Following Jesus: The Black Church Tradition

Between final exams and commencement last week and leading a faculty workshop and grading this week, I’ve been a little late to check in on this month’s Following Jesus conversation. But don’t let that delay (or this too-brief introduction) deter you from checking out a highly important installment in the project, featuring an opening essay on the Black Church by Farris Blount III, a PhD candidate in practical theology at Boston University who will join the faculty of Memphis Theological Seminary this fall.

May’s Tradition: “A Tale of Many Options: Following Jesus in the Black Church Tradition

“To begin, it is important to note that there is no such thing as the monolithic ‘Black Church.’ We often talk about the ‘Black Church’ using this singular phrase, but if we are not careful, we run the risk of reducing or ignoring the complexities inherent across these institutions…. I believe, therefore, that to articulate what it means to follow Jesus in the Black Church tradition is a monumental task because one must recognize that Black Christians can have such varied interpretations of such a topic due to our diverse denominational affiliations and our experiences of being Black in the world. For instance, some African-American Methodists most certainly would agree with various points made in the Methodist reflection due to their shared denominational identity. And yet those same individuals might contend that their social location as Black people in America, who must deal with racism and discrimination even in their congregational life, creates alternative understandings of what it means to follow Jesus….

“The Black Church’s commitment to justice and equality is not only historical; I have seen firsthand how countless Black congregations embody the belief that following Jesus translates into an active effort to challenge discriminatory policies and practices here and now…. However, despite the myriad ways in which the Black Church tradition echoes this commitment to justice in following Jesus, such a commitment does not reverberate through the halls of every Black congregation. In fact, the disagreement between how African-Americans should respond to discrimination can be explored through a polarity that Lincoln and Mamiya call ‘the communal and the privatistic.’ If striving for equal and fair treatment of Black Americans in all areas of life is considered a ‘communal’ approach to the Black Church tradition, then the privatistic approach is one in which there is a ‘withdrawal from the concerns of the larger community to a focus on meeting only the religious needs of its adherents.'”

My Response: “Justice and Piety in the Black Church: A Both/And Tradition

“…the faithful, often prophetic witness of the Black Church in America is one of the greatest miracles in church history. How else to explain that a religion of peace and liberation was brought to these shores in the baggage train of imperial conquest and human trafficking, yet nonetheless took root in a place like 18th century Virginia, where most of the indigenous population had long since been killed or forced west and the colonial legislature meeting in Williamsburg had long since declared that enslaved Africans could only be baptized on the understanding that that sacrament ‘doth not exempt them from bondage’? How else but by the unfathomable depths of God’s grace can that origin story continue to inspire a Christian tradition whose faith, hope, and love not only survived what Frederick Douglass called the ‘corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land’ but came to be best known for what Blount calls its ‘historical belief in and commitment to the freedom and liberation of all those who have been oppressed’?…

“…I appreciate that Blount can’t ‘avoid the fact that Jesus was a social revolutionary if we look at the scriptures and His engagement in His world,’ but still refrains from ‘condemning [the privatistic or pietistic] approach to following Jesus.’ Indeed, as a Pietist, I’d like to believe that there’s something here beyond the reality that ‘no one person falls into one camp and never oscillates between the two.'”

Additional Responses

“Any response to the Black Church Tradition from the Reformed Tradition, and others of a similar historical background, must begin with an honest confession of our complicity in America’s original sin of slavery, the crucible of cruelty out of which the Black Church had its origins…. this is how the response of the Reformed tradition to the Black Church should begin—by interrogating ourselves. The Black Church causes us to question whether we have been faithfully following Jesus before we raise any observation about how the Black Church is faithfully following Jesus.”

– Wes Granberg-Michaelson, “A Tradition that Interrogates Us” (The Reformed Tradition)

“While I recognize the importance and the centrality of music and preaching in the Black Church, as an Episcopal priest I’d like to recommend a more salubrious sacramental theology and practice – and, to be fair, I’d probably offer the same suggestion to most of my Christian sisters and brothers in other traditions as well, Catholics and Orthodox excepted. The reason I make that suggestion here is that a robust appreciation for the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, invites the faithful to transcend worldly cares and commune with the Almighty in an almost mystical way. For a people who far too often live with ‘their backs against the wall,’ as Howard Thurman said, I believe that a healthy sacramentalism would serve as a worthy complement to the hallmarks of the Black Church: music, the sermon, and social action.”

– Randall Balmer, “The Complement of Sacramentalism” (The Anglican Tradition)

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