suppresses and denies the reality that each of us is an individual with an irreducible inwardness. . . .”

Another commentator hoped that valuing the inward, privatistic aspects of Pietism as I had summarized them was not an either/or. This person stressed what Blount is calling the communal, wondering, “Is the Bible primarily addressed to whole communities of God’s covenanted people or is it primarily intended for our personal devotions?” The commentator answered that we pray not “My” but “Our” Father in the Lord’s prayer. This is in contrast to, say, coming “to the garden alone” or walking the Jericho Road as “just Jesus and me” (as two songs put it). 

I said that “As I understood the Pietist summary to which I was responding, indeed both/and not either/or!” Your own answer, Farris, is that

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.

Well said, and a nudge to any of us—personally or at the level of our traditions who may be tempted to overinvest in the privatistic at the expense of the communal. Many thanks for making the stakes clear.

This week we confront yet again the violence shredding our culture, too often on behalf of White supremacy, and Black shoppers dying simply for being in a Buffalo grocery store when a teenager, incited by hate-filled ideologies he had no trouble finding and feeding on in today’s political and media contexts, set out to kill as many as he could. Amid such horrors, you issue an invitation that ultimately has implications for all of us:

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?