Americans are observing a bittersweet Holy Week as we approach the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During his brief but fruitful sojourn to bring about social justice—and to encourage racial harmony—it may be easy to overlook that King was part of the young generation of his era in attracting those of persons of faith who remained courageous no matter what difficulties lay ahead during the Civil Rights Movement.
Jesus, obviously, was at the forefront of this movement, but the considerable strides toward Black progress could not have occurred without young people. Devotion of Jesus has always been a large part of the African American experience. And while the church has been and continues to be a dynamic and vital force of encouragement in the Black community, many young people may question the propriety of following Jesus. Is Christ still relevant today?
Slavery and accepting Jesus
Some may suggest that Jesus was a foreign deity forced upon African slaves. Others may imply that Jesus was nothing more than a psychological ploy to deaden the pain of an oppressed existence. Still more opinions may contend that our forefathers’ worship of Jesus was nothing more than a mask for the expression of more ancient religious practices or, at the very least, a “cover” for the practice of more traditional African religions. Because slaves didn’t read a great deal about Black persons in the Bible, it may be convenient to discount the power that scripture has had on African Americans for the past 400 years.
Black people have appeared on the stage of biblical history many times. One notable biblical character was Zipporah, Moses’ Midianite wife, in the Book of Exodus. With this marriage in place, the story reveals that Zipporah’s father, Jethrow, was also Black. The New Testament features several characters whom scholars believe were likely Black due to the location of their cities. The most recognizable was Lucious’ friend in Antioch, Simeon, who was called Niger which itself means “Black.” The Book of Acts tells the tale of an Ethiopian eunuch who was converted to Christianity, a story that Biblical scholars attest predates Paul first missionary journey into Europe. There is clear and irrefutable evidence that Christianity had existed in Africa by the beginning of the third century, so much so that by that time it had become the dominate religion in North Africa (i.e. Egypt which was reportedly home to more than 1 million Christians during this period).
Early Christians in Africa
To say that the Bible is the White man’s holy book—or to believe it is strictly European in origin and nature—does not take into account the facts. In his 1969 book, “The Early Church in Africa,” Dr. John Mbiti illustrated the fact that the message of Jesus was in Africa long before it reached European shores. “Christianity in Africa is so old that it can be rightly described as an indigenous, traditional African religion,” Mbiti stated.
It is frequently asked: “Didn’t Christians start, perpetuate and defend American slavery?” American Christians reacted at almost polar-opposites when it came to God’s acceptance of chattel slavery. While there was always vocal protest of slavery, there were many Christians who defended the practice, often pointing to the passage in Ephesians 6:5-9: “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear.” As the issue of slavery grew more intense and divisive, most of the major Protestant denominations were sharply divided on the subject with many pointing to the bloodletting of the Civil War as “God’s punishment” of an unrighteous nation.
Regardless of the contrasting views of slavery put forth in the Bible, any contradictions never interfered with receiving the transcendent truth of Jesus. In studying the Gospels, slaves found hope, courage, strength and comfort. The Negro spirituals, in particular, would come to represent the legacy of the faith of those who, from an earthly standpoint, had cause for despair.
‘Black’ Jesus vs. ‘White’ Jesus
The slaves who turned to Jesus knew the difference between some of the versions of Christianity they were seeing practiced by Whites, and the Good News they heard described in the Bible. A line in an old spiritual would make this point eminently clear: “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout Heaven ain’t goin’ there.” These men, women and children chose to follow the Jesus they saw in the Bible who provided the hope and power they needed to survive their bondage.
The liberating dynamic of the Gospels caused the Southern states to place restrictions on missionary activities among slaves, forbidding reading instruction and limiting any and all evangelical activities. These restrictions would give rise to the famous “Hush Harbors,” the secret hideaways where slaves would gather to worship. Slaves young and old began to realize that the Gospels taught them that they were children of the Most High God, citizens of His heavenly kingdom, and that they had inherent value as human beings and not mere beasts of burden as society would picture them. When slaves entered prayer and worship, they experienced a fleeting but galvanizing foretaste of an eventual eternal reward.
Skip ahead 100 years and history would reveal that the Black community continued to find refuge in the Gospels. And although there were exceptions including the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., and the 2015 mass murders at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC., the church would always provide African Americans with protection from those who would try to tarnish their faith and do them physical harm.
Refuge within the Black church
The vibrancy and progressive power of the Black church is well documented. It was in these churches that the Black colleges and universities were conceived. The Black church was the starting point of the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Congress of Racial Equality and the Urban League. In the 20th Century, it was the Black clergy who often provided the leadership for the Black community.
In King’s day, some young people would assert that Christianity was a debilitating and pacifying force in the Black community. Black Millennials continue this discourse in light of continued racism whether it be high unemployment, poor educational opportunities, affordable housing, and extending to the rash of police shootings of unarmed Black persons. Because the God of the Bible has always been a source of comfort, strength, hope and stability, faith in Jesus has not encouraged passivity, but rather activism in millions of African Americans by virtue of prayer vigils at the many protest marches that inevitably take place when civil rights are violated.
The famous civil rights leaders who adhered to the Gospels became some of the world’s most effective spokespersons. By their own testimony, these African American Christians declared that it was their personal relationship with Jesus that fueled their struggle, energized their activism and provided hope for a better future. Yet the days of the “old time religion” began to wear thin on the new Black generation which, in effect, were the first recipients of the benefits of desegregation but would face new challenges in choosing from previously unheard of opportunities and experiencing unprecedented freedom.
In the 1960s and ‘70s the United States began to grudgingly remove the obstacles to broader opportunities for African Americans and the Black church struggled to effectively speak to those who had left its confines.
Black church matters
A number of studies have confirmed past research that faith is closely aligned with positive outcomes for African Americans amid the realities of discrimination and economic, political and social inequality. One study published in 2016 in the journal “Race and Social Problems” indicated that neither education nor income predicted a sense of optimism among Blacks. What mattered most, researchers found, was a belief in a loving, merciful God. “It appears that the sense that one is loved and uplifted by God and the belief that one has received God’s forgiveness work in tandem,” the study reported.
By this evidence, Black church members “have each other’s back” in relation to a bond between congregation members and an inherent system of social support in terms of assistance during illness, transportation needs, financial help and even pitching in with a friend’s household chores.
Additional data from the National Survey of American Life found that Black adolescents who experience discrimination are more likely to show signs of poorer mental health. Having church members listen to their concerns helped them feel loved and care for which, according to the survey, reduced the risk of psychiatric disorders among Black youth. They even looked at substance abuse among Black youth. While African Americans are less likely to use alcohol and drugs than Whites, people who have experienced discrimination are reportedly more likely to suffer from substance abuse. Adherence to to the Gospels was found to be a proactive factor that appeared to help reduce the strong relationship between discrimination and substance abuse.