Beware of those who topple statues of all sorts and conditions of men. First of all, beware because in many cases these statues are prime evidence for the egregious treatment of black people in this country, beginning with the slave trade and up to today. But to obliterate these reminders of the painful past allows the rewriting of history in favor of those with an agenda that does not necessarily care about the future of black men and women in our society.
Be careful about destroying the statues not only of Confederate leaders but also of those like Columbus. Despite Columbus’ real personal failings, he nevertheless brought the Christian faith to the New World, without which the bane of slavery for black people in this country would have never been abolished. Never forget that it was many of the early missionaries and later the British Methodists who made the convincing moral case against slavery.
It was indeed Abraham Lincoln who issued the Emancipation Proclamation in the context of the worst war our country has ever known, the war known as the Civil War, whose legacy is in a real way still with us. But this “official” statement that ended slavery in this country was the fruit of those many Christians who understood so clearly that slavery was incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
They were the core of the Abolitionist Movement that played such an important role not only in bringing to the American conscience the sinfulness of slavery but also did so much to assist the slaves who sought freedom, both before and after the Civil War.
Just as important: the black slave experience produced a singular and deep understanding of the Christian faith that remains a model for what it really means to be a Christian. For the black slaves in this country identified with the slavery of the Israelites in Egypt, and their songs, like the songs of the slaves in Egypt, came out of the very bowels of their lives as slaves. And as people who looked forward to that freedom that went beyond freedom from slavery, that freedom that St. Paul talks about as freedom in Christ.
In what have become known as “Spirituals,” that singular musical expression of the black church – from “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to “There is a balm in Gilead” to “Were You There (When They Crucified My Lord”) to the rollicking cadences of “O, Happy Day” – in this music they understood the reality of freedom in Jesus Christ. And very few understand what this means today.
It is indeed one of the most significant events in Christian history, at least in this country, that so many slaves accepted the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The slaves not only accepted the faith of their oppressors, but they gave that faith a depth and meaning that went far beyond the rote Christianity that marked so many of those who “owned” them.
For those in slavery, freedom was not just a concept to be enshrined in a document. It was something intensely personal, and yet they knew that the only hope of achieving this real freedom was in the man Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
The power of the black church is grounded in the Biblical relationship of faith and freedom. That faith has always been an antidote to the white-bread version of Christian faith that confuses freedom in Christ with an individualistic understanding of freedom that denies the obligations to love God with all one’s being and to one’s neighbor as oneself.
This relationship between faith and freedom and its corollary to love without limit is what the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. understood. His crusade for justice for black people came not primarily from a political nor a sociological agenda. It came from his deep understanding of the bond between justice and freedom in the context of the love of God and the truth of God.
To my black brothers and sisters: beware of the white elitists who rename colleges in the name of justice and sensitivity. They are not your friends.
Beware of those who topple statues and deface buildings in the name of Black Lives Matter. When the statues are all gone, and the elites have rewritten history, when those with an agenda that is contrary to the faith of black people force that agenda on all, then the future of black people in this country will be eaten up by those who erase history in order to achieve goals that are antithetical to the Christian faith, which faith has been central to black experience and life.
The peaceful protests of the past month in response to police brutality, despite the attendant violence and looting, have been necessary to once again call attention to the injustices constantly suffered by the black community in this country. But those blacks and their supporters who still have faith in the God of love and compassion must not be co-opted in this righteous struggle by those whose agenda is incompatible with the Christian faith.
*Image: Headlines by Charles White, 1944 [Collection of William M. and Elisabeth M. Landes. © The Charles White Archives/ Photo: Gregory R. Staley]