Pastoring & Leadership

The Theology of Suffering and Reformed African Americans

John Richards

Strange Fruit

Strange fruit: blacks hanging from trees in the colonial South. Over a century before Billie Holiday put the poetic words of Abel Meeropol on wax, African imports lived it. Many suffered violent deaths at the hand of the slave masters who treated them like disposable resources. Slavery sustained the South’s economy. Have we forgotten that? W. Fitzburgh Brundage seems to think so. In an epigraph found in James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree we find Brundage’s thoughts:

Perhaps nothing about the history of mob violence in the United States is more surprising than how quickly an understanding of the full horror of lynching has receded from the nation’s collective historical memory.

I’m not the biggest fan of James Cone, or Black Liberation Theology for that matter. It’s emphasis on victimization over reconciliation leaves little room for the gospel. But I’ll leave the discussion about the soundness of liberation theology in the African American community to those more qualified—shout out to Anthony Bradley’s Liberating Black Theology. Though I can appreciate something Cone says in The Cross and the Lynching Tree. In it, he notes:

It is one thing to teach theology…in the safe environs of a classroom and quite another to live one’s theology in a situation that entails the risk of one’s life (70).

A Lived Theology of Suffering

A theology of suffering is a lived theology.  It’s not a cognitive theology, reserved for two-hour lectures. It’s a sentient theology, felt down to our very core. For centuries, African Americans have done just that. We’ve held on to God’s sovereignty, despite our trials. The African American community has lived this Job-like existence, trusting God in the midst of suffering.

One needs to look no further than the recent barrage of “officer involved” shootings and incidents to hear the collective lament from the African American community. The narrative is harrowing. Four words have gotten our collective attention lately: “Police shot and killed…” Yet, we press on. But are we really okay? I believe there’s a reason the words “justifiable homicide” get a more visceral reaction from us. However tenuously connected, seeing a black boy’s body left for hours on a street in Missouri reminds us of our past. It reminds us of being treated less than human. Black men freeze when they get pulled over for a routine traffic stop. We fear the unknown, not sure if one gesture could cause us to suffer the same fate.

Are We Really Okay?

Good Reformed African Americans trust in God’s sovereignty. It’s a pillar of Reformed doctrine. God is sovereign. We are not. There’s no way we question why a good God would allow the subhuman treatment of a people to occur. Most theologians use the term theodicy to describe this problem. The term is a combination of two Greek words—theos (God) and dike (righteous). In essence, it is an attempt to justify or defend God in the face of evil. Theodicy and God’s sovereignty seem to be two sides of the same coin. Why do we suffer? Short answer: Because God is sovereign. But are we really okay?

Is touting God’s sovereignty enough? The problem of evil deserves more treatment in the African American context.  We don’t need a fancy theological term to describe our community’s attempt to deal with the problem of evil. Historically, we’ve seen it play out in different ways. From Nat Turner’s 1831 bloody rebellion in Virginia to the rise of the 1960’s Black Power movement, injustice has always prompted the African American community to do something. Admittedly, at times, the anger and pain is misdirected. We might lash out at other fallen humans, highlighting their fallenness. We might allow anger to rule the day, unwilling to love our perceived enemies. And our practical answer becomes: “We aren’t really okay.” But those attempts to answer the “Are we really okay?” question are all the more reason for us to proclaim the gospel and define reality for our community.

Death, Taxes, and Suffering

Benjamin Franklin famously quipped, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” I would unequivocally add suffering to that list. Collectively, the African American community has suffered. Personally, everyone suffers in life. It’s inevitable in a world awaiting full consummation of God’s kingdom. How you suffer in this life makes all the difference in the world.

For the most part, African Americans have suffered well. We have used our suffering to champion our causes. From emancipation to pointing out the ills of disproportionate incarceration of minorities, we’re a living answer to the theodicy problem. But that doesn’t mean we’re expert sufferers. We all need encouragement when that inevitable question crops up. Why? Why us? Why me?

As we continue to fight injustice with a Micah 6:8 passion and zeal, I want to offer three ways suffering helps us become more like Christ to help remind us of the beauty of the gospel—and possibly give us some tools to address the theodicy issue raised by others in our community.

1) We Might Get A “No”

Prayer is a powerful tool. We have access to God through his son, Jesus Christ. There are some who take this to mean that if we have faith, he’ll answer all of our prayers affirmatively. This sets Christians up for letdown when God doesn’t answer their prayers about suffering. Are we to pray in faith? Absolutely. But, there are times when God may say no. If we think otherwise, then we are in danger of thinking more of ourselves than we should. Jesus prayed that God remove the cup of suffering that awaited him at Golgotha. But God said no. The cross was God’s idea—an idea that Jesus knew about early in his ministry. A “No” from God should be met with Jesus’ response—not my will, God, but your will be done. It reveals trust in a God who knows far more than we can comprehend.

2) Our Strength Is Insufficient

Jesus asks his followers to take on his yoke because it is easy. He asks them to take on his burden because it is light. The focus is on the bearer, not the burdens. Our heavy burdens pale in comparison to the weight of sin and death Christ endured. This allows us to process grief in a different way. We don’t approach it based on our ability to climb a mountain to find joy, but of the sufficiency of the finished work of Christ to move that mountain of grief.

Paul was reminded of this truth when he pleaded for Christ to remove the thorn in his flesh. His plea was met with these words: My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness. 

3) No One Is Immune From Suffering

We live in what theologians call the “already/not yet” of God’s Kingdom. We are already redeemed through Christ, but await the full consummation of his kingdom. Because of that, it rains and shines on both the just and the unjust. And whether devoted followers of Christ or atheists, we all suffer. R.C. Sproul tells a story of a father who was grieving his son’s death. He asked his pastor a heartfelt question. Sproul recalls:

I remember the story of a distraught father who was deeply grieved by the death of his son. He went to see his pastor, and in his bewildered anger he asked, “Where was God when my son died?” The pastor replied with a calm spirit, “The same place He was when His Son died.”

God himself suffered, so what makes us immune?  In Philippians, Paul speaks of the sanctifying work of suffering when he speaks of a desire to know “the fellowship of [Christ’s] suffering.” Though suffering tries us, it also refines us (see Isaiah 48:9-11). It transforms us more and more into Christ’s image and reminds us of the day when there will be no more suffering, death, or taxes. We cling to that hope in our suffering and it offers us refuge; refuge in a Savior that causes us to proclaim: “We’ll be okay.”

4 thoughts on “The Theology of Suffering and Reformed African Americans

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  2. Jeff

    Wow and many thanks. I am learning a lot from this and many other articles. I can share many experiences and deeply admire and have friendships with African Americans, but still feel a lot about this culture as a whole that I do not understand nor can relate to.

    Closest I can come to is a son with severe disability. He is in the community a lot, but there have been a few times we have been told or it was implied that he shouldn’t be with regular people. He also has wonderful gifts from God. Most people who know him like him and accept him. He also has a few close friends, mostly Christians: People who can love him for who he is and believe in him and appreciate him for all the gifts God has given him instead of just being nice or fulfilling a duty to God.

    But I can’t really relate to what you have been through and the African American people. Sometimes I am proud and ashamed at the actions of people of my own race. Ashamed at how anyone my color or any other could look at and treat any human being as a piece of property. Ashamed that the country whose founding principle was ” We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” could commit or allow such a monstrosity and still call itself a Christian nation. But I am also proud of my country and many of my race for the tremendous sacrifices they made and committeemen to do what is right no matter what the cost had to go through, including the life of one of histories greatest leaders to end this, but am convinced that had we not done so God would have judged our nation long ago.

    I am aware that if our church is not diverse in terms of handicaps and ethnicity we will only be part and cannot be whole. That we need people of all kinds to be a functioning body. And that the message of the cross much reach out and bring a wholeness and a full life to every listener and when I see African Americans in our church there is a sigh of relief and a feeling there is hope for us.

    It seems like the march towards freedom and equality has been there from the beginning, but I don’t think it can be completed outside of the cross. I fear that this hidden rage and fear may be an indication that there is still slavery, but to inner demons and a racial history. From an outsider it seems like this rage is something that has and is still being exploited by groups and individuals for personal, political, and other ends. I do not deny that it is there, but I am trying to get a grasp of it. Inside I can’t help but question that as long as this exists in a person or a people are they truly free and has the gospel really finished its work?

    For most of my life I have been at least partially controlled by fear but to a much less degree than you are talking about here. These fears are not real and should not control my actions, but has God’s love really finished its work in me if they in any way can still control my thoughts and actions?

    1 John 4:33-21

    This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God. And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.

    God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear,because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

    We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen,cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command:Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.

  3. John Richards

    Thank you for your kind and thoughtful words Matthew. I love Wright’s Black Boy. It’s one of my favorite pieces of Af-Am literature. I was encouraged reading what you wrote and am grateful for brothers like you who process these issues with us. Blessings to you, my brother.

  4. Matthew Abate

    I enjoyed this piece very much. It’s important for me to remember where a people have been, where they are at in the present, and where they’re headed in the future. This applies to my personal walk with Christ, too.

    For some reason, your article reminded me of one of my all-time, favorite books, Richard Wright’s Black Boy. It’s a brilliant piece of literature from one of my favorite authors. I resonated with Wright’s love of words and writing and the anguish of being 12 while in the midst of a powderkeg lifestyle and environment. His work spoke to me despite our racial differences. This gives me hope of moving forward with others like Wright in our day.

    Of course, it goes without saying that I don’t have a history of experiencing racial oppression in my family tree, nor do I know what it’s like to experience dread or anxiety at a traffic stop simply because of my skin color. That being said, my heart goes out to my brothers and sisters in Christ in Ferguson, Missouri. It saddens me that shootings like this keep taking place.

    Lastly, I’m always encouraged when I read articles from fellow followers of Christ who honestly deal with suffering. The entire New Testament is jam-packed with suffering for Christ’s sake. One of the most heartfelt epistles about suffering is First Peter. To me, the apostle’s words cut against the modern tendency in the church to either avoid, downplay, or explain away the bible’s plain teaching on suffering. Please write more on this crucial topic.

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