In The New York Times’ 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones writes, “Black Americans have been, and continue to be, foundational to the idea of American freedom.” On the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving to this land as slaves, she makes the case that “It is we who have been the perfecters of this democracy,” that black Americans have pushed toward the country’s ideals in spite of their circumstances.
I’ve heard it said that history is a “dangerous” memory. It never lets us go until we attest to the wounds and commit to healing. It presses upon us that piercing but powerful word: love, love, love.
Still, it is hard to see how society might change, how such healing might finally come about. Rarely does the one who injures another have the moral imagination to do right unless forced to. Even spiritual awakening, religious education, and visionary declarations have often bore bad fruit. Plenty of promises of peace and freedom only brought on further oppression.
Even if we don’t have all the answers now, we must bear witness. And we must prophesy hope.
The black church in America offers a rich legacy of faith that—like the crucifixion itself—exists at the intersection of chaos and pain and love. Its stories shine through to our present day and remind us that history without hope is indeed a history without help.
The Chaos of Darkness
What greater tribute could be paid to religious faith in general and to their [slaves] religious faith in particular than this: It taught a people how to ride high to life, to look squarely in the face of those facts that argue most dramatically against all hope and to use those facts as raw material out of which they fashioned a hope that the environment, with all its cruelty, could not crush. — Howard Thurman, The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death
“Hope begins in the dark…” I could never quite shake these words from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. This language of hope has recently become a theme in my life—not in the abstract sense, but as a living activity, a struggle, a commitment, a discipline.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann rooted the language of hope in the resurrection of Jesus and the praxis of protest. Sometimes hope seems to be the only language powerful enough to counter despair. Or maybe it’s, in Lamott’s words, a sort of “revolutionary patience.”
Whatever hope is, there is something deep within each of us that cries out in expectation. Sometimes it sounds like a whisper, but it is there. Yet, while hope springs from the depths of the soul, it often comes out of the shadows. Hope begins in chaos.
Some days it feels like we have never escaped from under that cloud that covered the face of the earth during the crucifixion of Jesus. We know that Sunday is coming, with a risen Jesus whose wounds bear witness to the extent of his loving passion, but for us, Saturday is here, and it’s still dark. The brokenness and weight of our world feels so much like darkness that Elie Wiesel, retelling of the horrors of Auschwitz and the Holocaust, could only call it Night.
Our language and storytelling have a way of helping us in the dark. In a time of religious, social, economic, and political chaos, it seems critical that we sit at the feet of these stories of freedom. This is what makes Negro spirituals, and the history of black faith in America, so profound. In the shadow of the colonized homeland, the slave ship, and the lynching tree, these holy artists went to work. It’s inherently absurd to proclaim faith and freedom in such contexts; one historian called it “the audacity to survive.”
Thomas Merton thought of these historic composers as revolutionary poets and their songs as prophetic songs. Deep in the souls of black folk was a hope that their cruel surroundings could not crush. Merton was right: Such religion is not the “opium of the people,” but a prophetic fire of love and courage, fanned by the breath of the Spirit as they sang choruses of, “Swing lo, sweet chariot,” “Let my people go,” and, “Oh, glory hallelujah!”
Today, in the midst of chaos and confusion, I go to this tradition. I believe Christianity needs this tradition. America needs this tradition. Not because it feels good or sounds good, but because we are still here, and we refuse to be silenced. These caged birds are still singing; giving voice to anger and love; and still prophesying hope.
Anger Over the Scars of the Past
I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. — Fannie Lou Hamer
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
...I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. — Langston Hughes, Let America Be America Again
This black tradition has never bought into the myth of American innocence and exceptionalism—if you work hard, get a good education, have a father in the home, and pull yourself up by your bad boots, that you finally live out the American dream of being white, secure, and free.
When Fannie Lou Hamer said that she was sick and tired of being sick and tired, she wasn’t speaking of her own struggles. She was addressing what all black people faced, since we were brought to these shores “in the name of Jesus” and baptized into a racial caste and the pain that comes with it.
“The central quality in the Negro’s life is pain,” Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his final book. And author James Baldwin wrote, “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” The scars of slavery and Jim Crow still lay below the surface, even as our society progresses. And our anger as black Americans is often seen as a barrier to honesty and hope.
In “Let America Be America Again,” Langston Hughes steps forward as the one bearing witness to our country’s possibilities: It is I, I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars. Much like Thomas seeing the hands of Jesus, it is as if he says, “It is true! It happened! I am here!”
Though scars heal, they leave their marks. In Our Only World, Wendell Berry wrote of the Boston bombing, and one reporter’s disregard of the scars of the families and people wounded. “He is speaking to people whose loved ones have been killed and people who will never again stand on their own legs,” he asked, perplexed. “How can he think that all the traces of any violence can be easily wiped away?”
Sadly, many today see our high and holy task as a divine clean-up job. Let the past be the past, they say. But Berry was right to notice that “the evil of the day, as we know it, enters into it from the past.”
Anger has been an impetus for change in this tradition of black faith. Just as it has been for others throughout history, our survival depended on our angry refusal to accept the absurd. How could one not be angry? How could one read our murdered children, women, and men names in hashtags and not be angry? How can one simply reflect on the racial, social, political, and economic disparities and not be angry? Our theology must have room for anger, not in the vitriolic or violent sense, but an anger that burns away false illusions and creatively constructs a liberating and humane alternative.
It was King who said, “In the days ahead we not consider it unpatriotic to raise certain basic questions about our national character.” He was angry. Frederick Douglass was angry. Ida B. Wells was angry. As were Fannie Lou Hamer, Ella Baker, Howard Thurman, Francis Grimke, Daniel Payne, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman. From slave ships to auction blocks, from hush harbors to hot fields, from Jim Crow to civil rights, from Black revolution to Black Lives Matter. We are angry.
To be angry means that we have to tell the truth of pain and even the pain of hope. For the black faith tradition, anger and hope are an unbreakable cord, which holds the promise of truth and life together. We are angry yet we are hopeful. We are hopeful yet we are angry. Both have room to speak. If our anger didn’t have room to speak, it would turn to violence and acceptance of the illusion of freedom. If hope didn’t have room to speak, it meant only discouragement and despair, and no possibility of liberation, reconciliation, and redemptive love.
Why are we so angry? Because we refuse to believe the lies, even those coming from holy lips. We refuse to be silent though much “unity” depends on it. We refuse to do nothing even when we are told nothing is the most faithful we can do. There’s a voice calling out to us through the corridors of history: “Run on! Keep on keepin’ on!”
Love In the Midst of Evil
But these men are your brothers, your lost younger brothers, and if the word "integration" means anything, this is what it means, that we with love shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. — James Baldwin, A Letter to My Nephew
Resistance is the protest of those who hope, and hope is the feast of the people who resist. — Jürgen Moltmann, The Power of the Powerless
The Lord hasn’t failed me yet. — My grandmother
I sat down with my grandmother some time ago and asked her to tell me about her life. At first she didn’t want to. One can only imagine what deep scars 80 years have bore on her soul. Weeks later I asked again. The stories were hard. It’s difficult to describe what it meant for her to live in the South as a black woman. One word seemed to capture the audacity of survival in the midst of a cruel world: love. “The Lord hasn’t failed me yet,” she said.
If there is any prophetic word that God is speaking in this country, it is most surely bound to the black voice. It is the prophetic word of love in the midst of evil.
In many ways, we have come to view love as sentimental, a nicety. People use “love” to describe a feeling even when it carries no moral or ethical responsibility for them. Not so in the black faith tradition. For us, love has meant resistance and resilience. In the words of Baldwin, it means that we shall “force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it.”
This kind of radical, life-changing, community-changing, world-changing love is, after all, the way of Jesus. He came preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing all manner of sickness and affliction. To prophesy hope is a dangerous love. It means that one cannot say love without the experience of liberation, and one cannot say liberation without the goal of love. It calls us to be committed and to be committed is to be in danger; threat of loss of power, authority, privilege, comfort, lies. It is a love that calls us to face ourselves, to face our sins, our history, our violence, our policies, our practices, and to do whatever it takes to change.
It has been a constant theme that the powerful crush the powerless. For the powerless, life is not human, they are unloved, and their sense of dignity, power, and agency is always bound to the chains that hold them. They cry: Help, O Lord! To this, God speaks: because the needy groan, I will now rise up, I will place them in the safety for which they long. Love for us means joining God in God’s work of liberating love, power, and justice. Our faith prays while our feet move.
King has told us that ”what is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.” Power at its best is “love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love.“ Indeed, this is what it means to stand in the world as prophets of love, power, and justice or, to use the biblical language of Zechariah, to be prisoners of hope.
Change we must. The choice is ours. Chaos or community? Hate or hope? Selfishness or solidarity? The way of darkness the way of light? The way of destruction or the way of life? The choice is always ours.
So I return to the question: What are we to do? For me, it has meant sitting with these stories. Stories capture history and hope in a way that speaks deeply to the soul. Stories of hope in the midst of chaos. Stories of anger in the midst of evil. Stories of love in the midst of despair.
But story also means struggle. You can’t be neutral on a moving train; you also can’t be neutral when the story is happening. Like someone once said, “I don’t know what tomorrow holds but I know who holds tomorrow.” While tomorrow is on the way, I’m going to prophesy hope today.
Dante Stewart is a writer and preacher currently studying at the Reformed Theological Seminary.