The Right Reverend Dr. Nathan D. Baxter, former dean of the National Cathedral and retired bishop of Central Pennsylvania, has released a Christmas message to the Union of Black Episcopalians, of which he is honorary national chair. From that letter, which begins as a reflection on a photograph taken of him during a 2012 march for black lives:
I am a Christian. But even more I am an inheritor of the black Christian tradition—a theological tradition which transcends denominations. One cannot listen to the words and melodies of the spirituals and not recognize that our slave ancestors’ struggle for freedom was anchored in an inner-spiritual peace. One cannot think of the Civil Rights movement, its songs and sermons, and not recognize that the strength to face and overcome Jim Crow’s evil was drawn from an ancestral understanding of the King of Peace….”Ride on King Jesus”. We call this “Soul Theology”, which means we shall overcome only by keeping our souls anchored in the Peace of Christ, even before Justice comes. In this sense, the protest motto, No justice! No peace! is inverted to, NO PEACE. NO JUSTICE. “Soul Theology” understands the essential Divine truth that peace must be a matter of the individual heart before it is a social, cultural and political reality. Keeping one’s soul anchored is for us both a Divine truth and ancestral witness.
The greatest contemporary witness of this aspect of “Soul Theology” was seen in the aftermath of murders at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in Charleston, S.C. The entire nation and world were stunned when family members repeatedly stressed forgiveness of the perpetrator. Their sentiments were summed up by Wanda Simmons, granddaughter of victim the Rev. Daniel Simmons:
“Although my grandfather and the other victims died at the hands of hate, this is proof, everyone’s plea for your soul, is proof that they lived in love and their legacies will live in love. So hate won’t win. And I just want to thank the court for making sure that hate doesn’t win.” As black Christians, they also understood the importance of inverting the great protest motto to say, “NO PEACE! NO JUSTICE!
He references Langston Hughes’ “Black Nativity,” and God’s “ethnic specific statement, sending Jesus in a particular social location….a Jew. It was God’s way of saying ‘Jewish Lives Matter!'”
We will see many crèche scenes this year, signs of God’s Peace in a violent and desperate world. Can we see our particular blackness in the scene, our particular source of peace in the struggle? Can we filter the sacred story through our own culture, our own experience, our own social location—give it the sounds of ancestral rhythms, a community’s voice of protest, and a Soul’s Theology of peace?
Read his entire message here.