Suffering and African American Theology– Part 2
This article is Part 2 of a two-part series from Dr. Ellis. Read the first article here.
Life in the North was distinctly different for African Americans. The issue was not suffering but marginalization. Thus, a theology of empowerment drove the church in the North. To nullify the effects of marginalization a theology of empowerment emerged and was couched in the biblical paradigm of the Exile. In the North, African Americans began to understand that, like the people of Israel, they were exiled from their homeland. They began to discuss the “African diaspora” and drew parallels to the Jewish diaspora.
Like its southern counterpart, the theology of empowerment addressed personal and social core concerns as well as salvation by grace through faith in Christ. It also addressed three cultural core concerns: human dignity, African identity, and the divine significance of the African American experience.
African American Dignity, Identity, and Significance
A sense of human dignity was crucial in the northern context. As members of a minority group, African Americans in the North were in a sub-dominant cultural position. All standards of what was correct or desirable were based on the dominant culture’s Eurocentric ideals. As a result, Blacks were confronted by thousands of subliminal messages insinuating that they were substandard. In response to the induced “the-only-sin-is-in-my-skin” mentality, the theology of empowerment reaffirmed imago Dei.
The search for African identity is generally associated with the Black Consciousness Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, this movement was based on concepts that were themselves the fruit of the theology of empowerment. For example, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Blacks were generally referred to as “Negroes.” Yet most early Black institutions were identified by the word “African.”
Among the early congregations founded under Black leadership was the African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. The first Black Presbyterian church was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and was called the First African Presbyterian Church. The second was called the Second African Presbyterian Church. The first Black denomination was called the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). The second was called the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ). Others followed.
Clearly, African identity was a cultural core concern. This was an application of Romans 12:2, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”
Northern Blacks knew that labeling leads to defining and “Negro” was a label of inferiority. Therefore, they affirmed that God created them as Africans, not Negroes.
This was a subtle form of protest. A closer look at this concept reveals it to be an early form of Afrocentrism — originally a Christian concept.
Wrestling with the Divine Significance of the African American Experience can be summed up by the question: “Why are we here?” It is obvious that African Americans were not immigrants. Immigrants seldom ask this question because they choose to come.
Searching the Scriptures and Spreading the Good News
In an attempt to answer this question, Black Christian thinkers searched the Scriptures for others who had a similar experiences. They rediscovered Joseph in Egypt, whose presence there had divine and global significance (Genesis 42:6). The same could be said about Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah in Babylon (Daniel 3:14-30, 4:3-37) and the presence of Queen Esther in Persia (Esther 4:14). This being the case, African American Christian thinkers concluded that their presence in America must have divine and global significance.
As they wrestled with their situation in America, they began to sense a call from God to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the rest of the African diaspora and beyond. This diaspora included people of African descent in the South, Canada, South America, Central America, the Caribbean, and throughout Africa. By the mid-1700s, there was an extensive African American missions movement.
African American Christians went to such places as Nigeria, Sierra Leone,Liberia, and South Africa, creating a kind of trans-national Black community. The major portion of the leadership in these communities came from the church. They traveled extensively throughout these regions and spoke with authority. A closer look at this movement reveals it to be an early form of pan-Africanism. Like early Afrocentrism, pan-Africanism, usually associated with the Black Consciousness movement, was originally a Christian concept.
By 1870, the African American church was experiencing explosive growth because core cultural concerns were being addressed theologically. In fact, this was one of the most dramatic examples of church growth in the history of the church.
African American Theology in Our Time
What will theological praxis look like in today’s context? While it is a good thing that many are turning to biblically sound theology, it is not enough to merely repeat the theological formulations of the past.
Truly, we have much for which to be thankful. Great documents like the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dort (or Dordt), etc., have been extremely helpful in clarifying our theology. However, we face issues and concerns the Reformers never imagined. In order to follow in their tradition and that of our African American forebears in the North and South, we must do comparable theology, addressing today’s issues.
Reformed African Americans are in a prime position to play a significant role in contemporary church history. The theology of empowerment has given us valuable insights needed to engage today’s culture while the theology of suffering has given us insights that will equip us to be a bold witness in the global persecution of the church. Luther once said:
“If I profess, with the loudest voice and the clearest exposition, every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battle-field besides is mere flight and disgrace to him if he flinches at that one point.”
Let us be confessors of Christ in our time.