by Pastor Paul Stephen Olson
I write this as a white man: Black lives, black stories, black philosophies, black theologies, and black traditions matter. I think most people would agree with that statement in theory. “Black Lives Matter” the statement is as unassailable as “Jesus Loves Me”. But when we want to read about race in today’s world we tend to reach for books that are convenient, books that synthesize the problem into neat categories, action plans, or worse, books that convey dogmatic ideologies or require allegiance to a political party or leader. The fact is, to truly understand any problem rooted in history it requires an abiding attention to historical detail and nuance. It also requires an open heart and mind to the thoughts and perspectives of authors who lived in a past era.
A lot of anti-racism material is being published and I praise God that the discussion has begun to creep into the mainstream. Much of it draws from a similar set of readings and histories that have circulated college classrooms and seminary classrooms perhaps even for decades. However, most of these books are patently ‘void’ of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are therefore incomplete at best, harmful at worst. They tend to point out the errors but offer no path for spiritual lament or healing — all the guilt, and no salvation.
It should go without saying that to understand race and racism we must understand the complexity and nuance of the historical Black experience as a way of God’s revealing to us our current moment, and a way to truly reflect on what it means to belong to God rather than a culture and to faithfully embrace a diversity of cultures. Understanding the theological and intellectual accomplishments and contributions of black authors throughout history is paramount if we are to begin to understand and practice equality and ‘do justice’ in our daily lives.
My aim in starting to produce some reading lists is to make people aware of the ‘original source’ material. Like those in the reformation who sought to learn and read the bible in the original languages [ad fontes], we need to go back to the sources and they are readily available to us!
I write this as a white man. For me these are not simply writings that enhance or contrast my dominant white western cultural perspective, these authors have formed and shaped my understanding of Christ, the world, sin, salvation and the kingdom of God. There are so many to choose from but I will start with these.
Here are 5 writings by Black Christians every American Christian should read:
Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Martin Luther King Jr.
MLK’s stint in a Birmingham jail in June of 1963 produced one of the most profound documents of the 20th century and one of the literary jewels of the Civil Rights Movement. In this modern epistle to his ‘fellow clergymen’, King describes the movement for racial justice, his non-violent campaign, and the need for white Christians to stop equivocating and take direct action to end segregation in America.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
(Frederick Douglass, 1818-1895)
Douglass might be America’s greatest writer, activist, and story teller. Douglass grew up a slave and details his experience of plantation life. One incredible aspect of the book is his descriptions of the slave holders / slave owners whom he humanizes while at the same time exposing them as wretchedly evil, hypocritical and deeply damaged humans. If you haven’t read a first hand accounts American Slaves read this one!
Sisters of the Spirit: Three Black Women’s Autobiographies of the Nineteenth Century (Religion in North America)
You should know their names: Jerena Lee, Zilpha Elaw, and Juilia Foote. After the Civil War in America and the end of slavery, Black men and women preachers found a place in helping the nation heal and they led thousands of people to Christ. These three Black Women’s autobiographies serve to demonstrate a new radical freedom and pave the way to empower women everywhere. Used copies can be found for cheap otherwise online editions are available for free.
Jesus and the Disinherited (Howard Thurman, 1899-1981)
Taking several passages out of the gospels, Thurman (a mystic, a chaplain, ordained Baptist minister, religious interfaith and civil rights leader) explores Jesus’ identification with “the least of these” in his ministry, preaching and healings. One important aspect of Thurman’s perspective is the resistance against moral nihilism and hatred, which can only be overcome with love of one’s self and neighbor. This is a modern classic that greatly influenced many civil rights leaders of his era including Martin Luther King Jr.
CT Article on Thurman by Bethel Professor, Christian Collins Winn: https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/june-web-only/jesus-and-disinherited.html
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano: Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, Written By Himself (Olaudah Equiano)
This “interesting narrative” provides a first hand, eye witness account of Equiano who was transported from Africa to America during the transatlantic slave trade (est. 12 million people from 16-19th cent). In 1789, a man named William Wilberforce would join Olaudah Equiano and others in the Abolitionist movement to end slavery and slave trading. An important aspect of this book is the authors agency and ownership over his own freedom and personal story. Equiano understands his journey in light of God’s great redemptive plan even in the face of a society and Christianity that would say otherwise. An engaging and powerful story that you won’t want to put down!
This is the first article in a series of book ‘lists’. Look for more coming soon that engage modern writers on racism as well as broader cultural and global expressions of Christian thought.