All right, I was colored. It was fine. I did not know enough to be afraid or to anticipate in a concrete manner. True, I had heard that colored people were killed and beaten, but so far it all had seemed remote. —Richard Wright at age 8, Black Boy (1945)
Global protests in service of racial justice seem, in many places, to be jumpstarting real reforms of policing, and perhaps also of the culture of incarceration and of long-entrenched inequities in education, work, housing, healthcare, and more. The protests, following the blithe and brutal murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, have provided for Americans, and for tens of thousands of others, an opportunity to redress racism and the persistent prejudice against dark-skinned persons right round the world.
Americans are facing again the greatest, gaping wound in our history, namely, the historic enslavement of African-descended persons and the perduring oppression — material, cultural, psychic — of their progeny down to the present day. The muscle memory of terror, indwelling the minds and hearts of oppressed and oppressor, hovers in our collective consciousness as something learned by all who dwell here, including those with no direct experience of the recent or more distant past. In so many ways, the past is not past at all. And so it falls to a new generation of white, Black, and brown persons, Native and Asian Americans — Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — who believe that Black lives matter to try our best, God helping us, to seize the moment and imagine next steps.
We write with a traditional conviction, modeled by the Civil Rights Movement, that American Christians are called to work alongside all persons of good will in service of truth, justice, and the spontaneous comity of neighborly affection that may lead to systemic, reparative change. Such cooperative work may very naturally — in fact, certainly will — occasion evangelization; and imagine the power of a cross-denominational movement of Christians, setting aside their differences in order to proclaim the gospel clearly, with one voice! We should not doubt that faith, hope, and love still preach. By divine design, all men and women long to exchange shame for new life and light. All yearn to breathe the clean air of confession, forgiveness, and penance. All, given the chance, would reach out to touch the hem of the Lord’s garment, and be healed.
In his book Race (2005), Anglican priest-scholar Kenneth Leech reports that race is “a biologically meaningless concept. Every human being shares over 99.9 per cent of her or his DNA with everyone else, while the tiny variations which remain differ more within ethnic groups than between them.” “No human population,” therefore, actually fits “the biological definition of a race.” Of course, scientific consensus notwithstanding, most if not all cultures around the world have been slow to understand or accept it.
Anglicans have historically thought of nations of people, hence also of our national churches, in terms of discrete races, with explicit reference to England as the original context for communion and as a hurdle to be overcome. The bishops assembled at the Lambeth Conference of 1920 welcomed with satisfaction an emerging global family “no longer predominantly Anglo-Saxon in race,” hence less attached to “Anglo-Saxon traditions.” On this account, Anglicans might look forward, they wrote, “to the far greater variety in the expression of the one faith and of devotion to the one Lord, which must necessarily ensue when the churches of men who are strangers in blood, though brothers in Christ, come to fuller age and to more characteristic development.” Progressive for its day, but still paternalistic and race-essentializing.
The hope of a trans-national, pan-cultural, diverse and non-uniform, ecumenical communion of brothers and sisters in Christ remains profound, but it needs refining with respect to “race” alienation, even 100 years on. We need to learn to think and speak about culture, tribe, language — biblical peoplehood (genos or ethnos) and nationhood (gentes): Gentile commonality — without recourse to essentialization of blood, which is an error both of anthropology and soteriology. In Christ, our natural familial and tribal claims are remade in one body through the cross, so that Jews and Gentiles together, as one new humanity, may lay claim to the commonwealth of Israel (Eph. 2:11-16). Who, then, are my mother and my brothers? “Whoever does the will of God” (Mark 3:34-35). As the collect bears witness, God has made of “one blood all the peoples of the earth.” That being so, bring the nations into your fold; pour out your Spirit upon all flesh (1979 BCP, p. 100, Second Collect for Mission; cf. Acts 17:26).
Preferential Option for Blackness
Within such a pattern of prayer, the Lord reveals a corresponding law of belief with respect to race as a deepening of gospel Catholicism, which would re-order our loyalties and loves in and after the person of Jesus as incarnate, crucified, risen, and glorified. Here we can learn from African Methodist Episcopal theologian James H. Cone’s God of the Oppressed (1975), a landmark text of Black theology, understood as a dynamic combination of Black experience, Scripture, and Jesus Christ in the American context. Service of particular peoples and places entails going native (see 1 Cor. 9:22), both for pragmatic purposes of communication and as a matter of moral solidarity, in imitation of our Lord who emptied and humbled himself, “taking the form of a slave” (Phil. 2:7,8).
Cone runs with this idea by arguing for a contextualized Black Christology for American Christians. To be sure, Jesus was a Jew. But Jesus’ messianic mission to “all the families of the earth” (Gen. 12:3) centers upon God’s commitment to liberating the oppressed. As Jesus testified at the start of his ministry, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free” (Lk. 4:18-19). In turn, Jesus’ iconic abuse and death not only effects the salvation of the faithful but also sets an example for their imitation, so that, taking up their own crosses, they may follow God’s preference for the poor. “In America,” observes Cone, “the oppressed are the people of color — black, yellow, red, and brown.” Therefore “their struggle is Jesus’ struggle, and he is thus revealed in the particularity of their cultural history — their hopes and dreams of freedom” (pp. 33-34).
In this place, solidarity with people of color functions as a God-given test of Christian orthodoxy. Racism is its heretical opposite, a “refusal to speak the truth or to live the truth in the light of the One who is the Truth” (p. 36). Just as true love of God necessitates love of neighbor (1 John 4:20), right belief is bound to, and indistinguishable from, right action, or otherwise falsely held. Given the historic enslavement and subsequent second-class status of Blacks, down to the present, feeding, welcoming, clothing, and visiting our Black brothers and sisters amounts to caring for the Black Christ that they are (see Mt. 25:40). Here, all American Christians may find a measure for the Word of God they wish to hear and obey. As Cone writes:
no gospel of Jesus Christ is possible in America without coming to terms with the history and culture of that people who struggled to bear witness to his name in extreme circumstances. To say that Christ is black means that God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, not only takes color seriously, he takes it upon himself and discloses his will to make us whole — new creatures born in the spirit of divine blackness and redeemed through the blood of the Black Christ. (p. 136)
Black Lives Matter More
Interestingly, the idea of a Black Christ may also be found in the writings of Frank Weston, the fiery and influential missionary bishop of Zanzibar from 1907-1924. A white English Anglican, Weston made it his life’s work to “break down the barrier which separated black from white” by articulating, for his context, a “missionary ideal” of blackness, that is, “to become as the black man, and to identify oneself with black ideals” (H. Maynard Smith, Frank, Bishop of Zanzibar , p. 36). Addressing the first Anglo-Catholic Congress in London in late June of 1920 — exactly one hundred years ago, the week before the start of the Lambeth Conference — Weston urged a “disestablishment of the world from its position of power within the Church.” This would yield, he promised, a properly “external manifestation” of the faith, that may “make men see the Naked Christ of Calvary as our Ideal” and “the Coloured Christ of Nazareth as our centre of Brotherhood” (Report of the First Anglo-Catholic Congress , p. 85).
As brothers and sisters of color in our day have insisted that Black lives matter, white Christians are bound to join them in solidarity and service, especially when we all confess the same faith. In biblical terms, the question must recur to the moral norm of 1 Corinthians 12:22-23: “the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think [and have long thought] less honorable we clothe with greater honor.” In the face of a sometimes flagrant, always simmering white supremacy in the bones of the modern West, white Christians have a responsibility, as disciples of Jesus, to insist that Black lives matter more, and to find ways to live this out. As St. Paul prescribes, we should commit ourselves to clothing our indispensable Black members — and their communities, schools, and churches — with greater honor, as a matter of mutual subjection in the body. We are doubtless a long way from managing such a thing, but we err if we deem it an idealistic dream and not an evangelical mandate. Just as division between the churches contradicts the gospel, imperiling its communication and our own souls, so too attempts to undo the Church’s single-body character of Jews and Gentiles reconciled amounts to courting condemnation (see Eph. 2:11ff.; 1 Cor. 11:32).
In the longest view, Christians on every continent, of every tribe, tongue, and people, must mark the history of war, conquest, subjugation, and enslavement that have been the collective lot of our one race, the human race, since exile from the garden. All of us, everywhere, at all times (omnibus, ubique, semper) are complicit, hence judged and condemned, awaiting rescue and repair. The same is true of our divided churches. When grace comes, justification and sanctification can only, by a divinely appointed pattern, follow upon conversion and new life: sacramental and social reparations. In this way, our second births and perseverance may indeed, by God’s mercy, move us beyond mutually assured destruction into new bonds and alliances and new politics: leagues of nations and of churches, as in the last century; and pan-cultural, pan-racial solidarities in the present one, washed, all together, in the blood of the Lamb.
Dr. Christopher Wells is executive director and publisher of the Living Church Foundation.