Why History Matters to the Black Christian

Today, Independence Day, Christian rapper Lecrae dropped some visual knowledge on Twitter that garnered new respect for him from me, but also set the Twitterverse aflame. The image: a depiction of Black persons working in a field with the caption: “My family on July 4th, 1776.”

Now, I have included a screenshot of the tweet below, but that is not really the point of this piece. The replies to Lecrae clearly began immediately after its posting, and they mostly came from his white fans whose feathers had been ruffled by the implications of his post. If you know me, you will quickly understand why this was not surprising to me, but made me extremely angry. How is it that a Black, Christian rap artist with cross-cultural appeal suddenly has an undeserved fire on his hands? What was so different about his post than those of any other “woke” person whose 140 characters might have come across their Twitter feed that day? In the end, I finally came to understand why this was such a big deal: these folks actually feel betrayed. And for white privilege in America, it was the worst kind of betrayal—the one perpetrated by the one Black they have decided is worthy of their attention, but mostly their money. The entire situation plays out as a disgusting display of prideful and willful ignorance about the realities of American history and the plight of the Negro within its borders.

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Lecrae did nothing new with the picture, but he managed to betray the system which had provided much of his success. In other words, the white Christians who have decided that Lecrae’s gift is both Christian enough and worthy of their attention feel like their Black rapper has been polluted by the shenanigans of the rest of his race—especially the ones who wear the collar and stand in the pulpit and the streets.

Now for a moment of transparency: I have always found Lecrae’s popularity amongst white Christians unsettling. How is it that folks who will covertly and overtly despise the very race he represents flock to a concert by a Black rapper? We all know that white men of a particular age group are some of the largest consumers of rap and hip hop, but that is often a subset to the crossover appeal of Black music to white audiences. While I have heard more renditions of Richard Smallwood’s “Total Praise” in majority white worship environments in recent years, I am still amazed at how little of gospel music is known outside of the Black church. If you pick up any newer hymnal published by a mainline denomination, you will often find a song or two by Andrae Crouch or Richard Smallwood, but anything else that is even remotely related to Black culture will come directly from Africa. It is a blessing that the music of African Christians have made it into mainline hymnals, but what of the rich history of Black music in America? Worship styles aside, the racial divide in Christian worship is real, but when the balance is shifted and then upset, we end up with situations like the one Lecrae is facing now.

All of this started over a picture which made the simple declaration that the Declaration of Independence only made some people free, not all. What am I getting at? History matters immensely to Black Christians. History matters even more to us in this particularly volatile racial climate, as we must again take stock of what we have lost, examine what we have gained, and to appreciate what we have created from the scraps of them both.

I have no problem saying that I am a member of a historically Black denomination. I take deep pride in that. Why does that matter? It is simple: my theology is shaped, not only by my experiences with God, but with my community’s history with God. Black Christianity is not, at its core, most deeply shaped by singular experiences, but by the experiences of the whole Black body of believers, as we seek liberation through God in a land of bondage. That is why, in my opinion, Black Christianity and Evangelicalism are incompatible.

The salvation of the Black soul can not be reduced to a moment or a simple prayer requesting that Jesus save you. Individual salvation comes with the soul liberation of the whole community. Charles Finney, in the heat of American revivalism, gave the seeker easier access to Jesus by removing the seeming barriers that Christian community brings to finding salvation. For Finney, that’s fine; but for Black folks, that theology requires far more privilege and self-righteousness than we have ever had or dare to claim. An altar call is the last thing we need to be doing every Sunday if all we are going to preach is prosperity coupled with damnation and faith shaming. The liberation of one must come through the liberating work of God in the whole community.

The struggle of the Black community can be seen and heard in the budding of Black denominations in American history. The injustices that made Richard Allen walk out and found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, are not only still alive, but clearly evident in the responses Lecrae received. The front of the church was too good for Allen and the other Black Methodists, so they were restricted to the back, and eventually, only to the balcony. The same story comes to light in Birmingham, Alabama when an AME sister named Rosa Parks refused to take her place in the back of the bus. Today, @Hevi_On-Honkers tells Lecrae: “Done supporting you bro. You make everything a race issues lately instead of a gospel issue. You promote guilt instead of love.” So, because Lecrae used his platform to remind a forgetful public of its dirty history, he loses your support?

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First of all—Boy, bye. I ain’t sorry.

Second: He attempted to force Lecrae to soften his voice and to play nice with white supremacy. Lecrae brings the ultimate clapback, drawing from the Twitter feed of the very same person the image below.

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History shows us that white America has still not taken full responsibility for their role in the perpetuation the systems created by their ancestors. You can go and read the replies on the tweet, but what you will find are many folks out of sorts because Lecrae has taken claim to his Christianity and his Blackness. There are so many replies which imply that Lecrae and other Black Americans are out of line because we are Christians and our demands for equality are signs of us choosing not to forgive. Let me be clear in this moment: there is absolutely nothing you can say or do to make any statement of the sort true or appropriate. We do not whine to be heard. The complaints of white America that Black Americans are lazy, unmotivated, and naturally violent is what whining sounds like. The whines of whiteness have echoed throughout American history through the mouthpieces of the movement: George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Jefferson Davis, Pat McCrory, Donald Trump, Jan Brewer, Sarah Palin, @Hevi_On_Honkers, the Southern Baptist Convention, the United Methodist Church, and the list could go on and on. We do not whine, we wail. We have been robbed, killed, used for our intellectual prowess, enslaved for pay and without, and we have had enough. We’re wailing because it simply does not stop.

Lecrae demonstrates that our wails are not only in despair. Our wails carry the mantle of the prophetic. History matters to the Black Christian because our theology, our homiletic, our hermeneutic, they are all shaped by the call to be a prophetic voice in a land filled with injustice. We cannot ignore American history and expect to be liberated by the call of some to follow Christ’s example and simply forgive. No. And again—no. Jesus, while a meek child for a little while, managed to turn over the tables of injustice within his father’s house. This is not simply about how one reads scripture, but coming to terms with the fact that Jesus did not go into the temple to set off the religious leaders, but he was correcting a wrong. Jesus’ narrative of love was selfless, but it was not made of carpet. Jesus’ teachings on love and forgiveness cannot be read independently of his narrative of justice and the correction of the wrongs against those oppressed. In the same way, Black Christians cannot be made to separate their Blackness from their Christian identity. Everything was working well for Lecrae until his voice became too much for for his fanbase.

History matters to the Black Christian on a day like today, because so much of our communal history has been unpacked in the sanctuaries and classrooms of the churches we once deemed safe spaces. A bomb killing four young women in Birmingham in 1963 at 16th Street Baptist Church is no different to us than the shooting of nine people in Charleston in 2015 at Mother Emanuel. History will repeat itself if we are not the prophetic voices we need to be. It matters because, much like Frederick Douglass, we must ask what kind of mockery America is trying to make of us by asking us to celebrate such a day as this? What is the Fourth of July to the slave? What, then, is the Fourth of July to the Black Christian? The exchange on Twitter is simple evidence that we have not arrived. The whine for peace and reconciliation is matched with little action or decisive maneuvering on the part of those in the privileged class. It becomes evident day after day that the fight to be free is in our hands. If you are not with it, sit the hell down and move out of the way.

Again—what, then, is the Fourth of July to the Black Christian? Fredrick Douglass gives us a clue.

“What, to the American slave, is your Fourth of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is a constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes that would disgrace a nation of savages.”

History matters because it is our greatest teacher and motivator. It shows us that our faith is not in vain, but has been tested and tried everyday. What can we say about today? We tried America and it continues to fail us, but we try God and God’s faithfulness has not failed us yet. We make it through season after season of impossible situations—faced with poverty and deplorable living conditions—but we have made it this far, and we surely cannot turn back now. History matters because we are history.

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