Jesus, Love, & Nonviolence in the Black Church Tradition
Dr. King’s reflection on what it means to follow Jesus from an Anabaptist perspective resonated with me as the values he articulated are helpful as I consider the Black Church tradition. More specifically, Value 1 encourages me to think about the centrality of Jesus in Black churches and where these institutions might be falling short in their adherence to our Savior. However, I am struggling to reconcile Value 4 with the historical trajectory of the Black Church. While I believe in a commitment to love and nonviolence, Black churches have often been subjected to violence and forced to fight back just to survive. I wonder how we might consider the Anabaptist dedication to peace in light of the experiences of a Black Church tradition that is partially defined by the violence it has endured.
Value 1 in Anabaptist understandings has strong resonance in the Black Church tradition. Dr. King’s claim that “the starting point for Anabaptist-Mennonite understandings of God, the church, and all life is the New Testament and the Jesus Christ revealed in it” is reflected in the ways that Black congregations give Jesus primacy in the worship experience and beyond. Hymns are sung that speak to Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and how belief in Him can transform lives. Most prayers are concluded with “in Jesus’ name, Amen,” an indication that by praying in Jesus’ name, He acts as an intercessor between humanity and God. In the Black Church tradition, it is common to end the preaching moment with a retelling of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. Dr. King’ statement about the prioritization of Jesus as seen in the New Testament can be identified in the Black Church tradition. Everything starts and ends with Jesus in most Black congregations.
With such a strong emphasis on Jesus, I struggle then to reconcile the ways that some Black churches engage on various issues, particularly when their perspective does not align with New Testament teachings about Jesus. There are those in the Black Church tradition that give more weight to the words of Paul than that of Jesus. In my reading of the New Testament, Jesus offers words of women subjugation to men, yet there are many self-professed Jesus followers who lean heavily into the words of Paul as justification for their belief that women should be subservient. In fact, if we look at the gospels closely, Jesus praises women for their faith and appears to them first following His resurrection. Jesus emphasizes the need for community care and concern for the least of these, and yet there are various Black congregations who ascribe to an individualism that consistently prioritizes the self over the other. Jesus reiterates time and time again in New Testament teachings that to follow Him would require sacrifices, but there are Black ecclesial spaces that suggest we do not have to give up much to be followers of Jesus.
To be sure, these concerns are not only experienced in the Black Church; there are multiple denominations and congregations from varied backgrounds who struggle to live into Jesus’ Way as articulated in the New Testament. Furthermore, I understand that certain theological teachings may have been coping mechanisms to help Black Christians navigate an anti-Black world. (For instance, could it be that some Black churches stressed the importance of the individual to help Black Americans see their dignity and worth when very few would?) However, Dr. King’s work reminds me that if we in Black church spaces are going to call ourselves Jesus-followers, we must make decisions and live according to what we see in the New Testament primarily. There very well may be something useful or helpful in Paul’s writings. Paul, in fact, has helped many a Black church figure out how to structure the organization and facilitate the work of the church. However, we call ourselves Christians and not “Paulinians,” indicating that we are chiefly followers of Christ. Dr. King’s statement that the Way of Jesus should get priority is a strong reminder that we in the Black Church tradition should always be analyzing our actions and perspectives through the lens of Jesus.
While Dr. King’s first value encouraged me to think more deeply about some of the contradictions within the Black Church tradition, I wrestled with how to process his fourth value in light of the violence and harm enacted on Black churches and communities. On the one hand, love and nonviolence were hallmarks of Black congregations and pastors who were at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement. To them, Jesus was love and nonviolence enfleshed and a model for how the Black Church could advocate for changes in discriminatory policies and practices. Love and nonviolence were, and still are for many Black churches, emblematic of what it means to be a Christian. If Jesus, who was God made flesh, could die on a cross and forgive those who put Him there, how can we call ourselves followers of Jesus and not at least strive to embody this ethic?
On the other hand, the Black Church has often had to contend with real violence that has harmed its members. White “Christians” would don the Ku Klux Klan uniform and terrorize African Americans, burning their churches and lynching Black Americans for no apparent reason other than hatred. The American enslavement of Black people was predicated on violence; Black slaves were raped, tortured, beaten, and killed all in the name of maintaining control of a system that saw them as the nonhuman other, often at the hands of self-professed Christian slaveowners. Even today, there are “Christians” at every level of government and industry enacting policies meant to strip African Americans of economic and social opportunities. It makes sense then why Christians like Nat Turner felt there were no other options than to retaliate with violence in the face of violence. How can we expect someone to respond with nonviolence when all he has experienced is violence and oppression? Furthermore, how can we expect someone to remain committed to nonviolence when history demonstrates that the most violent, often in the name of God, have been the most successful and prosperous?
Again, I believe strongly in the Anabaptist value of love and nonviolence. I consider myself a Christian minister that tries to preach, teach, and live this ethic. But Dr. King’s reflection has reiterated to me the importance of context when we discuss what it means to follow Jesus. We may share similar beliefs about what it means to be a follower of Jesus, but our specific experiences in the world can impact how that belief manifests itself in our day-to-day lives. The Black Church tradition most certainly has a nonviolent ethos that run through its core. However, I would be disingenuous if I did not name the complicated relationship that Black communities have with violence. Even to this day, Black congregations must ask themselves: how do we remain peaceful and model the restrain of our Savior when it appears that very few, if any, offer us that same peace and restraint?
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