A Black Pastor’s Journey into the Content of Grace. (Read Part 1 here.)
Black Grace is my heritage. I grew up in the home of a Black pastor, who proudly pastored a Black church in a white denomination. Looking back, I realize my father quietly protested the forensic grace espoused by the Church. No, he didn’t write about it, didn’t preach about it, and didn’t even talk about it in our home. His protest was in the grace-filled sermons he preached, the grace-filled life he lived, and his refusal to allow the churches he led to traffic in the forensic grace of the denomination. He himself was a product of Black Grace. Being born during the most radical period of American racism, in one of the ghettos of Chattanooga, Tennessee, he knew first-hand the dehumanizing effect of a graceless society. He saw his father treated like a boy working for a local drug store as a deliveryman, even though he was a World War I veteran with a wife and seven children. My father, a preacher of righteousness, experienced the humiliation of riding on the backseat of the bus, seeing the signs posted “Colored Restrooms,” and driving across the country with my mother, my three siblings, and me headed to the 1962 General Conference in San Francisco, California unable to stay in a motel because of the color of our skin. And yet, I never heard my father speak ill of the Church or the country. Amazing, to say the least. How do you account for a positive response in an oppressive situation? Grace-filled responses in ungraceful situations defy reason, that’s why I have struggled understanding the response. But after years on the frontline of ministry, confronted regularly by verbal and non-verbal bigotry and racial bias, I found my answer: Black Grace, an epiphany of the content of grace.
For the nine families of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church of Charleston, South Carolina, who lost their loved ones at the murderous hands of Dylann Roof, forensic grace wasn’t enough. They needed a grace that would plummet the dark ocean of grief where reason can’t dive, where logic can’t be made, and where anger and vengeance is the natural unreasoned response. They needed more than the knowledge that their sins were forgiven and Christ had declared them righteous. They, like me and millions of other people of African descent in America, needed an identity grace, a transformational grace, and yes, a restraining grace. The non-violent protest of the ’60s was a demonstration of that grace. Again, Black leaders didn’t articulate what was being manifested in their response to firehoses, furious dogs, billy clubs, being spit on, kicked, and jailed for peacefully protesting. They just understood that there was “Something within me that holdeth the reins.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a privileged German theologian, after spending a year in America observing American racism, wrote his book, The Cost of Discipleship, on the backdrop of the German Holocaust. Victoria Barnett, the Holocaust scholar, said this about Bonhoeffer’s year of emersion in the African America experience, “I think there is little doubt that his experience of the Black Church, racism in America, was an important part of his journey… [He] witnessed racism that deeply outraged and troubled him, and he surely carried those impressions with him in the years that followed.”1 But even Bonhoeffer’s costly grace, while profoundly significant in Christian theology, shatters under the weight of American racism. Bonhoeffer’s definition of costly grace states,
“Costly grace is the Gospel, which must be sought again and again, the gift, which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock… Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life. It is costly because it condemns sin and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it costs God the life of His Son: “ye were bought at a price,” and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us. Costly grace is the Incarnation of God.”2
But for Black people, what does the Incarnation of God look like as it confronts systems and ideologies designed not just to subjugate, but to dehumanize, not just to control a people, but to rob a people of their very soul? Grace had to be seen as divine agency, an experience, an internal dynamo that “holdeth the reins.” Grace had to be more than just what God had done on Calvary’s cross in providing unmerited favor. As I have observed our shared experience of racial bias, I was forced to ask the question of not just what does grace do, but what is grace made of? What is the content of grace? I needed to know, was grace simply a divine declaration of unmerited benefits?
From observation and exegesis, the answer came. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:6-9). Paul describes grace as an active agent. It is transformative in nature. It is the agency by which the Godhead preforms the miracle of salvation. The Apostle Paul painstakingly points out that human effort with its entitlement has absolutely no place in the transformational process. It is solely and only the work of God. Therefore, grace is more than unmerited favor. It is divine dynamism, a force, a God-phenomena. I witnessed and experienced this God-phenomena, this divine dynamism, this mysterious force working in the lives of the people I served — people locked in poverty, people disenfranchised, and people oppressed.
Again, it forced me to ask the question, what is the make-up or content of this divine dynamism? Paul explained the phenomena of God’s saving grace when he wrote, “To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Grace, as expressed by Paul, is the indwelling Christ. And the scripture says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ]” (Colossians 1:19). Grace, according to Paul, contains the active attributes of the Godhead covered in the love of Christ. It is the gift of God’s transforming power released into life. It’s what we Black folks call the “Something Within Me.” We feel grace, but we never stop to explain it, because, for us, it is beyond the realm of reason and observation.
In my attempt to explain this God-phenomena, the 1976 Alka-Seltzer commercial came to mind. The commercial begins with a picture of a clear glass of water sitting on a table as the Alka-Seltzer kid describes, in song, the results of eating greasy food. As he sings, two Alka-Seltzer tablets are dropped into the water as he continues to sing, “Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, oh what a relief it is.” The Alka-Seltzer tablets, for me, represent Black Grace. When God’s grace is dropped undeserved and unearned into the life, a divine salvific reaction occurs. For Black people, grace fizzes up to replace our stolen identity with our new identity in Christ. No longer are we boys, girls, the “N” word, or simply property. We are sons and daughters of God. This new identity is existential and experiential; it’s life. This grace identity defies the reason and logic of institutionalized racism, white-washed Christianity, and Jim Crowism, because it is deemed impossible. How could life survive in the intentional attempts of snuffing it out? Black flocks know, it is only because of divine agency. This divine agency which produces a new identity turns into an explosive gratitude reaction. Fizzing up from the souls of Black flocks is the grateful response, God loves us in our oppressed and sinful condition, God has preserved our lives, God rescued us from the dark pit of oppression and sin. This gratitude reaction is best expressed by our fore fathers and mothers in the prayer heard in many Black Churches,
“Thanking You Father, for our laying down last night
And our rising up early this morning!
Thanking You Father! That the bed we laid down on last night;
Wasn’t our cooling board and the sheets that we covered up with Father;
Was not our winding clothes.
You woke us up this morning; started us on our way
You gave us a portion of health and strength this morning Father! Thanking You Father! For letting us keep our hands in the winding chain, one more time!”
But Black Grace is more, it is a restraining power holding back vengeance against a relentless oppressive society. And finally, Black Grace works as a spiritual Visine clearing away the bloody anger of revenge, permitting us to behold our oppressor as a human being. To the nine grief-stricken families of Emanuel AME Church, Black Grace saw beyond Dylann Roof’s racist ideology and actions and saw a lost child of God. Black Grace echoes Jesus’ soul-searching words as He hung in the blackness of Calvary’s cross, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
The essence of Black Grace is not color, but character. Character shaped on the anvil of oppression, in the fires of affliction, and the furnace of bigotry. It is the revelation of the truest sense of righteousness by faith through grace. People of African descent are simply the largest manifestation of the workings of the content of grace. A people who, because of oppression, feel no entitlement to grace, no hope without grace, no way out except by God’s grace. We readily accept the grace rescue line and willingly extend the lifeline to other undeserving people because of this divine dynamism.
As mentioned in Part 1, white reporters found it difficult to understand the response of the Black families in Charleston, South Carolina after the Dylann Roof massacre. This was a hate crime. How do you respond in love and forgiveness after such violence? The struggle with many white people and people who are privileged and prosperous in any race, religion, or gender, is entitlement and rugged individualism. Grace strips away pretention, piosity, and pride. Grace requires total surrender, total submission, and total abandonment to God. These requirements are difficult for people who feel entitled to God’s grace, believe they can earn divine favor, and often times believe they don’t need God’s unmerited divine benefits. It’s the cheap grace Bonhoeffer wrote about, “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”3
For many in the dominant society, to be solely and totally depended upon God is not only difficult, but is also seen as weak. Cheap grace is often at the subconscious level. It is cultural and social in nature. Cheap grace is satisfied with wearing grace as a badge of righteousness and using it as a cover for past sins, but not as divine agency. Black Grace, on the other hand, because it is at the bottom of society, in the blackness of oppression, accepts the helpless and hopeless condition of human nature. It willingly and readily throws itself on the mercies of God, not only as a badge of righteousness and a covering for the forgiveness of past sins, but first and foremost, as a transforming power, a divine agency. Black Grace cries out, “If you don’t preserve me, I won’t be preserved. If you don’t save me, I won’t be saved. If you don’t change my oppressive situation, it won’t change. If you don’t love through me, I will not love my enemy.” Black Grace is the wellspring of divine dynamism that has convinced Black folks that “the grace of Christ transforms the character.”4 Black Grace is the raison d'être for the nine families of Emanuel AME Church and millions of us Black flocks that keeps us from storming the U.S. Capitol Building and continuing to forgive America.
Notes & References:
4. E. G. White, COL. p. 118
Dr. Roland J. Hill is a retired ordained SDA minister who served as a pastor, professor, and stewardship director. He is the author of 22 books and presently serves as the president of The International Association of Godpreneurs Foundation and the Director/Speaker for Chapel in The Air, a weekly online program https://www.bamiag.com/iag-chapel-in-the-air.
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