Dr. King was misunderstood by many in both the Black community and the White. The most acute misunderstandings came from the predominantly White, so-called Bible-believing community. Dr. King’d theological dynamic gave him a biblical message and method that conformed neither to the White conservative agenda nor to the White liberal agenda.
Sadly, many White evangelical, fundamentalist, and Reformed churches were caught sleeping with no oil in their lamps at the outbreak of this move of God in the land. They had evidently been rendered dysfunctional by a defective view of theology and culture. They failed to distinguish between White standards and scriptural standards. Their theology had led them to a preoccupation with private salvation.
The importance of personal salvation should never be diminished, But the whole counsel of God revealed in the Scriptures goes far beyond the scope of the private realm. According to God’s Word, even, salvation itself finds its significance in terms of a much larger picture—namely,the praise of God’s glory (Ephesians 1-2). But many leading evangelicals never came to grips with the big picture of God’s purposes. They never saw the broad cultural implications of the Great Commission. This is why their Christianity never had application beyond the private aspects of life. Many believed that America’s racial injustices would fade away automatically as more individuals had conversion experiences. This naive view completely ignored the patterns of racism that had been woven into the American system.
The fundamentalist reaction was much harsher. Fundamentalists and right-wing politicians branded Dr. King and the Civil Rights Movement as “communistic.” Though there was no evidence for such allegations, the label effectively scared off some potential supporters. The Civil Rights Movement and the words of King were beginning to strike at the very root of the White Christianity-ism that supported the political, economic and social system in which they had a vested interest.
Many fundamentalists and evangelicals saw the message of Brother Martin as an experience in futility in light of the total dichotomy between “the sweet by-and-by” and “the nasty now-and-now.” They saw Dr. King as absurdly “bothering to polish the brass and rearrange the furniture on the Titanic.” According to them, “he should have been getting people ‘saved’ in these ‘last days’and not been concerned with eating at lunch counters….”
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 81-82.
The whole basis of this dehumanizing practice [slavery] was an illegitimate view of humanity—a view in which skin color determined not only a person’s status but indeed the presence or lack of the image of God. It became a time-honored belief among many adherents of White Christianity-ism that the uprooted African had no soul. Black people were therefore classified as nonhuman—in later history as three-fifths human. So raping a female slave was not a crime,nor was it considered fornication or adultery.
Yet something positive began to develop in the consciousness of the enslaved Africans, something so significant that it would have a profound effect on African-American culture from the days of slavery up to the present. The slaves learned new things about God.
The early masters, with few exceptions,had never intended that their slaves should become Christian. However, this did not prevent the slaves from experiencing the power of the Word of God. As I pointed out in chapter three, resistance to oppression is itself an expression of God’s grace. When a people are subjected to such oppression, they are driven inward, to the depths of the very humanity the oppression is trying to negate. Any cultural expressions that emerge from such a suffering people will come from those human depths. Other human beings who encounter these expressions will be affected at comparable depths. This, I believe, is what LeRoi Jones meant when he described us as the “Blues People.”This cultural depth and the skills to express such depth are what is today popularly known as “soul.”
Humanity is made in the image of God,and through it God reveals his personhood and power. The deeper we go into our humanity, the more we experience God’s power. This is part of the reason soul culture is so penetrating. It is also one reason the existence of God was never a matter of argument in our historic thinking. African-American culture always presupposed God. Soul culture thus became fertile ground for the gospel.
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 43.
Many White Christians had been faithful to the cultural mandate of Jesus Christ during Reconstruction. They brought education and other forms of help to the former slaves. When the pressure of Jim Crowism arose in the late 1870s, however, they were forced to abandon the African-American community, leaving us to face the horrors of the Southern racist backlash alone.
Another concern was drawing White Christians’ attention. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, the “battle for the Bible” was heating up. On one side were those following in the footsteps of others who a century earlier had given in to the basic assumptions of secular humanism. As a result, their Christianity had eroded into an empty Christianity-ism, with a god whose substance depended on human definition and human opinion. For them Jesus was a mere man—a prophet at best—and the Bible was merely a human book containing some passages that might be considered “inspired” in some vague way. These people became known as “liberals” or “modernists.”
The liberals had lost their theological direction and had nothing to do but play connotation word games. This all changed in 1907, when Walter Rauschenbusch published Christianity and the Social Crisis. Advocating social action and neglecting personal salvation, his “social gospel” breathed new life into the liberal movement.
On the other side of the battle were those who, reacting against the liberals, advocated personal salvation and orthodox doctrine over social action. They became known as fundamentalists or “conservatives.” Those who stood for the conceptual authority of Scripture took the fundamentalist side, while those who stood for the ethical authority of Scripture took the liberal side. To make a sharp distinction between themselves and the liberals, many fundamentalists abandoned all social involvement and concentrated on merely getting people “saved.” They wrongly identified social action with liberalism rather than Christian action. Furthermore, the fiascoes of Prohibition and the Scopes trial made fundamentalists feel the heat of cultural defeat. This effectively closed the books on fundamentalist cultural involvement and opened the door for secular humanism.
The Bible itself never sets up such a dichotomy between personal salvation and social action, between conceptual and ethical authority.
So in essence both sides lost the battle of the Bible.
Between 1877 and 1930 the White Bible-believing churches developed a double isolation from the Black community: They capitulated to White racism, and they adopted a socially impotent gospel. The rift was deep, because social ethics and the quest for freedom and dignity lay at the heart of historic Black theology. The social retreat of White Bible-believing Christianity made it resemble White Christianity-ism.
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 55-56.
Oh, Freedom, Oh, Freedom, Oh, Freedom over me! And before I’ll be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave And go home to my Lord and be free.
This old freedom song is a clear indication that historically our struggle has not been a quest for independence from God. On the contrary, it shows that our quest has been rooted in a desire for God’s lordship. Here freedom is not seen as something to be “over,” as in recent humanistic thinking, but as something to be “over me.” Freedom is being under the right authority; it is being home with my Lord and under the freedom function of God’s lordship.
The strength and resilience of the African-American church are another indication that our historic struggle has been a quest for God’s freedom. Let’s not be hasty to jettison the biblical perspectives of our heritage, as the secular militants did. Maybe we should have listened to A’nt Jane a little more closely.
It is time for a new generation of Joshuas to learn from what has gone before us and, while “reflecting back” on the Word of God, to build the basis of a renewed African-American culture—a renewed culture that will give us a new vision. For “where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18 KJV).
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 32-33.
“There are aspects of the creation which God controls through manipulation. I’m thinking here of the physical and biological laws that determine the behavior of the inanimate world, plants and lower animals. But that is not the way God chooses to control us. He exercises lordship over us through freedom.
Human freedom is derived from God’s lordship and not independent of it, for by definition nothing can be outside God’s sovereignty. As Jesus says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36).
Our difficulty in understanding freedom as a function of God’s sovereignty is like the difficulty the Flatlanders had in understanding the third dimension. That it is hard for us to understand “freedom control” does not mean that it is not true. To rebel against God’s lordship is to rebel against our own human freedom. If we leave the freedom function of God’s lordship, we find ourselves under the manipulation function. To be under manipulation is to be under the slavery of sin (Romans 6:16; Galatians 5:1). These are our only two options.
When Adam sinned, for example, he was not exercising free choice; he was rebelling against freedom of choice. “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden” (Genesis 2:16): this was the range of freedom. “But you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge [determination] of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die” (Genesis 2:17): Adam and Eve were not free to choose to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree so long as they lived under the freedom function of God’s sovereignty. Death in this context was not the result of a free choice. On the contrary, it required a willful rejection of freedom in order to partake of this fruit and die.
If our cultural quest for freedom has been a quest for God’s lordship, then Martin Luther King’s parting words to us will be fulfilled. We will cross the River Jordan into God’s rest—a rest with worldwide implications. But if our cultural quest for freedom has been a quest for independence from God, we will end up on the junk heap of the nations—a junk heap of slavery far worse than what we have ever experienced.
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 31-32.
“A central theme in the flow of African-American history has been the quest for freedom and dignity. There is only one basis for human dignity: the scriptural teaching that man and woman were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). God’s personal dignity is the original personal dignity. Our dignity is derived from the dignity of God. In other words, if God is somebody, which he is, then I am somebody because I in some ways resemble God.
But what is the nature of freedom? Some would say that freedom equals independence. Independence from the oppression of other people is a valid goal, but to attempt independence from God is utterly futile. Think of how an airplane flies. Does a wing produce lift because it becomes independent of gravity? Of course not.
The wing produces lift precisely because of gravity. A wing’s lift is an expression of the law of gravity. Trying to be independent of gravity would be as foolish as stepping off the top of a building and trying to walk on air. For a few fleeting seconds you might think you had succeeded, but your illusion would end abruptly when you reached the pavement below.
God’s rule over us is like gravity: our attempts to resist it are utterly foolish. God laughs at the nations’ plots to rid themselves of his sovereignty, because God knows that they simply cannot escape his lordship (Psalm 2). “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).
Perhaps we can best learn what his lordship means by determining what it does not mean. We are not robots. God’s sovereignty does not mean manipulation. Manipulation is our human way of controlling things. For example, as I type this on my computer, I control what it does with the keyboard and the mouse. I can make the computer do exactly what I want—that is, I can manipulate the computer. Because we tend to see God as having our limitations, we may imagine that God’s sovereignty means that he manipulates us the same way I manipulate my computer. But this is not the case.
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 30-31.
“Unrighteousness is toxic. It destroys humanity. It is only by the grace of God that our humanity has not been totally destroyed—that we can still resist unrighteousness at all. If we had lost that ability, the oppressed would be unable to resist oppression.
How does resistance relate to righteousness, oppression and our need for God’s salvation and grace? Let’s look at this next.
1. Resistance and the righteousness of God. Theologian James Cone has affirmed that God is on the side of the oppressed. What does this mean? It means that the oppressed, when they resist oppression, are resisting unrighteousness. It does not mean that the oppressed are more righteous than the oppressors. It does mean, however, that they have the opportunity to demonstrate more righteousness. Why? Because resisting oppression is more righteous than giving in to it or inflicting it on others, especially if the oppressed resist righteously. (This will be discussed in chapter fourteen.) God is the God of righteousness, and in resisting oppression the oppressed align themselves with God. They advance God’s justice.
2. Resistance and the ungodliness of the oppressed. If ungodliness is imposed on people whose own ungodliness has already diminished their humanity, then the imposed ungodliness is in harmony with their own ungodliness. Consider the prostitute. If she ‘turns a trick’ she cannot charge her ‘john’ with rape. Though her sexuality has been abused, it was her willful intention to execute the transaction. Her intentions complemented the intentions of her john. Nevertheless, the fact that her intentions matched those of her oppressor does not mean that she has simply gotten “what she asked for” or that the oppressor ought not to be judged for his oppression. She became a prostitute in the first place partly because her sense of humanity had been brutalized by oppression and mistreatment.
There is never perfect harmony between oppression and the ungodliness of the oppressed.God set a limit to this unrighteous harmony after the Fall, when he put hostility between Satan, the ultimate oppressor, and humans (Genesis 3:15). By so doing God ensured that for every oppression there will be a corresponding resistance.
3. Resistance and the oppressed’s need for salvation. If the oppressed focus on their humanity (which oppression is trying to destroy) and try to defend that humanity, they will be acting righteously. Their own ungodliness will be driven beneath the surface. When liberation comes, however, their ungodliness will resurface with all its negative effects. The oppressed must fight to break the back of oppression so they can seek God’s solution to their own unrighteousness.
Israel learned this lesson under the judges. They disobeyed God in the first place by not driving out the Canaanites (Deuteronomy 7:1-6; Judges 1:27-2:2). The Canaanites regrouped, regained their strength and came back to oppress the Israelites. Israel resisted. They cried out to God for help,sought God’s ways and were delivered from oppression. But each time they were liberated, their ungodliness resurfaced, and they betrayed their call to be a light to the nations. They had to face their own need for salvation.
4. Resistance and the grace of God. It is God who has preserved our humanity from total destruction by unrighteousness. He has not let ungodliness and oppression whittle down to nothing his image in people.God cares about justice and has compassionate love for suffering people (Isaiah 58:3-12; Amos 5:10-15, 21-24). God’s compassion is rooted in his grace. It is because of God’s grace that oppression will ultimately cave in to the resistance of the oppressed.
Thus it is God’s grace alone that provides the basis for resisting oppression. It is his grace that provides the power to resist oppression. It is God’s grace that provides the will to resist oppression. If we leave God out,we leave out the very possibility of freedom.”
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 29-30.
“When people lack a basic commitment to God, unrighteousness follows. Scripture describes at least two types of unrighteousness: ungodliness and oppression. Ungodliness happens when people rebel against God and his revelation. Disregarding their responsibility toward God and others, they themselves suffer the consequences of their wrongdoing. Oppression occurs when people impose their ungodliness on others, causing them to suffer the consequences. For example, if a person has a racist attitude, he or she is guilty of ungodliness. If, however, that person imposes his racism on others, forcing them to live in substandard conditions, then he is guilty of oppression.
Unrighteousness is seldom exclusively one or the other; it is usually a combination of both. Oppressors are people whose unrighteousness is primarily, but not exclusively, oppression. The unrighteousness of oppressed people is primarily, but not exclusively, ungodliness.”
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 28.
As I poured through books by Black Consciousness thinkers in a quest for understanding, I faced an obvious choice: either acknowledge this new cultural challenge and dispense with my faith, or cling to my faith and disregard the new cultural challenge. Being a transcendent nonconformist, I rejected both options. Instead, I started reading a modern translation of the Bible beginning with Genesis 1:1—a portion of the Bible my theology said did not apply to today.
Letting the Bible speak for itself quickly bulldozed my inadequate theology and eclipsed it. God’s sovereignty over history and over his covenant people came into sharp focus. In the prophets, I saw God’s deep concern for justice and the plight of the oppressed—the very issues Black militants were debating in the streets. These discoveries moved me to seek God’s wisdom about the contemporary cultural upheaval. As I grew in understanding of a biblical worldview, I was more than able to hold my own as I engaged militants in street debates. But what I fervently prayed for was a way to debunk the notion that Christianity was the “White man’s religion” while clearly communicating biblical wisdom-preferably in the form of a book.
-Carl F. Ellis Jr., Free At Last: The Gospel in the African American Experience, 7.
This divine statement tells the story of the whole Bible and expresses the heart of God’s covenant with us. In this relationship God calls us to be committed to righteousness in every area of life: “Be holy, for I am holy” (Lev. 11:44).
Righteousness is a relational, covenantal term. It means to do right by the other party in the covenant. God always does what is right, and therefore we—those saved and set apart to him—should also always do what is right. Unrighteousness, on the other hand, is simply a failure to do what is right.
Window of Righteousness
Righteousness has four dimensions:
Piety. Doing what is right according to God in a narrow sense that involves devotion and ceremony: “Live . . . in the flesh no longer for human passions but for the will of God” (1 Pet. 4:2).
Justice. Doing what is right toward your fellow image bearers. I’m aware that ultimately to do right to people is to do right before God. For example, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27). However, for the sake of our discussion, I’m thinking of justice in a narrow sense here.
Personal. Living rightly before God as an individual: “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, dedicated to God and pleasing to him” (Rom. 12:1).
Social. Living rightly before God as a corporate community, namely, as the body of Christ: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
If we pair these dimensions in all possible combinations, we get four manifestations of righteousness: personal piety, social piety, personal justice, and social justice. This can be illustrated by the Window of Righteousness. Think of this four-paned window as a picture of how the gospel plays out in individual lives and society.
The Bible itself clearly covers the whole window, and when we do theology we should do likewise. Therefore, when the body of Christ is fully functional, all four panes will be engaged. Unfortunately, for a long time most of us in the evangelical community have been functional on one pane—personal piety. This means we’ve neglected 3/4 of the gospel’s implications in this four-fold framework.
This neglect skews our perception of righteousness and leads us to see social piety, personal justice, and social justice as outside the scope of God’s work. Consequently, we’ve tended to let other people lay claim to the other dimensions of the biblical witness—and even redefine them for purposes contrary to the gospel.
This has made our ability to function in those dimensions even more difficult for us. Such is the case with “social justice.” Thus, when the subject of social justice comes up, the knee-jerk reaction is often “I don’t want to have anything to do with that”—giving us further justification for neglecting it.
If we in the body of Christ let unbiblical understandings of “social justice” prevail, then the social justice commanded by God in Scripture will remain unmet. Social justice is a biblical concept, and we must make a clear distinction between true social justice and today’s distortions of it.
Window of Unrighteousness
The window of unrighteousness is the photographic negative of the window of righteousness. The four dimensions are:
Impiety. When a person sins and suffers his or her own consequences.
Oppression. When a person sins and forces others to suffer the consequences, or when he or she imposes their sin on someone else.
Individual. Face-to-face intentional sin.
Institutional. Sin that is woven into the structure and social fabric of society. It’s sin that doesn’t need the intention or the consciousness of the sinner to have effects on its victims.
As in the first window, if we pair these dimensions in all possible combinations, we get four manifestationsof unrighteousness: individual impiety, institutional impiety, individual oppression, and institutional oppression. This can be illustrated by the Window of Unrighteousness. Think of this four-paned window as areas of life needing Christian discipleship.
Similar to our truncated understanding of righteousness, we tend to fight the battle against unrighteousness primarily on the upper left-hand pane—individual impiety. This means that we’ve withdrawn from 3/4 of the task of Christian discipleship.
This withdrawal has opened the door for others to redefine and corrupt the other three manifestations of unrighteousness—turning them into monsters we want to avoid. But these manifestations belong in the cross-hairs of a fully functioning church.
As in the case of the first window, we must make a clear distinction between the biblical concept of unrighteousness and today’s distortions of it. We must take back how unrighteousness is framed.
Observations About Both Windows
If we can learn how to be the body of Christ, then we can learn to engage and fully address both windows. Some of us are better at personal piety than social justice, and vice-versa. Others of us are better at uprooting institutional oppression than individual impiety, and vice-versa. But every act of righteousness needs to be incorporated into the larger project of justice in God’s kingdom, and every expression of unrighteousness needs to be addressed. There’s no righteousness in the land if the people have an “A+” in biblical personal piety and an “F” in biblical social justice.
As a body, we need to learn to undertake and address these diverse manifestations of righteousness and unrighteousness together. If we work together as a body, we can almost completely cover both windows. “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Cor. 12:26).
Each pane of the window depends on the support of the other three panes. If one pane is removed, the integrity of the whole window is compromised. The removal of each additional pane further degrades the window’s integrity, and the last pane left will be so stressed that it will reach a breaking point.
I suggest that this is the current state of the American evangelical witness. We focus primarily on the upper-left-hand pane of each window, but much of the rest of the window is broken. Yet we cling to a sense of satisfaction that we got a 100 percent in less than 25 percent of the project. We’re not helping or participating in the bigger picture. Rather than trying to reduce our witness to a single pane, we must work together as the body of Christ to pursue this bigger picture of righteousness and address this bigger picture of unrighteousness.
To glorify God, we must be wise in our theological efforts. To succeed we must be like the men of Issachar, who “understood the times, and knew what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32).”