Suffering and African American Theology–Part 1
by Dr. Carl F. Ellis, Jr.
In the antebellum South, oppression of Black folks was the order of the day. But when a people are subjected to such oppression, they are driven inward, to the depths of the very humanity the oppression is trying to negate. Any cultural expressions that emerge from such suffering will come from those human depths. And other human beings who encounter these expressions will be affected at comparable depths. This cultural depth and the skills to express such depth are what is today popularly known as “soul.”
This cultural depth and the skills to express such depth are what is today popularly known as “soul.”
Humanity bears the imago Dei (image of God), and through it God reveals his personhood and power. The deeper we go into our humanity, the more we experience God’s power. This is part of the reason soul culture is so penetrating. It is also one reason the existence of God was never a matter of argument in historic African-American culture. Soul culture thus became fertile ground for the gospel.
For many reasons, including being denied access to reading and writing, our culture became orally oriented. However, to say that we had no theology because it was not in the form of literature is like saying that the Jews of the exodus had no revelation before Sinai. The Jews were always singing about something, and some of these songs came to be recorded in the five books of Moses.
The rich tradition of the Black church — its music and preaching — was the locus of the earliest expression of African-American theology.
The praxis that developed in the South was a theology of suffering. This theology was in the biblical paradigm of the exodus and was carried by the oral tradition of the time. The rich tradition of the Black church — its music and preaching — was the locus of the earliest expression of African-American theology. These spirituals contained lyrics like “I’ve been ‘buked and I’ve been scorned and I’ve been talked about sure as you’re born.” And, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child a long way from home.” Or “Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world; goin’ home to be with God.”
These themes of suffering are prevalent throughout the music that emerged from the experience of slavery. The slaves never would have developed triumphant themes like “Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war with the cross of Jesus going on before.”
From various sources, many slaves began to pick up bits and pieces of biblical truth. By God’s grace they were able to gain interesting insights into God and his covenant grace as they put these fragments of truth together — foundational insights on which much of Reformed theology is predicated. These truths confirmed the slave’s sense of human worth and reaffirmed their awareness that being a slave was a contradiction to their humanity.
Other slaves were actually catechized by Reformed teachers, unintentionally reinforcing their notion that God in his sovereignty was acting on their behalf in history. This partly explains their affinity to the exodus paradigm.
I call it a theological dynamic — an oral tradition that captures nuggets of biblical truth in forceful, affective phrases and mental images out of life experience.
Despite not having access to the Scriptures in written form, our forefathers learned to transform biblical content into an oral form. I call it a theological dynamic — an oral tradition that captures nuggets of biblical truth in forceful, affective phrases and mental images out of life experience. Because these expressions were aligned with the power of God’s Word, they had the ability to deeply affect others who encounter them.
Though this transformed Word of God did not have the same authoritative weight as Scripture, it made the Word of God accessible and had a powerful effect. Viewed comparatively, this theological dynamic was to classical Christian theology as art is to science, as the concrete is to the abstract, as the multidimensional is to the linear, as a mental image is to a concept (Tabor, 1978, p, 6)
The theological dynamic was accompanied by what I call a cultural dynamic — deeply moving expressions of consciousness emerging from the deepest roots of humanity where the imago Dei cannot be suppressed.
These two dynamics merged to become the soul dynamic that simmered, grew and mellowed to become the driving force behind the emergence of African-American culture.
The southern theology of suffering addressed the need for salvation by grace through faith. The church was seen as the “ark of safety” — a place for slaves to get away from the suffering that so dominated their lives. That is why, in the historic African American church, personal salvation also had community implications. This view is very similar to the way the Israelites looked at salvation in the Old Testament (Exodus 14:13 NIV).
All slaves knew who “Pharaoh” was, and he was not Egyptian.
The theology of suffering was couched in the biblical paradigm of the Exodus. Among the many themes of deliverance from slavery and oppression was: “Deep river, I want to cross over Jordan, Deep river, I want to cross over into campground.” And the classic, “Go down Moses. Way down in Egypt land. Tell ol’ Pharaoh to let my people go.” All slaves knew who “Pharaoh” was, and he was not Egyptian.
While the theology of suffering addressed historic salvific themes, it also addressed personal and social core concerns. Our focus here will be on three cultural core concerns: survival, refuge, and resistance to oppression.
Obviously, the slaves found themselves in a perilous situation. As a result, survival was a critical concern. The second concern was refuge. The church played the major role in addressing this concern by providing a context free from slave-master domination.
The third cultural core concern was resistance to oppression. The entrenched institution of slavery was virtually impossible to resist completely. However, many slaves resisted physically by having church all-day Sunday, and verbally through the oral tradition. Under the system of post-Reconstruction oppression, the theology of suffering once again carried the church in the South.
Next week I’ll continue with the second and final part of this series. I’ll explain how Blacks in the North, who lived in a different cultural and social context, developed a theology of empowerment.
Tabor, Charles (January 1978). “Is There More Than One Way of Doing Theology?” Gospel in Context, No. 1