The plight of African Americans from the time of slavery in America to the era Civil Rights is one of immense suffering and martyrdom. One could say that many died in martyrdom for the cause of freedom. However, it might be more accurate to say that the countless African Americans who died at the hands of others during this time was a Christian martyrdom. As slaves sought survival and freedom their plight was subject to the exposure of Western culture mixed with their African culture and heritage. Within this mixture arose a strong biblical faith which became the strength and hope of many who suffered at the hands of the taskmasters. The taskmasters seemed to want slaves to be religious as to bring about peace and harmony amid the plantations and cities of the South. What taskmaster would want a dishonest slave? None. Therefore, a door was opened for the slaves to become religious in the South. Early on the slaves were allowed to worship. One threat for the Whites was the slaves assembling together and learning the Bible and any other source of education. As long as African Americans remained illiterate, Whites would have an advantage. When African Americans were exposed to the truth of God’s Word the sin of their unjust treatment resonated within their hearts. Hope of liberation came to life through the Biblical passages/narratives.
Perhaps the most common narrative from which many gleaned hope was that of the Exodus motif. The Israelites were in Egypt for some 440 years. The first 40 years seemed to be a time of peace and harmony for the most part. However, the Bible states the following: “Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt” (Exodus 1:8 NIV). From that time on the plight of the Israelites was one of bondage and mistreatment at the hands of taskmasters. As slaves, the Israelites had no rights. What the Israelites did have was faith is God and that He would send a Deliverer. Moses was called to be the mouthpiece for God and to be used by God as His mighty Deliverer. Moses did not see himself as one that was apt for the task, yet he trusted God and became obedient to the call upon his life. Through the messages from God to Pharaoh through Moses, “let my people go” (Exodus 5:1, 7:16, 8:1, 8:20-21, 9:1, 9:13, 10:3 NIV). And through a series of ten plagues/judgments sent by God upon the Egyptians, Pharaoh did let the Israelites go. The Bible tells of how God brought the Israelites to himself on “Eagles wings.” This metaphorically tells that it was by God’s grace and power that the Israelites experienced freedom. After the miraculous crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground, God ultimately delivered the Israelites from their oppressors by drowning the Egyptians in the Red Sea as the waters rescinded. God did not abandon them in the wilderness as we see, “Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, ‘this is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites” (Exodus 19:3-6 NIV). May we speak these words to African Americans today? God brought you out by His grace and by His power. He will sustain you. He will keep you. He will not abandon you. He will guide you and bless you.
The African Americans could relate to the oppression of the Israelites and glean from this Exodus motif, hope that God would send them a Deliverer such as Moses. The name Moses became synonymous with leaders that offered the hope of freedom. A practical theology arose through Biblical narratives such as the Exodus and became known as Black Theology. It was the embracing of God’s promises, protection and provision. Though the Whites could bring about torture and even death to the African American slaves, what the Whites could not do was take away the hope which had taken residence within their hearts, minds and souls. When the African Americans would sing, they sang with conviction and hope. When African Americans fought they fought not against flesh and blood. Paul’s word’s, “We fight not against flesh and blood” was manifest through the actions of the African Americans from the time of slavery through the era of Civil Rights.
In time, deliverance from slavery came. However, it was a freedom that came with great sacrifice. Many died for the cause of freedom for the African American slaves. The families of slaves were split as the slaves were sold and family ties were lost. A sense of identity became an issue for all the African Americans. In the midst of this tragedy, God brought about a bond that only African Americans can truly understand. It has been asked, “When you look into a mirror what do you see?” The African Americans say that they see a black person. The Whites would simply say that they see a person. This is sad commentary on the lasting effect of slavery and the continuance of mistreatment toward African Americans. When a White looks into the eyes of an African American what is seen? Is it a continuance of the sins of the past or has there been progress? Can the White see the pain in the African American eyes? It is only a thought in our discussion but what if the race was reversed? Just for discussion purposes, would we see things differently? We think so. As much as it would be commendable to report that we have recovered from such a travesty as slavery and the unjust treatment, through the years of African Americans by Whites, we are not able to make such a report.
As in times past, the Scriptures continue to offer hope. Hope is available not only for the African American but for all who have asked God for forgiveness and cleansing from the evils of the past. The Bible teaches the following: “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:2-3 NIV). There will come a time for every believer when the pain of the African American’s plight will be redeemed. As recorded in Joel:
I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten — the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm—my great army that I sent among you. You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the Lord your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed. Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the Lord your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be shamed. ‘And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, among the survivors whom the Lord calls (Joel 2:25-32 NIV).
Yes, God has spoken His oracle through His prophet and the promise is to “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord.” Salvation is available. Also, God has promised, “I will repay you for the years the locust have eaten….” We can debate and continue to ask, “Why did slavery in America take place? Why did God allow it to happen?” Or we can accept His Word for us today and live toward fulfilling His will. Perhaps, God’s will was demonstrated in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Was his dream in vain? We certainly think not! However, as it has been said, “this is not a time for people to continue his dream but to awake and bring it alive in our actions.” Let us take from our discussion the words of the true Master, “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.‘ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV).