The Power of One…Community

“For ye are children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Gal. 3:26-29, KJV)

“Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him.” (Acts 10:34-35, KJV)

“And [God] hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” (Acts 17:26, KJV)[1]

[1] The recent home-going[3] celebrations relevant to the life and Christian witness of Mrs. Rosa Louise Parks makes available to us-her posterity-a reflective moment to seriously ponder her impact upon us, our progeny, and our own witness to the Christian gospel.

[2] To recall that era is-on the one hand–to recall a time of great pain. It is to remember a church that was divided by race at every level, even while united in its flawed view of humanity-a view in which the races were believed to be unequal. Sadly, this flawed view of humanity and this unbiblical position were embraced, supported, promulgated, and defended by most white persons and by others, both within and outside of the church. Surely, such a reality speaks of sin, the sin of the church expressed in at least two modes.

[3] When confronting the “double sin of the church,” Yacob Tesfai observes: “The first sin of the church is that it often resists engagement in the world, claiming God’s sanction only for the abstract spiritual realm and saying that hunger and injustice are relative matters. The second sin is that it is structured according to social patterns of the world yet refuses to be critical of this capacity.”[4]

[4] This was the case in that era and, lest we point fingers, remains widespread today. One must still concede that Sunday morning at 11 a.m. remains the most segregated hour of the week. Moreover, it remains an abiding and ever present notion-though now contested-that the sixteenth century is normative for all Lutherans whether on the mother continent or elsewhere in the world.

[5] To call to mind these realities along with that momentous time of great pain is by no means to exhaust the significance of that epoch and its sundry events, sufferings, and personalities. It was a time of great hope and excitement in the Black community. Seemingly, Black people intuitively knew that God was doing something wonderful. Far more often than not when our white brothers and sisters and others participated in the movement, a fuller glimpse of the reign of God and its embodiment in the social context were evident. A contemporary down payment on ecumenism was etched in blood via that non-violent army.

[6] This movement anticipated by thirty-one years what the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL) would declare later in Harare, Zimbabwe: that the idea of ecumenism emanating from the ashes of the movement could not be restricted to

“The Western, European-American ethnocentricism of many Lutheran ecumenical ventures, particularly those that point to a recovery of (or return to) “catholic unity,” especially between Lutherans and Roman Catholics and Anglicans. Black Lutherans assert that “catholic unity” is more than consensus on the Western creedal theology. We consider such a European-American understanding nothing but a culturally monolithic expression of the Western catholic tradition which is pursued at the expense of an authentic ecumenism which is culturally, ethnically, and contextually diverse in its expressions of the Christian faith.”[5] In this context, dialogue became a staple; and, perhaps for the “first time” honesty on a broader scale was given a hearing.
[7] Closer to home, one of the by-products of the movement was that Black people in white denominations were increasingly included in conferences, decision-making positions, and the like. In some schools of “higher learning,” Black persons were employed and courses appeared-though usually consigned to the elective status. Social statements on race and a host of other pertinent issues have been struggled with, passed, and now form the lexicon of part of that positive response of the church. Altar and pulpit fellowship has been established with predominately European-American church bodies. Greater sensitivity to world issues has evoked a more faithful response. “All of this” was because of Mrs. Parks’ refusal to move.

[8] With all this in mind, we would be remiss then if we failed to attend to the Black Christian tradition as integral to the tradition that formed Mrs. Parks and the Black community. We would be remiss, further, if we failed to recognize the implications for our world today. Before moving to a brief overview of this tradition, though, a word needs to be offered regarding Mrs. Parks’ signal encounter with the white bus driver because that encounter is a more modern take of an old biblical story that speaks in and to a changing world.

An Imaginary (?) Scene
[9] It is not difficult for Black persons of that era and beyond to imagine, know, and vicariously experience what Mrs. Parks encountered on that faithful day as a transformative moment. (It was a moment that not only precipitated change in this country and this church, but a moment whose ripples are still being felt.) When all is said and done, so many have sat where she sat and many others in different contexts still do so today in one form or another.

[10] Ever mindful of the numerous experiences on the buses that Mrs. Parks and all Black people had encountered before kronos and kairos kissed and kairos prevailed, December 1, 1955 would provide a different response to the white bus driver’s question. That question-stated declaratively-as Mrs. Parks recounts in her words was simply: “You’d better make it light on yourselves and let me have those seats?”[6]

[11] Fittingly, the critical existential question that confronted Mrs. Parks in this situation was quite simple in its expression yet pregnant with a multitude of implications, possibilities, and choices. Modestly stated, Mrs. Parks had to ask: “Do I obey God or this man, the bus driver?” Perhaps she also had to contend with whether she was up to paying the additional cost in suffering and indignity. In a word, I can imagine her saying one more time to herself: “Do I put up with this racist system or do I take a stand for what is right-for God, for the divine gift of somebodiness through Christ our Lord and Savior, for community, and for others?”

[12] It is also quite possible-if not probable-that deep within her faith experience, memory bank, and learning she was moved to call upon a host of her African Methodist Episcopal Church faith ancestors. Such ancestors include the likes of Richard Allen, Mary G. Evans, Jarena Lee, Morris Brown, and Reverdy C. Ransom[7] who were part of that tradition. How could she not have culled the faith experiences of Peter and the other apostles in a similar situation as it is recorded in the Book of Acts? Peter, when confronted by the powers of the day relative to their teaching and preaching regarding the name and person of Jesus the Christ, was moved to say: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29, KJV). In addition, it is reasonable to assume from the perspective of the Black Christian tradition-in which she was grounded-that the words of Gamaliel in defense of Peter and the other apostles were appropriate: “But if it [teaching in Jesus’ name] be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” (Acts: 5:39, KJV).

[13] The judgment of history appears to affirm that both the actions of Mrs. Parks and the subsequent movement challenged humanity with procedures that were of God!

[14] Being an integral member of the Black Christian tradition and knowing that even with the best of us, one’s cup of forbearance[8] runs over, Mrs. Parks’ down-sitting ushered in an assembly of non-violent Black Christians and others who willingly stood up to evil. From this moment on, a salvo was launched that was heard around the world.

[15] It was-without question-a civil rights movement that Mrs. Parks re-ignited. It was, however, more than that. It is this “more than that” which regularly gets truncated for it was indeed a movement of the Christian Church using the Black Christian tradition to affirm its convictions about Scripture, humanity, theology, ecumenism, praxis, and the like.

[16] As one who lived in and through this period and was profoundly influenced, shaped, and touched by the events of this epoch, I cannot ignore or feign objectivity with respect to its import or impact. Our family lost a son and brother in this struggle and aftermath and it was an unspeakably profound experience to watch and experience our parents’ pain and suffering as we buried our brother and their youngest son.

[17] In light of the foregoing, I had to know that even if this were a civil rights movement, and it was, there was a deeper meaning. I had to know there was a deeper purpose and a more profound understanding in this event as my parents had suggested to me many times before. Civil rights alone did not provide me with the ground upon which I could stand. If that ground was sufficient, then theology had little to do with injustice and was thereby confined to the learned academic abstractions that seek no embodiment in the social context. This I knew to be utterly false based on my reading of Scripture and my life in the Black community!

[18] Moreover, the faith of Black Christian heroes and heroines could not be defined by someone else as to whether or not they were important to me, my family, or the community that God has gifted me to be a part of-even though sequestered to the margins of God’s amazing story of grace by a culture that evidently didn’t care.

[19] Strangely then, the story of Mrs. Parks’ action was my own pathway to a more overpowering faith and a wider acceptance of people. Therefore, my bias is a daily reminder that her legacy was and is critical to my own posture of faith, indicative of my struggle with God.

[20] Consequently, this critical excursus appears to me to be inherent in the Black Christian tradition and is not only my story but the community’s story as well. This tradition subsequently fosters several insightful ongoing questions regarding Black Lutherans in the U.S.

Black Lutherans
[21] As a starter, where do Black Lutherans stand in this current context with respect to the principles and practices of the soon to be posited Black Christian tradition? More pointedly, how are these principles embodied in what Black Lutherans believe, teach, say, and do? What is their ecclesial relationship with “the historic Black church beyond the informal contacts?” What has been the product of Black Lutheran dialogue with these “separated sisters and brothers?” Tangibly, how do Black Lutherans look upon the history and witness of Mrs. Parks? Where does she rank in that community’s hall of saints? How shall womanist scholars view her witness as a theologian? What shall we share with our posterity regarding Mrs. Rosa L. Parks? Civil Rights only? Finally, shall we give her an equal position in our history as we give to Martin Luther or even Martin Luther King, Jr.? These, ostensibly, are some questions that U.S. Black Lutherans and others cannot avoid as they address not only their heritage and heroes, but as they engage a Christian future that acknowledges the exploding Lutheran presence and witness on the continent of our origin and elsewhere.

[22] This concern affects the wider issues that confront humankind today. Who and where are the faithful witnesses in the Black Christian tradition that articulate the just concerns of our world today? How different and unique are those issues compared to the ones that were raised during the Parks’ era? What have we learned and who will teach our young the faith in ways that connect with them? Given the Parks gift to humankind, where do we see and experience a similar expression of giftedness today?

[23] Given the limitation of space, and maybe not to betray “my hand,” the above-cited questions concerning today, and with reference to Black Lutherans and others, are not raised in order to negatively provoke but in order to summon extended consideration rather than snippets of superficiality! (I am currently working on them as a part of another project.)

The Black Christian Tradition: Principles
[24] With these reflections and questions in hand, we are now ready to return to the question: What exactly is Black Christian tradition? What are some of its most distinguishing characteristics? Peter J. Paris, the famed ethicist and scholar, in his pungent and cogent work The Social Teachings of the Black Churches contends that there are several components that should arrest us. I want to selectively elevate a few of these foundational principles as Paris explicates them in order to let the reader interpret for her/himself. It is important to reiterate that these played an essential part in Mrs. Parks’ life. The six principles I have selected are as follows:

[25] 1) “The normative tradition for blacks is that tradition governed by the principle of nonracism which we call the black Christian tradition. The fundamental principle of the black Christian tradition is depicted most adequately in the biblical doctrine of the parenthood of God and the kinship of all peoples-which is a version of the traditional sexist expression ‘the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men.'”

[26] 2) This tradition has “exercised both priestly and prophetic functions: the former aiding and abetting the race in its capacity to endure the effects of racism, the latter using all available means to effect religious and moral reform in the society at large.”

[27] 3) The Black Christian tradition employs as its source of authority that to which they “have unreservedly been committed, namely, a biblical anthropology which they believe strongly affirms the equality of all persons under God regardless of race or any other natural quality.”

[28] 4) This tradition “has been normative for the black churches, it has also been the basic principle of meaning for the entire black community [even for those whose faith posture is other than Christian].”

[29] 5) “Apart from the tradition it is doubtful that blacks would have been able to survive the dehumanizing force of chattel slavery and its legacy of racial oppression.”

[30] 6) “The black Christian tradition has tended in the main, though not always, to refrain from justifying acts of violence against other human beings.”

[31] 7) In summary fashion, “In our view… the black Christian tradition represents the formal union of the eschatological and the sociopolitical realms, never the one apart from the other.”[9]

[32] Given that these principles were so deep within her, the legacy of Mrs. Rosa Parks is one that continuously calls for representation of them in not only her community of origin but other communities as well. Of special interest is how she appropriated the Gospel through her own cultural lens and in her act of affirming somebodiness[10] was able to see, act, and engage non-violently the common humanity of all of God’s children. This witness should thereby engage other cultures in the query of cultural transcendence, even while they affirm the necessary particularity of every culture. The manner in which we share this story-in its fullness-is critical to the ongoing Christian story of faith and witness.

A Rabbi’s Question
[33] In her provocative volume regarding lectio divina and the rediscovery thereof, Thelma Hall shares a powerful account that seems appropriate to the close of this reflection. This narrative is occasioned by a rabbi’s question to some of his students about how one/community sees reality:

“An ancient rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was on its way back. ” Could it be,” asked one student, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi. “Could it be,” asked another, “when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Well, then what is it?” his pupils demanded. “It is when you look on the face of any woman or man and see that she or he is your sister or brother. Because if you cannot do this, then no matter what time it is, it is still night.”[11]
[34] The power of one…community “is to see every woman and man as sister and brother…[And] participate in the faith vision… [that sees] unity and oneness of ALL, in God.”[12] More than likely, such a vision is concerned with the survival of our planet and the recognition of the universal interconnectedness of all peoples and of the cosmos in the one Love which is God.”[13]

[35] Mrs. Rosa Parks’ legacy reminds our world that Christ Jesus-the light of the world who has overcome its darkness-raises up persons who literally and figuratively sit down against injustice, so that others might be transformed and propelled by the reflective light of her Christian witness to stand up!

[1] While I am quite aware of these passages of scripture in the King James Version of the Bible (KJV), and how they seem to function in the Black community, I am grateful to biblical scholar Vincent L. Wimbush for his ordering and interpretation of the same. See his article: “Reading Texts as Reading Ourselves, in Reading from this Place, Vol.1: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in the United States, ed. Fernando F. Segovia and Mary Ann Tolbert (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 103-08.

[2] The title for this reflection, “The Power of One…Community,” is one that comes from a November 5th & 23rd, 2005 HBO-TV presentation that dealt with the issue of apartheid in South Africa in 1989 and was appropriately called “The Power of One.” I have extended this designation by adding the word and notion of community. For the concept and embodiment of community more accurately reflects and portrays that which is historical and real in the understanding of Black people on the Mother continent and in the U.S.; namely, that one cannot exist apart from community, whether that community be defined as divine and/or human in relationship. Moreover, it-the label-is further authentication of what Mrs. Parks was all about!

[3] The notion of home-going (death) in the Black Christian community carries with it the idea of victorious celebration in Christ, a return to the God who made all of us, as well as that of joining the ancestors-past, present, and those who are yet to come (the communion of saints).

[4] Yacob Tesfai, Liberation and Orthodoxy: The Promise and Failure of Interconfessional Dialogue (New York: Orbis Books, 1996), p. 155.

[5] See the Appendix in Theology and the Black Experience: The Lutheran Heritage Interpreted by African and African-American Theologians (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1988) Albert Pero & Ambrose Moyo, ed., p.270.

[6] Howell Raines, My Soul Is Rested: Movement Days in the Deep South Remembered (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1977) p.41.

[7] Anne H. Pinn & Anthony B Pinn, Introduction to Black Church History (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), p. 40-41.

[8] I am employing the notion of forbearance as it is used by Peter J. Paris, The Spirituality of African Peoples: The Search for a Common Moral Discourse (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), p.129-59, esp. p. 141-44.

[9] I am extremely indebted to Peter J. Paris for his articulation of the Black Christian tradition. In addition, I have relied heavily on his works-corpus-as interpretive pieces to more adequately express this phenomenon. Peter J. Paris’, The Social Teaching of the Black Churches (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), p. 10-18.

[10] In her act of defiance, she was also affirming the gift of God in Jesus the Christ. In this vein, Lawrence Jones writes: “Black churches [and individuals] are also the product of the positive, self-affirming attitudes of Blacks toward themselves. They testify to the fact that Blacks had heard and believed the Gospel teaching that God is no respecter of persons. They were early aware of the distinction that had to be drawn between Christianity as practiced and preached by some whites and Christianity as proclaimed by its Founder.” Quoted in Paris, Social Teaching, n. 17 e, p.24.

[11] Thelma Hall, Too Deep for Words: Rediscovering Lectio Divina (New York: Paulist Press, 1988), p. 55.

[12] Ibid. p. 55.

[13] Ibid. p. 55.