Slavery. Convict leasing system. Sharecropping. Jim Crow. Restrictive housing covenants. Redlining. Eugenics. War on Drugs. Vietnam. Mass incarceration. Police brutality. 400 years of continual oppression and marginalization, with no end in sight, has the tendency to create a sense of hopelessness and even nihilism. As the author of Hebrews attests, hope deferred really does make the heart grow sick. In spite of the insurmountable evidence to the contrary, I choose to believe that there does exist a future completely free of racism and oppression.*
Anticipate with joy this scenario: there will be no more weeping in the streets over African American sons and daughters, sisters and brothers lost too soon due to police brutality and white supremacy. There will be no more African American babies who die because they were born prematurely or because their mothers’ were unable to access the proper nutrition. People will live full life-times, no life will be cut short due to a stray bullet, mistaken identity, rap music, or skittles. African Americans will be able to access quality, affordable housing – we won’t be charged exorbitant rent prices, sold sub-prime loans, or forced to move out of our beloved communities as kale eating, kombucha drinking neighbors move in. We will have access to green space free of environmental toxins and pollutants so that they can grow fruit and vegetables to provide for our family and community. Exploitative farm and agricultural policies that keep us from doing so will be long gone. African Americans will have access to employment that pays a living wage, that does not exploit our labor and does not bar us from promotions or higher paid positions because of their race. And God, God will hear us before we even lift our voices to call on Him. Because remember, the tabernacle of God will be among us, and He will dwell among us in the same manner that Jesus Christ did 2,000 years ago. No harm or manner of injustice will befall us in God’s re-creation of the world before us.
The above passage is inspired by Isaiah 65.17-24, contextualized to speak to the current and pervasive African American experience in this county. Though the text in Isaiah was originally written to the Jewish people to encourage them while they were in exile, this promise of restoration and redemption has far reaching implications that extends to all of humanity – God’s re-creation of the heavens and the earth promises a future free of pain, death, and exploitation.
In this same future, Palestinians will no longer be discriminated against and will be able to live, work, and grow food on the same land as their Israeli brothers and sisters. Latino immigrants will no longer be called illegal or undocumented or trespassers or even discriminated against because (1) all of humanity will share the land and (2) foreign trade policy will not drive them from their homes. American Indians will likewise not have their land, rights, and their very humanity taken away from them. The word terror as it relates to the identity of non-white Americans or Europeans will be wiped from the lexicon of every language. Sexism will be no more. Ableism will be done away with. People will not be chastised because of whom they choose to love. The image of the oppressor in each and every one of us will be washed away as we are fully loved and indiscriminately give love. No more competition for we will have nothing to lose.
This is our hope and our future. Yet it is not a cheap, optimistic hope that ignores the problem of structural racism and insists that everything is going to be okay. It is this kind of hope that is deeply embedded in progressive politics – that we are better than we once were and will eventually progress our way toward a better future. This kind of thinking is nice, but in truth, it has minimal scriptural or historical support. There is little evidence that the problem of racism and oppression simply improves by humanity ingenuity and strength. Many of the changes we can account for benefit only a select few in our society; usually those with an accepted economic and/or educational status. In the few instances were there is significant change that promises to lift the many, new tactics are divised that put us back into chains.
This is why our hope cannot be based in human effort and goodwill. Effort is good, even necessary, but ultimately the work of restoration and uprooting entrenched systems of injustice is a work of the Spirit. This has to be based in Christ and the conviction that Jesus will redeem this lost, broken world. Not a world that we are escaping but one that we will all enjoy as His Kingdom is fully realized among us.
This is what we just celebrated less than a month ago, the inauguration of that Kingdom made possible through His death and resurrection. In His death, He yielded to Rome. He yielded to power. Jesus allowed Himself to beaten, cursed, and ultimately killed by empire. Yet, in His resurrection, He not only broke the power of sin and eternal death; he also shattered the grip of empire. He proved that while empire may set its sights on destruction and ultimate alienation of those who contest it that the Kingdom of God brings back to life those very ones whose breath have been snuffed out further proving that for all of the smoke and mirrors, Rome – and other empires like it such as America – is utterly inept.
So rather than being controlled by oppressive regimes that profit through the continual dehumanization and degradation of the marginalized in their path, in our case African Americans, we fix our hope on the reality that this is not all there is. There will be a day, as the scripture says, that God will wipe every tear from our eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain.
The question is: what is our role as the Church, as a community of believers until then? To what extent does the Holy Spirit invite us to take part in His mighty work of redemption and justice? I invite you to consider these four things:
One, we have to tell the Good News that Jesus is coming back. We have to let the world know that He will redeem it back to Himself and that all of the injustice that is felt throughout will no longer be a reality. We have to tell it, we have to loudly proclaim the fact that Jesus is in the business of making all things new meaning that this system of oppression and exploitation of African Americans will be completely done away with. This is good news, my friends. In fact, it is fantastic news. And as believers, God has given us the responsibility of sharing it. Speak up about God’s justice, my people. And you better speak loudly so the world can hear you.
Two, we also have to also be truth bearers and name what that means. What does Christ’s imminent return mean for those in power who have exploited African Americans and other people of color? Unfortunately, it means judgment. Scripture bears truth to this. God will judge those who have been on the exacting end of oppression in this society. While they may seem to be sleeping soundly now, God will call them into account for their sins. Fortunately, however, God is merciful and continuously extends opportunities to those who have blood on their hands to repent, turn away from oppression, and restore, to the fullest extent possible, the resources of those who have been stolen away.
Third, believers in the American Church need to commit to undoing racism meaning that we need to do all we can to rid our churches, families, and even spaces where we have influence in this society of racism. That process must start by fully understanding our nation’s beginnings which detail a history of colonialization, genocide, and slavery but it also has to include an honest assessment of the things that have transpired since then that continually ensure that the humanity of African Americans and other people of color is denied. From there, we as believers can begin to think more critically of the ways in which we uphold a system of racial hierarchy – how are we complicit in this country’s sin? Very! We do not need to look any further than Azuza Now, the 110th anniversary of the Azuza Street Revival when the Holy Spirit poured out on all flesh in Los Angeles, CA in a way that could only be comparable to Acts 2. While the original work of the Spirit was led by an African American man, the commemoration of one of the greatest moves of the Spirit in our country was not! Racism even affects how we respond to a move of God. Undoing racism in the church not only means comforting this truth but leading others in thinking through the same things through our preaching, testimony, and revising of our theology.
Finally, we must count the cost. Nothing that is good comes without a cost. What will that cost look like for those who commit to walk the arduous journey toward racial justice? Time. Resources. Comfort. Friendships. Family. Peace. Safety. Life. Convenience. While the specifics of this look different for every person, we should not be naive of the fact that justice isn’t cheap. And as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, ‘What has cost God much cannot be cheap for us.”
Now this may make some who prefer things to come relatively easy to feel uncomfortable. But just think, African Americans have never had it easy. 400 years of exploitation and captivity ain’t easy. Jim Crow lynching and segregation laws ain’t easy. Dilapidated housing ain’t easy. Unemployment ain’t easy. Being locked up ain’t easy. Dying needlessly in this streets ain’t easy. And neither is dying on a lonely cross, allowing oneself to be subjected to the treatment wrought on the marginalized and despised in society. But this is what following Christ is all about: taking up one’s cross daily, daring to risk it all for the salvation of the world.
*This post is the second in a 2-part series. Click here to read the first.