The problems feed our natural inclinations to despair.

For christian blacks in America, our past should make us pause for reflection. Since the days of our slavery, the story of Moses leading Israel out of bondage in Egypt has been an inspiration and a focus of teaching in black churches. But that story did not end with the Exodus. After leading them through the wilderness, Moses brought the Israelites to the edge of the Promised Land. Taking his last opportunity to prepare them for the future, he reminded them of the covenant God had made with them. He rehearsed the blessings promised if they kept the covenant and the curses if they disobeyed.

The succeeding centuries of Hebrew history reveal a continual cycle of blessing and curse, of Israel’s keeping and breaking of their solemn promise.

Looking back over the history of black people in America, I see a continuous struggle for liberation. The curse of slavery, though broken to some extent by the Civil War, has not been fully removed. Freedom’s benefits have not always been fully realized. The blessing of freedom was marred after the Civil War by injustice and segregation. Not until the civil-rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was the road to progress paved with more than slogans and tokenisms.

The role of the church throughout this straggle for black liberation has been paramount. Though certainly not everyone and everything in the civil-rights movement was Christian, a core of both black and nonblack Christians helped prepare the way for new benefits. Among them, unemployment and poverty were attacked; many blacks gained new hope of a better life; to a degree, they achieved equal access to education, voting, employment, and housing; self-esteem among young blacks began to grow as they recognized that “black is beautiful” in the same way that Caucasian, Oriental, American Indian, or Latino is beautiful; the discovery of black power brought economic and political changes.

A sense of brotherhood, both within the black community and beyond it, began to emerge. Christians had a platform from which to mandate righteousness. With emerging black consciousness came a new agenda for American society, bringing new standards of justice, compassion, righteousness, and fair play. God’s blessings were no longer limited to a majority race. And opportunities for other minorities increased. Growth of pride in one’s ethnic heritage accompanied the increased sense of self-worth experienced in numerous ethnic groups.

Black Christians can look back on the last 20 years with some satisfaction at the accomplishments wrought and the constructive processes set in motion. With devastating swiftness, however, came the “curses” that weakened the blessings: the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the disgrace of Vietnam, the collapse of confidence in social institutions and governmental leadership, culminating in Watergate.

Now black Americans, including black evangelicals, find themselves “cursed in the city and cursed in the country.” We are no longer leading the culture: no longer are we asking the important questions or raising the important issues. Why is our call for justice and righteousness so weak that it no longer seems to command the attention and the respect of Americans? Let me suggest some reasons.

Not only is there a lack of strong leadership within the black community, but in the nation as a whole the awareness of unity and common purpose has diminished. Concern for, and commitment to, the welfare of all ethnic groups has been eclipsed by the pursuit of pleasure and instant gratification. Economic gains have been diluted by the faltering of the entire economy, while the poorest among us suffer the most. The welfare system has itself been beset by a lack of moral consistency and direction. Many local governments are facing budgetary problems that threaten services essential to life for the city poor. In addition, the quality of public education continues to deteriorate.

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The problems feed our natural inclinations to despair. Even black Christians, along with much of American Christendom, have succumbed to the lure of self-interest and a kind of decadent individualism. Instead of being leaders of a new humanity centered in the lordship of Christ, we have become followers of “other gods” spawned of the “me generation.” which is how we have broken the freedom “covenant.” We have followed gods of our own design, reflections of our own narcissistic impulses. Instead of acting on God’s behalf for the benefit of others, we have pursued our own interests.

As I observe this current stream of events. I am grieved by the rate of black-on-black crime and by the abuse of drugs and alcohol. I am angered by how much of the merchandising of drugs in the black community is done to blacks by other blacks. Such a waste of human resources cries out for someone to take responsibility for one of the most destructive blights on all young Americans.

The question, to use the Old Testament analogy, is: Have the covenant curses so completely negated the blessings that only Band-Aid solutions can be sought? There are critical social needs in the black community, and when the moral and spiritual vacuum of society in general are added to these, the result is either a hopeless despair or a naive nostalgia. As a Christian, I believe our blessings can be restored. The challenges of the future can be met; despair and nostalgia are not the only alternatives. Recovery is possible if black Christians will set the example in giving themselves for each other and for the whole of society. If we are to be effective, we must identify the critical pressure points, and then creatively and honestly develop new strategies, while preserving the enduring principles of faith and justice. To do otherwise is to become slaves to the past—either by clinging to it or reacting to it. Five basic problem areas must be confronted if we are to see a revival of God’s blessings.

First, as Christians, we must place Jesus Christ at the center of the problem-solving process. True liberation from both personal and social problems can come only as we meet the future with Christ’s power helping us. We need to establish biblical and not merely societal values. In the face of moral bankruptcy and pseudo-Christian respectability, we must make Jesus the model of a new value system. Instead of the common “What’s in it for me?” standard of self-fulfillment, we must raise the banner of loving obedience to God and commitment to one another. We have paid a terrible price in broken marriages, scarred children, weak and divided churches, and impotent communities by placing personal fulfillment above commitment. We do not need new words about values; we do need people whose lives embody the values of Jesus: his greatest act as the Man for others was the Cross. Christians must take the lead in reordering their priorities and in changing their lifestyles. They must seek the interests of others rather than their own.

Second, we must place a higher value on our families. Blacks have not paid enough attention to the quality of family life and we have therefore lost a sense of continuity from generation to generation. We must reaffirm our families as part of the divine priority system. Our families are a refuge against the hostility of an uncaring world, as well as the laboratory for developing lifestyles. Christians, in common with other people, have the problems of adultery, divorce, abortion, teen-age pregnancy, and breakdowns in communication. If black and nonblack Christians alike can demonstrate that their families hold together, they will gain a powerful platform from which to speak to all people. This is especially true for blacks, whose sense of uprootedness has militated against strong family ties.

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Third, we must regain educational losses. Crisis is the word for education today. Money is short, and inner-city blacks and other minority groups suffer most. More and more people are losing confidence in public education. There has been a dramatic abandonment of public education even among Christians, and as a consequence, poor blacks and other minorities are left in an educational void with no means to escape it. The private school has sometimes become a tool of segregation, rather than serving as a bastion of quality education. The church should be at the forefront of the battle for quality education for all children; Christians may have to develop alternative schools. Certainly they must work with public schools in areas of financial responsibility, curriculum development, and parental involvement.

We must not fall into the trap of providing education for any one particular group in a way that leaves other children to a decaying public school system; to do so would be completely irresponsible. Whatever alternatives we provide must be available to all, not just to those who can afford them or to those who attend our churches.

Fourth, we need to establish and maintain economic priorities. Black Christians, along with the rest of Christendom, must work out on the economic front the implications of Jesus’ value system. Blacks have long known deprivation; they have also learned creative survival. We need to demonstrate now that we are not interested in our own welfare only: we must care for everyone’s economic well-being, particularly those least able to provide for themselves. We must live sacrificially for the benefit of all so we can show that all our resources come from God. The blessing of God on his people will become more evident, not because we are richer than others, but because by careful stewardship and mutual concern we can meet the needs of others, even in hard times.

The fifth and final problem area is the one upon which all the others hang: We must preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in all its power and truth. Black churches must experience a renewal of an integrity of the gospel that does not water down the biblical Jesus. While there is some truth to the comment by Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. “We see no distinction between the social and personal gospel,” the message of salvation in the gospel has all too often been diluted. The gospel is the motivation and power behind our confrontations with the issues of our day.

Even our greatest efforts to solve some of our problems are vain without the power of Jesus Christ working through us. It is only through his power that we can anticipate the restoration of covenant blessings. Through him injustice and moral bankruptcy can be transformed. The Lord Jesus Christ came to give us a new covenant. If we believe him and follow in his covenant, the blessings of true liberation can be ours.

Mother Earth, Daughter Spring

Eyes bright, she encored lullabies

at midnight with smiles and dove-soft coos.

I was her earth. She was my springtime.

Our minutes savoured into hours that hovered

over days that gilded long. It seemed

the seasons of her growth were almost endless.

Then years changed gears

and set our clock high-speed.

New skills became her old skills; and as freckles

came and faded, her childish fancies gave way

to grown-girl dreams.

I knew springtime

wouldn’t last forever. Though a gift, I understood

she was a loan. But, how has twenty years

passed by so quickly? And once so trained

to nurture, how do I step from strenuous caring

into hours that bauble with free time?

Oh, Love, bring new life to my spirit.

Let me rest at breast of heaven-care.

You are my gentle-strength, my source of life,

eternal. Keep me yearning, ever learning.

Never wean me. You are my “earth.”

I am your spring.

VIVIAN STEWART

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