A presentation to the 53rd National Black Evangelical Association Convention of 2016: The Cries for Historical Identity and Healing.
By Dr. Anne Bailey, NBEA member and Author of African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame.(Beacon Press, 2005)
These are troubling times but people of African descent have known great troubles. As the Negro spiritual goes, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows my sorrow.” The legacy of slavery and racism has meant a history of suffering and pain but that suffering has an end. There was slavery, but there was also emancipation- an emancipation that Jesus made possible.
What is more, God uses this suffering for His greater good. God uses “the weak things” to confound the wise so who, if not you, people of color, should speak up in these troubling times? Who if not you, should share your testimony of “how you got over”? Who if not you, should try to comfort a hurting world? Who if not you can say: “Weeping may endure for a night but JOY cometh in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)
I. The History
In light of the theme of our conference, African Descended Evangelical Affirmations and Actions, I want to begin with a story called “The Weeping Time” from my book THE WEEPING TIME: History and Memory and the Largest Slave auction in US HISTORY. (forthcoming 2017)
It is a story of suffering and pain.
One hundred and fifty seven years ago on March 2, 3 1859, 436 Slaves including 30 babies were sold away from their home in Georgia.
Butler Island is in Gullah Geechee territory in Southern Georgia. It is an area extremely rich in African traditions and heritage. This particular auction was one of thousands of slave auctions in the US South. The average slave was in fact sold six times in a lifetime. If you can think about what that means – potentially six different last names- it gives you a sense about the loss of identity.
This auction demonstrates if nothing else that slavery was an attack on black families. It was an attempt to break up family bonds.
In short, it was a time of great suffering. That is why the slaves called this event, “The Weeping Time.”
Since then, even today we have had many more Weeping Times, more stories of suffering and pain, hence the birth of the Civil Rights movement, hence the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black Lives Matter and the Principles of Non-Violence
Black lives matter and so we remember:
Laquan Mcdonald – black male shot sixteen times in Chicago in 13 seconds. He was the victim of what psychologist, Dr. Ruth Bentley, refers to as the “Big Black man syndrome.”
We remember Sandra Bland, black woman traveling in Texas who died in police custody.
We remember Freddie Gray in Baltimore who died in police custody.
We remember Tamir Rice, twelve year old black boy, who was shot by officers in Ohio.
We remember Philando Castile, black male kitchen supervisor in Minnesota, who was shot while obeying an officer’s request to show his identification.
We remember Alton Sterling who was shot by officers in Louisiana while being arrested for suspicion of a crime.
We remember these men, women and children and so many more because their lives matter. That does not mean as theologian David Pearson says that “Only Black Lives matter.” What it means is that the build up of the prison industrial complex system in America from the 1960’s till present has meant a criminalization of black lives. Of the more than 2 million inmates in the United States more than half are black and brown. Yet, federal studies have repeatedly shown that Blacks and Latinos have been disproportionately punished for the same crimes as whites, Asians and others for years. As an example, though recreational drugs are not uncommon on many college campuses, policing on these campuses is light in comparison to their inner city counterparts. Hence more black men from the inner city are picked up, prosecuted and jailed in our system than others.
( Freedom from the Myth of Goodness, Anne Bailey, forthcoming, 2017 and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander)
Still, policemen are not the problem. And let us be clear there can be NO open season on policemen and women who are not individually responsible for a broken system. Some bad apples have taken the law into their own hands, but many understand that it is a broken system and are doing their best but can do little to change it from below.
Questionable deaths in police custody or at the hands of the police cannot be an excuse to kill or harm men and women in uniform. This is not the answer. The principles of non violence should and must hold sway. That was the way of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr and the success of the civil rights movement. They held to the moral high ground and approached injustice from a Christian perspective. That must be the way forward with Black Lives Matter. King’s words were as true then as they are now: “Unmerited suffering is redemptive.”
Jamaican Lives Matter
But there is also much suffering and pain in my native Jamaica. Jamaicans liberally use the term” SUFFERER” or “SUFFERATION” in our local patois. The term refers to someone who sees himself or herself as the underdog, one who is often the victim of difficult circumstances who may be struggling with poverty, one who is fighting against the “system” or as Bob Marley and other reggae musicians would say “against Babylon.”
The real Jamaica is much more than sand and surf. Beyond the pristine beaches, there is rural poverty and the landless poor. Furthermore, parts of downtown Kingston and touristic Montego Bay are reminiscent of inner city Chicago. There is great poverty, a web of garrison communities and the international drug trade has a foothold. A number of young black men get caught up in the latter leaving a trail of broken families –children, parents, partners and spouses. Their often untimely deaths not only cut off the present generation but also future generations or as author Laurie Gunst puts it, they are “ born fi dead.” (born to die)
There is seemingly endless destruction and self destruction – within and without these communities.
Ironically this gang violence is a familiar pattern historically. What historians have called the “gun-slave cycle” is the historical antecedent to the today’s gang related violence. During the Atlantic slave trade from the fifteenth to the nineteenth century, several European nations took advantage of disagreements or minor skirmishes between ethnic nations on the African continent. It was a time honored strategy to give guns to one side with the expectation that those captured as a result of these battles would be sold to the nation that provided the guns. (African Voices of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Beyond the Silence and the Shame, Chapter 4)
As I said, there has been a lot of “sufferation.”
But God can use our suffering.
II. The Gospel Message: Our Pain is our Power
You see another way to look at it is that our source of pain is also our source of POWER.
When we speak of slave auctions and the legacy of slavery (which is where police brutality and gang violence come in), we go THERE… BACK THERE… to that place that so many of us run away from. To that place that we want to, some say, we need to forget.
And where is there? There is the heart of slavery. The heart of our pain.
And what more than the auction block could evoke that pain, that sorrow, that anger, maybe even bitterness?
What could bring up all those emotions as effectively as the auction block?
But I am asking you to open up that wound again…
Some may call it our source of pain, our source of shame.
I call it our source of POWER.
You may ask: whatever could you be talking about?
Surely you have lost your mind.
Isn’t history about the VICTORS?
Surely you don’t understand that it is WINNING that counts.
Surely you don’t understand that it is the MATERIAL progress that the American Dream promises that counts.
But I call the wound of slavery my source of power because God says it is my source of power—the very thing I run away from is where He wants to do the greatest work.
Listen carefully – because it is easy to miss. It is COUNTERINTUITIVE.
But what does God do with that suffering? How can He use it? How can we use it?
I offer as evidence four Scriptures:
“For Jesus is the one referred to in the Scriptures, where it says, ‘The stone that you builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” (Acts 4: 11)
“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise;
and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which
are mighty” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
“ And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
“And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?”34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”( Mark 9: 33-35)
This is what the Gospel message is all about.
Who is the chief servant? Who is that rejected stone? Who is that weak thing? Who made himself nothing for us who did not merit anything? Who is the cornerstone? He that was rejected persecuted and killed for our sake?
Was he the King of Kings that the Jews were looking for? Did he not come to Jerusalem on a donkey and not on a thoroughbred horse?
But in spite of that, because of that, WHOSE NAME is above all names. Whose name are we still calling or contending with (for those who don’t believe) 2000 plus years later?
Who but the “weak thing, the persecuted, the rejected, the despised…”
Be clear: God did not cause this – human evil did—but He allowed it to happen for His great glory.
The Lord allowed us to partner with Him if you will – to have access to His power in the midst of our powerlessness.
So I ask: Who if not you, with a legacy of slavery and racism, could understand what it means to be a “weak thing?”
Who if not you, could understand what it means to be the rejected stone?
Who if not you, could understand what it means to be last?
This legacy of suffering and pain carries with it then a responsibility – a burden to share – a burden to help others.
These weak things, these rejected stones, God wants to use in these troubled times. In fact, all those rejections, all that weakness was preparation for these troubled times.
It was to give you strength and resilience but not just for you and your community but for others.
Because you, like the Syrian people, know what it means to be homeless.
You, like the Iraqi and Libyan refugee, know what is to be a refugee..even in your own country.
You, like the parents of children of war torn areas, know what it is like to lose your children in the so called drug war.
You, like all the world’s refugees, know what it is to be uprooted from your original homeland in Africa only to face untold hardships and an uncertain future.
You, like the modern day slaves trafficked even within American shores, know what it is like to labor without recompense for hundreds of years.
You, like the women lured into sex trafficking, know what it is like to be exploited and abused.
And most of all, you know how to turn to JESUS and JESUS ALONE in the midst of the pain, in the midst of the suffering, in the midst of the abuse and in the midst of death and dying.
You know how to sing the Negro spirituals, the sorrow songs, in times of trouble.
“Ride on King Jesus, no man can hinder me.”
You know that “There is a Balm of Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.”
Who if not you can minister to a hurting world now when it most needs it?
This is the essence of what I want to share from the Gospel and our history to address our contemporary challenges.
Now it’s only fitting that we talk of action since our conference title is:
African descended Evangelical Affirmations and Actions.
What can we do with our newfound sense of power that comes out of weakness?
Action No. 1 Change your mindset from Sufferer to Agent of change
As God asked Moses (Ex 4:2), “what is your hand?” we have to ask ourselves the same thing. What immediately comes to mind are our FAITH and our MUSIC.
Those were the two things that would not die when we crossed the Atlantic on that Middle Passage journey. It is no wonder that historians and anthropologists alike have determined that these were the greatest African survivals.
Our sense of the sacred—not something relegated to one day a week—but something that had meaning in everyday life survived the Middle Passage.
Our musical rhythms survived the Middle Passage.
So we can and should turn to our faith communities and our musical communities first and ask them to step up to the challenges of the day.
As NBEA President Reverend McCray affirms, those who identify as black evangelicals or who regardless of their color or ethnicity adhere to the essential tenets of the evangelical faith across denominations have an important role to play.
I exhort NBEA and other faith communities to continue doing what you have been doing but move from the mentality of a sufferer to an agent of change. Move from suffering victim to proactive agent.
See your suffering as an asset not a drawback. It represents what I call “the gift of resilience.” It’s the gospel song: ‘How I got over” which sings of how Jesus got you over –the same message a hurting world needs today.
Action No. 2 Do not be silent. Share your testimony.
You know in the antebellum South, many slaves were forbidden to gather for their masters feared uprisings so they would sneak away to pray and praise at locations away from the plantation called “hush harbors.” They would bring down the praise and send up the prayers in these secret locations. That is how they “got over.”
But we are in a different time now and you have the right to speak and to tell your testimony to the world. Use it.
Churches and faith communities like NBEA, create a devotional of our Christian testimony past and present and share it with your congregations, share it with the youth, share it with the world. Connect our Christian testimony to larger social justice issues as it relates to the Gospel that freed us. Make the connections and share the connections for freedom’s sake.
Remember the names of those who have gone before us. Remember the untimely death of young people like Trayvon Martin who died on Feb. 26, 2012 and tell the story of how this modern day Emmett Till woke up a sleeping community. Tell the story of how God has called us to be sober and vigilant and to share the Gospel in spite of and because of this suffering.
Action No. 3 Take back our Music
I am heartened to hear that over one hundred entertainers and other celebrities met recently to see how they can weigh in on this issue of police brutality.
But there is much to be done. Much of our music started in the church and grew out of a faith experience yet it is now used largely for commercial purposes.
The power of our Negro spirituals has almost been lost because we have disconnected our musical gifts from the Gospel. We were given these gifts in the midst of our suffering and our pain to bless a hurting world yet many have left the church and left our faith in Jesus behind for what they see as greener pastures.
We need to reach our artists and musicians, known and less known, and let them be at the forefront of this movement. Let them lead the way; let them soothe a hurting world; let their words and their rhythms point the world to the Cross.
And what better way to do that than to reach back to the Negro Spirituals that we are all standing on. Let’s get back to those basics. Let’s get back to that foundation of the hush harbor. Let’s get back to our strength in the weak time for we are in a weak time and we need that strength.
Action No. 4 Take care of our Health and Heritage
Our ancestors didn’t always have much to eat but what they had came mostly from the land. At the end of the day, most slaves were farmers and agriculturalists and they depended on the earth. Many brought with them from Africa agricultural technology that their masters depended on to make their plantations profitable. The Gullah Geechee communities of Southern Georgia for example, came from ethnic groups in West and Central Africa that had harvested rice successfully for hundreds of years. They brought that technology to the South and made their masters wealthy.
All the natural fruits and vegetables were then a rich part of our heritage in the New World and in Africa yet now we suffer from a plague of lifestyle diseases. Diseases like diabetes and hypertension are rampant in our communities but it is not too late to return to the diet of our ancestors and a Biblical diet based more on plant based foods and whole grains.
Action no. 5 Join the Call for Reparations
Building on the influential Juneteenth ministry and movement of Dr. Ron Myers, NBEA should join the call for REPARATIONS. (http://www.nationaljuneteenth.com/Founder.html)
We should join with CARICOM and other American and Caribbean groups and others who have been fighting for the same. (http://www.caricom.org/reparations-for-native-genocide-and-slavery)
In 1863, Lincoln coined the phrase “FOREVER FREE” in the Emancipation Proclamation but we cannot enjoy the full fruits of our freedom until the debt is paid. That debt should be paid to help rebuild our communities here and around the world.
Action No. 6 Vote with your feet.
If we learned anything from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus boycott, it was that they voted with their feet. When the city’s bus company would not change their unjust laws, they stopped taking the bus. They walked, they shared taxis and they did what they had to do to make it clear that they would not be party to an inhumane law. Likewise, many of us need to vote with our feet. Support black organizations. Support black businesses. We keep supporting businesses that do not acknowledge our humanity and we live in areas where we are not respected.
The thing about slavery is that we were unable to move. Our mobility was restricted at every turn –unless the master needed to sell the slave as he did in the Weeping time slave auction.
But now, we can move. If you are living in a township where as a law abiding citizen, you are stopped unreasonably on a routine basis, consider moving. Vote with your feet. It’s a big world out there. That is what globalization is all about. Use it to your advantage. There are other towns, other cities, other municipalities in the United States. There is Africa, there is the Caribbean, there is South America. Make the sacrifice if you must but MOVE. Your ancestors couldn’t but you can!
It may not be fair. It wasn’t fair for Rosa Parks and the citizens of Montgomery who had to walk for a year instead of riding the bus—but after a year of walking, the Supreme Court declared in 1956 that Alabama and Montgomery laws requiring segregation was unconstitutional. Black citizens of Montgomery had voted with their feet!
Action no. 7 FORGIVENESS AND INTERNAL REPAIR
At the end of the day, this suffering can lead to a great deal of anger and unforgiveness yet to experience real freedom, we need to forgive.
The legacy of slavery is like an impassable mountain but don’t let the mountain block you from your future.
Forgiveness is not forgetting. Continue to fight for justice. Continue to speak truth to power.
But unforgiveness has a compound effect which immobilizes you and makes you unable to continue the work to which you were called.
This is the internal work that we need to do as communities of color. We have to remember as it says in Matthew 19:17: “There is none good but God.” Many of our forebears knew this. You see it in their slave narratives. ( See the narrative of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave, http://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/prince/prince.html) They did not see themselves as superior to their masters. They knew they were sinners too but through Christ they had achieved what we all dream of: freedom, true freedom of mind and spirit.
I am not there yet but it is a journey I am on and want to stay on. On that journey, I take comfort in knowing that that suffering is my source of power and God can and will use it for His greater glory.
“Weeping may endure for a night but JOY cometh in the morning.” ( Psalm 30:5)
Black Evangelical Perspectives NBEA Blogs Advocating Biblical and Cultural Integrity, through “Unity In Diversity Without Enforced Conformity.” The views expressed are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect any official position of the NBEA.