by Maury D. Jackson
Adventist Christians are called to remain vigilant against beastly imperial powers (Rev. 13). That call includes paying close attention to rhetorical strategies that look like lambs, but breathe fire like dragons (Rev. 13:11). The bad breath of the beast is seen today in the hashtag culture: #MeToo; #Antiracism; #ThinBlueLine; #AllLivesMatter; #BLM (is this Blue Lives Matter or Black Lives Matter?).
The problem with slogans and hashtags is that they both don’t say enough, and say too much. They represent the vague language of the soundbite: a language device that hides deep differences and spew forth incompatible visions, often without solutions.
From Cliché to Conversation
Whatever shape Black History Month (BHM) takes in 2021, if it offers no more than #BLM sloganeering it will not help us to find solutions and answers.
Originally, Black History Month was envisioned as an educational remedy far beyond hashtags, soundbites, or slogans. Carter G. Woodson, founder of Black History Month, said that “Negroes are taught to admire the Hebrew, the Greek, the Latin and the Teuton and to despise the African.” These words are not only true of the “Negroes” in his day, they are also true of all people socialized under the dominant influence of North Atlantic culture today.
Woodson’s book set out to counter miseducation. It documents literary resistance to the American Empire’s textual strategy of ethnoscaping, in which “the energy of metaphoric borrowings and reproductions within the wider tradition of colonial romance and adventure writing . . . [where] white master and black slave/servant became an unquestioned commonplace.”
Ethnoscapes come in the form of written texts, paintings, and television images. In a culture rife with individualism many took the occasion of Black History Month not to teach history, but to parade a list of exceptional characters whose complexion happened to be on the darker end of the spectrum. In other words, the month became captive to individual exceptionalism—in black face.
Slogans homogenize collective unparsed feelings without offering the necessary clarity to thoughts and programs that could remediate evil. Slogans cause us to go off topic. For example, “Should ‘Black’ be capitalized or in lower case?” is off topic. We need more than that rally cry “Black Lives Matter,” which only evokes or provokes emotion. The Black Lives Matter slogan and hashtag is, ironically, off topic, too, if it doesn’t help us find solutions. Human decency, the significant events of history or Christian faith—none of these noble aims can afford to be derailed or drawn into rhetorical campaigns that fail to bear faithful witness to the heart of the matter. George Floyd’s death, watched like sanctioned pornography before a global audience (in which officer Derrick Chauvin pushed his knee into the neck of a man who cried out to his dead mother), no longer permits us to go off topic.
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, the faculty of the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School at La Sierra University understood that more is needed than a simple slogan; the situation required real reflection. They wrote, “We confess that the story of our community begins with the story of Jesus—the story of a poor, Jewish, menial laborer, who lived under foreign military occupation, who was arrested by the authorities of his day on charges of sedition and heresy, who was beaten and tortured by law enforcement agents, and who called out for his mother with his dying breath. We confess that we see this same Jesus in the death of George Floyd.”
Christian witness lends a hand in our ability to identify the deeper issues involved in the evil of empire. And yes, Black history is also crucial in strengthening that analysis.
Recognizing Beastly Powers
Where there are racial disparities, beastly powers reveal the places in which their appetites run out of control.
- Chattel slavery indicates the monstrous evils of capitalism out of control.
- Jim and Jane Crow apartheid laws become the signposts corporate rulers hide under and influence deeply the façade of democracy.
- Violent policing, along with the prison industrial complex, winks at the evil of authoritarian regimes and their brutal coercive strategies.
- Black communities, where toxic waste first infects the environment before it drives up cancer rates in children, denote places where the blood-dripping teeth indicate the appetite of a dragon that remains unquenched.
- Racial disparities in health, housing, law enforcement policy, mass incarceration, employment opportunities, and educational prospects highlight the beastly appetite that the Christian story of history is called to bear witness against.
Black History Month remains an opportunity for Adventist Christians of all ethnicities to act on another call: the call to embark on a reading campaign. This is when we put away slogans and slog through texts that bear witness to Africa’s role in shaping western Christianity. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the Seedbed of Western Christianity by Thomas Oden tells of African influences in Christian faith and practice. Black Church Beginnings by Henry Mitchell details the unexpected and continued witness of pan-African Christianity. The careful witness of Jesus with Black people in the Western Hemisphere is described in Jesus and the Disinherited by Howard Thurman. Black people’s unique suffering under beastly empires is chronicled in The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James H. Cone.
Our understanding must go beyond individual or cultural exceptionalism: it must bear witness to cultural influence in the face of racial subjugation. Christian historians who are ignorant of African influences on Christian thought may end up perpetrating biblical heresy.
Christ is not only Lord of the church, He is Lord of the world. So history matters. And Black history matters for those who bear witness to today’s beastly powers. The Adventist witness to the end of history can be a faithful witness. It can tell the whole story. This is a story, not of individual exceptionalism wearing a black complexion, nor is it a story of a pure faithful remnant disengaged from the world that God came to save.
It is the story of a colored child, born to an unwed teenage mother, raised in Nazareth’s ghetto, railroaded through a kangaroo court, and lynched on a tree. This same Jesus travels with us throughout history (and awaits us at the end) with loving arms of redemption for despised races. He is our hope of complete redemption.
- Carter G. Woodson, The Mis-Education of the Negro (Chicago, IL: African American Images, 2000), p. 1. ↑
- Elleke Boehmer, Colonial and Postcolonial Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), p. 47. ↑
- Dean and Faculty of the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School, La Sierra University Statement of Condemnation, Confession, and Call for Sacred Conversation and Confrontation (lasierra.edu/together/story/statement-of-condemnation-confession-and-call-for-sacred-conversation-and-confrontation/). ↑
- This language emerged out of reading and listening to the thoughts of James Cone, although I cannot find where I may have read or heard it. ↑
Maury D. Jackson chairs the Pastoral Studies Department of the H.M.S. Richards School of Religion at La Sierra University.