Churches of Christ: A Call to Prophetic Fire
Will the Church Speak?
As Churches of Christ, how do we collectively respond to the terrorism and hypocrisy that cuts through racial lines with tremendous force? We witnessed terrorism, insurrection, desecration, and chaos around and inside the State Capitol building on January 6, 2021. Where is the prophetic fire of the church? It does not have to first be a message to the world; where is the message to the flock? How is the man of God within Churches of Christ systemically helping members understand these times from a deeply coherent biblical discourse? I am not too fond of the phraseology, but we hear a lot about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the secular world. However, know assuredly that the radical concept of equity is Biblical. About David, the Bible says, “…David reigned over all Israel. And David administered justice and equity to all his people” (2 Samuel 8:15 ESV).
Too many Christians are still trying to locate the nexus between Christianity, race, justice, and feelings of outrage. For Churches of Christ, it has been our collective normal disposition to remain silent. Whether consciously or unconsciously, we have embraced the position of silence as equaling peace, piety, and Christ-like behavior. Are there times when the church or Christians should be silent? Of course. Paul told Titus, “Avoid foolish controversies, arguments about genealogies, quarrels, and fights about Moses’ Teachings. This is useless and worthless” (Titus 3:9 GWT).
There were many times when Christ was confronted, and He elected not to respond verbally. What we have typically developed in the church is the ideal that keeps the peace as opposed to the hard forthright work of making peace. Currently, if someone speaks too much about race and justice in the church, they are viewed as suspicious, unbiblical, an activist, political, divisive, and so much more. The power of white supremacy culture is seductively strong, so as long as race is treated as the deadly electric third rail, we play the good Christian role.
Secretly many Black Christians, Christians of color, and even white Christians have struggled and are struggling with the integration of race, justice, and the biblical text as a package. Because our pulpits rarely include this level of prophetic fire, education, and exegesis—people can fall victim to other forms of teaching they feel might feed the hunger and thirst of their racial, ethnic, and cultural proclivities.
Images Speak Beyond Silence
For those who grew up in Churches of Christ, our Sunday school class as children were perceived to be race-neutral or colorblind. However, even though our Sunday school conditioning never mentioned race, white supremacy was supported through un-analyzed Eurocentric biblical imagery. The white images and figures of Jesus, Moses, Mary, Joseph, Daniel, Paul, Peter, etc., planted individual unconscious psychological seeds of anti-Blackness for some and white superiority for others. We thought the imagery was benign, but it feeds into our continued era of racial silence.
The initial thought is that silence in the church on race and justice issues is spiritually mature when it is the opposite. Racial silence supports white superiority and the force and presence of empire. The reality is, we do not refrain from the collective discourse because we are spiritual; we run from the dialogue because we are afraid. We have developed a theology of Christian piety around the toxic practice of silence. The entire premise, faulty theology, and eisegesis exist because Churches of Christ do not want to collectively confront the harmful presence of immature racial identity development in our churches. No, we do not have a direct biblical link related to race because the modern categories of race did not exist during biblical times, but they did have similar contentions. Biblically, although not race, they contended over and acted out discriminatory practices related to ethnicity, tribe, culture, religion, and even linguistics. All of these categories still exist today, but the addition of race is the most pervasive and its destruction is continually ignored or under-assessed.
Moving back to the point, we refuse to normalize racial discourse in our churches, not because we are spiritually mature, but because we are afraid and racially immature. The sooner we can admit our collective fear, the sooner we can begin our collective kingdom discourse in America. Discussing race issues is frightening, but when were Christians ever to be stopped by what we fear? The essence of faith is understanding and embracing the fear and uncertainty while moving forward in the presence of God and the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit. I will get back to Capitol Hill being stormed by the mostly white domestic terroristic mob, but let me share a few more thoughts about race and Christianity.
Have Churches of Christ ever engaged the frontlines of racial discourse and action in America? Of course. My words are not designed to dismiss or diminish the words, work, efforts, and victories of Church of Christ men and women with a legacy of masterfully fighting for racial justice, integrated seamlessly with the biblical text’s integrity. I highlight and celebrate them, and it is on those shoulders that we stand and continue to strive to build and confront. Nevertheless, I will unapologetically say that those men and women were and are not the norm. While they fought, they often stood alone or had a tiny group of support. Having a few prophetic Christian freedom fighters does not give us the right to claim that as our normalized culture and approach in Churches of Christ in America. The sad reality is that the movement did not grow into a normalized biblical ethos and dialectic.
Some people walk away from the church because they could not solve the puzzle of how faith, race, justice, righteousness, and the Bible cohere as a God-breathed package. This is the result of silence, and it must stop. Race and its component of empire are pervasive strongholds in America, and to remove or ignore it within the realm of discourse is to rebel against the application of Paul when he told the Bishops in Ephesus, “For I shrank not from declaring unto you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27 ERV). Paul told Timothy, “But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry” (2 Timothy 4:4 KJV). A ministry is not full proof, and congregations do not maximize their full potential if racial discourse is explained-away as unhealthy, un-necessary, and un-Christian.
To name a few, while Christians need to understand the nuances of love, obedience, forgiveness, repentance, justification, and regeneration, so too must they be taught how to navigate in a world that operates under racial clues, cues, and codes. Not only must the Man of God understand systematic theology, but he must also understand systematic racism and ensure that the people of God are aware of its dimensions and dynamics.
AntiBlackness continues to be a pervasive problem, and yes, even in the church. I should say, especially in the church. I will not use this narrative to define antiBlackness, but for Black people and the world in general, it operates slyly. Still, its psychological pain and denial are humiliating and excruciating. Black people of the African diaspora are often the last to know about the African essence of the Bible. Racial silence in the church allows the fraudulent message to grow that the Bible is based on Eurocentric conceptions.
Globally, Africa is a trampled upon continent in terms of how it is depicted and discussed. Some people prefer to claim everything other than their African roots and ancestry. God does not have the same idea about His creation and location of Africa as the epicenter of the globe. If we remove Africa from the Bible, the functionality and systemness of the text no longer work. The location, culture, and influence of Africa are central in the Biblical narrative. What if children received this teaching while their Christian minds were being prepared to receive Christ? I want to say so much more about this, especially as it relates to Prophet Moses, but I will make mention of the Ethiopian eunuch and then conclude with the crux of the matter and implications regarding the mob violence on Capitol Hill.
We often marvel at the fact that the Ethiopian eunuch received the gospel of Christ, was baptized, and may have been responsible for spreading Christianity in Ethiopia. I marvel at the conversion story, but what I think we sometimes overlook is that before the Ethiopian eunuch was baptized (Acts 8:38), the African man was sitting in his chariot reading about Jesus the Messiah in Isaiah 53 (Acts 8:29-34). Thus, in addition to all the relevant aspects of Africa in the Old and New Testament, it is essential to understand that in an antiBlack and antiAfrican world, in the first century, this prominent and powerful Ethiopian man was already reading a biblical narrative as part of his normal routine and culture. Then he was baptized. Christianity is strongly African.
By way of conclusion, we witnessed a white mob of domestic terrorists, storm through Capitol Hill, fueled by violence, vitriol, thievery, racism, and insurrection. The images connected to the insurrection and attempted coup were President Trump, the Confederate flag, and the American flag, underscored by Evangelical Christianity (an image and institution of whiteness). Remaining silent allows a world to fraudulently connect Christianity to a political party or white racist mob. Churches of Christ, what kind of prophetic fire will you muster after witnessing a scenario where if the participants that sacked the DC Citadel on January 6, 2021, were of a different racial shade, there would have been a bloodbath of Black and Brown bodies in the Rotunda, National Statuary Hall, and Old Senate Chamber.
It is not new, but the statement was clear for many who claim Christ, politics, the flag, and patriotism supersede the cross. Stop allowing a culture of whiteness to commandeer the purity and power of a Christian ethos. What kind of prophetic fire will the church produce?
It is crucial to contextualize the need and trajectory for normalized prophetic fire within Churches of Christ. Some of us in the church may feel that we need a word to share with the world. I am of a different mindset. Although a prophetic word is designed for global transfiguration, with our current and sustained condition, we need prophetic fire in-house, across congregations, and racial lines. It is not until we address the issue of silence and racial injustice inside the house, that we can then muster the authentic pathos and logos to take that word outside the house.
This cannot be the call of a few; it must be the call of the collective academy, positioned to proclaim prophetic fire, and that fire must become normalized and not situational. Prophetic fire cannot be event-driven; it must be a sustained part of ministry. If not, our approach is disingenuous. The people of God are collectively waiting on the Man of God, in every location, to produce a galvanizing word that speaks radical truth related to a biblical justice, toward every kind of injustice. Moreover, in this nation, it starts with race.
Dr. Ammar Saheli, Ministering Evangelist
West Oakland Church of Christ