How I Got Over: Ethnic Diversity and the Curse of Christian Monolithism
“How I got over,
How I got over, my Lord
And my soul looked back and wondered
How I got over, my Lord” -How I Got Over, Negro Spiritual
“Lift ev’ry voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the list’ning skies
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march till victory is won” -Lift Every Voice and Sing, James Weldon Johnson
I remember it like it was yesterday:
A couple of friends and I were enjoying lunch at the private Bible college we were attending and found ourselves enthralled in a lively, fervent conversation centered around our collectively shared African-American heritage. Sitting at our table was precious sister who was not African-American who interjected by saying,
“I know you all are passionate about your history, but does there come a point in time when you just have to, I mean, get over it? What good is it wallow in the past when you could be investing in the future?”
Her reply, consequentially, caused my face to immediately contort as if her statement was a viscerally virulent injection into the veins of my very soul.
But why did her comment cause such catastrophic tremors within the framework of my conscience?
Was this the first time I had heard such a remark? Surely not! I attended a private, Christian university in the South! I, tragically, had heard insensitive, incendiary remarks regarding the African-American plight and sojourn spewed like venom from the mouths of men and women (preparing for ministry, mind you) all the time!
I became unsettled with this dear sister’s response, mainly, because, for the first time in my young,ministerial life, I realized that I would be answering this question for the rest of my life...so I had better find a suitable answer.
Why, as an African-American man called to undertake the task of studying and teaching theology do I choose to enmesh orthodox, theological disciplines with the black experience?
The answer, as far as I am concerned, is quite simple: an individual’s history is always inextricably bound to his/her destiny.
This truism is by no means relevant only to the African-American experience.
Try and tell a Jewish brother, namely those descendants whose ancestors languished under the ominous yoke of Hitler’s sadistic and tyrannical rule that the corrosive smell of flesh burning in the ovens of Auschwitz no longer holds any bearings on how they view the world and engage in society.
Or try and tell our dear Chinese brothers and sisters whose ancestors were unmercifully slaughtered during General Mao Tse Tung’s communist regime that their plight has become antiquated and their narrative has been rendered impotent, unable to birth life in the marketplace of ideas and experiences.
Would we dare tell the Jewish descendant of Holocaust survivors who gets saved by the grace of the Lord that he must forsake his ethnic narrative in exchange for the rhetoric of a monolithic gospel?
Would we even form our lips to sway the descendant of Chinese victims of General Mao’s bloody campaign who are saved by the grace of the Lord that they must quarantine and forsake the narrative of their elders in order to embrace a monolithic Messiah?
Surely not! For one, because the gospel is not monolithic nor does it tell of a monolithic Messiah. Yes, Jesus is presented as the transcendent, cosmic Christ who is exalted above every nation, principality, and governance, but, at the same time, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews. Point being that the gospels does not paint a portrait of a colorless Messiah nor does it paint a picture of a Messiah who sought to lead an ethnically monochromatic people stripped from all ethnic ties and heritage.
The same Jesus who healed Jews also comforted Samaritans, all the while never asking the Samaritans to forsake their ethnic roots and become Jewish.
As a Black man called by God to undertake the task of studying and teaching theology, I am under the full conviction that my history and heritage must be included within my work because, simply put, God does not operate in cultural vacuums.
I firmly believe the Holy Spirit to be the greatest sociologist in the cosmos.
I firmly believe that, though Christ certainly transcends culture, through the person and work of the Holy Spirit, Christ is imminently found within culture; every culture.
What fascinates me about the Christian faith is that it is the ONLY ancient faith whose Scripture does not demand that its adherents exchange their ethnic heritage for another.
Those who convert to an orthodox form of Judaism must also conform to an inherently Middle Eastern, Jewish form of life.
Those who convert to Islam must turn their eyes towards Mecca, adorn Middle Eastern fashion norms, and chant Arabic prayers.
Hindus and Buddhist all must conform to an Ind-Asian form of societal life and rituals.
What is so amazing about the Christian faith is that when Jesus commanded his disciples to “Go and make disciples of all nations” he did not command them to “Go and make all nations JEWISH!” When he commanded his disciples to “Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you” he was not commanding them to “Teach them how to pray in Hebrew, how to properly adorn a yarmulke, or how to adorn a tasseled prayer shawl.”
Jesus did not come to colonize the human race into one monochromatic, monolithic drone race. No! Jesus came to liberate all people from the fetters of futility, the shackles of sin, the tortures of transgression, and the instruments of iniquity. He was not sent so that you may forsake the race of your birth, with its rich heritage and history, in order to coagulate to the status quo or the majority class!
The Kingdom is not, nor has it ever been a Kingdom of assimilation.
As a Black man, nurtured in the black experienced, cultivated in black struggle, nurtured in black possibility, I am under no divine edict to speak on behalf of my people in an emasculated whisper.
God is present within the Black experience just as he is present within the Asian experience, and the South American experience, and the Russian experience, and the Anglo experience!
Just as we have heard stories of God’s providence concerning America time and time again, we should not be so eager to filibuster and blockade someone from differing ethnic shores and harbors from discussing with equal passion God’s providence in the life of their people!
I know that God has shown his hand in a marvelous way on behalf of the African-American population. From the transatlantic slave trade, to the terroristic onslaughts of the Ku Klux Klan and their burning crosses, to the dehumanizing laws and edicts of the Jim Crow South, to the countless tales of lynchings, church bombings, drownings, rape, and incessant malice committed against the African-Americans, the pain and inarticulate despair of the African-American race can only find sufficient meaning in the Cross of Christ.
The same Christ who knew what it meant to be dehumanized. (Matthew 27:39-41)
The same Christ who knew what it meant to be alienated and isolated. (Matthew 26:56)
The same Christ who knew what it meant to experience a gross miscarriage of justice. (Matthew 26:59)
The same Christ who experienced firsthand police brutality. (John 18:23)
The same Christ who was lynched. (Acts 5:30)
So, as you can see, seeded within the heart of every culture is a kernel of redemptive possibility.
God has embedded within all of our cultures a narrative that is uniquely ours and he desires for the rest of the nations to listen to our narratives and see His glory in a new, opulent light.
There are aspects of God’s character found within the Latin narrative that needs to be unearthed and explored.
There are aspects of God’s character found within the Russian narrative, the Ethiopian narrative, the Chinese narrative, the Afghan narrative that will only serve to present us with a fully-orbed representation of God’s majestic, sovereign love.
Though these aspects will always be in harmony with Scripture and orthodox Christian, historical teaching, these experiences, nonetheless, warrants our attention and our minds.
If I were to see that precious sister who asked me that timely question today, I believe that I would respond to her with a question of my own.
I would direct her attention to Revelation 7:9 where John the Revalator wrote,
“After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.”
I would then ask her if she believed that every single tribe presented in this great apocalyptic scene had the same testimony? Being fully aware of the one song being sung around the throne, I would challenge her to consider the road each tribe traveled en route to the throne. Were they the same?
I would challenge her to see that, though all Christians, regardless of race, ultimately sing the same melodious song of Salvation, the melodies of each ethnicity’s pilgrimage, struggle, and ultimate victory is equally soothing to the ears of the God who, after all, wrote all of histories to begin with.
In fact, if I were to close my eyes right now and envision what song my precious African-American ancestors are singing right now before the Master, I can’t help but hear,
“How I got over,
How I got over, my Lord
And my soul looked back and wondered
How I got over, MY Lord”
What a beautiful melody, indeed.