Question: when the slave cries out to God for liberation from his oppression, is he crying out to the same God the master appeals to for a bountiful crop? It is a fascinating question, one that has been asked many times and in many different ways over the years. Is it possible that the oppressed and those who willfully oppress them do indeed cry out to the same deity: one in support of liberation and one in support of oppression? Even in 2012, the jury is still out on that question.
Such questions have shaped the black worship experience. If honest, our theology (how we view, define, worship and understand God and God’s relationship to us ultimately) is shaped by experience. For those who’ve never had a hard day, God is a wonderful God who exists only to extend blessing and reward their wonderful actions. For us who’ve seen much harder days, it is essentially impossible to think that God exists only to bless. We are aware of human suffering and that God isn’t necessarily rushing to stop it. How then can we subscribe to a view of God that excludes those lived realities and present truths? This is the context under which blacks in America have come to know and relate to God. It is a context that necessitates God’s activity in the here and now as opposed to the bye and bye.
It is in this way that I was introduced to God. In my family’s experience, like the slave, we weren’t afforded the luxury of worshiping a distant God that only intervened in the afterlife. If God did not intervene in our day to day, the consequences were severe. I recall our family praying and fasting for the basic necessities: food, school clothes and housing. I remember those family prayer gatherings where we earnestly asked God to bless us in some spiritual, intangible way but most pressing, to bless us with daily bread in the literal sense. We couldn’t afford to have a God that sat idle in the heavens. We needed God to intervene radically everyday for survival. It is because the situation necessitated that type of God that I understood God in this way. Frankly, many others do not.
One might argue that while we understand and relate to God differently, God’s universality makes it possible that we cry to the same God. Certainly I do not battle that. God must be universal. Yet I still wrestle with the idea that those who are suffering and oppressed can cry out for deliverance from those who oppress them while those same oppressors approach the same God to bless that oppression. Yes, we may understand God differently and have different needs but can one God have a character that sanctions and supports the means of the oppressors while also supporting the goals of the oppressed? The question becomes even more challenging to answer when both sides feel at peace with their God. How is that possible?