By Rev. Dr. Timothy James, Administrative Secretary of the National Convocation
“So, if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8: 36 (NRSV)
Who would have thought the year 2020 would turn out to be the year it has been? I heard it said, “I want to send this year back, have it cleaned up, and rebooted because it has virus.” We do not have the luxury to send the year back or turn back the hands of time. We must keep going on. At mid-year, we can look back and see the impact of the COVID-19 on the world and particularly the United States. We, the wealthiest and most resourceful nation, yet we lead the world in cases of infections and deaths. We have seen the sleeping giant for justice awakened by the murder of George Floyd to reinforce the truth that BLACK LIVES MATTER! Protests continue across the country calling for an end to systemic and institutional racism. There is a genuine spirit for change and transformation that is alive and active. We must be faithful in these times to serve, because when the marching stops the work does not.
As I contemplate the celebration of America’s Independence Day, I have second thoughts. To get an African American perspective on this year’s holiday, I thought I might consult my predecessor, John R. Foulkes, or church historians Lawrence Burnley or Brenda Cardwell, or even one of our past National Convocation Board presidents. But due to the time constraints of this publication and the summer solstice having already passed, I consulted the man in the mirror. So, I share my thoughts in this article.
The events of 2020 have helped raise the awareness of the nation to an atrocity of a horrible race riot in Tulsa, Oklahoma in June of 1921. It also has served to highlight the observance of Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the slaves in Texas were freed, two and one-half years after President Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation. Obviously, for me a minister, serving the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), I emphasize the importance of our initiative to truly be an Anti-Racist/Pro-Reconciling church.
In my contemplation of this year’s Independence Day celebration, I read the works one of our ancestors, Frederick Douglass, escaped slave, fiery abolitionist and preacher. He was asked to deliver an oration to an august crowd on “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July”. This speech was given July 5, 1852, slavery was nationalized, and fugitive slave laws were enforced in the north and the south. Douglass was clear to point out the Star Spangled Banner and American Christianity shared the same spirit of oppression of the slave. He strongly articulated, “For black men there are neither law, justice, humanity nor religion.” This mindset of white supremacy and black inferiority was a part of America’s legislation and America’s religion. He went on to say, “The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery.” Preston Taylor, founder of the National Christian Missionary Convention, sought to end the heresy looming over the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) as a segregated church. Martin Luther King, Jr. in his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, admonished white preachers and white Christians not to condemn his actions while they sat silent and complicit with the systems the that denied civil rights and human rights to African Americans.
I thank God for the circumstances that have brought us to this place. Although they are not the prettiest and most pleasant, these circumstances have created so many perfect storms for resistance, advocacy and change. When the marching stops the work does not. Let us be fully committed to be a model church endeavoring to be Anti-Racist and Pro-Reconciling. Francis Scott Key’s words, “the land of the free and the home of the brave” did not apply to Black people. But Jesus said, “So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8: 36). Let us be about the work to expose and dismantle racism in its many forms and manifestations. We can make America and the world a better place to live for our children. I will celebrate July 4, 2020 in the spirit of anticipation and hope of what America may become. I will celebrate with faith in God, hope in Jesus Christ and with the love of the Holy Spirit working in me and through me. May we be the movement for wholeness in this fragmented world? My faith tells me that the best is yet to come.
(Simmons and Thomas, editors; PREACHING WITH SACRED FIRE, An Anthology of African Sermons 175o – to the Present; Frederick Douglass, “What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July”, p.137-160; W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2010.)