On a recent trip to Charleston, I was on a tour and heard a bit about the history of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, site of the deadly shooting in June of this year.
The church was founded in 1816 and its members almost immediately faced harassment and arrest by the city’s white establishment. In 1822, a number of church members were accused of planning a slave revolt, then were sentenced and executed after a series of secret trials. By 1834, all-black churches in Charleston were outlawed, and the church lived on as what has been called the “invisible institution” for over 30 years until the end of the Civil War.
That history is a painful one to think on as a white southerner, but I think we must view that sinful past and talk about those failures as a church in order to move forward and understand lessons that will be critical to the next century of the church in this country. It is a history that informs many of the problems this country and the church still face today. Most importantly, it can provide many lessons to Christians today as we look to a future as a minority in American culture and politics.
As I have thought about the future of Christians being a minority in the United States, and living as exiles, I have been greatly encouraged by several pastors and Christian leaders who have made the important connection to a community of Christians who have lived with this “exile mindset” for centuries—the African-American church in the United States. The African-American church offers many lessons to the rest of the Christians in the United States about how to live in the changing political and social culture of our country.
One lesson is learning to influence culture without power and privilege. The Civil Rights Movement, often led by ministers from the African American church, used non-violent protest—submission and humility in the face of violent oppression. This makes me think, Am I willing to suffer for justice today?
Will my politics be about protecting my existing position or protecting all who are oppressed? This is a challenge for Christians of every political stripe. Will I be willing to oppose my political ‘tribe’ and seek to protect other minorities of all kinds, even those with whom I may disagree? Can I love and serve those who oppose or mock me or my faith? There are no easy answers here, but a rear guard action attempting to maintain the status quo is not a way forward.
Finally, with a global view in mind, what legacy will the U.S. church offer to the growing churches of Africa, Asia and Latin America? Can we offer them honest lessons from our failures and a better way to govern and participate in politics? Or will we attempt to perpetuate the same often-flawed strategies we have been a part of for so long? Will we sell them the false dreams of being the next City on a Hill?
The African-American church can provide examples and lessons of living for Christ and serving while oppressed, marginalized, and excluded—oppression and exclusion all too often, to our collective shame, carried out by their fellow white Christians.
To me, no greater picture of these lessons can be given than the words of grace and forgiveness from the families of those slain in Charleston—an incredible example to God’s people in America of how a church in exile can show the Grace of God in a supernatural way. In that, we see people following Christ despite violence and disdain from many who claim to follow the very same Christ.