By Forrest E. Harris, Sr., President of American Baptist College
Nashville, TN (TN Tribune)-The Reverend Melvina Blanch, an associate minister at Nashville’s Fifteenth Avenue Baptist Church preached a sermon admonishes the church to “Remember Your Identity.” There is nothing I can imagine today more urgent as this for Black people in America.
We remember Martin Luther King, Jr.’s infamous words spoken in Memphis at Mason Temple the night before his murder. “I may not get there with you, but one day we will get to the Promised Land.” King’s words came like a sudden epiphany, rushing in upon the crowd who heard him that night. It was a stormy night, mounting fears, violence, and threats of death, but at that moment, a joyous theophany, an expression of God, burst through the despair. “I am not fearing any man; my eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” It was a profound moment of joy and strength lifting King and the people on the other side of despair and fear. In their struggle for justice, at the height of the movement, King knew he and the people were rooted in a relationship with God, giving them the power to triumph over evil.
Black history month is a time for us to reclaim the human relationship, joy, and strength of Black people’s identity. It celebrates overcoming grief and tragedy and triumphs through the power of God. We’ve seen many descriptions, labels, or markers of our identity. From a chattel slave, Negro, African American to Black and Beautiful, and everything positive and negative in between. We have self-amended the positive and negated the negative. I choose to see our Blackness in God, Blackness wrapped in divinity. Blackness is far more than a consciousness of skin color. It involves a new definition of self, a different self-understanding, and a common sense of worth in the image of God that belongs to everybody. We cannot afford to leave it up for others to educate our children about their identity. Living into, teaching, and honoring the history of Black folk’s long march to freedom, struggles, and walk with God is stewardship that belongs to us.
What I have said thus far is a pretext for connecting the Nehemiah text read in your hearing to understand the meaning of history as related to God in our history. It lifts the importance of reading and paying homage to the sacred texts of our history. It informs, transforms, renews our minds to reclaim, and melds together our life journey with our ancestor’s spirit and walk with God.
Ezra, a young Levite scribe, determined in his heart to study the law of the Lord, obey it, and teach it to Israel. Ezra was not among the original group to return to Jerusalem from exile. When he finally arrived, Ezra saw the people’s difficulty in adjusting their life to a new beginning. He saw fear compromising the people’s faith in a future with God, chaos ruling over possibilities, beliefs about who they tore them in shambles. They thought intermarriage with foreigners was the reason for their Babylonian exile. But to the contrary accepting cultural deities as competitors for loyalty to God sent them into exile. They needed to reconnect their history to who they’ve been with who God was calling them to become. Because the sacred laws of Moses had not been read for a long time during the exile, reflecting and repurposing their life with the sacred texts had not occurred. Standing on an elevated platform, before the assembly of the people, Ezra opens the book of the laws of Moses reads it to all who would listen. Hearing the sacred book gave the people a kind of epiphany, a sudden moment of clarity about themselves. Seeing the gap between the texts and their lives, who they were, and striving to become different people brought surface grief and weeping. Falling short of the vision, they were overwhelmed with grief. Ezra said to the people after publicly reading to them the sacred texts of Moses, “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
It is worth spending extra time understanding the people’s grief and the reason for Ezra extolling them to have joy and strength of the Lord. Instead of letting the people stay in the perils of despair, fear, and guilt, Ezra sees the joy and power they need to go forward. It’s tough to climb the mountain of high purpose to change without spiritual insight to align life with the character of God.
There is a lot of grief, joy, and strength in Black history. All of that history is more than the “I Have a Dream” speech of Martin Luther King. King’s other books – Strides Toward Freedom, Strength to Love, Why We Can’t-Wait, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? They ought to be read among the multiple sacred texts and works of Black History by Black women. From Septima Clark’s “Ready from Within,” Mary Church Terrell’s “Unceasing Militant,” Ida B. Wells Barnett’s Crusade for Justice, Audre Lorde ‘s “Our Dead Behind Us,” to Zora Neal Hurston’s, “There Eyes were Watching God.” Our children need inspiration and empowerment from these texts for overruling the oppression around them. We ought to be cautious about specific civic approaches and religious attempts to mask who we are. Lifting ourselves out of the rut of social anxiety depends on who and what we read to know our history. We need re-centering in our faith heritage that liberates and sets another generation free.
The Black church ought to lead the way celebrating the writings legacies of Black matriarchs and patriarchs, educating to liberate the mind and spirit of the next generation. Our children ought to grow up knowing the God to whom our ancestors prayed from the bowels of slave ships. The God they encountered on plantations, brush harbors, the God who brought us all the way to freedom through them.
Today, a new form of white privilege and censorship is emerging. It involves banning books, canceling courses and classes, and curbing public dialogue on the history of race in America. The effort is to shield whites and their children from any opinion or historical fact that might “disturb or hurt their feelings.” The irony of such feelings is that Black children were traumatized when Bull Connor turned water hoses were on them in Birmingham. Now it’s deemed too much trauma for privileged white children to read what happened to children. Any of you who have gone to a public school to read to children know you could not read, for example, John Lewis’ cartoon version of the “March.” Nor read from Toni Morrison’s novels. Books of Black novelists, poets, truth storytellers are taken off the shelves of school libraries. They are disturbing or inappropriate for children. Or is it more so, preserving false claims of white innocence and privilege is more important than children learning the essential lessons of history.
But the Black church, especially during Black history month, if not a year-long reading marathon, should go to the sacred archives of the black struggle. And, like the ancient Scribe Ezra, pull sacred text off the shelves that tell the stories of our grief and joy. That speaks of the resilient undaunting determination, dogged strength, steady beat, faith of black ancestors, matriarchs, and patriarchs. We ought to make them part of our Sunday School, Bible Study curriculum, book clubs. If we are not attentive and careful, the sacred text of Black history may become the victim of a revisionist whitewashing of the facts of history. It is already happening with rapid speed in State legislatures across the country. The choice of textbooks and the way history is taught are part of the ‘hidden curriculum and agenda of politics‘ to preserve a willful ignorance, authority, cultural norm of the status quo.
We see it in the way politicians reference the words of Martin Luther King. “I have a dream that one day that my four little children will live in a nation where they will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.” Educators and politicians, including ‘MAGA’ followers and shamefully some uncritical Black followers, are mouthing King’s words. But refuse to see that his words were a passionate moral response to end racism against the future of Black children. Our children need to know the path Black ancestors blazed for us; we need to help them understand how to read the Bible through the lens of Black history.
Do not grieve, Ezra told the people. The joy of the Lord is your strength. Indeed, there is a lot of grief and joy in Black history. From the brutal years of slavery, plantation labor, Jim Crow segregation to the brutal murder of Emmett Till to George Floyd and Brenna Taylor to the joy and successes of Sidney Poitier, who recently passed on, Barack Obama and most recent Amanda Gorman, the 2021 Inaugural Poet. The carry-over grief and trauma of our history greet us every day. We grope after healing, wholeness, security, and safety to meet our needs. It is why we mostly read the Bible for devotional, spiritual comfort, and confidence as we should read the Bible. “The Lord is my shepherd, and I shall want;” gives confidence in God’s grace from the cradle to the grave. When life’s vicissitudes squeeze life into dark corners, “The Lord is my light, and my salvation, whom shall I fear” helps our faith stand up more substantial in the mighty fortress of our God.
But when we look squarely in the face of unending concrete realities and dangers of Blackness in America, gaps appear between what the Bible mandates and say to us about ourselves in a nation with a history of denying, standing against our very humanity. Devotional reading of the Bible needs to shift to seeing Bible as a liberating instrument, pointing us to a God who liberates, a God who loves justice, and does not separate the needs of the body over the soul. A God that stands against the Pharaohs of the world. A merciful God for the least and the poor in the world. It is an assault on our sensitivity when conservative evangelical Christians read with delight Jesus’ words, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” But refuse to walk in the way of Jesus. They disengage Jesus’ compassion in their economics and politics. It is the way of the Joel Olsten-type religious popular reading of the Bible. They will say, “I love you, and you can’t do anything about it.” Then after Sunday, they go out on Monday, disenfranchising the least of society in their social action and political decisions. Cheap grace grieves God as it should also grieve us.
We remember enslavers on the plantation how they read select Bible passages to maintain control over enslaved people. The grandmother of Howard Thurman told him if she ever got freedom to learn to read, she would not read or want to hear preaching from the letters of Paul, especially Ephesians 6:5-6. “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ. Obey them not only to win their favor when their eye is on you but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” People still read the Bible this way teach doctrine that maintains the power of racism and sexism even in the church. There is great grief and sadness of racism in American Christianity. A foreign tourist visiting Washington after January 6, 2021, the insurrection left a sign for the Christians who were part of fermenting the insurrection. “God, deliver me from American Christians who follow you.” Racism is a long-time corruption of Christianity.
But when we look at the history of our walk with God, look at the dead places of justice, we watch this nation strangle almost to death godly righteousness. When people to have dignity in death than dignity in life, we feel the fear of a panic-stricken world today. In our struggle, we feel the hunger of the hungry, sickness of the sick, the homeless, and prisoners’ plight wishing for the strength to respond with all our hearts.
So, we ought to have greater understanding of the people’s first response after Ezra read the sacred text of Moses to them. Before we critique them, let us look at how we read the Bible on the one hand and read our history on the other hand. On one occasion, Gardner Taylor, a preacher of our gospel heritage now gone from us. “Sometimes we must come out of the world into the Bible, and other times we must come out of the Bible into the world.”
Whether we realize it or not, we live on a modern political plantation. A modern plantation that wants to control what our children read legislating them into an identity crisis. Setting the tone for their actions, motivations, impulses that recalibrate their thoughts and social outcomes. They are pouring our children into a white American mold to shape them in their view of the world how they see reality. They will celebrate Black history accomplishments, the first African American to do this or that such that Kamala Harris, the first Black and female Vice President is celebrated to camouflage systems that hold back the black masses.
Who are these Christians? They read the Bible. They are the same people who want to ban any references to Critical Race Theory or the 1619 Project. They are the same people who advocate preserving the Confederate philosophy and racist heritage of Robert E. Lee. But talking about the 246 years of legalized slavery in this country that Robert E. Lee fought to preserve and perpetuate is deemed divisive and disturbing.
“And what about the children?” We cannot be satisfied with telling our children they are as good as anyone else. Our children have already shown the world that they are not inferior, good enough to compete on every field of life. We have taught them they must not allow others to do for them what they can do for themselves. We have taught them that honest work is a source of dignity. Concern and respect for others reflect the same they should have for themselves. Standing on their own two feet is better than immature co-dependency on someone weaker than them.
But the one thing, the most important of all, for the height and length of their life’s journey, have we taught them that the joy of the Lord, rejoicing in the Lord is their strength? Have we taught them that joy and power come from relying on God’s high purpose that lifts them to new vision, possibilities, and witness in the world? Have we told them the worst things history has done to Black people; still, they presence keeps showing up on the other side of pain and suffering? There is joy showing up on the other side of centuries of slavery, joy on the other side of lynching, Jim Crow codes, prisons, and violence against black bodies.
Is it joy in or the joy of the Lord that gives us strength? I venture to say it is both. Joy comes out of grief and struggle, joy in the battle for righteous causes, the joy of overcoming suffering gives strength. The joy of the Lord reflects awareness of who God is, God’s faithfulness. Joy demonstrates dedication and response to God. Joy in the Lord acknowledges God in all the ways of being and doing.
While developing thoughts for this sermon, a beloved brother and friend, the Reverend Dr. Marvin McMickle, former president of New York Colgate Rochester Divinity School and now retired Pastor Emeritus of the Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, Ohio, sent me an electronic link to a New York Times article. The article written by Amanda Gorman describes her experience as the 2021 Inaugural poet for President Biden. In a similar fashion to Ezra, standing up on the elevated platform on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, she read her Inaugural Poem, “The Hill we Climb.” She almost declines to read it because of terror threats, to the point that close relatives suggest she wear a bulletproof vest. I beg your patience to read poignant snippets of the article.
The truth is I almost declined to be the inaugural poet. Why? I was terrified. I was scared of failing my people, my poetry. But I was also terrified on a physical level. Covid was still raging, and my age group couldn’t get vaccinated yet. Just a few weeks before, domestic terrorists assaulted the U.S. Capitol on the exact steps where I would recite. I would become highly visible — which is very dangerous in America, especially if you’re Black and outspoken and have no Secret Service. My mom had us crouch in our living room so that she could practice shielding my body from bullets. A loved one warned me to “be ready to die” if I went to the Capitol, telling me, “It’s just not worth it.” I had insomnia and nightmares barely ate or drank for days. I finally wrote to some close friends and family, telling them that I would most likely pull out of the ceremony.
Then this 23-year-old poet had an epiphany. I got some texts praising the Lord. It struck me: Maybe being brave enough doesn’t mean lessening my fear but listening to it. What stood out most of all was the worry that I’d spend the rest of my life wondering what this poem could have achieved. There was only one way to find out.
She says Terror is trying to tell us of a force far greater than despair. I look at fear not as cowardice but as a call forward, a summons to fight for what we hold dear. If you’re alive, you’re afraid. If you’re not afraid, then you’re not paying attention. The only thing we have to fear is having no fear itself — having no feeling on behalf of whom and what we’ve lost, whom and what we love.
Beyond my fear were all those searching beyond their own fears to find space for [joy] in their lives, who welcomed the [strength] of a poem into protests, hospitals, classrooms, conversations, living rooms, offices, art, and all manner of moments. Then she writes what ought to be an encouraging epiphany for us.
This past year has felt like a return to the same old gloom for many. Our nation is still haunted by disease, inequality, and environmental crises. But though our fears may be the same, we are not. Even as we’ve grieved, we’ve grown; even fatigued, we’ve found that this hill we climb is one we must mount together. We are battered but bolder, worn but wiser. I’m not telling you too not to be tired or afraid. If anything, the very fact that we’re weary means we are, by definition, changed. This time will be different because this time we’ll be different.
Fear can be love trying its best in the dark. Own it. Free it. This isn’t a liberation that I or anyone can give you — it’s a power you must locate for yourself. Hope isn’t a promise we give. It’s a promise we live.
Our history, its joy and strength in the Lord is something we live. This is the message of Ezra. The Lord centers joy and strength in us from day to day. It takes us through a history of silent tears on our way until we reach Zion. The hope of history isn’t a promise we give. It’s a history and promise we live. We can go from strength to strength in the joy of the Lord, following the path and blood of the slaughtered. Out of a gloomy dark past, we stand at last in the bright where the white gleam of our bright star is cast. As the poet Amanda Gorman says, “there is always light if only we’re brave enough to see it, if only we’re brave enough to be it.”
Jesus was brave enough to see it and brave enough to be it. That is why the writer of Hebrews 12:2 encourages us to ‘fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer, and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Thank God, Jesus was not a prisoner of his culture. The empire created a culture of suffering and grief, but his culture could not handle his joy. The grave could not handle God’s strength and power in Jesus. Jesus turns grief to joy, powerlessness to strength, death to life, a grave to resurrection, the cross to a crown of righteousness. Our joy and strength come from Jesus who told us that in the world we shall have trials and tribulations but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.