The Persecuted Church in America

The Persecuted Church in America

Shortly before sitting down to write my latest piece for The Unbroken Cord I came across a tweet thread by @Ameen_HGA. [1] I won’t share the whole thread but I do want to highlight four tweets, the first one in the thread and three consecutive ones from later in the thread:

“I really think that sometimes we don’t really appreciate how diabolical and Trumatic [sic] chattel slavery was in America. It’s so easy for us to see slavery as a simple hiccup in our nation’s history that we can quickly condemn and sweep under the rug as the past.”

“Us thinking about slavery is not us being victims dwelling on the past and not moving forward. Be clear, most of us are moving forward from a time and space that was shaped by slavery - even down to the very place that we were raised.

God has been sovereign in all of this. He has been and will be glorified (one of the ways I see that is the way he kept his children even in the midst of incredible suffering) we talk about persecuted churches but never talk about the persecuted church re: slaves.

Slaves who were whipped and beaten for preaching the truth; Slaves that where whipped and beaten if caught reading The Bible; Other slaves who risked their physical safety to teach other slaves The Bible (and how to read it) - that’s a real persecuted church.”

Since today is the Fourth of July I wanted to write something that acknowledged the American experience. I’m thankful that these tweets came across my radar. And here’s why: we hear a lot of talk about “persecution” with respect to the church in America these days. The more self-aware will recognize that what Christians are facing in America is not on the same level as what Christians face in other parts of the world today. At the same time many of these folks will warn about the coming persecution for Christians in America. They will cite media ignorance or even hostility towards traditional tenets of the faith (marriage and life in particular) as the writing on the wall. Demographic studies confirming these views are commissioned and books are written about how to weather the coming storm. They talk about how unprecedented all of this is in America, that Christians would be persecuted for their faith. And they do so without irony.

The irony, of course, is that there is an example of the persecuted church in this country but that example is largely ignored by some Christians. Why is it ignored? A short blog on the issue won’t produce a satisfying answer, but our continued avoidance of our nation’s original sin—and its lasting effects to this day—is a good place to start.

The Black church—yes, the Black church—is the example of the persecuted church in America. And its experience is instructive for people as they consider what it means to be persecuted in America.

The persecuted church in America looks like a Sunday School class being disrupted by the clubs and stones of incensed slave owners. The persecuted church in America looks like a runaway slave who led the Abolition movement. The persecuted church in America looks like men hanging from trees as crosses burned in the background. The persecuted church in America looks like a woman whose faithful convictions led her to refuse giving up her bus seat. The persecuted church in America looks like a young preacher from Alabama who led the Civil Rights movement. The persecuted church in America looks like folks who sang hymns while being whipped and then modeled for those who struck them what true Christianity looks like.

Do any contemporary examples in America rise to this level? A couple people have had their livelihood suffer through litigation, but the anecdotes simply do not match up to the systemic evil perpetuated against the Black church. If Christians really want to prepare for the persecution that some believe is coming (or has already arrived), then they have a homegrown example already waiting for them.

This homegrown example is something that we haven’t quite worked through in America. The Civil Rights era saw important reforms but I don’t think we’ve allowed African Americans to process the trauma of slavery and its aftermath. Today there are people alive who were denied access to the same water fountains and bathrooms as White Americans. Today there are some people still alive whose grandparents were slaves. All of that doesn’t simply go away because some laws were passed. And neither is this just a “southern” problem. Racism is deeply imbedded in the north and always has been, particularly in cities in the northeast. Why haven’t we worked through these things? Reconstruction was a big part of it, which allowed Jim Crow to develop, but I’d also wager that shame and persistent racism are additional factors. Why else would a premiere example of the church under persecution be treated like it never happened while some Christians today focus on preparing for persecution?

Every country and civilization has its ugly history, this is not unique to America. The reason why highlighting something like this is important is because so many Christians in America ignore or neglect that history and view it as a “hiccup,” as @Ameen put it, instead of an integral part of our story. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t also beauty as a part of our history as Americans, or as American Christians. And this doesn’t mean that there is nothing worth celebrating tomorrow. But we of all people should be attentive to this integral part of our story, both as Americans and as American Christians. We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.

What steps can we take to recognize the persecution of the Black church in America? Perhaps instead of recommending Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option or the latest clip from a Youtube provocateur, we can read the auto-biographies of Frederick Douglass and study the lives of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King. Likewise, instead of paying homage to the memories of people who seceded from the Union to preserve the institution of slavery, we can visit places like The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, which remembers the victims of lynching during Jim Crow. I believe that those who are concerned about the persecution of Christians in America are sincere, so the least we can do is sincerely prepare. 

We have a beautiful example of how the Christian church responds to systemic persecution in this country. The Black church has gifted to us so many things and it did so while under persecution. The Black church is shaped by the crucified Christ and its survival to this day is evidence of Christ’s resurrection. These brothers and sisters are not people “we have to reach” in order to ensure or own institutional survival. Rather, we are the people who need to be reached by their Spirit empowered example in order to survive and thrive as people of faith. 

Since we claim to be people of the cross it would be good for us who may be concerned about persecution to take after the example of those whose identity is cruciform. It would be truly countercultural in these days to “Lift high the cross,” as the hymn proclaims, after the experience of the Black church. It would be countercultural given the history of some who claim Christianity lifting high a cross on the front lawns of Black Christians. This is a history that has living memory not just back to Jim Crow but to this very day. Will we have ears to hear? “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26).

[1] See here: https://twitter.com/Ameen_HGA/status/1145851051129618432 




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