The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. ~Genesis 2:15
A pastor friend once told me that his church does not celebrate black history month because they do not want to single out any particular culture in their worship service. (He said this while we sat in his church’s sanctuary with an American flag flying high in the corner.) I have had several friends over the years express uneasiness about observing black history month. The most frequent objection I have heard is, “we don’t celebrate white history, so why celebrate other people?” Varying degrees of sensitivity fuel that question. Why single out one culture if we do not do that during the rest of the year?
While that is a reasonable question, it fails to acknowledge that at every moment in every worship service of your church, you are celebrating culture. The songs, the clothing attire, even the sermon application are expressed through culture. And, the same goes for day-to-day living. We cannot escape it, nor should we try. Cultural expression is a God-given reality. When He put Adam in the Garden to work and express dominion, that was a cultural mandate. The Lord enjoys seeing his children cultivating the world in a way that seems beautiful to them. Our creativity is a result of being made in the image of God, and we should enjoy that.
But, that is not all to the situation.
We live in a world that is incomprehensibly affected by the rebellion of Adam and Eve in Genesis chapter 3. Now, we can never express culture perfectly. In fact, we are in danger of exalting our cultural expression as an idol instead of exalting the Lord. We are tempted to think that how our culture has been expressed is superior to other expressions. We might even be tempted to think that our culture has contributed more to the world than other cultures. Selfishness, pride, greed, arrogance, and more are struggles that are embedded within us because of our unfortunate inheritance from Adam, even though the cultural mandate is still in tact. On the flip side, we may struggle to believe that our cultural expression is valid and beautiful. We might struggle to see the image of God working through our heritage and history. We could be tempted to think our culture is less than another.
So, what does this have to do with celebrating black history?
How much time have you taken to learn black history? Do you know who the “father of black history” is and why he started an observance? I grew up in settings where if you knew that black people were enslaved, they had to deal with Jim Crow, and some facts about Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, then you knew the gist of black history. Since 4th grade I learned American history, and there was never a time in school that teachers taught about the Harlem Renaissance, the Tuskegee Airmen, Buffalo soldiers, and so on. Why not? After all, black history is American history.
Once, I asked a prominent Church historian why he never highlights the influence of black Christians in history when he speaks at conferences and his response was, “Well, I can’t change history.” In his mind, he does not talk about black church history because there is no significant black contribution to the history of the church. I was offended by his ignorance, but such is the case with many church leaders. We ignore the contributions of diverse voices and miss significant aspects of culture and history.
So, we should celebrate black history for the same reason we celebrate anyone’s history and culture. It broadens our worldview. We learn more about American history. We get an opportunity to challenge our assumptions about other cultures and biases that we have. We need to remember so that we can grow and be enriched.
You probably assumed that the pastor friend I told you about was a white man, but actually he was black and the church that he led was predominantly black. He did not want any culture to distract from the Gospel in his church. But, we should consider instead how we can make sure the culture that is inevitably expressed in our churches can serve the purposes of the Gospel. Ignoring it will only cause problems.
Carter G. Woodson once said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.” Let’s seek to be inspired by the Lord’s faithfulness in black history.
As an addendum, I would make the same case for women’s history month, Hispanic Heritage month and so on. We need to learn from sub-dominant voices, past and present, as well as global voices.
What do you think? Does your church celebrate black history month? Why or why not?