“Yeshua (Jesus) instructed his followers to arm themselves for self-defense and to address the community’s survival needs by providing health care, free meals, therapeutic counseling, and of course spiritual guidance.”
“Black Christians have the ever-present potential to reclaim a pivotal position within movements that challenge police terrorism, mass incarceration, poverty, militarism, and perhaps even the capitalist system itself.”
A recent PBS documentary by Henry Louis Gates about the Black church is a reminder of the vital role the institution has played in the survival and continuing struggles of an oppressed community. While Black Christians have played a vital role in the development of the Black Radical Tradition, the documentary also highlights the sudden, diminished leadership role the Black church played in movements after Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. In recent years, there have been repeated comments about the low-profile participation of the Black church in the Black Lives Matter movement.
Notwithstanding recent history, it will be an error to write off the potential of the Black Church to again find its way to the cutting edge of the revolution. That’s because Christianity has been radical from the start. Yeshua (“Jesus”) himself emerged from a poverty ravaged community of brown-skinned folks who daily endured surveillance, extortion, harassment, and violent attacks by white Roman soldier-cops deployed to First Century Palestine. We know from Luke 22:36 that, in response, Yeshua instructed his followers to arm themselves for self-defense. This group also engaged in an extended campaign to address the community’s survival needs by providing health care, free meals, therapeutic counseling, and of course spiritual guidance. The first Christians also had their share of political prisoners. In many ways they were strikingly similar to the radical organization started in Oakland, California in 1966 by a small band of brothers in berets and black leather.
“It will be an error to write off the potential of the Black Church to again find its way to the cutting edge of the revolution.”
Yeshua was betrayed by an informant, and when he was pegged as a revolutionary by Roman imperialists, he was accused of sedition, railroaded through a kangaroo court, and subjected to the death penalty. The Book of Acts tells us that after Yeshua left the Earthly realm, his followers grew in number, established multi-ethnic solidarity with other oppressed communities, and consolidated them into a small nation governed by socialist principles and socialist practice.
Yeshua’s disciples were not the last community of color to embrace revolution. Black Christians have a long history of radicalism, and that should come as no surprise even though slave masters made their best efforts to use the Bible to justify white supremacy and slavery. Kenyan scholar John Mbiti explains why enslaved Africans with a grounding in traditional African religions would certainly have rejected the lies about Christian doctrine taught by slave masters. He said:
“Because traditional [African] religions permeate all the departments of life, there is no formal distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the religious and non-religious, between the spiritual and material areas of life. Wherever the African is, there is his religion: he carries it to the fields, where he is sowing seeds or harvesting a new crop…”
Mbiti goes on to say:
“It is not enough to embrace a faith which is confined to a church building or mosque, which is locked up six days and opened only once or twice a week. Unless Christianity and Islam fully occupy the whole person as much as, if not more than, traditional [African] religions do, most [African] converts to these faiths will continue to revert to their old beliefs and practices for perhaps six days a week, and certainly in times of emergency and crisis.”
“Black Christians have a long history of radicalism.”
Thus, the influence of an African religious orientation naturally led enslaved Africans to embrace Christianity as a weapon for liberation rather than believe claims that the faith justifies slavery. After all, Mbiti points out that “…even if [in traditional African religions] God is thought to be the ultimate upholder of the moral order, people do not consider Him to be immediately involved in the keeping of it.” Consequently, enslaved Africans believed they had to take matters into their own hands if they wanted to be free. Both Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey found in their Christian faith the inspiration to rise against their enslavers. Vesey even organized his insurrection within the institutional framework of the African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Historian Sterling Stuckey described Vesey as “a sophisticated idealogue.” Stuckey wrote: “Vesey promoted the use of radical Christianity and encouraged, through one of his lieutenants, its melding with African religious practices. ‘Beyond a general antiwhite attitude,’ [scholar Robert] Starobin writes, ‘Vesey combined the Old Testament’s harsh morality and the story of the Israelites with African religious customs.’ Indeed, Vesey used Christian radicalism to reinforce and rationalize his call to arms…”
Turner and Vesey believed their white oppressors were as morally bankrupt and as irredeemable as the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. They likewise believed these enslavers deserved to suffer the same fate as their Old Testament counterparts. Like Turner and Vesey, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was also a radical Christian, but his method presumed the white community retained a conscience that could be pricked and prodded into righteousness through his movement’s non-violent witnessing.
“Both Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey found in their Christian faith the inspiration to rise against their enslavers.”
Because Yeshua was inclined on some occasions toward militant action and on other occasions toward non-violent resistance, we are left to speculate about whether he was in the camp of Turner and Vesey or in that of Dr. King. Perhaps he approved of both, depending upon the circumstances. Regardless of tactics, he clearly favored radical change. Theologian Obery Hendricks explains:
“Yes, Jesus of Nazareth was a political revolutionary. Now, to say that he was ‘political’ doesn’t mean that he sought to start yet another protest party in Galilee. Nor does it mean that he was ‘involved in politics’ in the sense that we know it today, with its bargaining and compromises and power plays and partisanship. And it certainly doesn’t mean that he wanted to wage war or overthrow the Roman Empire by force. To say that Jesus was a political revolutionary is to say that the message he proclaimed not only called for change in individual hearts but also demanded sweeping and comprehensive change in the political, social, and economic structures in his setting in life: colonized Israel. It means that if Jesus had had his way, the Roman Empire and the ruling elites among his own people either would no longer have held their positions of power, or if they did, would have had to conduct themselves very, very differently. It means that an important goal of his ministry was to radically change the distribution of authority and power, goods and resources, so all people – particularly the little people, or ‘the least of these,’ as Jesus called them – might have lives free of political repression, enforced hunger and poverty, and undue insecurity.”
“If Jesus had had his way, the Roman Empire and the ruling elites among his own people either would no longer have held their positions of power.”
Although the Black church has faded from its position of primary movement leader, if Hendricks’ perspective ever resonates with those who have not been bedazzled and bamboozled by charismatic religious charlatans, Black Christians have the ever-present potential to reclaim a pivotal position within movements that challenge police terrorism, mass incarceration, poverty, militarism, and perhaps even the capitalist system itself. Why not? Those who subscribe to liberation theology have played critical roles in Latin American revolutions, and the same can happen in the U.S. Zela Diaz De Porras, a judge during the early years of Nicaragua’s Sandinista revolution explained:
“Faith is the motivation. Politics is the vehicle that carries the motivation. That is to say, if I need to go to Managua, I use a car to carry me. The car can break down or run out of gasoline. There is no comparison…Really, there is no confusion of one thing with the other. Faith is transcendental, and the revolution is like the historical praxis for a transcendental motivation.”
Christian doctrine can always guide the faithful toward a redemptive and fulfilling relationship with God. But that relationship can be substantially enhanced if Black Christians not only take an honest look at how Yeshua and his disciples conducted themselves, but also emulate the first Christians’ active, engaged resistance to oppression. There will be only benefits for movements for justice if the Black church finds its way back to the frontlines of struggle.
Mark P. Fancher is an attorney and longtime writer for Black Agenda Report. He can be contacted at mfancher[at]comcast.net.
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