“Jesus-loving, Free Black Man”: What I Learned from Dr. Cornel West



Last night my channel surfing proved to be profitable. I seldom have time for uninterrupted television watching, and when I do have the time I tend to turn to my iPad or one of my countless books. But last night I decided to recline and waste an hour for televisual consumption. After watching Shark Tank I began to flip to various channels. We have hundreds of channels but I only consistently watch a handful of them and they are mostly religious and news networks. As is my custom, I turned to the OWN Network and, after not seeing anything that interested me, I turned to The Word Network, MSNBC, and then on to the various CPSAN options. To my pleasant surprise, I stumbled on an interview Dr. Cornel West was having about his latest book, Black Prophetic Fire. The interview portion was nearing its end and the open Q and A was about to start. Though disappointed that I missed a generous portion of the pre-recorded conversation, I was nonetheless glad to watch what I did catch.

To be sure, Dr. West has been much maligned since his public opposition of America’s first black president elevated to a feverish pitch. There has been speculation as to why West has been so hard on President Obama: is this the ardor of a prophet or the angst of a wannabe HNIC? Who knows whether either or both serve as motivations for West’s consistent criticism of Obama. I will say that regardless of the reasons behind the rift, West has indeed been consistent in critiquing presidential power and the lack of moral constancy; he was an adamant critic of Raegan and Bush and even Clinton, so why would he relent now?

I still find West to be an enlightening public intellectual, his controversial contentions with President Obama notwithstanding. I remember when he served as the keynote speaker for the University of Mississippi’s Black History Month one year while I was a student there. Meeting Dr. West in a small, intimate student gathering before his talk was the highlight of my collegiate experience. I long admired him as a thinker, orator, and author and in some ways wanted to emulate this funky philosopher. In a brief, one-on-one exchange following his presentation he instructed me, then a young philosophy major, to look into PhD work. Though I didn’t take him up on that (going to divinity school instead) I was convinced soon thereafter that there is something affirming about the life of the mind and its implications for making the world better. As a pastor and theologian, I am still convinced that we need more men and women of faith, hope, and love writing, reading, advocating, and agitating for a soul-searching transformation of both self and society.

In last night’s interview, Dr. West said something that jumped out at me like a 3-D image. He described himself as a “Jesus-loving, free black man.” I quickly looked up the phrase and discovered that he’s said this of himself in several other settings. As I pondered the phrase, I thought of it as a fitting self-description for me also, although in a way that slightly differs from West’s definitional content.

For a while I have tried to sum up in simple language my theological and political and cultural impulses in a time that demands simplistic idenity brands. I’m often frustrated by how easy it is for people to shut down conversations with others based on left-right, in-out binary (il)logic. And I know I don’t comfortably and neatly fit into such standards. Much like many Americans, I lean to the left or to the right, or stand at the center, or on the radical periphery depending on the subject.; I’m more purple than I am red or blue. My worldview is much more fluid than what is allowed in a sound byte, 140 characters or less climate and culture.

But since these are the times in which we live, to consider myself a “Jesus-loving, free black man” suits me just fine (at least for now).

The placement order of the words is powerful and necessary. Jesus-loving. Free. Black man.

I’m first and foremost Jesus-loving. I’m not ashamed to say that I love and follow (though imperfectly) the God of the universe who became Jewish flesh in first-century Palestine, who lived a sinless and just life, who was crucified, died, was buried, and on the third day rose from dead in accordance with the Scriptures. His Gospel and his Kingdom have oriented my whole life since I encountered him in my late teens. Since that time my life has been a journey with Jesus, a journey filled with wonder and sometimes with doubt but mostly joy. The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith yet forms my life and calls me to live in ways that I could not live without his grace and Spirit. Everything I am and hope to be is invigorated by the life I now live in him.

Because I’m Jesus-loving, I’m also free. I seek to think and act in ways oriented toward the way I understand who Jesus was and is and will be. I love—and learn from— my enemies and friends. I gain wisdom from diverse sources, reading the Scriptures in one hand and the culture in the other. I am therefore free to celebrate the truth when articulated by someone I generally don’t agree with, and challenge those people I genuinely respect. I can sit down with a person of another faith or of a differing political persuasion and love their humanity enough to listen to them even as my own convictions may allow me to disagree vigorously on this or that point. That has made me the odd man out many times because I’m okay with thinking first and reacting later. And I’m increasingly okay with not everyone understanding or liking me because of that.

Lastly, I’m a black man in a white world. My identity in Christ is an “already-and-not-yet” identity. I know that I have been raised with Christ and am now seated in heavenly places with him. Yet I also know that much of America exists on the other side of the cross, the wrong side. A new creation has begun in Jesus, but our reality is still clouded by the god of this age. As such, I know that, negatively, I’m a black man who is more likely to be criminalized, stigmatized, marginalized, and objectified in a nation still dominated by white supremacy. I know that in many instances I or my family will be first judged by the color of our skin before we are judged by the content of our character. And as a black man I know that no matter how much I love and respect my sisters, I will never fully walk in and understand their joy and pain. I know all of this because I experience if not daily, certainly weekly.

But, positively, I also know my story and the story of my people, not just the story that includes slavery and lynchings and Jim Crow and oppression. I also know a story in which we have collectively loved in the face of hate; danced and sung when our bodies were being dehumanized; shouted creativity and the made a way out of no way when hog intestines and straw brooms were all we had. I know of kings and kingdoms, wise women and wonderful works. I know of a story of triumph in the face of tragedy. I know that, too, because I imbibe it daily.

As a confessional and convictional Christian, I am still seeking how to articulate how this Gospel changes everything even as it has changed me. Thank God I am free enough to do so.

I’m a black man in America who is free to think for himself because I love Jesus…because he first loved me.


“The Manifold Wisdom of God”: Toward A Fuller Gospel

Thy Kingdom Come

“To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:8-10 (NASB)

Having grown up in a nominally Christian culture, in my late teens I desired to know God for myself. Both my parents trained me up as best they could in Mississippi’s de facto state religion, a Southern fried style of Evangelicalism that we seasoned soulfully within the black Missionary Baptist tradition. I was dragged to church many a Sunday morning in my prepubescent days and sat on the back pew mystified by the frenzied and folksy worship marked by shouts, shrieks, and asthmatic whooping. It would be years before I got good religion, a religion I too could feel sometimes.

I’m not altogether sure what led me to question this tradition and its claims about God and my relationship to Him. My parents’ divorce, racial and class oppression, the moral inconsistency of “believers”, and my very inquisitive and precocious mind complicated what should have been my easy acceptance of cultural Christianity. Though I was expected to “go along to get along” I secretly pondered the significance of the whole worldview that undoubtedly influenced me but at that time was unable to convert my heart and head. Thus at a tender age my questions led me on a quest for meaning and truth. Mine was a spiritual odyssey wherein I at first wrestled with Christianity, then became enamored with Eastern religions, and later gave up on God in agnostic cynicism and frustration.

It was a miracle that God saved me. Many of my friends have dramatic testimonies of God delivering them from listless lives of sexual addiction, drug abuse, and just plain reckless deviance. But it seemed my testimony was less acceptable. Here I was, a black boy from Mississippi, who was by God’s providence delivered from disbelief. Being an agnostic in a nominally Christian, though functionally atheist, society seemed worse than murder. Reflecting back I see how it was good that I doubted, for it liberated me from what I have come to know as a Christless Christianity that has a form of religion without its power. And it was this powerless gospel, another gospel contrary to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, that caused me to doubt not so much the true and living God but search for this God with all my heart.

Along the journey from faith and back to faith God placed in my life persons who planted seeds that later than sooner blossomed into a hunger for the true and living God. God graciously sent my way faithful Baptists, Methodists, and others who gave me a wider view on who God in Christ is. One of my dear friends, himself a young Pentecostal evangelist, patiently but intentionally shared with me the Good News and over time, in spite of my intellectual stubbornness, I found myself increasingly convinced that I was in need of salvation and that there was indeed a Savior. My coming back to the Church was really, and most importantly, my coming to Jesus, or rather Jesus coming to me. And because a Pentecostal brother labored for me to come into saving faith, it was the Pentecostal and Charismatic traditions that truly gave me a religion I could feel. Looking back on that time I like to think that Pentecostalism was the door to a much larger Christian house, a house intriguingly furnished with much of what I came to know about the Baptist faith of my youth. This may sound strange to the doctrinaire observer, but because I was free to think through these things without denominational blinders I saw more things that united us than divided us and to this day I remain committed to cross-denominational and cross-doctrinal relationships that continue to nurture my soul. And without apology.

By now you may see all of this as a beautiful testimony written in an Evangelical tongue, something that talks about my need to be saved by grace through faith. To be sure, that is truly part of what I am saying. But what else I am saying hasn’t been said yet, explicitly.

As a baptized Spirit-filled believer in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, I have watched with earnest the debates within and beyond Evangelicalism about the plurality of its identity. One of the oddest things is how white and conservative Republican Evangelicalism is, as the media and political parties define it for their respective agendas. But I know that the Southern fried style of Evangelicalism I grew up around is more diverse and divergent than what the dominant narrative has led too many to believe. And because of that I have grown weary of the ways in which Jesus becomes a mascot for the Left and the Right in this tired debate about identity and action.

As someone shaped deeply by Baptist and Pentecostal sensibilities (both groups accepting the Evangelical self-definition in certain circles), I yearn for the day when we can preach and live a Gospel that is fuller and more comprehensive than the sound byte, reductionist stuff we get from churches and televisions across the country.

I have pondered this with greater scrutiny in light of how various leading Evangelicals have responded to Ferguson and Eric Garner. The racial divide is wide in the Church, to be sure. And that racial divide has also given way to (and made a way for) the theological divide in how we understand and embody the Gospel. Those on the Right see the Gospel as only about penal substitutionary atonement, our only means for getting a ticket out of a burning Hell. Those on the Left want nothing to do with miracles, signs, and wonders (well, many conservatives don’t either) but want to imagine that the Gospel is nothing more than a self-help or justice strategy.

For me, the Gospel is both/and. I don’t see how anyone can read the Bible and come away with an either/or, buffet-styled religion. The manifold wisdom of God includes personal holiness and social justice, gifts of the Spirit and fruit of the Spirit, private prayer and public protest, priestly compassion and prophetic indignation. To sever these inextricably linked themes is to do irreparable damage to how we understand the Gospel.

The Gospel is Jesus. It is God’s whole story of covenant love, cosmic companionship, and divine justice. It is grace and truth that has the power to rescue and restore the world God created and so loves. It mends fractured relationships, turns nations upside down, re-orders our desires, saves us from something and for something (and better yet, Someone). It is Good News that says the other news is not worth listening to or following, and that this News directs us to where God is doing a new thing, making the wounded whole and healing sin-sick souls. It is God’s justice manifest, God’s glory felt and seen, God’s power made known to all the kingdoms of the world. It is more truthful, great, and beautiful than anything we can slap on a bumper sticker or tweet in 140 characters or less. It defies mere words and yet is the expression of the Living Word made flesh through the conception of the Holy Spirit and birth from the womb of a poor, virgin Jewess from Galilee.

My spiritual odyssey was once one of doubt. It is now one of defense: to defend a Gospel not reducible to five petals of a TULIP, or to a Social Gospel not heavenly minded. What we need today are women and men of God who will offer up a more holistic and transformational alternative to the anemic cultural Christianity that so dominates Mississippi. We need it for our families and communities, for our churches and for our governments. We need a revival that saves and sanctifies, and a revolution that redeems and makes a corrupt nation more just.  And we need soul saving, prison shaking, yoke breaking power to do that.

What I’m after, then, is a Gospel informed by the manifold wisdom of God, to use Paul’s language from Ephesians 3. I believe that the true Gospel is indeed manifold, comprehensive, bigger and broader than just any one subject or theme or agenda. Indeed the Gospel is about the new thing God did and is doing in Christ and the Church must herald that message in all of its glory.

Now that’s a religion I can feel (and think through) all the time.