February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month. Each year U.S. residents set aside a few weeks to focus their historical hindsight on the particular contributions that people of African descent have made to this country. While not everyone agrees Black History Month is a good thing, here are several reasons why I think it’s appropriate to celebrate this occasion.
The History of Black History Month
First, let’s briefly recount the advent of Black History Month. Also called African American History Month, this event originally began as Negro History Week in 1926. It took place during the second week of February because it coincided with the birthdates of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Harvard-trained historian, Carter G. Woodson, is credited with the creation of Negro History Week.
In 1976, the bicentennial of the United States, President Gerald R. Ford expanded the week into a full month. He said the country needed to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Objections to Black History Month
Black History Month has been the subject of criticism from both Blacks and people of other races. Some argue that it is unjust and unfair to devote an entire month to a single people group. Others contend that we should celebrate Black history throughout the entire year. Setting aside only one month, they say, gives people license to neglect this past for the remaining eleven months.
Despite the objections, though, I believe some good can come from devoting a season to remembering a people who have made priceless deposits into the account of our nation’s history. Here are five reasons why we should celebrate Black History Month.
1. Celebrating Black History Months Honors the Historic Leaders of the Black Community
I have the privilege of living in Jackson, Mississippi which is the site of many significant events in Black History. I’ve heard Myrlie Evers, the wife of slain Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers, speak at local and state events. It’s common to see James Meredith, the first African American student at Ole Miss, in local churches or at community events.
Heroes like these and many more deserve honor for the sacrifice and suffering they endured for the sake of racial equality. Celebrating Black History Month allows us to pause and remember their stories so that we can commemorate their achievements.
2. Celebrating Black History Month Helps Us to Be Better Stewards of the Privileges We’ve Gained
Several years spent teaching middle school students impaled me with the reality that if we don’t tell the old, old stories the next generation, and we ourselves, will forget them. It pained me to have to explain the significance of the Harlem Renaissance and the Tuskegee Airmen to children who had never learned of such events and the men and women who took part in them.
To what would surely be the lament of many historic African American leaders, my students and so many others (including me) take for granted the rights that many people before them sweated, bled, and died to secure. Apart from an awareness of the past we can never appreciate the blessings we enjoy in the present.
3. Celebrating Black History Month Provides an Opportunity to Highlight the Best of Black History & Culture
All too often only the most negative aspects of African American culture and communities get highlighted. We hear about the poverty rates, incarceration rates, and high school drop out rates. We are inundated with images of unruly athletes and raunchy reality TV stars as paradigms of success for Black people. And we are daily subject to unfair stereotypes and assumptions from a culture that is, in some aspects, still learning to accept us.
Black History Month provides the chance to focus on different aspects of our narrative as African Americans. We can applaud Madam C.J. Walker as the first self-made female millionaire in the U.S. We can let our eyes flit across the verses of poetry Phyllis Wheatley, the first African American poet and first African American female to publish a book. And we can groove to soulful jazz and somber blues music composed by the likes of Miles Davis and Robert Johnson. Black History Month spurs us to seek out and lift up the best in African American accomplishments.
4. Celebrating Black History Month Creates Awareness for All People
I recall my 8th grade history textbook where little more than a page was devoted to the Civil Rights Movement. I remember my shock as a Christian to learn about the formation of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church because in all my years in churches and Christian schools no one had ever mentioned it.
Unfortunately it seems that, apart from intentional effort, Black history is often lost in the mists of time. When we observe Black History Month we give citizens of all races the opportunity to learn about a past and a people of which they may have little awareness.
5. Celebrating Black History Month Reminds Us All that Black History Is Our History
It pains me to see people overlooking Black History Month because Black history—just like Latino, Asian, European, and Native American history—belongs to all of us. Black and White, men and women, young and old. The impact African Americans have made on this country is part of our collective consciousness. Contemplating Black history draws people of every race into the grand and diverse story of this nation.
Why Christians Should Celebrate Black History Month
As a believer, I see racial and ethnic diversity as an expression of God’s manifold beauty. No single race or its culture can comprehensively display the infinite glory of God’s image, so He gave us our differences to help us appreciate His splendor from various perspectives.
God’s common and special grace even work themselves out in the providential movement of a particular race’s culture and history. We can look back on the brightest and darkest moments of our past and see God at work. He’s weaving an intricate tapestry of events that climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And one day Christ will return. On that day we will all look back at the history–not just of a single race but of people from every nation, tribe, and tongue–and see that our Creator had a plan all along. He is writing a story that points to His glory, and in the new creation, His people won’t have a month set aside to remember His greatness. We’ll have all eternity.
When I enrolled in the Masters of Divinity program at a conservative evangelical seminary, I had no other aspirations than to earn a degree and obtain a ministry position suited to my skills and experience. I thought I would have three or four years once I started school to decide on a ministry placement. But from the moment I arrived on campus, I was assaulted with opportunities.
Numerous individuals and organizations have approached me, offering me church planting and pastoring opportunities all around the country. Well-meaning folks, many of whom are White ministers, are eager to get a biblically faithful, Black, Christian man into leadership and help them become more multi-ethnic and multicultural.
But these sincere offers are sincerely misguided. Most people present me with leadership positions having only just met me. They have no idea about my biblical qualifications, skills, or reputation. They simply see a Black guy with good theology, not a sinner whose call needs to be confirmed. As a result, the landscape is littered with the crushed hopes of churches and ministers who sent their men out too early.
I know churches are excited about any prospective leader, especially if he happens to be Black. But before you launch a promising young, Christian, African American man into ministry too soon, a few words of caution.
When churches find an African American man with leadership potential, they are understandably enthusiastic. While there are more of these men than we think, there are fewer than we need. But eagerness on the part of church leaders often tempts the young minister to arrogance.
The Bible warns us against puffing up a young minister’s pride. In explaining the qualifications for overseers, Paul says, “He [the overseer] must not be a recent convert or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil” (1 Timothy 3:6, ESV). The Bible teaches us that a man who is new to the faith must not be given a leadership role in the church too soon. Rather, a man must be tested to ensure that his faith is genuine and his spirituality is mature. Apart from an extended period of discernment, a young man or recent convert is in danger of believing in his own skills and promise instead of desperately clinging to his Savior.
Leaders and laymen alike must measure their comments. Do they affirm a man based on exceptional character or excellent aptitude or because of his color or cultural background? Are they giving him opportunities based on demonstrated diligence or his potential to “reach” a certain demographic?
Connect Young Adult African American Christians to Seasoned African American Christians
Even though God uses men of all races and ethnicities to disciple each other, young, Black, Christian men who are preparing for the pastorate or some other leadership role would uniquely benefit from connecting with others in similar situations. These future leaders should get connected with other Black Christian men who have been or are currently in the same position.
I have personally benefited from the wise counsel of my pastor, who is also African American and has been ministering for nearly 20 years. I also have several other “gray-heads” from around the country that I frequently call on for advice. These men are able to help me keep a humble perspective as I am inundated with offers for ministry. They have helped me maneuver away from positions that would have exploited me for my racial and cultural background, and have guided me into areas that will ensure my long-term stability in the ministry.
Such connections can facilitate accountability so young, Christian men may be empowered to resist the enticement to overconfidence and the threat of isolation. Current church leaders must do all they can—from paying for trips to conferences to allowing time for regular phone calls with a mentee—to encourage these relationships.
Own Your Own Preparation
Not all of the responsibility for sending a man to start in the ministry falls on the current leadership. The upcoming generation of African American Christian leaders should own their own development.
Young men usually have no lack of ambition. We’ll jump at the slightest slice of opportunity. Thinking we have more wisdom than we actually possess often gets us into situations that prove harmful to ourselves and others.
But a young man must take ownership of his own preparation. He should know himself well enough—in light of Scripture—to determine his own spiritual readiness for ministry. Of course, these are conversations that must be had in conjunction with other experienced ministers, but no one else has the potential to know a man as well as he knows himself.
If the elders around him are pushing a young, Black Christian to start a ministry too soon, then he should respectfully yet confidently inform them of their error. It takes two to make a thing go right—or wrong.
God Has a Timeline
Underneath the push to send out young African Americans too soon is a fundamental distrust of God’s sovereignty. Although a church committee would never admit this, what often motivates them is a lack of faith. They sense the pressing call to make disciples of all nations but they don’t trust God to do it. Instead, they try to wrest control of kingdom-building from God and do it themselves. The result is scores of Black Christian ministers who succumb to depression, addiction, and burnout.
Jesus tells us, however, “I will build my church” (from Matthew 16:18, ESV). The work of expanding the church and preparing ministers in the church belongs to Christ. He is the one who shapes a man’s heart and calls him into the field. But Jesus gives humankind a part to play as well. “The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few. Therefore pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest” (from Luke 10:2, ESV). We are to pray that God would send us the men with the gifts, skills, and calling for ministry. This is not to say that we shouldn’t actively prepare men for God’s work. Christian leaders must entrust the Gospel to “faithful men who will be able to teach others also” (from 2 Timothy 2:2, ESV).
But the Good News is that in the fullness of time “God sent His son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law so that we might receive adoption as sons” (from Galatians 4:4–5, ESV). The incarnation of Jesus Christ testifies that God is thoroughly involved in the process of preparing leaders.
If God had perfect timing in sending His Son as a ransom for many, then He will also have perfect timing in training and sending laborers into His harvest. Faith in the Gospel allows us to realize the need for more young, African American, Christian ministers, yet rest in God’s timing for sending them out.
Pastor Anthony Carter, the author of On Being Black and Reformed, is a part of a growing number of pastors, academics, and faith leaders who espouse what could be called a “Big God” theology. (Photo Credit: epointchurch.org)
Last year I participated in one of the most memorable worship services of my life. Pastor Mike Campbell of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi, preached a biblically sound and passionate sermon on Titus 2:11-14 to a mixed congregation of hundreds of white and black believers in a visible demonstration of what he called “Big God” theology. Pastor Mike told of his journey into Reformed theology and explained that he was attracted by the glorious picture of God. I find that this phrase – Big God theology – encapsulates the essence of Reformed theology and why the African American community needs it.
I am black and Reformed, part of a small but growing number of African Americans finding the Big God of the Bible through this theology. To be clear, Reformed theology is not equivalent to the gospel. God is God, and no theological system can fully encompass or ever replace the Almighty. Yet Reformed is still a useful banner that captures essential teachings of Christianity carefully derived from the Bible.
Unfortunately, Reformed theology often gets reduced to its views on salvation. Big God theology says that God is the king of the universe, and as part of his royal power he determines – yes predetermines – who will be judged according to his own works and who, by grace through faith, will be judged according to Christ’s work. Numerous biblical passages point to this reality (Rom. 8:29-30, Acts 13:48, Eph. 1:4-5), but there is more to Big God theology than election.
What attracted me to Reformed theology is the centrality of God. I went to a Catholic school for my undergraduate degree, but I was never a Catholic. Although I had been an active leader in my Baptist youth group, college was the first time I had to explain my Protestant beliefs. I remember reading books by John Piper and R.C. Sproul, and I was taken by how they kept God at the center of their theology. God is the sun in their theological solar system, and all aspects of life revolve around him, held in orbit by his gravitational pull. I have found no other comprehensive doctrine derived from the Bible that gives me the same sense of God’s bigness that Reformed theology does.
I have spent years attending black churches and witnessed the harm caused by mishandling the Word of truth. Many black churches have wandered far astray from the sound teaching of the Bible, but we do well to remember that there are reasons for this departure. Many of the colleges, universities, and seminaries equipped to teach accurate understanding the Bible were not open to blacks in the past. The leaders of these institutions were steeped in the prevailing ideas of race and culture in their day, and many of them failed to apply Big God theology to their admissions practices.
The only schools African Americans could attend did not honor the authority of the Bible in the same way that Reformed theology does. As a result, human-centered ideas like legalism and prosperity theology infiltrated the pulpits and pews of black churches. The damage is evident as African Americans stumble and sometimes run toward sin and folly.
I lived and worked as an educator in the Mississippi Delta for seven years. The black community there is bruised by generational poverty, lack of education, poor health care, single parent homes, apathetic men, and nearly every other social ill. Yet the norm for my students and their families is to attend church.
As I daily encountered the fruits of these dysfunctions I asked myself, “Where is the gospel transformation?” I wondered if there were others out there like me: those who had grown up with a picture of the gospel but who could also experience a new surge of love for God and neighbor by learning of Big God theology.
I do not advocate any form of theological imperialism – indeed Reformed theology has much to learn from the black church tradition. My passion is simply to see African Americans reshaped by a bigger vision of God.
Only the God-centered gospel of the Bible has the power to renew individuals and whole communities. Reformed theology helps us understand that the gospel is all about a God who is vaster than we can possibly grasp and more personal than we ever realized.
Big Problems, Big God
My hope and prayer is that more African Americans would awaken to the reality of a Big God who cares enough to save sinners like us and who wants to have a relationship with us now and for eternity.
Rev. Mike Campbell, senior pastor of Redeemer Church in Jackson, Mississippi, and a mentor within the African-American Leadership Initiative at Reformed Theological Seminary. (Photo Credit: Reformed Theological Seminary, AALI).
For this reason, I have been privileged to work with my seminary – Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi – to launch the African American Leadership Initiative (AALI) that includes a scholarship as well as mentoring in African American, multi-ethnic, and urban ministry. Several Reformed organizations have also partnered to host the African American Leadership Development and Recruitment weekend (AALDR) that brought together experienced ministers and black seminary students to communicate that there’s room in Big God theology for people of all races. I also co-founded the Reformed African American Network (RAAN) on Facebook and Twitter to bring together Reformed thinkers – black and white, male and female, representing denominations and networks -to publish articles from a Reformed and African American perspective.
No system of doctrine is immune from critique. Those who call themselves Reformed must be willing to accept the criticism – some valid, some not – that goes along with the label. Yet for all of its shortcomings, Reformed theology provides an accessible route, through the power of the Holy Spirit, for men and women to be captivated by as true a picture of God as we can get through Scripture. Many segments of the African American community live in the grip of big problems, and only a “Big God” theology is sufficient to help them see Christ as their Savior.
Lecrae wins a 2013 Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” (Photo courtesy of Newscom).
Two men. Both Black. Both Grammy award-winning hip-hop artists. Two completely different messages. Within one week both Lil’ Wayne and Lecrae made headlines for their music, but for very different reasons.
Last week, Christian hip-hop artist, Lecrae, won a Grammy for “Best Gospel Album” at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards. The prestige of music’s highest honor is noteworthy enough, but Lecrae’s achievement as a vocally Christian rapper is rare.
The part of the line that has caused so much controversy is the reference to Emmett Till. In 1955, Till, just 14 years old, was brutally murdered in Mississippi after allegedly whistling at a White woman. The tragedy sent ripples across the nation as graphic images of the boy’s mutilated face (his mother had insisted on an open casket to display the brutality) were splashed across newspapers and magazines. The two White men charged in the crime were both acquitted by an all-White jury.
Wayne’s lyric serves as painful reminder of the importance of Black History month. Many will miss the offense of Wayne’s reference if they fail to understand the identity and significance of Emmet Till. The maiming of Till’s memory, however, is just the start.
Wayne’s words speak of doing violence to a woman’s reproductive organs and reveal the misogyny that has become commonplace and even celebrated in much of hip-hop. His line also reveals the distorted and grotesque picture of manhood – one that defines masculinity in terms of sexual exploits and violence – that he and other hip-hop artists often portray.
In contrast, Lecrae uses his lyrical talents to pen lines like, “Ain’t dope dealin’, ain’t Po pimpin’, talkin’ ‘bout my own folk killin’/ We on that Jesus soul healin” (from the song “Fakin‘”). Lecrae talks openly about being a Christian and makes it clear his faith drives his art. An urban evangelist, he hopes to use his talent to penetrate mainstream hip-hop with an alternative message for the listeners.
Lil’ Wayne is not the anti-Christ and Lecrae is not sinless. Each of these men, like all of us, are sinners. We all have wicked hearts and no one has lived in perfect obedience to God as we were designed to do. But there is a difference between these two artists. Redemption.
The Redemption of Culture and All Creation
I can’t make any judgments about Lil’ Wayne’s or Lecrae’s salvation. I simply see the fruits of each man’s life and art. Lil’ Wayne’s lyrics seem to be essentially human-centered. Instead of looking up, his lyrics encourage listeners to look within. By focusing only on the self, life becomes defined by personal pleasure and material prosperity. Lecrae’s music encourages people find their identity in God first, and then act in harmony with their status as God’s children.
As believers we must begin working out redemption here and now. Christ calls His followers the light of the world, the salt of the earth, and a city on a hill (Mt. 5:13-15). So, culture-shaping cannot be left to an elite few. Whether a hip-hop artist, a hair stylist, or a health inspector, all Christians must strive to be agents of redemptive change wherever God has placed us. If we live this way then, in many respects, the contrast between the redeemed and unredeemed life should look as stark as the contrast between Lil’ Wayne’s and Lecrae’s lyrics.