Why the Black Church Still Prophesies Hope

Image: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection / David McNew / Stringer / Getty

Article by Dante Stewart. Stewart is a writer and preacher currently studying at the Reformed Theological Seminary.

In The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes, “Black Americans have been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom.” On the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving to this land as slaves, she makes the case that “It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy,” that black Americans have pushed toward the country’s ideals in spite of their circumstances.

I’ve heard it said that history is a “dangerous” memory. It never lets us go until we attest to the wounds and commit to healing. It presses upon us that piercing but powerful word: love, love, love.

Still, it is hard to see how society might change, how such healing might finally come about. Rarely does the one who injures another have the moral imagination to do right unless forced to. Even spiritual awakening, religious education, and visionary declarations have often bore bad fruit. Plenty of promises of peace and freedom only brought on further oppression.

Even if we don’t have all the answers now, we must bear witness. And we must prophesy hope.

The black church in America offers a rich legacy of faith that—like the crucifixion itself—exists at the intersection of chaos and pain and love. Its stories shine through to our present day and remind us that history without hope is indeed a history without help.

The Chaos of Darkness

What greater tribute could be paid to religious faith in general and to their [slaves] religious faith in particular than this: It taught a people how to ride high to life, to look squarely in the face of those facts that argue most dramatically against all hope and to use those facts as raw material out of which they fashioned a hope that the environment, with all its cruelty, could not crush. — Howard Thurman, The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death

“Hope begins in the dark…” I could never quite shake these words from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. This language of hope has recently become a theme in my life—not in the abstract sense, but as a living activity, a struggle, a commitment, a discipline.

Theologian Jürgen Moltmann rooted the language of hope in the resurrection of Jesus and the praxis of protest. Sometimes hope seems to be the only language powerful enough to counter despair. Or maybe it’s, in Lamott’s words, a sort of “revolutionary patience.”

Whatever hope is, there is something deep within each of us that cries out in expectation. Sometimes it sounds like a whisper, but it is there. Yet, while hope springs from the depths of the soul, it often comes out of the shadows. Hope begins in chaos.

Some days it feels like we have never escaped from under that cloud that covered the face of the earth during the crucifixion of Jesus. We know that Sunday is coming, with a risen Jesus whose wounds bear witness to the extent of his loving passion, but for us, Saturday is here, and it’s still dark. The brokenness and weight of our world feels so much like darkness that Elie Wiesel, retelling of the horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, could only call it Night.

Our language and storytelling have a way of helping us in the dark. In a time of religious, social, economic, and political chaos, it seems critical that we sit at the feet of these stories of freedom. This is what makes Negro spirituals, and the history of black faith in America, so profound. In the shadow of the colonized homeland, the slave ship, and the lynching tree, these holy artists went to work. It’s inherently absurd to proclaim faith and freedom in such contexts; one historian called it “the audacity to survive.”

Thomas Merton thought of these historic composers as revolutionary poets and their songs as prophetic songs. Deep in the souls of black folk was a hope that their cruel surroundings could not crush. Merton was right: Such religion is not the “opium of the people,” but a prophetic fire of love and courage, fanned by the breath of the Spirit as they sang choruses of, “Swing lo, sweet chariot,” “Let my people go,” and, “Oh, glory hallelujah!”

Today, in the midst of chaos and confusion, I go to this tradition. I believe Christianity needs this tradition. America needs this tradition. Not because it feels good or sounds good, but because we are still here, and we refuse to be silenced. These caged birds are still singing; giving voice to anger and love; and still prophesying hope.

Anger Over the Scars of the Past

I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. — Fannie Lou Hamer

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
…I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. — Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again

This black tradition has never bought into the myth of American innocence and exceptionalism—if you work hard, get a good education, have a father in the home, and pull yourself up by your bad boots, that you finally live out the American dream of being white, secure, and free.

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When Fannie Lou Hamer said that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired, she wasn’t speaking of her own struggles. She was addressing what all black people faced, since we were brought to these shores “in the name of Jesus” and baptized into a racial caste and the pain that comes with it.

“The central quality in the Negro’s life is pain,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his final book. And author James Baldwin wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” The scars of slavery and Jim Crow still lay below the surface, even as our society progresses. And our anger as black Americans is often seen as a barrier to honesty and hope.

In “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes steps forward as the one bearing witness to our country’s possibilities: It is I, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. Much like Thomas seeing the hands of Jesus, it is as if he says, “It is true! It happened! I am here!”

Though scars heal, they leave their marks. In Our Only World, Wendell Berry wrote of the Boston bombing, and one reporter’s disregard of the scars of the families and people wounded. “He is speaking to people whose loved ones have been killed and people who will never again stand on their own legs,” he asked, perplexed. “How can he think that all the traces of any violence can be easily wiped away?”

Sadly, many today see our high and holy task as a divine clean-up job. Let the past be the past, they say. But Berry was right to notice that “the evil of the day, as we know it, enters into it from the past.”

Anger has been an impetus for change in this tradition of black faith. Just as it has been for others throughout history, our survival depended on our angry refusal to accept the absurd. How could one not be angry? How could one read our murdered children, women, and men names in hashtags and not be angry? How can one simply reflect on the racial, social, political, and economic disparities and not be angry? Our theology must have room for anger, not in the vitriolic or violent sense, but an anger that burns away false illusions and creatively constructs a liberating and humane alternative.

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Source: Christianity Today

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