One of the most destructive lies of American chattel slavery was that “if we were good and obedient slaves, we would be greatly rewarded in heaven.”
In the twenty-first century, this distortion of Scripture is morphing into something equally as insidious. This aberrant teaching has so deeply affected African American Christian consciousness that we’ve swung the pendulum completely in the opposite direction. Today, our culture is conditioning us to ridicule the eternal promises that sustained our ancestors – the same eternal hope that helps much of today’s global Church endure under hostility.
By teaching us to be suspicious of the hope found in the new heaven and earth, our culture blunts one of the greatest endurance weapons in the Christian’s arsenal. We are being trained to see reliance on eternal hope as weakness, and many Christians are unwittingly helping the culture pilfer our stockpiles of courage – the very hope that makes us resilient and helps us persist through cultural opposition.
I fear we are being duped again. This time, the twisting of Scripture is not in distorting glory’s promises but in negating their value altogether. In this Spirit of Protest age, even Christians seize upon this lie and limit our range of responses to temporal justice and activism. Yet just as limiting Christ to mere activist status is a truncation of his complete identity, so too is limiting our Christian purpose by the same parameters. Neither Christ nor His people can be forced into such one-dimensional identities.
As Christians partner in justice work with those who do not hold Christian conviction, the blurring of goals and methods, and how we value those methods, is tempting. Whether we are fighting for religious liberty, racial reconciliation or right-to-life issues from womb to tomb, justice-oriented Christians do well to keep eyes wide open for the instances where values conflict and work against the church’s kingdom purposes.
Understanding the power of eternal hope is one such issue. In some justice circles, the words of Frederick Douglass have become a rallying cry to stir Christians to social action: “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” If action is the worship song of the protest age, the streets and steps of our justice halls are the temples where the song is sung. Ours is an age of doing, with cause commitment measured by some public form of resistance. Often, if one cannot be seen “doing” justice work in the temporal, one’s alignment is suspect. “Doing” is seen as strength, and unconsciously lauded as the highest form of activism.
Yet the church has always operated differently than the culture. Last month I met with underground church leaders, where an Iraqi brother noted at least three significant responses by Christ in the face of hostility and injustice: not only prophetic confrontation, but also stealth movement, and eloquent silence[i]. All three are responses used by Christian communities operating under hostility today. They are also used interchangeably by individuals, depending on the circumstances of any given moment. The key distinction is that all three methods rely on valuing justice in the here and now, because of trust in Christ’s promises for the future.
Like Christ and the global Church after Him, our believing African American ancestors also used these survival methods in dark cultural times.
Shall we then glorify the methods of Malcolm, Huey, Bobby, Angela or Eldridge, and not those used by Christ and His Body over two thousand years of perseverance? They have been tested by people of all nations, tongues and tribes, and have produced a supernatural resilience – because they hope in the eternal promises of Christ.
Christians are a persevering people, historically uniting at the foot of the cross – not at the feet of Douglass, as great and profound as he may have been.
Under the Spirit of this Protest Age, it may be difficult for many to accept the truth that justice often remains elusive for the Christian. Yet this is proven scripturally, throughout church history, and in our current age of global persecution and perseverance. Because of this reality, there is a great need for the promises of divine justice found in glory.
There were no protests calling for justice when Stephen was lynched[ii], yet God had His own way of dispensing justice through the conversion of Saul. When it comes to the Church and matters of justice, God will frustrate even our best attempts to confine Him to the methods and results of previous historical movements, or to the categorical boxes of earthly activism.
God will move as He moves, and in His wisdom he makes provision for justice and hope in both the sweet-by-and-by and the nasty-now-and-now.
Do not be deceived by today’s culture. Many African American believers and free believing abolitionists understood well the tension between the “already and the not-yet,” and simultaneously lived and worked stealthily for the Kingdom under extreme persecution. They trusted that the coming Government of Christ[iii] would bring the correction of any wrongs left unaddressed by their temporal context.
Our Christian ancestors knew they were fighting on the winning side today, because of their hope in God’s tomorrow. They trusted that in Christ’s Kingdom, God would wipe every tear from their eyes that had been caused by temporal injustice. They trusted that God would balance the scales between the temporal and the eternal worlds.
They understood what we seem to be losing sight of: that hope in the temporal and the eternal are inextricably integrated, and cannot be uncoupled.
Increasingly, Christians in America are being asked to declare allegiance with one temporal identity or another, be they based in mere politics, ethnicity, or nationalism, etc. In the midst of these siren calls, let us remember Whose we are at our core.
And as we remember, let us be wary of those in our culture who are determined to erase our hope in the eternal, for they are intent on erasing Christ – the root of our hope. We must not unwittingly allow anyone to brainwash us against the very Person Who can sustain us against today’s growing anti-Christian hostility. Our faith in things hoped for and unseen is one of the greatest weapons in our storehouse.[iv]
Persevering Christians have always known that Christ’s Kingdom is not limited to this temporal world, and that a better day was coming. They should be lauded for their creativity in working in and around unjust systems, not derided as weak on protest and resistance.
Christians have a duty to protect the power of eternal hope. The sweet-by-and-by is not a psychological pacifier as the culture preaches; it is a guarantee that God has sworn by Himself to fulfill. Therefore, let us boldly rebuke the culture when it disparages our eternal Hope, and commend our ancestors for their temporal resilience and their eyes of faith. By doing any less, we sweep the legs out from under our own perseverance and hope today.
Our ancestors found no shame in the eternal promises of the sweet-by-and-by, and neither should we. They used the promises of glory to propel their work in the nasty-now-and-now … let us do the same.