Edited By: Leslyn Kim
This article is very informative.
It’s eight pages long, but I read it several times and was glued to every page. The one thing I found most intriguing was the historic grounds for a more experiential and expressive form of Christianity often found in African American and Charismatic churches. It just proves once again that history is important in understanding people and their various forms of cultural expression. For those scarred by the brutal system of chattel slavery in America, an experiential form of the faith was an understandable if not only rational eventuality. As the title of the article states, it’s almost “inconceivable” that slaves could see beyond the often flawed religion of the people who were seeking to evangelize them. And yet they still grasped the transformative power of the gospel by their own account. While slaves may have struggled (possibly due to their lack of education?) to follow the teachings of Presbyterians and Episcopalians, it’s no wonder that John Wesley and Methodism presented an appealing alternative. Its call for a personal and experiential walk with God, as well as a strong emphasis on placing scriptural practice (actually doing what scripture teaches) on par with scriptural authority was something they could easily identify with. Wesley’s approach called for personal holiness, a tangible/visible faith lived in the public arena. Understandably, that sent shockwaves through the Protestant America. It seared the conscience of those who were unsure or indifferent toward the institution of slavery. Now, slavery as a way of life demanded answers. Can one live out the gospel and simultaneously participate in or help perpetuate the system of slavery in America? For slaves, Welsey’s theology helped explain the dichotomy they often witnessed between the Christianity of their slave masters and what they found in the bible.
Here’s where I’m really going with this…….. As African Americans have progressed beyond emancipation, to the civil right’s era and beyond, it’s become commonplace to mock the unique and expressive form of African-American church. From the fire-brand emotionalism of whooping preachers, to the half-standing, hanky waving, call-and-response style of interaction that often takes place between the pulpit and church body. Breaking out in praise dances, sharing heartfelt testimonies, and catching the Spirit have been collectively denounced, especially by those in my generation. They are eager to dismiss it all (with no effort to discern) as irrational, half-brained, over-emotionalism. I used to be able to sort of stand (figuratively) on the outskirts of a mocking circle and half-heartedly laugh it off. Now I find myself cringing at how quick we are too dismiss the history and the unique perspective it offers. MUCH work needs to be done in many African American (and more charismatic) churches with more focus on sound biblical teaching, doctrine and theology. But the pendulum can just as easily swing into opposite, equally hazardous territory. Quenching the power of the Spirit, dismissing the power of God to move, to change lives, to set captives free, having faith to see people healed by the laying on of hands, and the total-abandonment praise dance (like David did) of that old lady who just wants to glorify the Lord, because of all the great things He’s done. There’s something genuine about all the above, and I often wonder if the Eastern cultures that dominated the biblical narrative have been watered-down by Westernized thinking. The freedom to raise hands, to step side-to-side while clapping to the rhythm of the drums during praise and worship, or to verbally say “amen” during a prayer or sermon are all illustrations of where faith meets humanity. Things like love, faith, and glorifying God manifest themselves in things we do. They move beyond biblical concepts that live in a memory verse. When it’s genuine, that old lady dances before the Lord, because of all that he’s done for her. When someone is sick, elders gather and lay hands on them (James 5:14) to pray for healing, because they love the sick person and want to see them restored to health. We forget. We can just as quickly be blinded by our own penchant for loving scripture and all the trappings of religiosity co-signed by the gatekeepers of the status-quo. I’m explicitly referring to the slave(off-brand) vs slave master(status quo) way of practicing their faith in the article here. Theology and doctrine that lives in the mind, but not in the heart is fools gold. And emotionalism with no footing in biblical truth and understanding leaves people spiritually empty and malnourished(Proverbs 4:7).
If anything, the history of Christianity during slavery should make us cautious about falling into one extreme or the other.
13 For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous.