With the exception of “WWJD” bracelets, there are few times when outward physical appearance reveals Jesus followers in the public square. Other religions often require their faithful to move through the mundane activities of life outwardly proclaiming the core of their faith. For the traditional Hindi it is the saree or the sherwani. For the Muslim it may be the kurta or hijab; for the traditional Jew the yamaka or headscarf. Every day around the world these men and women move through life, often in cultures unlike their own — marked.
Once a year the global body of Christ reveals itself to the world en masse. Foreheads marked with ashes, the global church moves through the first day of Lent with the sign of the cross in plain view for all to see. In the midst of the mundane, those ashes blend with sweat and soot and reveal to the world just who is a follower of Jesus in their midst.
It is a profound feeling to move through the streets of Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, Cincinnati, or Huntsville, Ala., with your deepest beliefs marked on your forehead.
The Lenten mark of the cross, in tangible form, brings the church into solidarity with Jesus’ 40-day struggle in the wilderness — the place of desolation, the place of waiting and wandering, temptation, and confrontation with the limitations of our human-ness.
As I write this post, I am moved by the reality that we are now in the midst of Black History Month. And, in a sense, my forebears walked through this world marked with proverbial ash on their foreheads as they confronted the fear, hatred, and pride-filled self-superiority of the foreign world in which they lived — the Jim Crow South.
Our African-American forebears were brought to this foreign world in chains. They were deemed less than human by law. Their bodies were controlled like livestock in a barn — with as much care given and dignity bestowed as was granted a broom, a mop, or a hammer. They were property. Period.
And yet, in the midst of a world that sought to destroy every inkling of their dignity, they lived and loved and theologized. In the midst of the total subjugation of the empire of King Cotton, with most unable to read or write, enslaved black people connected with the Scripture and rooted themselves in the theology of the exodus — linking the power of the cross and resurrection to the power of God to free God’s people from 500 years of captivity.
It was too dangerous for these ancestors to wear their exodus faith on their foreheads. Revelation would mean certain death. So they masked their faith and wielded it to subvert the powers by singing songs of “Heben” and chariots comin’ for to take them home to Freedom Land (i.e., the north). Subversive faith yielded exodus, freedom — and brutal backlash: Jim Crow.
There were periodic public revelations of personal faith in the midst of the brutality of Jim Crow segregation. On land that ran red and brown with the blood and excrement of black men, women, and boys strung up to dangle like ornaments from trees, a web of laws, structures, and unspoken customs terrorized black bodies into subjugation. Death could come any at any moment, just for looking a white lady in the eye or offering the slightest challenge to a white man who wrongfully accused them of stealing a piece of fruit. Yet, A. Phillip Randolph organized the sleeping car porters and Thurgood Marshall challenged the dreaded 1857 Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which declared, whether enslaved or free, blacks were not American citizens and therefore were not protected by the law. The Little Rock Nine wore their faith on their proverbial foreheads as they marched together through jeering crowds and felt spit land on their eyes, noses, and mouths — as they were called animals and niggers and threats were made against their lives. Heads high they held tight to their inherent dignity — dignity born of one indisputable fact: They were equal. They, too, were made in the image of God. They, too, were created and commanded to exercise dominion.
And so in a land where individuals might be strung up for lone declarations of dignity, they walked and marched and sang together. And they fought the temptation to lash back and grasp at power in human ways. They challenged the powers of this present darkness with the weapons of nonviolence rooted in love. And so, in their protest they were marked with the ashes of Christ’s cross. And the world knew they were Christians because of their love.
I am writing this article while riding in a bus over sacred ground. I am on speaking tour with The Voices Project, a collective of Black evangelicals touring Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) with a single message — ReConnect. It is time to reconnect with God, with the vision and goals of our ancestors, with our families and with God’s purposes for this generation in our world. It is time for this generation to mark themselves with the ashes of the Cross — to wake up, receive God’s healing and wield the power of their faith to challenge the manifestations of evil in this present darkness.
On rich red soil, deep in the heart of the confederacy, The ReConnect Tour is calling black students to believe another world is possible, to have hope enough to call on God for the healing they need after generations of subjugation and brokenness, the healing they need after the grand win of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and its hobbling in 2013, after the release from slavery in 1865 and Jim Crow in 1964 only to be driven into jails and prisons like herds under the reign of the new Jim Crow — mass incarceration.
As Ash Wednesday approaches and Black History Month becomes a memory, may we exercise the kind of public faith of our nation’s African-American forebears who stood in solidarity with Jesus; leveraging their power to love, they toppled the manifestations of evil in their times.
Marked with ashes in 2014, may we bear our cross with as much dignity and grace.
Lisa Sharon Harper is senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners and the author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican…or Democrat .
This post was featured in Sojourners' monthly Faith in Action newsletter, which you can join by clicking here.
Image: Ash Wednesday illustration, Ansis Klucis / Shutterstock.com