The monument to Robert E. Lee on Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, after 2020 racial justice protests. Photo by Robert P. Jones
(RNS) — The last Confederate monument still standing on Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue, the massive tribute to General Robert E. Lee, was removed on Wednesday (Sept. 8).
A 21-foot bronze sculpture mounted on a massive 40-foot pedestal, it was primarily funded and conceived by the Ladies’ Lee Monument Committee, a predecessor to the United Daughters of the Confederacy, which has its headquarters in Richmond to this day. The statue’s dedication on May 29, 1890, was accompanied by three days of events (including a choral performance by the Young Men’s Christian Association) that drew an estimated 100,000 people.
Beside the statue, special stands were constructed to contain hundreds of white children wearing red, white and blue who were arranged to create a living Confederate battle flag.
The title of the Richmond Times editorial that week captured how the city’s white residents understood the meaning of this new landmark: “Conquered Though Not Vanquished.” As historian Karen Cox summarized it, “This was not just a monument to the region’s most cherished hero; it was about the restoration of Confederate men’s honor.”
It was also a declaration of a war on the terrain of culture and politics as Virginia, like many Southern states, threw off the reforms of Reconstruction and set up legal and cultural systems of segregation and the suppression of voting by African Americans.
The Lee monument was the down payment by the city’s white elite on a multidecade effort to create the broad leafy outdoor corridor that would eventually be punctuated by five traffic circles, each containing a massive monument to the Confederacy.
Between 1890 and 1930, the wealthier white residents not only moved their homes but also rebuilt at least seven of their churches out along Monument Avenue in the shadow of these monuments. The architectural interplay between monuments dedicated to the Confederacy and sanctuaries dedicated to God performatively expressed the motto emblazoned on the five-story column behind the statue of Jefferson Davis: “God will vindicate.”
Over the past few years, I’ve spent several weeks in Richmond, conducting research in the archives of the UDC for my book “White Too Long” and tracking the unfolding drama as the city and its churches are attempting to extricate themselves from the Lost Cause narrative and create a new story that looks to the future, rather than the past. The juxtapositions, and contradictions, can be jarring.
When I first visited in July 2019, the city had just renamed one of its central streets — one that historically fronted the national headquarters of the UDC along with “Battle Abbey,” originally built to hold Confederate reliquary and now the Virginia Museum of History & Culture — after native son and international tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr.
As a youth, Ashe had been banned from playing tennis on Richmond’s public courts because of his race. As an adult, he dedicated his life off the court to international civil rights work, philanthropy and scholarship.
Monument to tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr. along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Robert P. Jones
That summer, the VMHC had hung large banners of Ashe outside the building, and there were images of him on large placards along the sidewalk. Just 30 feet or so down the sidewalk in front of the UDC building, half a dozen pro-Confederate protesters had hoisted large Confederate battle flags on makeshift poles over placards that read, “Save our monuments.”
When the UDC archivist handed me her business card, it had already been updated to show their location on “Arthur Ashe Boulevard.”
Interestingly, this is not the first time that Richmond’s residents have called on Ashe to oppose Confederate forces in Richmond. In 1996, three years after his untimely death, the city placed a memorial to Ashe on Monument Avenue. The 12-foot-tall statue, resting on a 21-foot pedestal, sits on a traffic circle just beyond the last of five Confederate monuments along the venue. About 500 people attended the unveiling of the monument, with some holding up Confederate flags in protest.
Monument to tennis star Arthur Ashe Jr. along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia. Photo by Robert P. Jones
When I visited in 2019, I was struck by how diminutive Ashe seemed in the context of Monument Avenue. His likeness, anchoring one end of the avenue, was roughly half the size of the Lee, Davis and Jackson monuments nearer the city center. But when I revisited this past summer, the statue of Ashe, with a book held high in his right hand and a tennis racket slightly lower in his left (a pose explicitly requested by Ashe himself to emphasize the importance of education) loomed larger.
Four of the five Confederate statues were removed by the city in response to the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. The statue of Lee had been covered with graffiti that transformed it into an internationally recognized site of performance art for racial justice.
For the first time in 130 years, a trip down Richmond’s Monument Avenue will not entail an involuntary Lost Cause pilgrimage. Rather — and this is the surprisingly moving experience I had biking down that street this past July — the empty pedestals will stand as silent indicting witnesses to the past valorization of white supremacy by a city’s white leaders and churches.
The monument to Arthur Ashe Jr. prominently incorporates a biblical inscription from the New Testament’s Letter to the Hebrews on the front of its pedestal: “Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.”
I don’t know everything Ashe and his family had in mind with that selection, but today it seems fitting for the last man standing on Monument Avenue.
(Robert P. Jones is the CEO and founder of PRRI and the author of ” White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity.” This article was originally published on Jones’ Substack #WhiteTooLong. Read more at robertpjones.substack.com. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)
I was three months pregnant and working as a Web editor in New York City at iVillage.com when tragedy struck at the World Trade Center buildings. That particular morning, I had scheduled a prenatal appointment before going in to work. A mere few minutes after hearing my son’s heartbeat for the first time, a nurse burst into the room and said that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center. The doctor and I were puzzled, but we figured it was some random accident by a confused pilot in a small private plane.
But after I left the doctor’s office, I realized what happened was no accident. When I first arrived at work, I learned that another plane had hit a second building. And these planes didn’t hit just any buildings — they made the World Trade Center buildings burn down in the most depressingly spectacular way. The entire staff was crowded around a small TV and quickly became very emotional. No one knew all the details, and my coworkers were telling fantastic stories, such as eight hijacked planes were circling all across the country. When I heard a plane hit the Pentagon, it became personal. My brother-in-law worked across from the Pentagon at the time. I couldn’t help it; the tears started to flow. The fear and sadness were overwhelming.
Fortunately for my coworkers and me, our company had a corporate apartment in the city. Most of us lived in Burroughs outside of Manhattan, and all the trains and busses were shut down. Around 15-20 of us squeezed into a one-bedroom apartment, but at least we had a place to go. That said, we still had to get there, which required a long, sad 17-block walk from upper Manhattan towards downtown and the direction of “Ground Zero,” which was the destroyed World Trade Center site’s former name. As we walked, we passed by several first responders, all covered in ash. Everything was covered in ash. Once in the apartment, we saw a hospital right outside the window. Several medical workers were clearly on high alert outside, waiting to take in survivors — but the slew of patients in need was far lower than expected. I called my husband. He never left Brooklyn, where we lived. He started work later than me and was standing on the train station platform waiting to board when he saw one of the buildings go down. A lady on the platform with him fainted.
The next day, I was so afraid to take in the air, fearful of its effect on my unborn son. It took me more than a year before I braved going down there, still afraid of what was in the air and how it might affect my breastmilk. It turns out that it was a smart move. We all know about the many 9/11 heroes who suffered from complications due to the poor air quality. When I was finally able to catch the train home, I saw flyers posted by loved ones desperately seeking information asking about missing people. The entire city was in mourning.
My son is now 19-years-old and has grown into a young man. I’ve made sure to tell him about that day and those who we lost. I know that I am Blessed. For so many people, that painful day stole their children, parents, and loved ones. I saw firsthand the devastation and the deep wound inside the hearts of New Yorkers. I realize that 9/11 affected all Americans differently, but even amidst this ongoing and insufferable pandemic, we owe the victims and their families a moment of recognition and remembrance. I’m heartened by the 9/11 Memorial and Museum. Tomorrow is not promised. We must #NeverForget.
When Tim Storey met with Quincy Jones to collaborate on a creative project 25 years ago, he got an unexpected challenge to create his own miracles.
“Whatever ideas you come up with, this is the no-fault zone,” Storey recalls Jones telling him that day, “In this zone, just be miraculous. Any idea you come up with, there’s no judgment here. Now, tell me what you think.”
Storey says that for a moment, he almost forgot that he was sitting with Jones, a Grammy Award-winning songwriter, record producer, and filmmaker in his Beverly Hills mansion.
“[It was like] a river of creativity got released,” Storey, recalling the experience, told Urban Faith.
In his latest book, The Miracle Mentality, Storey, now a pastor, life coach and motivational speaker, channels that experience as he explains how miracles can help us get out of a bad situation, but also get us into a better place.
“We have to permit ourselves to be miraculous,” Storey says. “It’s okay to manifest our miraculous self. Many times, the church, or your parents, or your siblings can hold some people back from their creativity.”
Even before that meeting with Quincy Jones, the idea that we can accomplish miraculous things if we lean into what God has created us to be had been marinating in Storey’s mind.
Growing up in the church, Storey learned about miracles and faith.
As he began his research for the book he realized that many people talk about needing a miracle to get out of a bad situation but don’t always see that a miracle can get you into a better place.
In his book Storey covers parenting, love relationships, friends, work, career, money, and health. Here are six takeaways that could help us manifest our own miracles while navigating life challenges.
Activate the miracle mentality in your life
To activate the miracle mentality is to cooperate with who you truly are. Number one, you’re made in the image of God. According to the Bible, He says all these amazing things about us — we are fearfully and wonderfully made. Then it says that He’s the potter and we’re the clay, and He’s shaping us as seems best to Him.
Not only does He say that I’m made in His image, but He’s also saying that He is shaping me. I feel that the image is in me, but the Creator’s hand is also on me. What I’m doing is just cooperating with my Creator. Rather than hoping for miracles or trying to conjure up a mentality, I’m just cooperating with my Creator.
The Miracle Mentality When Life Dreams Aren’t Playing Out
In life we often have what I’ve been calling for 20 years a “life interruption.” And as you know, to be interrupted means to be disturbed. It means something barges in that we never ordered. It could be a divorce that someone didn’t ask for, an illness, a challenge with their children, a challenge with their family.
As a person who has been a pastor and a life coach for many years, I find that most people, when they have a life interruption, find themselves being interrupted by the interruption and not knowing what to do about it. But we can put ourselves into two categories: recovery and discovery.
Currently, I am going through recovery of something in my life, but it’s important that I don’t get so caught up in my recovery zone that I miss my discovery zone. My discovery zone is the unfolding of my beautiful life. The Bible says in Isaiah 46:10, “For God knows the end from the beginning, and he knows what is yet to unfold.” Too many people are folding. They’re folding and give up before they have unfolded. Don’t fold your hands and your dreams while you’re still unfolding.
The Miracle Mentality When You Are Suffering
My mother was 39 when her husband, my father, went to get food for her and never came back. He was hit by a man who ran a red light.
That changed her life forever. She was happy with this man, and everything shifted within moments. The reality is at that point, you have to go back to steps.
First, you have to sit again and learn and get educated. Then you have to stand in what you know. Then you need to walk out the principles daily. That’s where some people suffer. They do not take the time just to do the action steps every day. Well, how long is it going to take, Tim Storey? Just keep walking it out. And then what happens is you keep walking it out, you build your confidence. You begin to run. Run is a position of passion. What COVID-19 has done, it has taken the run out of most people.
Challenges like divorce could take the run out of you. We have to get to the sit, to the stand, to the walk. Get good at walking, and then many times running just will come naturally. You want to kick in the run. And then it gets even better. One more step. You’re running, and you think, “Oh, this is as good as it gets.” Nope, there’s another step. You can soar. Where you mount up with wings of eagles, and you begin to soar and do things like Ephesians 3:20 says, that are exceedingly, abundantly above all that you ask or imagine.
The Miracle Mentality When You Are Seeking a Soul Mate
Somebody taught us how life should be — that you should be married at this time and that you should never be divorced. The reality is that sometimes you have to shift your “satellite dish.” Wherever you put your satellite dish is what you pick up. If you shift it on “Everybody’s against me,” you pick that up. If you shift it towards, “I can’t believe I failed all through my twenties,” that’s what you keep picking up. We have to shift our satellite dish, and we need to begin seeing things differently.
Number one, I am a miracle. My life is a miracle. Secondly, I’m a miracle in motion. I said that to Oprah Winfrey. She loves that saying of mine — that you are a miracle in motion, because you’re a miracle. But you’re also a miracle in motion. You’re learning, and you’re growing, you’re evolving.
If you’re not in a relationship, you have to learn to embrace and be thankful for the miracle of you. And then, as you begin to understand your value, I believe that it will begin to draw people that understand your value — whether it be friendships or romantic relationships.
The Miracle Mentality When You’re in a Bad Relationship
Before we fold on any relationship, we need to check our state of mind. To quote Dr. Robert Schuller, “Don’t make big decisions in the downtime.” Before one tries to get out of a relationship, I always challenge them to check their state of mind. And as I teach in the new book, there are different states of mind.
There’s the mundane, which is like, “Oh, my life is just a habit.” There’s the messy. You don’t want to leave a good relationship just because you’ve got a messy mind. Then there’s the madness. So maybe the madness is in your mind, but maybe the madness is not in the relationship like you think. We’ve got to really check with the mundane side, the messy side, and the madness side and get back to the sober-minded side before you make the big decisions.
The Miracle Mentality When Raising Kids
One of the beautiful things about parenting is that we have the opportunity to be God’s hands extended. He is the potter and we’re the clay, and He shapes us as seems best to him. That is something that we are, as parents, trying to do from birth to at least age 18. We are doing our best to help shape and form our children in a way that’s best for their lives. It’s important that we continue to stay linked up to the Creator so we can move on His supernatural power as we’re rearing our children. When you’re not connected to the supply, to the source, that’s when you start to get frustrated and even exhausted at times in the rearing of children.
Over the next few weeks, members of the Jewish faith will observe the High Holy Days in the month of Tishrei in the Jewish calendar, usually in September and October. These holidays commemorate concepts such as renewal, forgiveness, freedom and joy.
Of the two main High Holy Days, also called the High Holidays, the first is Rosh Hashanah, or the New Year celebration. It is one of two new year celebrations in the Jewish faith, the other being Passover in the spring.
The second High Holiday is Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement.
In addition to the main Holy Days, there are other celebrations that occur as part of the festival season. One is Sukkot, or the Festival of the Booths, during which meals and rituals take place in a “sukkah,” or a makeshift structure constructed with a tree-branch roof.
The second entails twocelebrations, which in some traditions are part of the same holiday and in others occur on two separate, consecutive days: Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah.
Shemini Atzeret is Hebrew for “eighth (day of) assembly,” counting eight days from Sukkot. Simchat Torah is Hebrew for “joy/rejoicing of the Torah” – the Torah being the first five books of the Bible, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, believed to have been revealed to Moses.
Of particular interest for the High Holy Days in 2021 is that Rosh Hashanah also begins a yearlong observance known as the “Shmita.”
Commemorated once every seven years, the term comes from a Hebrew phrase that appears in the Bible in a number of passages. Some of these passages command that the farmer “drops” or “releases” his crops. Another verse associates the act with the forgiveness of debts. In another passage in the Bible, the Shmita is connected with the reading of God’s revelation in the law.
The exact nature of the action denoted by Shmita is debated, but the idea is that some portion of the food is left behind for the poor and hungry in society.
In this manner, the beginning of the High Holy Days in 2021 is a reminder to care for those who have been struggling.
Why celebrate these festivals?
The origins and reasons for the High Holy Days are in some fashion encoded in the Bible and in the agrarian and religious culture that produced it. The millennia of Jewish tradition between the Bible and the present has informed many of the celebrations as well, in ways that go beyond the biblical texts.
The first holiday, Rosh Hashanah, celebrates renewal. It involves the blowing of the shofar horn, itself connected to the ram sacrificed instead of Abraham’s son, as God had commanded Abraham to do. Important activities include attending synagogue to hear the shofar, as well as eating apple slices with honey, the former representing hopes for fruitfulness and the honey symbolizing the desire for a sweet year.
It also often involves a ritual of throwing bread onto running water, called a tashlich, symbolizing the removal of sins from people.
Rosh Hashanah is believed to mark the date of the creation of the world, and it begins the “Days of Awe,” a 10-day period culminating in Yom Kippur.
The term “Days of Awe” itself is a more literal translation of the Hebrew phrasing used for the High Holy Days.
Concepts of repentance and forgiveness are particularly highlighted in Yom Kippur. Its origins are found in the Hebrew Bible, where it describes the one day a year in which premeditated, intentional sins, such as willfully violating divine commands and prohibitions, were forgiven.
Intentional sins were envisioned as generating impurity in the heart of the temple in Jerusalem, where God was thought to live. Impurity from intentional sins was believed by Israelites to be a threat to this divine presence since God might choose to leave the temple.
The biblical description of Yom Kippur involved a series of sacrifices and rituals designed to remove sin from the people. For example, one goat was thought to bear the sins of the Israelites and was sent off to the wilderness, where it was consumed by Azazel, a mysterious, perhaps demonic force. Azazel consumed the goat and the sins that it carried. The term “scapegoat” in English derives from this act.
Yom Kippur is both the holiest day of the Jewish calendar and also one of the most somber, as the time for repentance includes fasting and prayer.
Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah
The Festival of Sukkot likely began as an agricultural celebration, and the booths were shelters in which farmers stayed during the collection of grain, which was to be processed for the year.
Vestiges of this agricultural commemoration appear in certain passages in the Bible, one of which indicates that the festival is to last seven days to mark the time period in which Israelites dwelt in booths, or makeshift dwellings with branches, when leaving Egypt.
This feast was known as zeman simchatenu, or “the time of our rejoicing,” hearkening to the themes of gratitude, freedom from Egypt and the reading of God’s revelation as found in the Torah to all Israel.
Such a time of rejoicing contrasts with the somber repentance and fasting that feature in Yom Kippur. So vital was the Festival of Booths that it is also known as simply “the chag,” or “the feast,” a word related to the more familiar hajj pilgrimage in Islam.
This period of seven days ends with Shemini Atzeret on the eighth day, both a connected celebration capping off Sukkot and a festival in its own right.
The annual reading of the Torah ends with the final text of Deuteronomy. The beginning of the next annual reading cycle, starting with the first book Genesis, is also celebrated. This act of beginning a new year of reading the Bible is commemorated in the festival called Simchat Torah.
The observance of Simchat Torah was a later innovation, described already in the fifth century or so but not formalized or identified by this name until the medieval period.
Why do they matter?
Religious calendars and festivals can force people to encounter certain ideas in the year. For example, they can enable them to face the more difficult dynamics of life like repentance and forgiveness, providing avenues to reflect on the events of the past year and to find courage to live differently in the next year where needed.
In this manner, structuring the celebration of the new year around remembrances of a variety of human experiences, both sorrow and joy, entails a profound recognition of the complexity of relationships and experiences in life.
Growing up in a black Baptist community, I didn’t hear much (if at all) about the Church Fathers. However, during seminary I realized that their influence was felt implicitly in the confessions we affirmed, hymns that we sang, the sermons preached, and the doctrines taught during Sunday school or new members’ class. Despite our general ignorance of their lives, the Church Fathers’ influence impacted our faith. These bishops, priests, deacons, and pious lay members of the ancient Christian Church contributed intellectually and pastorally to the development of both the East and Western Christian traditions (Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant). They debated with both Christians and non-Christians over the meaning of Christianity’s central doctrines including the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Trinity, and the identity of the Church among others.
Many African-Americans, Christian and non-Christian, do not realize that some of the most influential of these theologians and pastors originated from northern Africa. Perhaps confusion about their origins begins within the Christian tradition itself. Despite being of North African descent, Clement, Origen, Athanasius, and Cyril spoke and wrote in Greek while Cyprian, Tertullian, and Augustine wrote in Latin. Hence, both the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches refer to them as the Greek and Latin Fathers. Moreover, in the history of medieval Catholicism, European painters depicted some of these Fathers as white European men. Many of these paintings like Botticelli’s painting of Augustine are featured in Western museums and their replicas in textbooks of church history and theology. Despite these shortcomings, African-American Christians must know that the theological and philosophical contributions that these Fathers bequeathed on the formation of Christian doctrine continue to impact our faith and lives.
Tertullian (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)
Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 225) was born in Carthage, Tunisia. The son of a Roman centurion, Tertullian was the first prolific writer of Latin Christian literature, producing extensive works on a range of theological topics. Although not ordained into the priesthood, Tertullian contributed much to the Western Christian tradition. Tertullian was an apologist, defending the Christian faith against both pagans and heretics. Tertullian staunchly distrusted the use of pagan philosophy in understanding Christian faith. His famous rhetorical question, “What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” captured Tertullian’s conviction that Christian faith is understood through the teachings of the Judeo-Christian scriptures alone. However, Tertullian made some use of philosophical categories, especially in his teachings on Jesus Christ and the triune God. During his debate with modalists, those who affirm that God exists as a single monad that manifests itself in three “modes” or operations without having eternal distinction between them, Tertullian coined the term trinitas to describe the Godhead and adapted other Latin terms to explain that God eternally exists as one “substance” (substantia) in three distinct “persons” (personae). Although later in life Tertullian defected to the heretical Montanist movement, his works left an indelible impression on future Church Fathers, including the brilliant theologian and biblical commentator Origen (c. 185 – c. 254).
Origen (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)
Born in Alexandria, Egypt, Origen was the first theologian to expound Christian doctrine in a systematic way. Raised in a Christian home, Origen was educated by his father, Leonidas, who was martyred in the year 202 CE. A student of the Scriptures, Origen became a prominent Christian teacher in Alexandria and was a rigorous ascetic. He castrated himself and lived a frugal lifestyle. Moreover, Origen contributed to the Alexandrian school of allegorical interpretation of the Bible by writing extensive biblical commentaries. Origen also contributed to the development of the Trinitarian doctrine teaching that the Son and the Spirit were distinguished from the Father and yet existed eternally with the first person. He claimed that the Son is “eternally begotten” of the Father, the “source” or arche of the other two divine persons. Consequently, controversy arose through this claim that the Son and Spirit were subordinated to the Father, and the orthodox Christian Church later rejected it. Despite his major contributions to theology and biblical interpretation, Origen espoused views, such as the ultimate restoration of all things (Satan included!) and the pre-existence of the human soul that resulted in him being denounced as a heretic.
Athanasius of Alexandria (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)
Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296 – 373), an archdeacon and secretary to the bishop Alexander (d. 328) rose to acclaim by rigorously defending the full divinity of Jesus Christ and his co-equality with God the Father. Described as a very dark-skinned man of short stature, a hooked nose, and a reddish beard, Athanasius was known for his unrelenting convictions, especially his conviction that the eternal Son of God became human, famously penned in his most influential work On the Incarnation. Later Athanasius defended his position against the teachings of Arius. An Alexandrian priest, Arius (d. 336) taught that the Son, though divine, was a creature, thus sparking the so-called Trinitarian controversy of the fourth century. Arius coined the slogan which spread rapidly throughout Alexandria: “There was a time when [the Son] was not.” To counteract the spread of Arius’ doctrine, Athanasius argued that if Christ was not fully divine, he would have been unable to redeem humankind. Athanasius appropriated Origen’s doctrine of eternal generation and argued that the Son eternally exists and is equal with the Father while maintaining the Son’s distinction. The debate between Arius and Athanasius became so large that Emperor Constantine I convened a church council at his palatial estate at the Anatolian city of Nicaea in 325 CE. The first of seven ecumenical councils, the bishops ruled in favor of Athanasius’ position and rejected Arius’ teaching. The council affirmed that the Son was homoousias – “of the same substance” – with God the Father. This reinforced the orthodox position that only God could save humankind. The controversy continued on in the churches for several centuries; Athanasius endured five exiles by four different Roman emperors over a period of seventeen years. Eventually Athanasius returned to Alexandria where he died and was buried.
Augustine of Hippo (Illustration Credit: Tim Ladwig)
Arguably the most influential of the North African Church Fathers is Augustine of Hippo (c. 354 – c. 430) who single-handedly shaped the entire Western Christian tradition throughout the Middle Ages. A preeminent philosopher, bishop, and theologian, Augustine was born in Thagaste, an ancient city which is now Souk Ahras, Algeria. Augustine grew up in a household of a devout Christian mother, Monica, and a pagan noble father, Patricius, who later converted to Christianity. Augustine penned his journey of his life and his conversion to Christianity in the book Confessions, which is, arguably, the first biography written in Western literature. In this book, Augustine, in the form of prayer, describes his childhood and his education in Latin literature and philosophy, his self-described unruly personality, and his insatiable passion for women during his teenage years. As a young man, Augustine lived with a young woman who became his lover, and they had a son named Adeodatus. Despite being raised a Christian, albeit not baptized, Augustine joined a gnostic group called the Manicheans. After nine years, Augustine left the Manicheans and moved to Milan to teach rhetoric. It was there that he discovered Neo-Platonism and then the teaching of bishop Ambrose of Milan. In 387 CE Augustine converted to Christianity. In 391 CE Augustine was ordained to the priesthood and a year later became bishop of Hippo, now Annaba, Algeria. Augustine served as bishop until he died on August 28th in the year 430 CE shortly after the Vandals sieged Hippo.
Among Augustine’s other influential works include On Christian Doctrine, Enchiridion, and On the Trinity, a book which took Augustine twenty years to complete. Augustine’s fight with the Donatists over the meaning of the Church and his quarrel with the priest Pelagius over the doctrine of original sin and grace shaped the entire Western Christian tradition. Augustine’s other major work, TheCity of God, shaped the Western political philosophy. Furthermore, Augustine’s understanding of human nature has influenced, not without controversy, Western Christian teachings on human sexual relationships.
African-American Christians should understand the history of the Church Fathers for the purpose of understanding how Africans played a pivotal role in shaping Christian tradition long before the tragic event of the Atlantic slave trade. To be clear, the North African Church Fathers were not “black” in the modern sense. Indeed, these men were indigenous people of the African continent. Because of their own indebtedness to Greek and Latin philosophy, we do not have to agree with everything that the Church Fathers taught. However, we can celebrate their witness as fellow pilgrims on the journey of faith and as spiritual ancestors who “earnestly contended for the faith that was once delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3).
Now, when I open the red “New” National Baptist Hymnal during worship, or when I study the Baptist confessions of faith for ordination, I sing and study with a new understanding and appreciation for what these men struggled to articulate. I also sing with amazement knowing that Africans significantly played a part in cultivating the entire Christian intellectual tradition. Despite my adolescent ignorance, I now reclaim these African Church Fathers as spiritual and intellectual ancestors who taught me not only to reverence the mystery of God through word, thought, and deed, but also to celebrate the African heritage of Christianity through the witness of a few faithful men of color.
For further reading, see:
Drobner, H. R., and S. S. Schatzmann, The Fathers of the Church: A Comprehensive Introduction. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007.
Oden, T. C., How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2010.
Placher, W. C. A History of Christian Theology: An Introduction. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1983.
Plantinga, R. J., T. R. Thompson, and M. D. Lundberg, An Introduction to Christian Theology. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Jason Oliver Evans is a licensed Baptist minister. He graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Speech Communication from Millersville University of Pennsylvania. He also earned a Master of Divinity at Duke University and a Master of Theology from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. His research interests cross the intersection of theology, ethics, and critical cultural studies. Evans is especially interested in the meaning of the Christian life and its relationship with sexuality, race, and gender in Afro-Christianity. He plans to pursue doctoral studies. Follow Evans’ blog, I Am a Son of God. Follow him also on Twitter at @joliverevans and Facebook.
Jemar Tisby generated a lot of necessary conversation about the intersection of race, social justice, and the global church in 2019 with his best-selling book, The Color of Compromise. With that book, he laid the historical foundation of racism in the church. In the last chapter of the book, Tisby shares practical tips for fighting racism. In his new book, How to Fight Racism, Tisby continues the conversation, but this time around he provides an actual framework that churches and Christian groups can use toward racial reconciliation.
“In a lot of ways, they [the books] pair together really well. Now, they can be read independently of each other. So, I don’t want folks to get scared if they didn’t read the first one. You can dive into the second. From my perspective, the second book is what I wanted to be the first book. I was really passionate about getting in there, getting involved in doing something about racism. But in conversations with publishers and advisors and things like that, it became apparent that we really needed to lay the groundwork for the problem of racism and white supremacy in this country. Especially as it relates to the church. And basically, diagnose the problem before we jumped to solutions,” said Tisby.
Tisby’s solution is built around a model he created called the ARC of Racial Justice. ARC is an acronym for awareness, relationships, and commitment. From Trayvon Martin through the Black Lives Matter Movement and even the tumultuous racial conflicts during the Trump presidency, many people have become more acutely aware of our country’s problems centered around race. But committing to developing relationships with people who may not have the same views as you do or are coming from a different cultural perspective and, in doing so, breaking down racist structures takes more of a plan for change.
“What I’m hoping for is that this sparks ideas for people to gather a group of folks around them and say, ‘Hey, let’s do something.’ And I am really looking forward to stories trickling in over the next year and two years or whatever, so that when we do the updated and revised version of How to Fight Racism, I can include stories from the field, so to speak,” Tisby said.
So, what about Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a way to combat racism? CRT argues that diversity training and changes in the laws are needed to combat structural obstacles created by white people that make for an unequal playing field in our society when it comes to people of color. Some people believe that CRT is a huge threat to the church. Tisby doesn’t see it that way. He says people who are dismissing it are using an old tactic — from tactics during the Civil War, when pro-slavery people used terms like “carpetbaggers” and “scallywags,” to the Jim Crow segregationists’ labels of “outside agitators,” to modern usages of Red Scare smears of “communists” and “Marxists.” Now, the label is “Critical Race Theory” proponents and is being used by people whom Tisby says want to defend a racist status quo.
“All of these things are about controlling the narrative. And what happens is, if I can use a label like Critical Race Theory, I can paint it as bad, slap you with it. Then I can put you in a box, put you on the shelf, and I don’t have to actually listen to what you’re saying about racism and white supremacy,” Tisby said. “What we have to do is not get distracted from the main issue, which is Christian nationalism. It has infected so many parts of the church in the U.S. and even beyond.”
Many white Christians don’t experience racism the same way as Black people and other people of color because the Christian nationalists are in their families, in their churches, and some cases, they’ve acclimated to that way of thinking. Tisby says it’s hard for them to see it as an urgent existential problem that the marginalized and oppressed people do. That said, he has noticed that the social justice marches and movements have had an impact. White women in particular, from a 30-something who teaches Bible study at a nursing home to 70-year-old women, have reached out to him via social media and seem catalyzed to start taking action.
“It might’ve had to do with the past year or two and what they saw, especially politically. White Christians are starting to realize, ‘Oh my, like these differences are real. They’re salient. They’re in my church. They’re in my family,’” Tisby said.
It’s no easy task to be as explicit as Tisby directs white Christians about calling out Christian nationalism and white supremacy in their ranks. We know how it’s infected historically and theologically what they do. He often praises Fannie Lou Hamer’s efforts, who became a nationally known civil rights activist after seeing a presentation about voting rights at her church. Tisby admires how she always connected her activism to her faith. With that in mind, what should Black Christian activists be doing now?
“We are going to have to protect our peace. We are living in perilous times right now. And I find myself even just scrolling through Twitter or social media and whatnot, that I’ve got to take breaks because the flood of negative news, the flood of anti-Blackness, all of that stuff is too much to handle all at once. So, we will have to cultivate communities that affirm our dignity, that affirm our being made in the image of God. You got to go out and seek it and find it.”