‘I Am a Man’: The Theology of Black Resistance

Over the past couple of years, I’ve written a fair bit about Black theology. It’s a big and broad tradition that deserves consideration on its own terms, so I encourage you to check out all of my previous posts that attempted to promote its voices with as little editorializing comment from me as possible. (And, better yet, to seek out the original sources and other emerging voices from this tradition as well!) That said, no series about theology “from under the rubble” would be complete without referencing Black theology and its faithful resistance to dehumanizing ideologies of domination.

From enslavement and the belief systems that supported it, through a century of legally enforced segregation, to today’s big questions of violence from law enforcement, lack of due process, and the school-to-prison pipeline, the Black American experience has been quintessentially one of doing life “from under the rubble.” As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it:

But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never knowing what to expect next, and plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodyness” — then you will understand… (Letter from Birmingham Jail)

Because of the weight of all this, Black theology has developed around precisely the kinds of questions this series has been asking: What does it mean to be Christian, or even human, in a world that cannot be trusted? How do we live when we can have no illusions of control? How can we hope when things seem to be going from bad to worse?

Rather than rehashing this material, today I’d like to direct your attention to a few old posts which highlight this aspect of Black theology and can speak to us in our own uncertain and challenging times:

  • Songs of Lamentation and Longing: About the musical and poetic tradition of the Spirituals, with their dual focus on the lamentations of enslaved people and their hope for a better day. In these texts we see similar themes to what we’ve found elsewhere in the series: The validation of expressions of grief, and reminders that the ways of this world are not God’s ways. Two relevant additional themes the Spirituals highlight that we haven’t seen so far are their insistence on hope and God’s common cause with the suffering and oppressed, and their finding meaning in the similarity of their own experiences to those of Biblical characters.
  • The Life Worth Living: About the theology of Howard Thurman, who intentionally developed a theology “for those who stand with their backs against wall,” trapped between the violence of their enemies and the systems which allow them no escape. He grounded a commitment to nonviolent action in the face of oppression in his Christian insistence on seeing the shared humanity of oppressed and oppressor. This theology provides a helpful corrective to St. Augustine’s focus on the fallen state of the world by insisting just as strongly on the essential human dignity that no law, attitude, or action can take away.
  • Beyond ‘I Have a Dream’: About Dr. King’s call not only to continued nonviolence in the face of violent repression of peaceful protests, but also for the White Church to step up in its support of its Black brothers and sisters. While we cannot use immoral means to attain moral ends, we also cannot use moral means to perpetuate an immoral status quo. If those who are oppressed are called to nonviolent action, so too are those who are not oppressed called to stand up and promote a more just and loving world. We cannot be afraid to be seen as extremists, for “Was not Jesus an extremist in love?” He concludes, “the question is not whether we will be extremist, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate, or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice, or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?”

To wrap this brief post up, the Black theological tradition has added another layer of theological reflection to what we’ve seen so far in the series. It isn’t good enough to say the world is fallen so we can expect suffering — though this is true. We must also insist that we do everything that is in our power, no matter how small or great the sphere of our action may be, to promote the kind of world that God desires. And this is true whether we are oppressed or whether we are (or at least look and sound like) the oppressor.

It is fitting to end this post with the call for those with power and privilege to act, for the next three posts will look at the life and work of two German theologians who had to do just this: respond with faith to the crisis of their own nation and horrors committed by their own people.

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