The Cross & The Cultural Heritage of African-Americans

He’s inquisitive by nature, and after I concluded the last of a series of sermons at a college retreat, he pelted me with questions in the car. “Pastor Ern,” he asked, “you mention that North African Christians played a key role in the early church during one of your sessions, but how come no one has ever told me about it?”

He was genuinely perplexed. He was encouraged to learn of the contributions his ancestors made to world and religious history but struggled that his cultural heritage was not safeguarded and transmitted.

Cultural heritage, which “is an expression of the ways of living developed by a community and passed on from generation to generation,[1] plays a vital role in the African-Americans religious experience .

Maybe you’ve wondered about the importance of the cultural heritage of African-Americans and it’s relation to the Gospel.  If that’s you, here are three reasons why our cultural distinctions should be studied and valued.

1. It Aids In Reversing the Effects of Cultural & Historical Brainwashing

As one scholar correctly asserts, “the prominent distinguishing factor for the African-Americans is the history of social, economic and political oppression experienced because of color discrimination.”[2] The effect of systemic oppression has permeated every social institution, and it’s caused untold multi-generational psychological and emotional trauma.  The ordeal has lead to the phenomena of “cultural brainwashing.”

It’s the process of formal and informal, objective and subjective, teaching and reinforcing that African-American history and culture is substandard and inferior to other cultures in general, but the dominant culture in particular.[3] It’s the belief that African-American culture and history is not qualified in equal terms with other cultures.

This notion in only reinforced by media outlets where the African-American voice is underrepresented and traditional history books in the United States often do not grapple with the history of different cultures.

While newer revisions seek to remedy the issue, for the most part, African-Americans are far more knowledgeable about European involvement in the nation’s history than they are of their own,[4] and my white brothers and sister are largely ignorant of the contributions of the African Diaspora to western civilization.

This is a byproduct of whitewashed European historiography that exclusively acknowledged its own cultural and historical heritage, then assumes that their resulting ethnocentric position represents the only evidence that ultimately survived as history.[5] As a staunch advocate for racial unity, I lament that in 2016 we still live in a country where some people groups are socialized to believe that their cultural heritage is the only one worth valuing.

All people groups need to be mindful of their bias towards our own culture because such dispositions foster passive racial bias that can affect what we think of other people groups.[6]

Many African-Americans have struggled to discover their place in America because it’s been subconsciously embedded into their minds that their ethnic and cultural heritage is inferior to that of the dominant culture, and therefore not valued as much as majority context culture outside of the few short weeks of Black History Month.

As lovers of Jesus who are unified by his atoning work, we have to remember that being “American” does not mean assimilating into the values and norms of the dominant culture, and we cannot define unity in terms that suppress rather than welcomes the background of others.

Therefore, understanding the historical and cultural heritage of minorities, especially those in the inner city who are most impacted by the psychological and emotional trauma of the legacy of oppression, reverses the effects of cultural brainwashing and affirms Paul’s great call for racial, social, gender equality (Gal. 3:28), which ultimately leads to cultural equality in Christ Jesus.

Our churches and communities need to recognize and the sin of ethnocentric idolatry and be committed to teaching, encouraging, and celebrating the contributions of all people groups, not a select few.

2. It Shows That Oppression of The African People Is A Relatively New Historical Development.

The oppression of Africans is a relatively new historical development. From the time that Nubia began building their civilization in 3000 B.C., Africa has never been without powerful societies. Ancient Greek, Egyptian, and other sources indicate that Nubia and Egypt constituted powerful civilizations before Europe. [7] The scriptures even show that the Israelites respected the “military might, political stability, and wealth” of the African Kingdom. (“Cush,” the term used for Africa as a whole, would ultimately share in the worship of Israel’s God: Ps. 68:31-32 & 87:4). [8]

Furthermore, the first non-Jewish Christian in the New Testament was from Africa. The Ethiopian Eunuch, who was a high-ranking member of Candace’s court, represented the ancient Nubian civilization. The kingdom has existed since 750 A.D. and the citizens’ skin was so dark in complexion that it became the standard by which the Mediterranean world defined blackness.[9]

Their influence gave rise to a number of African scholars such as Tertullian, Athanasius, Augustine, and other scholars who trained European theologians in the Greek and Latin world.

Western African Kingdoms

The Western African Empire of Ghana was centuries old when the Arabians first mentioned it in 800 A.D. It was a primary source of gold for North Africa and Europe, and it was so wealthy that it was reported to have upwards of 200,000 soldiers before eventually falling to the Arabian conquest in 1076.[10]

Similarly, the West African Kingdom of Songhai ruled in areas perhaps as large as Europe until the Middle Ages. It’s leading city, Timbuktu, was one of the intellectual centers of the modern world. It boasted about 100,000 residents and it’s university, the University of Sankorè, trained scientists, physicians, geographers, artists, and members of other academic disciplines. Other kingdoms include the well-known Bantu of Central Africa and the powerful Mali Empire.

South African Kingdoms

Southern Africa boasted powerful kingdoms as well. The empire of Zimbabwe reportedly ruled an area the size of modern Mexico. Under their leader, Emperor Mutote and his son Matope, the land of Zambia and South Africa was united and hindered further imperialistic Arabia expansions.

Reclaiming the rich history of African-Americans means widening the scope of our history because it serves as a reminder to marginalized people groups that our race’s oppression will not remain in a permanent state.[11] It’s a relatively new historical development and is not indicative of the whole scope of history. In the words of Marcus Garvey, “black men, you were once great; you should be great again.”[12]

3. It Remind Us that Jesus Understands the Plight of Poor and Ethic Minorities in a Majority Context Because He Became One.

In the same way that our ancestors found solidarity in the story of the Children of Israel, who yearned for deliverance from Egyptian captivity, poor, marginalized ethnic minorities of our urban areas can find solidarity in the incarnation of Jesus.

In modern terms, Jesus entered into a world that was surprisingly more closely resembled the ‘hood, with all of its issues, than it did the pristine, secure suburbs that we often value in our consumer-driven American culture.[13]

God who turned Galilean incarnated into a social, economic, and political reality that was rooted among the poor and culturally marginalized people group of his day.

Jesus was considered to be culturally suspect because of his upbringing, was probably educated at under-resourced schools, and looked down on by the dominant Jewish culture. He knows and has experienced the condition of systemic racism from the majority context and felt the effects of public policies that left poor minorities the most vulnerable. Jesus identified with the marginalized, the oppressed, and the vulnerable, and cares about poor ethnic minorities because he became one.

The incarnation is the ultimate apologetic for African-Americans against those who believe God is disinterested in their history of oppression because he, through the preordained redemptive plan of God, CHOSE to become a poor, ethnic minority. It’s assuring to know that Jesus affirms and shows solidarity with the black community in America.[14]

I’m Done, But Let Me Say One Last Thing.

There’s much we can say on the subject. Hopefully, this has proved helpful.

Until I talk to you again, let’s discover creative ways to celebrate and reclaim the diverse culture of minority groups that have been divided over cultural, ethnic, social, and gender lines for far too long.

Our cultural heritage plays a key role in how we understand redemptive history and it should be celebrated, not eschewed.

That’s all I’ve got for now. Talk to you again soon.

Grace and peace.

[1] ICOMOS, International Cultural Tourism Charter. Principles And Guidelines For Managing Tourism At Places Of Cultural And Heritage Significance. ICOMOS International Cultural Tourism Committee. 2002.
[2] Breckenridge, J. F., & Breckenridge, L. (1995). What color is your God?: Multicultural education in the Church. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 217.
[3] Lane, E. B. (1997). The African American Christian man: Reclaiming the village. Dallas: Black Family Press, 24
[4] Usry, G., & Keener, C. S. (1996). Black man’s religion: Can Christianity be Afrocentric? Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 13
[5] Ibin., 24
[6] Katz, J. H. (1978). White awareness: Handbook for anti-racism training. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 14-15.
[7] B., Du Bois. (1965). The world and Africa; an inquiry into the part which Africa has played in world history. New York: International.
[8] Felder, C. H. (1989). Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class, and Family. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 45.
[9] Snowden, F. M. (1970). Blacks In Antiquity; Ethiopians in The Greco-Roman Experience. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 110
[10] Ibn, 100.
[11] Ibn, 135
[12] Grant, J. (1968). Black protest; History, Documents, and Analyses, 1619 to The Present. New York: Fawcett World Library, 45.
[13] Castellanos, Noel. Where The Cross Meets The Street: What Happens To The Neighborhood When God Is At The Center, 79
[14] Ibn, 80.

Ernest Cleo Grant, II

Ernest Cleo Grant, II (@ernestcleogrant) is the Lead Pastor of Epiphany Fellowship Church of Camden, a graduate of Reformed Seminary (D.C.), and is currently completing his Doctorate of Education from Stockton University. He and his wife Sarah have been married for almost a decade and have two children( Amaela and Chancellor). He's an avid reader, a community advocate, and has bylines in The Witness, Christianity Today, The Star-Ledger, Desiring God, and other publications

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