The Relevance & Significance Of The Sources Used When Following Jesus

When reading the reflection on what it means to follow Jesus from the Lutheran framework, I was struck by the range of different sources used in the tradition to construct a life that models Jesus’ own. Through a combination of scripture, the Sacraments, the liturgy, and the communion of all saints, Lutherans develop an understanding of what it means to follow Jesus. Those in the Black Church tradition often utilize a similar varied approach, recognizing that to walk the path of Jesus requires insights and perspectives from both past and present as we remain faithful to the call of Jesus over our lives. However, I am wrestling with Dr. Ellingsen’s note that that for many Lutherans, insights gained through speaking in tongues “do not outweigh Biblical authority and the experience of the gift of tongues is not privileged over other spiritual gifts.” I believe there is some divergence within the Black Church tradition on this point, as the experiences of many African-American Christians has almost necessitated that other sources are, at times, more prominent than scripture when following Jesus.

Dr. Ellingsen’s point about the multiple resources that Lutherans utilize to maintain and strengthen their commitment to following Jesus resonated with me, as I see similar parallels in the Black Church tradition. The Sacraments and liturgy are, among Black Christians, opportunities for us to come together and process how God wants us to be in fellowship with one another and then act in the world. Preaching and Bible study are tools meant to enhance the life of the believer, clarifying how God wants to use us for God’s glory. Dr. Ellingsen’s post made clear that Lutherans do not have one primary lens through which they make sense of their faith. Rather, scripture, spiritual gifts, and the other tools listed above are all utilized by Lutherans in their journey to follow Jesus, which is also the case for many in the Black Church tradition.

What was new from Dr. Ellingsen’s reflection is the idea of joy that “permeates all the activities Lutherans identify with following Jesus, Bible study, prayer, and evangelism.” He writes an insightful note that connects scientific explanation with theological analysis to illustrate that for Lutherans, spiritual exercises produce joy in the believer. That joy (which Dr. Ellingsen mentions is connected to good-feeling brain chemicals such as dopamine) also provides the energy required to act in any given moment for Lutheranism “reminds the faithful that every moment can be a moment in which the Kingdom of God is realized.” This perspective challenged me because it highlighted that following Jesus is not simply adherence to a set of practices but the manner and mood in which those practices are carried out. His comments reminded me of that passage of scripture I heard so much growing up about giving – we ought to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, “for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). It is not simply enough to give, read scripture, or pray as we attempt to follow Jesus. We must likewise do so with joy because we recognize that in following Jesus, we are working to establish God’s reign and rule on Earth one step at a time. And it is that joy that gives us the fuel to keep going when the vicissitudes of life seem too much to bear.

I struggled, however, with this Lutheran view of joy because for so many in the Black Church tradition, life’s struggles make it difficult to have joy. I do not mean to say that only Black Christians deal with tough times that bring more sadness, frustration, and despair than happiness, peace, and elation. But the specific mix of racism and discrimination, manifested in unequal policies, economic and social inequalities, and the threat of violence, all weigh heavy on the African-American experience. It is true that Black Americans, and Black Christians in particular, have found ways to experience joy amid so much pain; one only has to look at the worship experience of Black churches throughout the centuries to see how Black congregations embody joy in preaching, singing, worshiping, and praying. However, this reality does not change the fact that for countless African-Americans, it is hard to facilitate the joy that seems so integral to the Lutheran tradition. Therefore, I wrestle with (and will continue to do so) this question: How can the Black Church tradition create spaces for Black Christians to experience joy in their efforts to follow Jesus when so much of what we experience seems intent on stealing that joy away from us?

This conversation around joy echoes a second place where I wrestled with Dr. Ellingsen’s reflection – his conversation around speaking in tongues. In his post, Dr. Ellingsen makes it clear that although an increasing number of American Lutherans are embracing the validity of speaking in tongues as a means of following Jesus, insights gained from such speech do not outweigh Biblical authority. In other words, if one receives a revelation when speaking in tongues, it appears that said revelation would be invalidated if it could not be reconciled with scripture. The Bible, if I am understanding Dr. Ellingsen correctly, takes precedence above all else for Lutherans who are working to follow Jesus.

However, for many in the Black Church tradition, the Bible (or Scripture) has been used to demonize us, to the point where we question if it is worth it to even follow Jesus. Scripture was used as justification to enslave, beat, kill, and violate Africans and African-Americans. Literal sections of the Bible were ripped out or excluded when read to slaves (such as the Exodus narrative) to fortify the system of servitude and bondage that dehumanized African-Americans for years. The Bible, for many Americans, was a resource that legitimized segregation and other economic and social policies that disproportionally impacted African-Americans even after the institutionalized end of slavery. To this day, the Bible is used to discriminate against African-Americans and other minoritized communities. How then is the Bible supposed to take primacy over the other experiences of African-American Christians when its use has been the source of so much harm?

This question is particularly pertinent when we consider the significance of the oral tradition in the Black Church tradition. When Black Americans were enslaved and forbidden from learning to read or write, it was their voices that carried them to freedom, narrated their histories, and maintained familial relations. Many songs that are now considered staples of the Black Church tradition started out as Negro spirituals which Black slaves sung to themselves and others to strengthen and sustain them during what appeared to be a never-ending darkness. It is no wonder that call-and-response is such an integral part of the worship experience in countless churches in the Black Church tradition; our voice is our most powerful instrument when people and institutions have tried for so long to stifle, if not outright eliminate it.

How then do we reconcile the Lutheran perspective of Biblical authority with the very real significance of the oral tradition (including speaking in tongues) in many Black Church traditions? I realize that not all Black Church communities give oral modes of communication equal prominence. Some echo Dr. Ellingsen’s words and see the Bible as the final and ultimate guide on what it means to follow Jesus, giving it more prominence than any other practice or tool. I also realize that Dr. Ellingsen is speaking about only one segment of the Lutheran population (he notes that his comments about speaking in tongues and Biblical authority are about American Lutherans). However, Dr. Ellingsen is encouraging me to ask deeper questions about the connection between the Bible and following Jesus in the Black Church tradition because if we are going to follow Jesus, I believe the Bible must have a role. The question then becomes: what role does that look like for Black Christian communities?

 

1 reply
  1. Mark Ellingsen
    Mark Ellingsen says:

    Dear Farris
    Given my work for nearly three decades at the ITC, I have been looking forward to our conversation, as your comments are a continuation of the dialogue I have been having with the Black church since 1993 and before with friends. Of course your call for considering other sources is part of the dialogue I have frequently, and quite appropriately had with other Black scholars. But your comments also made me realize that the original essay left out some aspects of the Lutheran tradition which could easily lead to misunderstandings. Let me try to remedy some of those gaps in what I wrote. The two issues I understand you to feel the Black church parts ways with Lutheranism are in fact topics on which I think we have more in common than I communicated the first time.
    First with regard to reliance on sources other than the Bible, there different are emphases in Lutheranism, not differences in kind with the Black church. We need to keep in mind that Luther came out of a pre-modern story culture (not the white culture of the modern era). Most everyone in his congregations was illiterate, and most of his sermons are in a story-telling mode, seeking to have his hearers identify with the Biblical characters (in a mode not unlike the Black church homiletical tradition). Many times Lutherans appeal to community traditions and practices, oral traditions, in order to authorize their claims or practices (The Large Catechism, IV.49ff.). But the differences might emerge in that I detect some openness in the history of African-American Christianity to granting authority to visions of individuals (I have in mind Nat Turner’s revolt). On that score, Lutherans must say no.
    With regard to the connections between the joy of following Christ for Luther and the joy of Black worship, I erred in not pointing out clearly that Luther’s joy is not naïve, but has a dialectical character, always marred by the sinful realities in which we live. Christian freedom and joy give the faithful the ‘courage to be” (as Lutheran Paul Tillich once said). Is that sort of dialectic involved in the contrast between the joy inherent in much African-American worship and the realities of racism and injustice which surround Black life? If suggesting these convergences is unfair to the uniqueness of Black life, please help me see such differences, so I don’t try to impose fallacious thinking on students.
    Another set of the Lutheran themes strikes me as possible areas for more dialogue with the Black church. The theme of freedom Lutherans stress converges with Black spirituality. Freedom from the Law is in line with insights of the recently departed Albert Raboteau who claimed that the slaves and freedmen objected to sermons about morality, wanted sermons on the power of God’s love in the traditions of preaching they had heard in the days of the “invisible institution.” (Canaan Land, p.66). Such freedom from the Law is not just a spiritual freedom for Luther. He overcame the flaws in his earlier unfortunate encounter with the Peasants to advocate for government working to achieve justice for the poor (Luther’s Works, Vol.9, p.19; The Large Catechism, I.7) and worked to establish safety-nets for the poor in Germany (Luther’s Works, Vol.45, pp.159-194). It is no accident, I submit, that the Lutheran nations of Western Europe have Socialist economies with generous safety-nets for the poor. At its best, Lutheranism is version of our faith which has a bias towards the poor and oppressed.

    Your brother in Christ,
    Mark

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