In the black church, soul is not a philosophical category; it is the total response of the person to God.

I grew up in an interracial church alongside white folks who had chosen to remain in the church even though the neighborhood was changing. In our congregation, African Americans were the majority. But we learned to do what blacks and whites in most churches have been unable to do: love each other and live together in community.

This kind of church reflects the scriptural vision for bringing Christians of all races (and all denominational affiliations) together around a love for Christ. The foundation of such an integrated community of faith is a spirituality that draws upon both black and white traditions in order to move us closer to Christ.

Unfortunately, many Christians have never taken the time to learn from Christian communities outside their own. Black churches, white churches, Hispanic churches, and Asian-American churches usually keep to themselves. In my associations with Christian organizations, I have discovered that white Christians often do not take the views of black believers seriously. There is rarely any intentional or overt prejudice. But white Christians sometimes assume that black Christians are not theologically sophisticated because not many of them are trained scholars. But I appeal to white believers: Listen to the voices of African-American Christians as you progress on your spiritual journey. Learn about the “soul spirituality” of the black church. Only thus can we all move closer to God and to each other.

Soul Food

Within the black community, soul is a code word for many items and experiences: black cooking is often called “soul food”; certain music is branded “soul music”; and many blacks refer to one another (and some nonblacks) as “soul brothers” and “soul sisters.” There are even special soul handshakes.

Soul expresses the essence of the inner life. In the Bible, soul is the equivalent of life, the spiritual substance that can enter into a relationship with God. Many Christians try to be precise about their notion of the soul, making careful distinctions between the soul, spirit, mind, will, and emotions. But such microscopic divisions are not very helpful, for all of these concepts overlap in the Bible.

Unfortunately, Western evangelical culture tends to process experience more through the head than the heart. Before we can see something is valid, we need to understand it through our intellects. We criticize people who are predominantly feeling oriented; we suspect any experience that elicits a strong emotional response. Yet, in our relationships to God, both the intellect and the emotions are vital elements. The concept that connects the two is soul. That is why, in the black religious tradition, the soul is significant. There, soul is not a philosophical category; it is a deeply personal and reflective quality, embracing both intellect and emotion—a total response of the person to God.

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Soul spirituality is the act of brooding over one’s life and the world in God’s presence. Soul is moving into a rhythm with God, being sensitive to his heart, thinking his thoughts. The Bible says, “The Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God” (1 Cor. 2:10, NIV). As his people, we have received the Spirit. Soul becomes the movement of God’s Spirit in us.

Soul Worship

The black church is one of the most visible expressions of soul spirituality today. Your image of the black church may be a wild, enthusiastic worship service—a robed choir swaying, singing, and clapping in the background; an organ and a drum pounding out the beat; a preacher shouting a gospel message, with his audience joining in.

Your image is not all wrong. Many of the thousands of black churches in America are like that. Some are different, however, more like typical white churches—quiet, “reverent,” hushed.

When I preach in a black church, the people usually participate. I hear “Amen,” “Preach it,” and “That’s right.” I like to hear response. It helps me know that the people in the pew are entering into the message, listening, urging me on, helping with the proclamation of God’s Word. They are expressing soul.

The vocal response in the black service tells me about the congregation’s relationship with God. The amens are a response to God. They make the message into a vehicle for dialogue with the Lord. The worshipers are not just listening to a performance; they are entering fully into community worship.

Soul spirituality is open to the movement of God’s Spirit. African-American Christians do not think you can confine the Spirit to 60 minutes and make him follow a fixed order of worship. We enjoy as much music, testimony, and preaching as possible—all as a gift from God.

The Wellspring Of Soul

The soul that characterizes most black churches was formed in the crucible of oppression and suffering. The history of the black church in America is filled with courageous men and women who put their spirituality on the line in social conflict. Most of their stories are still untold in both black and white churches. Yet the history of these men and women is a rich source of direction in our spiritual journey.

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A visit to South Africa revealed to me the place of suffering in the development of soul. In 1980 I spent three weeks there, speaking to audiences of white and black students, and traveling throughout that beautiful but strife-torn land. But although I was a U.S. citizen, I was a black man in a segregated country. I was required to obtain a special pass as an “honorary white” in order to travel in areas of the country where blacks were forbidden.

Using that pass racked me with anguish. It was a constant reminder that because of my blackness I was considered inferior. The pain of this humiliation led me to identify more closely with the suffering millions of black South Africans who cope with the dehumanizing system of apartheid daily.

I was also compelled to reflect more deeply on the black experience in America. I discovered that the insights of black church leaders in South Africa spoke directly to our experience and struggles as black Christians in the United States. Even more important, I recognized that the perspectives of black theologians in South Africa and the United States were instrumental in the development of my concept of spirituality.

Soul, that total person intellectual and emotional response to God, is the by-product of suffering. It was so for the black church in America, which was forged in the flames of slavery and oppression when blacks clung desperately to God and to one another. And it is so today for the black Christians in South Africa who suffer under the inhumanity of apartheid. I have never heard soul expressed more clearly than in a ghetto church in Soweto as the believers sang rhythmically and lustily:

If you believe and I believe,

The Holy Spirit will fall on this place,

And Africa will be saved,

And Africa will be saved.

Clinging To God And Each Other

Black churches in America and South Africa don’t have a corner on soul because they don’t have a corner on suffering. Wherever oppression squeezes groups of Christians together—in Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe, South Africa, the United States, and elsewhere—the soul spirituality of wholehearted devotion and service can flourish. As a result, the suffering church can teach us a lot about the corporate side of spirituality. Community is the context for the development of the oppressed Christian’s spirituality.

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Many Christians have slipped into the error of thinking they can pursue spirituality on their own apart from the church. The suffering church reminds us that it cannot be done. The reason is simple: Jesus embodies himself in the world by means of a community. That is how he makes himself known to the world. The church is a visible sign that he is here. That is why the Lord’s Supper is essential for genuine spirituality. That is also the reason we need others to encourage us in the disciplines of the spiritual life.

Suffering churches have cultivated corporate spirituality partly out of necessity. For example, for blacks the church was the one institution in society where a black person was not dehumanized. He was treated with respect and honor in his church. Whatever his needs—whether they are physical, social, intellectual, or psychological—they could be addressed in the church. The model of community was forged out of oppressive conditions, and this model is tremendously relevant to all who seek genuine spirituality.

A Black Jesus?

In Farewell to Innocence, black South African theologian Allan Boesak makes this startling claim: “To confess Jesus Christ as the Black Messiah is the only true confession of our time.” Boesak does not mean that Jesus was literally a black man. The color of Jesus’ skin is irrelevant. But, according to Boesak, to acknowledge Jesus as black is to recognize him as the oppressed one who came to liberate the oppressed.

Because of the historical experience of black people, blackness is a symbol of oppression and liberation in many societies. Therefore, calling Jesus black is a way of stating a basic truth about his identity and his mission.

What does this mean if you are a white Christian? Must you become black? Literally, no, but symbolically, yes. In order to experience the soul that is derived from the suffering, you must identify with the people whose human dignity has been denied—such as African-American Christians, Vietnamese Christians, or Christians in Communist countries. Put yourself in the shoes of those who, says Boesak, “are trying to come to grips with a thousand dehumanizing facets of life.” Jesus did it. He became like these people. White Christians must find ways to do the same.

I am afraid this view of Jesus makes our relationship to him, in one sense, “political”—that is, having to do with the best interests of the human community. In many situations, we must take sides. We cannot remain neutral and uninvolved with the poor and suffering. If Jesus took their side, how can we do less? All forms of oppression should disturb us and cause our souls unrest. The disciplines of prayer and contemplation should be channeled toward freedom for those who suffer.

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Jesus quoted these Old Testament words to describe his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, therefore he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19, NIV).

Many Christians have trouble with this passage. Not sure they should take it literally, they prefer to spiritualize it, focusing more on internal attitudes than on the tangible facts of life. But suffering Christians take it literally as well as spiritually. They know that the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed are real people to Jesus, people to whom the Good News must be delivered. To say that Jesus was only referring to the spiritually poor, blind, imprisoned, and oppressed seems to them to treat the needy as less than human. Their suffering is a total experience—physical and spiritual, intellectual and emotional—and so is the gospel of Christ.

Black Christians who have known slavery, poverty, and oppression so intimately can appreciate the meaning of liberation far better than their white brothers and sisters. The liberation Jesus promises is a complete liberation. It shatters every bondage, including the bondage of the soul to selfishness and the chains of economic slavery. No wonder the black church was in the forefront of the antislavery and civil-rights movements. They had Jesus’ message of liberation, which transforms blacks and whites into people who love each other.

The suffering church has seen the glory of Christ. It has known him as the suffering servant, the man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief. But it has also found him to be God’s chosen one in whom his soul delights.

It is not hard to see why the black view of soul adds great depth to spirituality. The thought of entering into a rhythmic dialogue with God that absorbs everything about us is profound. This is much more than Sunday-school piety. When we touch the heart of God, we are linked to all those whom God loves, especially those who are suffering. Soul helps us feel the pain of someone else’s hurts. It allows us to celebrate the joy of another’s victory. With soul we move beyond our own individuality into an experience of solidarity with all God’s people.

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