I WAS RAISED in an African-American church, but as an adult I discovered Anabaptism. Since then I’ve sought to learn from both the wider black church and Anabaptist traditions, to the point that I now consider myself an “Anablacktivist.”
Two experiences at my undergraduate Christian college helped propel me to see the significance of these two Christian streams. The first time was a chapel service, maybe a year after 9/11. The speaker, the Catholic priest John Dear, challenged us about U.S. violence and militarism—arguing that these weren’t consistent with the life and teachings of Jesus. I leaned forward in agreement, captivated by his message, feeling that it rang true and faithful to Jesus.
Then I noticed some movement in the darkened auditorium. Droves of students disruptively got up from their chairs and headed straight for the exits, in protest of the speaker and his “subversive” message that refused to affirm everything that the U.S. was doing in the world. I found myself deeply troubled by the defensive response of my (mostly white) Christian brothers and sisters to Dear’s thoroughly Jesus-shaped critiques of U.S. empire.
The second time was at a smaller “multicultural chapel service,” with just a few white peers present. The speaker spoke of U.S. history and present reality. He directly named white supremacy, racism as a system, and the experiences of black and brown people in the U.S. Once again I leaned forward, not wanting to miss a phrase. And again I watched many of the white students walk out.
As a follower of Christ, our speaker challenged us to live differently because of our faith in Jesus Christ. Yet something inherent in my peers’ socialization had them clinging more to their white identity than to the Christian challenge. These two chapel experiences helped me contemplate the depth of the church’s troubles in the U.S. and its insubstantial Christian formation.
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For many pundits and observers, last week’s election proved that a “new normal” has emerged in America: record numbers of women and ethnic minorities were voted into the House and the Senate, and the House will also see its first Hindu representative in January. Voters in Maine and Maryland approved same-sex marriage, and a diverse coalition of social minorities came together to re-elect the nation's first black president.
But for black theologians, the election has also been an occasion to reflect on how the black church faces an identity crisis, losing track of its mission to lead the way in issues of justice and liberation.
“Something happened to the black church after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968,” said Dr. Gayraud Wilmore, one of the founders of black theology, adding that when King died, it seemed that in black congregations, the enthusiasm for black history and racial identity also died.
And for Wilmore, the last 44 years — even the election and re-election of a black president — have done little to abate this crisis.