Reflections on Black History Part 3: Why the White Church Needs Black History
This is the third part of a four-part series reflecting on the need for black history. You can find the first installment here, where I address my own need. You can find the second installment here, where I address the country’s need. There fourth installment you can find here, where I provide some resources to begin the journey of understanding the importance of black history. In this post, I reflect on why the white church needs black history.
Being the Church
After eating with the disciples and washing their feet, Jesus says to the eleven, “A new command I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). Maundy Thursday gains its name from the Latin for “command” (mandatum) in this verse. Others will know that they are Jesus’ disciples because they love in the way that he loves. Following this new command (mandatum novum) exposes the disciples’ intimate relationship with Jesus. In essence this is what it means to be a follower of Christ, to be a Christian, to be the church. The love of Christ is our defining characteristic (see also, Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:28–31 and parallels; Romans 13:8–10; 1 John 4:7–11).
The painful reality of black history in America exposes that we as the white church have not loved our neighbors well. We have not been faithful followers of Christ. We have not been the church. So why do we need black history? So that we can be the church. So that we can move toward one another in love through a process of remembrance, confession, and repentance. The death and resurrection of Jesus enables us to remember both God’s faithfulness and our sin together so that that shame of our sin does not paralyze us. Having overcome our shame, we can move forward by confessing and repenting of our sin, receiving forgiveness and healing from God and one another, and sincerely hoping for a future in which we can be the church God has called us to be.
REMEMBERING God’s Faithfulness
Across both Old and New Testaments God reveals himself in and through history. In the Old Testament, God reveals himself through the paradigmatic redemptive event of the exodus. Thus God declares repeatedly to Israel, “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery." In the New Testament, God has revealed himself in Jesus of Nazareth, and so our faith is in “the God who raised Jesus from the dead” (Romans 4:24). Within the pages of Scripture, therefore, a history unfolds that reveals who God, his mission in the world, and how we can join him on his mission to make all things new. As a result, God calls his people to remember this history, which in turn shapes their identity as his people.
Consider Psalm 105 as one example.
Oh give thanks to the Lord; call upon his name; make known his deeds among the peoples! Sing to him sing praises to him; tell of all his wondrous works! Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice! Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually! Remember the wondrous works that he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he uttered, O offspring of Abraham, his servant, children of Jacob, his chosen ones!
In remembering the works of the Lord, they are also reminded of who they are—the children of Abraham, God’s chosen ones to make known his deeds among all people. The psalm goes on to recount the history of God’s faithfulness to his people and conclude with another call to worship the Lord. Remembering God’s faithfulness flows out of, leads to, and is incorporated into worship. But there’s another side to the coin of remembrance, a darker side.
Remembering Our Sin
Remembering our sin also flows out of, leads to, and is incorporated into worship. Psalm 106 begins in much the same way as Psalm 105
Praise the Lord! Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever! Who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord, or declare all his praise? Blessed are they who observe justice, who do righteousness at all times (Psalm 106:1)
But in verse 6, the psalm takes a darker turn, providing a different angle on remembrance from Psalm 105. Instead of focusing on remembering God’s faithfulness, the psalmist begins to recount his own sin and the sins of the people, even from past generations:
Both we and our fathers have sinned; we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness (Psalm 106:6).
We could give more examples of remembering sin in worship (Psalm 78), or even explicit commands to remember sin (Deuteronomy 9), but consider that biblical history also records the sins of his people in stories that have been handed down from generation to generation. Just ask Adam and Eve about the serpent and the fruit, Noah's family about the incident immediately after the flood, Abraham about his dealings with Hagar and Sarah, David about Bathsheba, Peter about his denying Christ or confrontation with Paul, or the seven churches of Revelation about the things the Lord has against them. Far from the “only remember the good times” or “let’s just move on” notion of our day, God memorializes the sins of his people for all time.
Why? Because the key to a healthy memory and identity is to remember God’s faithfulness and our sin together. The danger is when we separate them, focusing on one to the exclusion of the other. If we focus on our sin apart from God’s faithfulness, we are paralyzed by shame. If we deny our sin, then we deceive ourselves, make God out to be a liar, and the truth is not in us. The only way forward for a healthy memory, identity, and relationship with God and one another is to remember God’s faithfulness and our sin together. This season is a perfect time to remember the two together in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
THIS DO IN REMEMBRANCE OF ME
The death and resurrection of Jesus is God’s victory over sin and death. This is the place where we can properly mourn our sin and celebrate God’s faithfulness. More than that, the cross enables us to come before the Lord and one another in confession and repentance of sin so that we might overcome our shame to find forgiveness and healing in our relationships with God and one another. This is the full thrust of the text from 1 John alluded to above:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleans us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9).
What keeps us from doing this? I think it is shame. We believe the lie that in confessing our sin, the shame distances us from God. That may be our initial reaction when others confess to us, but God has shown that he is not like us. Because of the love that he has demonstrated in Christ, it is in the confession of our sin that he draws near to us! If only we could push back the lie of the enemy and cling to the truth of God’s love for us in Christ that Paul writes about to the church in Rome:
Hope [in Christ] does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:5–8).
God demonstrated his love for us by sending his Son to die while we were still sinners. This is what frees us up to remember and confess our sin. In spite of this reality, we spend most of our time trying to separate ourselves from the sin of our past and present, saying “Hey, that’s not me! I’m not like them.” Yet it is the cross of Christ that allows us to investigate our culpability and complicity in sin across generations and cry out “Father forgive me for we and our fathers have sinned!”
In response, we should anticipate that the same one who knelt down to wash the disciples’ feet will wash us clean from our sin, declare us forgiven in him and say to us, “An old command I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”