Little Black girls and Black boys collect indignities, large and small, as they navigate the cities and towns, the highways and backroads of these United States. Little boys see their blackness shift from cuteness to danger.
Women find themselves pushed and pulled into sexual stereotypes that present them as objects of pleasure. As hips and thighs develop so do the threats to their safety. Black children are taught strategies of survival that often come at the cost of their childhood or basic humanity.
There is a sense of not-rightness that grows in young Black hearts.
We glean our limitations by contrast with the carefreeness of our white counterparts. The anger grows, and we often have no place to put it, so we turn to the closest thing at hand. We harm each other and set ridiculous standards of respect.
We violently demand the respect of our Black friends and neighbors because we are hounded by disrespect in white spaces. I lived in fear of breaking one of these “neighborhood rules” and becoming an outlet for pent-up Black frustration.
I grew up around Black men who hit Black women and I was helpless to stop it. The rage grew. I was mad at white people. I was mad at my own people.
I was infuriated by my own helplessness.
This rage is a part of the lived experience of many African Americans who are, in the words of James Baldwin, “relatively conscious.”
Many African Americans who abandoned Christianity were in part motivated by this rage. Granting that Christianity is not a white man’s religion, it is nonetheless true that white Christians have and continue to hurt us.
I have argued that the Bible shows that as far back as we can go in the biblical story we will find African brothers and sisters participating in God’s great redemptive work.
It is also true that a recourse to history will show that as far back into America’s story as we want to go we will see the heavy boot of white supremacy stepping on the backs of Black women and men.
Black bodies enter the laws of this land, not as persons but as an accounting tool to determine the voting rights of white men (the Three-Fifths Compromise). Before that we were mercilessly dragged from our native land and flung to the far ends of the world to be beaten, bred, raped, and degraded.
Families were ripped apart and all the doors of opportunity were closed to us. We were despised and rejected by men, seen as cursed and abandoned by God. We were those from whom men hid their faces.
The year 1865 did not signal freedom, but simply the beginning of a different type of struggle. The years of reconstruction saw some expansion of Black opportunity.
However Black bodies were again sacrificed at the altar of compromise in 1877 when, in exchange for the presidency, Republicans agreed to remove troops from the south. What followed was a series of ever-increasing Jim Crow laws that robbed Black people of dignity and opportunity.
And what more shall we say? For the time would fail me to tell of the lynching tree, the Red summer, the dogs and the water hoses, the sit-ins, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., the people who defied governors and presidents, braved mobs, and sang victory, people of whom the world was not worthy.
The history of Black people in this country is a litany of suffering. Yet we are definitely more than this suffering. There is a thread of victory woven into the tale of despair. We are still here! Still, sometimes it’s hard to see that thread when the cloth is stained with blood.
When a Black person learns the history of our suffering and then continues to experience the aftershocks of the seismic disruption of slavery in our ongoing oppression, a feeling of rage or even nihilism begins to rise. Our suffering is not an inadvertent consequence of an otherwise just system. It was designed to be that way.
What are we do with this anger, this pain? How does Christianity speak to it? What does the cross have to say, not simply to human suffering, but the particular suffering of African Americans?
It is possible to read the Old Testament and privilege passages such as Psalm 137 over Isaiah 11:1-10. It is possible to skip over the middle portion of the New Testament and turn immediately to John’s apocalypse where the enemies of God’s people experience fiery judgment.
The picture of God judging wickedness is not an idea reserved for the Old Testament. The meek and mild Jesus of popular imagination is the creation of the comfortable middle class.
The oppressed know Jesus as the rider upon the white horse whose robe is dipped in the blood of his enemies (Rev 19:11-14). But if there is a miracle (that’s often criticized) of Black Christianity, it is that we have been profoundly influenced by the themes of forgiveness and the multiethnic community that fill the pages of the New Testament. We have found our way there by means of the cross.
Let me be clear. The cross of Jesus Christ is not an intellectual apologetic that allows Black Christians to say that we now understand the whip and chain in the wider scope of God’s purposes. We do not believe that our slavery was intended for the salvation of America.
We do not hold to some broken and distorted application of Joseph’s story (Gen 50:19-21). No, what happened to the enslaved and their descendants in this country was and remains an unmitigated evil. But how does God respond to our cries?
On this side of the passion and resurrection, Black anger and pain is answered personally, by the truly human one. We have found solace in the fact that God responds to Black suffering with a profound act of identification with our suffering. I speak of Jesus, of an identification with the human condition that compels us:
Who, being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave in the likeness of humanity. And being found in the form of a human, he humbled himself, becoming obedient unto death, even death upon a cross. (Phil 2:6-8, my translation)
What is God’s first answer to Black suffering (and the wider human suffering and the rage that comes alongside it)? It is to enter that suffering alongside us as a friend and a redeemer. The answer to Black rage is the calming words of the Word made flesh.
The incarnation that comes all the way down, even unto death, has been enough for us to say yes, God, we trust you. We have decided to trust God because he knows what it means to be at the mercy of a corrupt state that knows little of human rights.
Rome and the antebellum South may not be twins, but they are definitely close relatives, maybe even siblings of the same father. On the cross we meet a God who experienced injustice in the flesh. Seen from one angle, the cross shows that God in Christ knows and understands the plight of the innocent suffers of the world.
Adapted from Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope by Esau McCaulley. Copyright © 2020 by Esau McCaulley. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com