“I’m never gonna treat you like I should.” – Jay–Z, “4:44”
The elevator containing Solange, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé will forever be known as the birthplace of three classics: “A Seat at the Table,” “Lemonade,” and “4:44.”
From the moment Beyoncé told everybody to get in formation in “Lemonade,” she made it clear we were in the presence of a radical affirmation of black female strength. She was not to be disrespected. I took notice when she came down the street with that bat in the “Hold Up” video. I couldn’t imagine what her husband must have felt. Family business was in the streets and things wouldn’t be the same.
I wondered how Jay-Z would respond to being (rightly) outed by his wife. It’s not like he could write a diss record and destroy his family. Instead, we got “4:44,” a piercing account of black male vulnerability and confession. The album is startling in its moments of introspection. In the title track, Jay-Z explores the reverberations of his affairs, climaxing with the third verse that considers what it will mean to tell his daughter about his misdeeds.
I have thought about “Lemonade” and “4:44” as it relates to black Christians’ relationship to Evangelicalism for quite some time. I have often felt that we keep writing “Lemonade,” affirming our dignity and strength despite the country’s sins against black Americans. And we wait, hoping for a “4:44” from Evangelicalism that has yet to arrive.
Waiting for 4:44
For many black believers, the police shootings of 2012–2016 strained a previously burgeoning relationship between Evangelicalism and black Americans in white Christian spaces. These black folks were not the first to enter these spaces, but the progressive black tradition in white mainline churches was a foreign thing to them. Therefore, they did not follow their forebearers into white mainline churches. On the other hand, the black church experience was hard to come by on the college campuses where our adult faith decisions were made. To be honest, some of us were arrogant and unappreciative of the traditions that formed us. We left home looking for the promised land only to find ourselves out in the cold.
Nonetheless, a large number of us found ourselves immersed in white Evangelical spaces by conviction or circumstance. These spaces, if not exactly woke, were happy to have us. But the forever present issues of justice strained the fellowship. If the shootings transformed happy conversations at the dinner tables into stilted talk with long pauses and a multitude of side eyes, the election caused us to pack up our stuff and leave. It was our elevator incident. The 81 percent became an immovable point of reference in the black Christian conscience.
If one turns to social media, you will see an unending stream of black Christian hurt and frustration. We haven’t just made a cup of Lemonade; we set up a stand. Underlying many of these critiques was the hope that somehow, someway our white brothers and sisters would understand the depths of the problem. There was a hope for a 4:44, a confession.
But the days have given way to weeks, months, and years. This has increased the frustration. After every fresh controversy, it is almost as if we ask whether white Evangelicals are finally ready to hear us. We are trapped in a co-dependent relationship, but what do you do when a confession never arrives?
It is time to hope for something more.
When 4:44 Never Arrives
Many black Christians, then, find themselves in the diaspora. We left the churches that raised us but no longer fit in the places that we have called home. I am not sure that there is one answer to what will be next, but I do have a few ideas that might prove fruitful. Regardless of whether I am right about all of them, I am convinced that this is where the conversation should be focused. We can lament what was lost while looking to the future.
Re-engage the Black Church. Some of us will return to the churches of our youth. This is a good thing. Black churches, like most American churches, are in need of talented, passionate followers of Christ. But it is also true that our time away has changed us. We will need grace and humility so that we do not sit in judgment on both the Black Church and the Evangelical church. We must be careful lest we set standards so high that no church can meet our expectations. No church is the kingdom, but Christian community matters.
For a variety of reasons, I am not sure that all of us will return to black churches. We have been changed into a third thing that is not culturally fully in line with the historic black church nor fully culturally Evangelical. We might see a rise in churches that share some of the same theological convictions as traditional Black or Evangelical churches, but are independent of these institutions. These churches will have strong affirmations of black culture and they will also have elements of Evangelical praxis and organization. These churches might fit into historic black denominations, but it will require mutual grace and understanding.
Engage the coalition of the willing. There has been extensive discussion about the 81 percent this year. It has led to a wholesale rejection of Evangelicalism, but 81 percent is not 100 percent. We must have a vision of the body of Christ that takes each person as an individual and doesn’t write off all our white brothers and sisters in Christ.
I propose that we partner with the 19 percent (assuming that we can break things down that neatly, which I doubt). The overwhelming majority of Christians of color who care about justice when combined with the 19 percent make up a significant percentage of Christians in this country. Stated differently, the kind of Christianity that we are looking for is already here. Its makeup is multi-ethnic. It is comprised of diverse Christians who are committed to biblical orthodoxy on the one hand and biblical justice on the other.
Build our own spaces, but be open to others. We have to continue to build spaces where we can be ourselves and address issues that matter to us. I’m part of a team organizing the Call and Response Conference because we were tired of fulfilling a diversity quota at other events and only having limited time to engage issues of pressing concern to black Christians.
Continue the work of Reconciliation. I can’t help but remember all the times when people thought that I was a lost cause, but God pursued me. I also can’t forget all my Evangelical brothers and sisters who are struggling in their contexts to bear witness to a holistic gospel at great cost. I do not sit in judgment of people who need space for their own well-being, but I cannot in good conscience abandon my friends. Maybe, just maybe, the transformation of Evangelicalism will bear witness to the world of the power of the whole gospel to change our way of living, thinking, and being. God’s vision of a multi-ethnic kingdom encompasses everybody, including white Christians.
Keep our Theological Bearing in the Midst of Transition. There is something called orthodoxy that is not the mere imposition of Eurocentric theology upon an unwilling people. Across space and time, the majority of black Christians have adhered to traditional Christian beliefs, and their testimony matters. We need not be uniform, but the historic creeds are vital. The Bible must remain central in our work and the Church’s tradition still speaks in our day.
I am not sure what the future holds in its details, but I know that the Resurrected One who has defeated death is still with us and for that reason, I have hope.