I’m working on a Revise and Resubmit on a paper about Martin Luther King, Jr. this week. And as part of my research for this revision I’ve done a lot of reading about African-American Christianity. My reading in Black Theology and history has left me stunned that African-Americans adopted Christianity at all. After all, their only contact with Christianity was that it was being fed to them by their oppressors – often as a strategy for creating a moral obligation of slaves to masters and thereby ensure better work. In spite of this clearly oppressive spin on the gospel of freedom, though, illiterate slaves were able to learn and understand the story of the Exodus and of the God who sets captives free and looks after the oppressed. And in spite of their oppression they held on to a radical hope found in the Gospel story. And while the social, individual, and economic problems that resulted from decades of slavery continue to create injustices in our society, that hope remains alive.
Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. explains the importance of rehearsing these stories toward hope and political activism: “Put simply, liturgies always entail an ethics: they presuppose a certain way of being in the world and seek to impart that to participants and their activity… Liturgies and other rituals – just as explicit forms of racial activism – articulated early conceptions of the moral community among northern blacks as well as southern” (Exodus! P 31).
I wonder if those of us who have more social power can also see these stories – and the enactment of them in liturgy – as an impetus for action and activism. How can the Biblical God of freedom speak into our time and bring about hope for justice, just as the same God did to American slaves?