“Social justice is important, but the primary role of the Church is to lead people to Christ,” a black pastor announced in St. Louis just days before the launching of the Movement for a Moral Missouri.
I never thought I would hear a black minister assert that the work of social justice is less important than conversion. It’s an old dispute among white evangelicals. It became a hot topic when Ron Sider, author of “Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger,” founded Evangelicals for Social Justice in 1973. I get why white Evangelicals struggle with the issue, but I’ve always conceded that black ministers understand the burden carried by those still in Egypt.
Sider wrote the “Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern“ to confront churches’ failure to address injustice, racism and discrimination against women. Sider’s work has come under attack by Christian Reconstructionists, who claim Sider’s assertions are contrary to the biblical teachings on economics, poverty and giving.
Sider’s work isn’t new. What sets it apart is its place within Evangelical Christianity. Billy Graham supported Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., but the emphasis of his crusades was conversion versus social justice. Graham, and other Evangelicals, underscored evangelism and conversion as the primary work of the Church.
For black clergy to affirm that position represents a departure of emphasis that may reflect a partnership with white Evangelical Christianity. If this is true, how does this theological shift fit within the context of black theological radicalism?
This position is a profound retreat from Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and the Disinherited.” Thurman (November 18, 1899 – April 10, 1981) is considered the most influential black philosopher, theologian, educator and civil rights leader in the history of the United States. He was the Dean of Chapel at Boston University from 1953-1965, and founded the first interracial church in the United States in 1944.
Thurman argued that the message of Christ should be read as a manual of resistance for the poor and disenfranchised.
A revolution followed.
On April 26, 1969, James Forman presented the Black Manifesto of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) at the National Black Economic Development Conference in Detroit, Mich. The manifesto demanded the payment of $500,000,000 in reparations to blacks by white churches and Jewish synagogues for the hardship of slavery.
Forman’s Black Manifesto was a defining moment in the forming of a black centered theological agenda. James Cone’s book “Black Theology and Black Power” was published the same year. Cone articulated a new way to affirm the uniqueness of theology in the black church. Cone argues that the justice of God is the dominant theme of black religious thought.
“To sing about freedom and to pray for its coming is not enough. Freedom must be actualized in history by oppressed peoples who accept the intellectual challenge to analyze the world for the purpose of changing it,” Cone writes in “Black Theology and Black Power.”
Cone’s work prompted others to ponder the significance of black religion from the context of a history of resistance. Albert J. Raboteau’s “Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution in the Antebellum South,” Cain Hope Felder’s “Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class, and Family,” Gaylord Wilmore’s “Black Religion and Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of Afro-American People” and Robert Hood’s “Must God Remain Greek?: Afro Cultures and God-Talk” forced conversations about the faith of black people.The persuasiveness and activism of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. inspired masses of black men and women to attend divinity school. We studied Thurman, Cone and others. From their teaching, we discovered a way to communicate the message of liberation to those broken by systems of contradictions.
Now, many are avowing the terms of white Evangelical Christianity. What are the consequences related to a swift departure from the message of liberation enunciated from the pulpits of the black faith tradition? What conclusion can be made by the announcement that personal salvation trumps the prophetic message of liberation from societal ills?
Has the black community transcended the historical restriction created by class and racial disparity? Has the black community overcome the type of divides that made the message of social justice imperative during seasons of extreme detachment? If not, can we argue that those who used the Church to fight for justice operated from a place rebellious of God’s command to focus on personal salvation?
Is there a “primary” mission of God? If so, is it evangelism, discipleship, societal transformation, or worship? Could it be something other than the things listed? If so, what is it?
Does God view each as equivalent missions, and, if so, what happens when we place emphasis too heavily in one place?
White Evangelicals have wrestled with this issue since Jonathan Edwards preached that sermon on July 7, 1732, that started the Great Awakening. As Evangelical’s preached repentance and conversation, black believers maneuvered through a long list of illogicalities that made it hard to believe.
What does it mean to preach personal salvation as the primary emphasis of the Church when so many are broken by societal evils? More pressing is how placing limits on social justice can impede the spirituality of those broken by their human condition.
When the radicalism of faith is taken from those still suffering, all that is left is the prayer needed to help them contend with the sorrow that remains after the Church decides to be silent when Pharaoh refuses to pay for the bricks made from straw.