To Shape A New World: William Seymour and Black Faith in the Drama of Civil Rights – Part 1
The year was 1963. Many Blacks in Birmingham, Alabama gathered together in the oft familiar place of solace and shelter: 16th Street Baptist Church. As a place of influence, it became a location of mass meetings for Civil Rights leaders. Tensions increased as the movement became deeply involved in the depressing struggle for racial justice. With joy, the parishioners arrived at church on September 15 ready to learn how to embody the revolutionary message of Jesus: the Resurrection power of God in the world. In just a few minutes, everything would change.
At 10:22 a.m., as some 200 people were gathered together in Sunday school, a bomb detonated on the church’s east side. Bricks and mortar sprayed everywhere. Many were able to escape the attack, but sadly not all. Beneath the rubble lay the lifeless bodies of 14-year-olds Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and 11-year-old Denise McNair.
As helpers dug through the debris, a discovery was made: a faceless Christ in the stained glass window. The powers of evil in the form of White Supremacy seemed to have won that day. It killed the girls and their Savior. Darkness had now covered the face of the land. This bombing sent shockwaves through the nation. One overarching question plagued the weary conscience: “What is the meaning of this darkness?”
A New Face
One day, I came across an interview with novelist and social critic James Baldwin and renowned theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Baldwin was asked, “Does this faceless picture suggest to you a meaning of the Birmingham tragedy?” Baldwin paused, physically stilled by such a weighty question, and responded, “It sums up the crisis that we are living through. If Christ has no face, then perhaps it is time that we…give him a new face, give him a new consciousness, make the whole hope of Christian love a reality.”
Though few outside of the Black community of Birmingham sympathized, young people from Wales were so touched by the tragedy that they raised money to replace the faceless Christ. Within two years, artist John Petts delivered a gift from Wales: “a defiant and heart-warming image of Black Jesus beneath a rainbow of racial unity; his right arm pushing away hatred and injustice, the left offering forgiveness.” Reflecting on the gift and its symbolism, Rev. Arthur Price shared, “I think the major message we try to take out of the window is not so much identifying Christ’s colour but knowing that Christ identifies with us.”
In some symbolic way, the powers that be “crucified” him. The power of love “resurrected” him. Christ was given a “new” face; a “new” world was being shaped.
Black Christianity in the Drama of Civil Rights
Some time ago, I reflected on the words of theologian Karl Barth as he wrote, “The Resurrection had proven its power; there are Christians – even in Rome.” As he was describing the faith of the Roman Christians, he was also telling the story of Black Christianity in the drama of history. The simple fact that Black Christians, especially slaves, found hope and freedom in Jesus is a story of the power of the Resurrection. The “Jesus” they met was firmly on the side of the oppressor and opposed their freedom. The Jesus, as the Crucified Risen Messiah, that met them was firmly on the side of the oppressed and brought with him hope and freedom.
In spite of this introduction, the enslaved found in God not just some other-worldly god offering spiritual blessings, but “a here-and-now God who cared principally for the oppressed, acting historically and eschatologically to deliver the down-trodden from their abusers.” Much like the symbolic Black Jesus of Wales, they found in him “a suffering Savior whose life and struggles paralleled their own struggles.”
It has been all too true that in America, Albert Raboteau writes, Black Christianity “has continuously confronted the nation with troubling questions of American exceptionalism.” It stood as a prophetic condemnation of America’s obsession with power, status, and possessions.” This Resurrection power, as Black Christians perceived it, was the grand question mark to the “dangerous tendency to turn the nation into an idol and Christianity into a clan religion.” Black Christians embodied (and embody) the religion of Jesus: his right arm protesting sinful hatred and injustice, the left offering redemption, liberation, and the hope of Beloved Community.
As this power found itself in the slave quarters and hush harbors, it made its way through the corridors of history in the churches and the streets during the drama of Civil Rights. In his thriller, “God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights,” professor Charles Marsh writes that he “came to see the civil rights movement as theological drama.” It was a time where both the “civil rights and anti-civil rights were saturated in religion.”
During this time, many images of God came into conflict. In particular, that of God being indifferent to Black suffering. A White minister could stand and preach the reconciling love of God in Jesus but if he proceeded to apply it to Black suffering, then “he would be run out of town by sundown.” Marsh notes that for the White Christian, “Social existence becomes secondary, inconsequential to the real intent of faith” and that “concern for Black suffering has nothing to do with following Jesus.” Sadly, history repeats itself to this day.
A Prophetic Pursuit
This was and is completely opposite to the reality of Black faith. The movement believed not only in the liberating power of the God of Scripture but in the liberating emphasis of Scripture itself. They found in Jesus, not just a Christ for all people, but particularly the “Black” Messiah — not in a literal but symbolic sense. For Black people, it was a Jesus who cared deeply about the Black soul’s experience in society.
As opposed to the segregationist theology of many White churches, then and today, Black Christians found themselves caught up in the liberating drama of Scripture: Moses, Jeremiah, Amos, Jesus was one of “us.” Marsh writes that Black Christians gave eloquent “witness to a liberating, reconciling faith, shaped by a skillful blending of African American hymnody and spirituality, prophetic religion, and…belief in Jesus as a friend and deliverer of the poor.” Christ the Liberator was also Christ the Reconciler that energized Black faith to embody a prophetic pursuit of love and justice in this world of sinful hate. Through their faith in Jesus, they become not only agents of reconciliation but agents of healing and hope.
These Black Christians, much like those who blazed “the Path” of freedom before them, changed Christianity in America and the drama of history itself. The Resurrection had proved its power once again. Black Christians were shaping a new world. Indeed, it was the new Black Great Awakening in the midst of the absurdities of Black life. Such is the Awakening we need today.