God’s Trombones: The Black Church’s Certain Sound in Uncertain Times (BTLI Reflection Part IV)

Preachers

Me with Revs. Neichelle Guidry-Jones and Akeem Walker

Is there a word from the Lord?

Indeed there is a word from the Lord and as God’s trombones we must play a certain and sure sound. In a time of extreme fatherlessness, abject poverty, epidemic teen births and sexually transmitted diseases, inadequate healthcare, failing public schools, thriving private prisons, crumbling urban infrastructures, astronomical debt, moral decay and decadence, etc., the church has the unique mission of being salt and light in a dying and dark world. But how are we to do this? How are we to remain faithful to Jesus and to his commission? How do we turn to the Holy Spirit for power that goes beyond black or white power, or political power? How do we remain the Church, not just another organization or institution doing good? How do we offer something uniquely theological in a world that slowly drifts from any notions of the supernatural and the spiritual?

These were some of the questions we entertained, wrestling with them through the topics of Christology (the doctrine of Jesus Christ), Pneumatology (the doctrine of the Holy Spirit), Theodicy (the doctrine of suffering and evil), and Christian Leadership (applied theological ethics). How does the revelation of Jesus Christ, to whom we bear witness in the power of the Holy Spirit, speak to the collective suffering of the black experience, and how do we in the 21st century lead the Church in leading America toward liberation?

To gesture toward answering this question, let me speak no longer in the plural but in the singular. Though Cone was a necessary critique of dominating whiteness in the American academy and church, we must note that he was not the first “black liberation theologian.” In a certain sense the black church’s genesis is that of black liberation theology. Indeed the black church isn’t monolithic and generalized definitions are harder to pin down. But it must be noted that all the independent, predominantly black churches and denominations that emerged during slavery and de jure Jim Crow were protest movements that defied the political theo-logic of American racism. What is stunning is how enslaved Africans could discern the difference between orthodoxy and heresy in the preaching and teaching of their slavers. Jesus as the hermeneutical key to understanding the faith led them to see the Christ as a co-sufferer; that by his incarnation and crucifixion the King of Glory elected to live like a slave and to in all ways suffer like us. In this way a profoundly Christocentric theology emerged, one in which Jesus was best friend, bright hope, a way out of no way, the Righteous Judge, a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. In Jesus our ancestors saw the freedom of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage as somehow their story too. They read themselves into the biblical text with sanctified imaginations that helped them through this barren land on their way to Canaan’s edge. The God that delivered Israel was their God, a God for them. Didn’t our God deliver Daniel? Then why not every one?

This ethic of liberation preached in coded tongues in the hush arbors was passed on to later generations who would break free both physically and institutionally from an apostate church that refused to break its idols. Who the Son set free was free indeed! And since Jesus lifted them, why should they be bound, even at the altar? This protest movement was iconoclastic; it broke the very racial imagination that sought to dominate black flesh. Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, and many others had charted the way toward a Christianity that was liberating. Absalom Jones, Richard Allen, Daniel Payne, William Colley, Charles Price Jones, William Seymour, Charles Harrison Mason, and countless others took the Gospel torch and continued to run the race set before them.

Some scholars have erroneously thought that the prophetic element of the black church died following abolition and resurged under the charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King Jr. and then died again in the so-called post-civil rights era. Nothing is furthest from the truth. The black church in diverse and divergent ways, with a complicated history, has persevered in greater and lesser degrees as a prophetic conscience for the nation. It has shown up in different ways. For many black Baptists, the prophetic content of the preaching and living was in its missions to Africa and in the commitment to education of the masses. For the Pentecostals, it was retained in Mason’s insistence that black worship affirmed its embodied nature in the face of phobia toward all things African and in his pacifism that led him to be imprisoned for conscientious objection. Black Baptists and Methodists and Pentecostals were preeminent in the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. And many black churches from the 1970s forward have invested time, talent, and treasure in missions, charity, justice advocacy, and comprehensive community development efforts.

Understanding this will help move beyond the stereotypes made of the black church by scholars who rarely if ever attend and are committed to black churches. When Eddie Glaude, a religion professor at Princeton University, wrote a scathing eulogy for the black church published online by the Huffington Post, it raised appropriate questions about the state of black churches while also igniting ire from those in the black church community who have dedicated themselves to the transformative and tedious work of redemption in the forgotten areas of the American Empire.
To be sure, the black church isn’t beyond criticism. So much has been left undone and so much must yet be done. Too many have succumbed to newer heresies of the Prosperity doctrine, secular humanism, etc. But the black church, as a sociological phenomenon born of theological necessity and urgency, is still a gift of prophetic sight for our country. What must be done in deeper ways, especially for Baptists and Pentecostals, is to think more critically, more theologically, about the relationships between Christian doctrine and Christian duty, between our worship and our witness, in this present age. Too many of our churches are maintaining and not thriving, therefore not able to contribute distinctively and daringly to the context of liberation. In order to have a clear and audible voice, we have to do the hard work of constructive theology. In other words, we must highlight or create a theology of liberation that speaks to our context. I am convinced that one needn’t turn first to Cone and others for such insights. Even though they are helpful, I believe that our traditions already have within them wonderful theological and ethical resources for impacting our communities. After we have done this we can come to the advocacy and academic tables as equals, learning from them but also contributing worthy reflections and strategies that must be included if we are to change our society holistically.

Moreover, we must move beyond narrow sectarianism and denominationalism. We of course have our differences but we will never know how much we have in common if we continue to fight those played out turf and tribal battles. We are moving toward a post-denominational age when myriad Americans aren’t concerned about our brand religion but about how Jesus can really transform their lives for the better. There is much different churches can learn from each other and ultimately work together collaboratively.

Now that I’m back from Princeton, I have renewed zeal for the unique contributions of theologians and churches to human flourishing. We are seemingly recapitulating the story of the 1950s and 60s. May the Church be present as it was then.

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4 thoughts on “God’s Trombones: The Black Church’s Certain Sound in Uncertain Times (BTLI Reflection Part IV)

  1. Elliott Cuff says:

    The black church’s worst condition is still optimistic, Christologically. Preaching that only serves as an extension of the themes and paradigms of the marketplace is tragically not prophetic, it is also the most glariinglyt heard of the “dull and sepid” trombones today. We must move from dialogical pretense to discerning discourse that is rooted in the great motifs of Scripture, past, present, and yet to come. This ought to be the church’s finest hour and too often the preaching behavior we see in the pulpit is nothing more than another version of the world’s happy hours.

    • CJ Rhodes, MDiv says:

      Dr. Cuff,

      As always, your insights are thoughtful and provocative. I do agree with you that from a Christological perspective, there is much to have hope about regarding the black church. I believe it still has a prophetic vocation that God’s yet allows it to perform. Certainly, there is a foolish of a kind different from “the foolishness of the Gospel” that has long complicated and continues to complicate the black church’s homiletical witness. Present day prosperity preachers and our good old Baptist whoopers who say nothing masterfully are issues to which we must attend. But I still believe the church has a certain sound in an uncertain world.

  2. Chauncey Spears says:

    As always, the consummate public theologian posing relevant and critical questions along with answers that challenge and inspire. One question I have is how do we lay persons help construct concrete ministry that speaks the prophetic and exemplifies the radical love that is so desperately needed in our communities, families, and lives?

    • CJ Rhodes, MDiv says:

      Brother Chauncey,

      It’s always great to hear from you. Thanks for the very moving commendation. I hope I live up to “consummate public theologian” status.

      As for your poignant question about what laypeople can do, the following thoughts come to mind:

      1. The laity need to see themselves as part of the mission and ministry of the Church, not just religious consumers or “the led.” Though pastors have the responsibility to lead in a certain way, laity are leaders too. When laity understand that discipleship, not membership, is the goal of ecclesial formation, then they can employ their time, talent, treasure, and truth in ways that maximize the church’s ability to transform communities, families, and lives.

      2. Pastors and other church leaders must put in place systems that both empower lay leadership and hold themselves and the laity accountable to a missional ethic.

      3. Local churches must only identify their unique purpose but also their appreciate their unique place. If the lives and community around a local church hasn’t improved or been transformed by the church’s presence, then in some critical sense that church has ceased to be a church.

      4. Thus, members of the laity need to have the moral and prophetic courage to take a stand against the toxicity, duplicity, and complicity that holds the church back from doing the most good. Being a silent majority isn’t enough. Without laity standing up against the bullies, obstructionists, and Machiavellian powers, then transformative visions can’t advance, be actualized, and institutionalized. The laity, even a small, dedicated minority of the creatively maladjusted, can rally together and around pastoral leadership to chart a better course for a preferred future that enhances the church’s ability to create and sustain ministries that contribute greatly to the flourishing of persons, families, and communities. Using their gifts for the greater good, the laity can move a church into a deeper mission of social transformation.

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