Learning to Lament from the Black Church (Jemar Tisby)

In Culture, Peacemaking by Kurt Willems1 Comment

4 Minute Read

Hi Friends!

It feels great to be easing back into writing and podcasting. I took some time off to celebrate and do a bit of a life-pivot after the birth of our second daughter. What a joy she is!

Today I am sharing an excerpt from Jemar Tisby’s new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism​. This book is challenging and important as Christ-followers of all backgrounds discern what it looks like to be voices of healing, justice, and hope.

Here’s what hip-hop artist and activist, Lecrae has to say about it: “My friend and brother, Jemar Tisby has written an incredible book. It’s Powerful.”

In this section from the book, we are challenged to look to the black church to learn how to lament. 

Learn from the Black Church (by Jemar Tisby)

​Part of the pernicious effects of white supremacy in the church has been the devaluing of black theology—the biblical teachings that arise from and are informed by the experience of racial suffering, oppression, and perseverance by black people in America.

In many white Christian contexts, theology produced by racial minorities comes with an assumption of heresy and heterodoxy. The implicit message from many conservative white pastors and professors is that black Christians have theological integrity to the degree they adopt the teachings that come from approved European and white American sources.

This should not be so.

Rather, the body of believers should commit themselves to valuing and learning from the distinct contributions that come from marginalized groups such as black people in America. For example, the American church can learn from the black church what it means to lament.

Many church traditions have allowed triumphalism to creep into the pulpit and the pews. Just as citizens can sometimes presume the ascendancy and inevitability of American economic and global power, so the church can presume its own favor and privilege by imagining itself as God’s chosen nation and people.

Soong-Chan Rah studied popular Christians songs and found that most of them focus on victory and joy.15 This canon of sacred songs, however, exhibits a dearth of lament and sorrow. Much of Christian history has been characterized by persecution and rejection, and black Christians intimately and experientially know the reality of ongoing suffering that comes from the bigotry of others and by no fault of their own.

In the midst of marginalization, they have learned how to dwell with sadness and transform it into strength. The musical genre of the Negro spiritual exemplifies the ability of black Christians to theologize their suffering in song. They moaned, “Hold on just a little while longer,” in order to make it through one more day.

They knew that earth was not their only stop, and they welcomed the “sweet chariot coming forth to carry me home.”

The Negro spiritual put black lamentations into songs that soared upward as prayers for God to save them and grant them the perseverance to exist and resist. Through their understanding of Scripture, black Christians sang, “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” They looked to the book of Exodus and saw God saving the Israelites from slavery. In the white slaveowners they saw “old Pharaoh” and knew they could pray, “Let my people go.”

They saw Daniel saved from the fiery furnace and asked, “Didn’t my Lord deliver Daniel? Then why not every man?” Black people have somehow found a way to flourish because of faith. It is a faith that is vibrant and still inspires black Christians to endure and struggle against present-day forms of racism.

The entire church can learn from believers who have suffered yet still hold onto God’s unchanging hand. Black theology can teach the American church not just how to lament but how to rejoice as well. The exuberant vocal and bodily expressions common in much of black worship represent a faith that celebrates God’s goodness in equal measure with lament over humanity’s sinfulness. Those who have suffered much find much joy in God’s salvation.

After laboring all week under the dehumanizing conditions of slavery, black Christians celebrated on Sunday. They thanked God for giving them life and breath and the full functioning of their faculties. They worshiped God as an outlet for the creativity and vitality that had been suppressed all week. Shouts of “Amen” and “Hallelujah” punctuated every part of the service.

Generations of black Christians have inherited a tradition of unashamed praise for God.

The rest of American churches may well discover a new sense of God’s goodness when they engage their full selves in worship. The pleasant byproduct of learning theology from the black church is that some of the assumptions of suspicion will start to fall away. Christians will learn that people from different nations and ethnicities have dwelled in different contexts that cause them to approach the Bible with different questions and emphases.

As the church learns to value the unique applications of eternal biblical principles across people groups, it will grasp more of God’s truth than ever before.

Jemar Tisby is the author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism. He is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also cohost of the Pass The Mic podcast.
Taken from The Color of Compromise by Jemar Tisby [Copyright © 2019] by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com

Author: Kurt Willems

Kurt Willems is a pastor, author, and spiritual director. His first book, Echoing Hope: How the Humanity of Jesus Redeems our Pain, releases in March 2021. Kurt is also the host of the Theology Curator podcast. He has a master of divinity degree from Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary and a master of arts in comparative religion from the University of Washington.
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