A couple of decades ago I had the privilege of serving at a well-known Black church in Brooklyn. One day, some visiting German theologians, who were examining the Black church in America, asked our pastor if the God of the oppressor and the God of the oppressed were in fact the same God.
He emphatically responded that of course they are different gods. He went on to say: “There’s no way you can tell me that your god told you to put your foot on my neck and I serve the same god. The God I serve tells me (and empowers me) to get your [email protected]## foot off my neck by any means necessary!”
There is a perspective of God that says, “I enjoy power, prosperity and protection because I am God’s chosen. Therefore, my pursuit of more power, more prosperity and more protection is God’s will for me and those like me.” This perspective has been too prominently evident, although rarely articulated quite like that, in the last 500 or so years of colonial European history — and certainly throughout American history.
All too often it’s been hard to tell the difference between the Great Commission and Manifest Destiny.
There is another perspective of God that sees God as the ultimate liberator from oppression — spiritual, interpersonal, economic, sociopolitical. This perspective says God loves me too much to want me to be victimized, and God identifies so much with the conditions of my life that God hurts when I am hurt. This is a common historical understanding of God in the Black Christian community in America.
I contend that what we know about the circumstances of Jesus’ life here on earth — coupled with what Jesus actually said, on top of the recorded history of God’s chosen people, combined with the many descriptions of God’s kingdom being a place in which justice and righteousness are restored from their current earthly subjugation — leads us to an accurate hermeneutical understanding of Jesus as being more inclined toward the liberation from oppression than toward the acquisition of more power, prosperity and protection.
“All too often it’s been hard to tell the difference between the Great Commission and Manifest Destiny.”
The difference in understanding and interpreting Jesus helps to explain why, although evangelicals of all ethnicities tend to believe the same things and share the same values on many levels, white evangelicals and ethnic evangelicals tend to express our beliefs very differently at the ballot box.
When we in the Black church see white evangelicals supporting a political movement with a rallying cry of “Make America Great Again” and an operational ethic of “taking our country back,” it grates against our experiential reality of America.
Historically, America has not always been a tool for the betterment of our lives; America has been done to us. The great progresses we have achieved often have been made over the objections of those who hold power over our institutions. The consistent message is that America does not and should not belong to us. A movement that deems it appropriate to tell our leaders to “love it or leave it” assumes a proprietary authority that is inconsistent with both our experience in America and our understanding of how Jesus experienced earthly power.
When we observe who Jesus is by carefully studying the biblical record of his life, words and deeds, we have to confront the reality that Jesus was born as a poor and oppressed person of color in a Roman colony. Any view or study of Jesus’ life is tragically incomplete and flawed if it fails to recognize the interconnectedness of all the evil Jesus confronted.
“America has not always been a tool for the betterment of our lives; America has been done to us.”
So when Jesus announces his statement of purpose in Luke 4:18, isn’t he at least in part addressing how he views the colonial oppression he faced? When he invites us to follow him, does Jesus want us to ignore the context of oppression that we face, or observe, or commit, or passively benefit from?
When Jesus was asked by the religious law keeper in the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 how to get to heaven, Jesus’ response featured a caliber of love that confronts racial prejudice — unless you think he chose a Samaritan by mere happenstance. This choice was a direct condemnation of the racist Jewish attitudes toward their Samaritan neighbors.
When Jesus presents the defining characteristic of his sheep in Matthew 25:31-46, he mentions the active addressing of the conditions of the poor and the oppressed. As we do unto the least of these is as we do unto him.
Jesus does not just want us to be nice to everyone while ignoring the poverty and oppression that cause the people he loves so much, his sheep, his children, to suffer.
Yes, Jesus loves me. How do I know? Not only did he die for my sins, but he cares about how racism affects me. He cares when I suffer under oppression. He gets angry when he sees me exploited by corrupt economic and governmental systems and institutions. How do I know? The Bible tells me so.
Prophesy is full of references to the fact that the kingdom of God is a place where love is expressed through justice and righteousness. God is clear in contempt for religious expression that ignores justice and righteousness. If we fail to pursue policies that confront suffering and oppression, and are more interested in our own narrow agendas of power, prosperity and protection, what differentiates us from the priest and Levite whom Jesus identifies as less than neighborly and loving toward the suffering in his Good Samaritan parable?
Even the supposition that refers to the American body of Christ as if it were one body, ignoring the differences in cultural experience and expression, reinforces the impact of power that is enjoyed by some Christians but not others. This dynamic affects everything, including our political behavior.
When a vast majority of Christians of color vote one way while white Christians vote the opposite, and then the perspective of ethnic Christians is not even mentioned, the clear implication is that we are wrong, if not evil. That is not lost on us.
Neither is the observation that, a couple of generations ago, white evangelicals largely missed what has proved to be the most impactful move of God in American history — the Civil Rights movement — through either direct opposition, timid silence or preoccupation with issues largely defined by who is having sex with whom — as if to diminish the dunamis of God’s word to the level of a religious tabloid.
In the 17th chapter of John, we are privileged to eavesdrop into an intimate conversation between Jesus and his Father during that critical last night before his execution. His bottom-line priority for his body was and remains for us to be one, as he and his Father are one, so that the world would find integrity in our witness of his love.
My prayer? Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Sid Smith III is a music ministry consultant and serves at Third Baptist Church of San Francisco. His father, Sid Smith Jr., was a pioneer Southern Baptist Convention leader cedited with starting more than 400 predominantly Black SBC churches.