Covenantal Relationships In An Individualistic & Multiracial Society

Dr. Granberg-Michaelson’s reflection on what it means to follow Jesus from the Reformed tradition challenges me to reimagine what it means to be in “covenant” with God. On the one hand, I appreciate his articulation of how the Reformed tradition emphasizes the communal nature of covenant with God; in a world that is so focused on having a “personal” relationship with Jesus, it is encouraging to hear how following Jesus, in some traditions, still means being concerned with the health and well-being of others. On the other hand, I struggle with Dr. Granberg-Michaelson’s words on covenant because I do not see a path forward for harmed parties in his understanding. Because those in the Black Church tradition have often been harmed or taken advantage of in the covenantal relationships in which we have found ourselves (Dr. Granberg-Michaelson even notes how covenant and Reformed interaction with culture can breed violence), I wonder: how might we hold in tension the Reformed tradition’s commitment to covenant with the reality that in many covenantal bonds, some people suffer while attempting to follow Jesus?

Dr. Granberg-Michaelson’s point that the Reformed tradition is covenantal is helpful as I think through how the modern Black Church tradition might embrace that following Jesus means being concerned with our neighbors’ needs. To be sure, the Black Church, since its inception, has emphasized that being a follower of Jesus means taking care of and supporting sisters and brothers both in and outside of the faith. For Black congregations during the late 19th – early 20th century, they had no choice but to focus on the spiritual and emotional well-being of Black people because it was the only place where the humanity of African-Americans was affirmed. The earliest Black churches were, by their very existence, living representations of covenant – Black members committed to embodying the life of Jesus through their work with each other, which in turn strengthened Black churches’ power and influence while Black churches provided a haven for Black Americans to fully and authentically be themselves. In fact, I believe the idea of covenant could be nuanced even further by examining it in the relationship between the earliest Black congregations and their members.

However, like other contemporary institutions, many Black churches frame following Jesus from an individualistic perspective. When someone professes belief in Jesus and a desire to follow Him, the language around such profession centers on accepting Jesus as one’s personal Lord and Savior, rather than how said profession connects one to the community of believers intent on living into the words and ministry of Jesus. Even the act of walking to the front and making a public declaration of one’s decision to follow Jesus can be interpreted as an emphasis on the individual instead of the communal.

I realize the concept of covenant appears in scripture in ways that seem to emphasize the personal connection between God and an individual. One of our first examples of covenant in the Hebrew Bible, in fact, is between a singular man (Abraham) & God. In other words, to follow Jesus does indeed mean that there is some level of individual commitment each one of us must make to follow Jesus. But as Dr. Granberg-Michaelson notes in his reflection, our modern Western culture is defined by hyper-individualism, a reality that has seeped into what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. We have over indexed on approaching Jesus for what we need personally rather than understanding that, as Dr. Granberg-Michaelson writes, “Christian faith is carried communally.” He offers a helpful corrective that should lead us to re-interpret our understanding of covenant – what would the narratives of Noah and Abraham’s relationship with God tell us about the shared nature of faith if we examined them through the lens of Dr. Granberg-Michaelson’s definition of covenant?

However, while I appreciated Dr. Granberg-Michaelson’s work on covenant, I also struggled to see how it might be instructive for parties in a covenant who are on the receiving end of violence and trauma. If following Jesus in the Reformed tradition means that we are to be in covenantal relationships with one another that can be “a vehicle for the initiative of God’s grace,” it also means there is the possibility that one group in the covenant can be harmed. So, while these covenantal relationships, in theory, should be bonds of love that allow God’s covenantal grace to keep expanding “relentlessly and inclusively,” the reality is that human selfishness leads to outcomes in which some people are taken advantage of for the benefit of others. Sin abounds, even in what should be relationships of grace, peace, and love. As Dr. Granberg-Michaelson even notes in his reflection, “by nature [we] [are] prone to hate God and [our] neighbor.” Even when we believe we are pursuing community, we tend to be overly concerned with our desires at the expense of the well-being of others, which leads to damaging and deleterious consequences for particular populations.

These realities of harm in what should be covenantal relationships have come to define the Black Christian experience for many African-Americans that choose to worship in multiracial churches. When Black Christians are invited to come and worship in “multiethnic” spaces under the pretense that following Jesus means that racial classification is second to shared identity in Christ, these institutions often offer a white, Eurocentric worship environment that ignores the lived experience of Black Christians. Black pastors are invited to co-lead multiracial congregations with the promise that their voices will be heard, but the data shows that by and large, “multiracial” churches default to the desires, perspectives, and opinions of their white leadership. Countless Black Christians enter these covenantal opportunities excited about the possibility of following Jesus with people different from them, only to be disappointed by the lack of attention to their needs in the process.

What redress, then, do the negatively impacted parties have in these covenantal connections gone wrong? Dr. Granberg-Michaelson does write about the issue of sin in the Reformed tradition (for what I have named above is a sin problem), but I wonder how he might think about reconciliation when these covenantal bonds are broken. Too often, there are few, if any, avenues for Black Christians to articulate their concerns in these multiethnic institutions. It makes sense then why there was somewhat of an exodus of Black Christians from these multiracial congregations to Black churches after the 2016 election and beyond; Black Christians lamented the fact that their supposedly racially progressive church was unable to speak out against the racism that seemed to be more present than ever before (an issue that most Black churches have no issue addressing). For those that left, the covenant had been broken, and many began to ask the question: how can we follow Jesus alongside our peers if our peers cannot see and admit that we are hurting? I realize there are some multiracial congregations doing tremendous racial justice and reconciliation work. But I have seen too many Black Christians who are suffering because their belief in the possibility of covenantal relationships with Christians of other races was shattered by the realities of silence on issues of racism in these multiracial spaces. How then do we understand and process through the idea of covenant in these circumstances?

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