Black History: Liberation Not Domination
The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Luke 6:27-38
I’ve been trying to figure out how to talk about Black History Month through the lens of our faith. I want to be careful. Careful not to tokenize the Black experience, as if there’s just one Black experience. Careful not to valorize the strength and endurance of people who have been disempowered and dehumanized throughout our American history. I’ve noticed that when white folks celebrate the strength and endurance of Black folks, it often serves to sweep under the rug why they needed that strength and endurance in the first place. It often serves to celebrate victims for enduring suffering that white folks actively and purposely perpetrated.
So I want to be careful. In the same way I want to be careful about how I talk about today’s gospel. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” Oh, how these words have been used to encourage meekness and passivity in those who are suffering right now, in those who are enduring injustice right now. Endure in this lifetime, preachers have told them, and you will be rewarded in heaven.
"Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you.”
These are convenient platitudes for those who are not suffering, those who have the most power. Especially when they serve to keep those people comfortable and in power.
But Jesus wasn’t a person of earthly power when he spoke these words. He was a small-time Jew living in a country brutally conquered and pacified and ruled by the Roman Empire. And he wasn’t talking to powerful people when he spoke those words. He was talking to his disciples. Fisherman, tradesman. Fellow Jews who had lived their entire lives under Roman domination. Romans who controlled how Jews lived, moved around the country, and worshiped. Romans who incentivized some Jews to turn against other Jews—to turn them in for not paying taxes to the empire or for having the audacity to preach release of the prisoners and freedom to the oppressed.
So when Jesus says, “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also,” he’s not saying to them “roll over and submit.” He’s saying, don’t let their behavior dictate your behavior.
Jesus isn’t telling his fellow Jews to meekly give in, he’s telling them to resist by standing in the integrity of their faith, which is not through violence, which is not through repaying harmful behavior with harmful behavior, but through deep and authentic love. A love that calls us to how God created us. A love that calls us to our gifts. A love that calls us to love each other as God loves us. A love that calls us to justice. And revenge is not justice.
Jesus is offering a new way of resistance. A resistance that is powerful because it calls people to the values they claim to have but may not be living. A resistance that stands with conviction and says to those who would harm and oppress, I stand here in my faith, in my integrity, in my love. How will you respond?
I used to wonder why so many people who were kidnapped from their families and communities in Africa and brutally enslaved in North America adopted the Christian religion of their enslavers. The very religion that enslavers used to morally justify their actions.
Now some of this was logistical. One strategy of the enslavers to keep those they were enslaving from coordinating escapes or revolts was to separate anyone who shared a language the enslavers didn’t understand. So people who were enslaved arrived on whatever plantation or in whatever household without being able to talk to anyone else. This also served to separate people who shared the same customs and religion. Without community to share them, most of those customs and religions faded over time.
But people who were enslaved did what any of us would do if we were forced to live among people we didn’t know anyone, where we couldn’t understand each other’s languages: they learned a common language, they established common customs and found ways to survive and find hope and joy together. This community-building continued through the decades and then centuries that our country allowed for the enslavement of other human beings. Wherever people were enslaved, community was created, no matter how much their enslavers tried to suppress it.
A lot of times, the enslavers forced people who were enslaved to go to church. To “civilize” them, to teach them the “right” belief. Other times, Christianity slowly found its way to their quarters.
However they found this new faith, one thing is for sure: people who were enslaved understood the teaching of the Bible much differently than their enslavers.
Since its inception, our faith was always meant to liberate not dominate. Israelites liberated from Egypt, the exiles liberated from Babylon, Jesus liberated from the power of domination and death. And when Israel and Judah built themselves up and occupied a position of power where they became the dominators, that’s when everything came tumbling down.
This is what the people who were forced into slavery understood about Christianity. And of course, not every person who was enslaved adopted Christianity. Some held onto and adapted the traditions of their ancestors, and some of those religions live on today. But many did. Because Christianity was life-giving for them.
It was life-giving because the power of our faith is not manifested in domination, it is manifested in liberation. As white enslavers cherry-picked verses like “slaves obey your masters” or abused verses like “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also,” those who were imprisoned and abused on their plantations heard something very different.
They heard, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,” They heard this echoing from every part of our scripture from the Exodus to the Psalms to the prophets to the gospels.
That liberation is irrepressible. No matter how we try to manipulate it, our faith liberates in love. The Spirit confounds any attempts to contain our faith within small, greedy thinking. When the enslavers misused their faith to dominate, the Spirit brought it to those who would recognize its real power, the power to liberate.
Black History teaches us that our faith will not be commandeered for the purpose of domination and destruction. It is a gift and a lesson to anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ. If our Christianity isn’t a source of liberation for everyone, it’s not Christianity.
And that power of liberation has been passed down from Frederick Douglass to Sojourner Truth to The Rev. Pauli Murray to The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to The Rev. William Barber. That power of liberation has given strength to anyone who has stood toe to toe with those who would harm and oppress, and it has said, “I stand here in my faith, in my integrity, in my love. How will you respond?”