By Lewis Brogdon
Earlier this summer, I had the honor to represent Baptist Seminary of Kentucky’s (BSK) institute for Black Church Studies at the headquarters of the United Nations in New York City. The occasion was the Second Session of the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent, held on May 30 to June 2.
It was one of the highlights of my career and definitely an Ephesians 3:20 moment (“God is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all I could ask or think”). How did I arrive at such a place? What is a minister and religious scholar doing at the United Nations?
Over the past few years, God has been dealing with me about human suffering. I have always touched on these issues in my research and writing on topics such as African enslavement in America, clergy suicide and nihilism. God has continued to impress upon my spirit the need to give more attention to this.
Interestingly, God used the story of the Good Samaritan to give new focus to my work. In the story, religious persons are not the heroes. For whatever reason, they refused to show compassion and love for a neighbor in need. Instead of viewing myself, people in church, and American citizens in general as good Samaritans, as heroes and heroines, God confronted me with the realization that in some instances, many of us are like those religious persons who refuse to show compassion and love for neighbors in need.
In particular, God opened my eyes to the systems and daily processes that preoccupy us, so we do not see the profound amount of suffering happening all around us. So many of us are insulated and isolated from the toll of suffering because “there’s always somewhere we have to be, something pressing that we have to do.” The gospel is, among many things, a call to disrupt the perverse forms of insulation and isolation that leave our neighbors sick, alone, starving to death and dying in the streets.
I have been wrestling with this text and our world. I have preached on this and used aspects of this story in lectures. I have spent many hours studying, including watching videos of people living in abject poverty and inhumane conditions. I sat with their faces and conditions and refused to look away. Often, I tried to imagine if that were my life – what would I think of God, good in the world, the church, government systems, and “so-called” people of goodwill who left me to suffer and die like this? I had to confront myself with the hard question: “Was I doing enough for my neighbors?” Often in prayer and meditation, I asked God, “What am I supposed to do with this?”
In hard moments like this, I lean on stories of great leaders in the Bible who took on big tasks, always with others, and pressed beyond the limits of what they thought was possible. Such stories are powerful reminders that we do not have to be messiahs for marginalized people or saviors of the world. (And we are not.) We just need to do our part and recognize that we are on a team. These stories have sustained my work for the past three years since the protests of 2020. In fact, these stories have become a maxim I want to share with my readers. “When faced with the overwhelming magnitude of the work you are called to, God either wants you to connect to other good Samaritans or to remind you of the good Samaritans to whom you are already connected.” Both are powerful reminders that we are never alone in this work. God’s response to my prayer was a new connection that will help me to be a good neighbor to people to which the systems have blinded me.
A Divine Appointment
God opened a door to a meaningful connection with institutions and organizations doing work to address and alleviate the toll of suffering. Last year, I learned about the Permanent Forum for People of African Descent through Chakera Irvin, a recent graduate of the Howard University School of Law, and Justin Hansford, executive director of the Thurgood Marshall Center and professor at Howard’s law school. I was privileged to attend the pre-launch of the forum where I learned how these leaders are using an international platform as leverage with powerful countries to address racial violence, discrimination and inequities. A year later, I sat in the halls of the United Nations and listened and learned new ways to take up the work to which God has graciously called me.
- One of the insightful comments made in the opening session was the need to reframe racism as a human rights issue, not just a social issue. This is a vital part of the work of the Permanent Forum. Legal language such as “crimes against humanity” was insightful as the theological academy does not use such language. Racism is often framed as a social justice issue and not a broader human rights issue.
- I was impressed by the participation and strong support for the work of the Forum from UNESCO based in Paris, France. UNESCO, the educational, scientific, cultural organization of the United Nations, has taken up some of these issues in light of the 2020 protests. It has organized a series of conferences called Global Forum Against Racism and Discrimination that are international in scope. The next one will be held in Sao Paul, Brazil in late November.
- A cabinet member of the U. S. government made remarks and expressed his support on behalf of President Joe Biden. Environmental disasters disproportionately affect people of color. While a cabinet-level member’s participation was meaningful, the Brazilian government has a Minister of Racial Equality, Annielle Franco. Brazil has the largest African population of the diaspora with 55.9 million, while the United States is second with 46.4 million. Brazil was the only country represented at the Forum by a government office focusing solely on policies for the Black population. Minister Franco said, “The government’s presence at this Forum is crucial. We’re taking with us strategies that are aligned with Brazilian Black organizations and movements to extend the International Decade for People of African Descent for another 10 years, as well as submitting our candidacy for a permanent seat at the next Forum’s election and for Brazil to host next year’s edition.” America can learn a lot from our sisters and brothers in Brazil.
- The Permanent Forum gives attention to global antiracist movements. There are movements all over God’s world to address racism. I learned about new organizations doing work on reparations such as the African American Redress Network and First Repair. Seeing organizations that shared examples of repair done in recent years was encouraging.
While feverishly taking notes, I wondered why I was in the room. It became clear over the two days I was involved. I noticed that Christian organizations and leaders played a small role in the work of the Forum. During the sessions I attended, I do not recall a single denominational leader, major church or organization speaking out on the dual issues of racism and reparations. I did not hear of partnerships among Christian organizations and agencies doing racial justice work. The U.N. Permanent Forum for People of African Descent is the latest example of large political and or grassroots activist movements –think Black Lives Matter (BLM) or American Descendant of Slavery (ADOS) – that have taken up the mantle of addressing the material conditions of Black people with little to no involvement from churches.
I was reminded of Dr. Eddie Glaude’s 2010 article, “The Black Church is Dead,” published in The Huffington Post. Glaude’s contention is that while religion is important to African Americans, the idea that the Black church is central to the religious lives of African Americans has long been abandoned. I remember scores of African American pastors across the nation taking issue with Glaude’s assessment of the death of the Black church. They claimed that the Black church was as viable today as it has ever been to the religious lives of Black people.
However, the misleading title of his essay caused Black pastors to miss the core issue Glaude sought to raise, which was the decentralization of the church in the African American community. There are two factors contributing to this: (1) the growing number of African Americans who choose to practice their faith outside the bounds of the Black church; and (2) the growing number of African Americans who practice non-Christian religions or those with no religious affiliation. As far back as 2010, we were seeing these trends. The former issue stood out in my mind as I witnessed the marginal witness of the Church in this space. I wondered how many of these leaders are deeply Christian, but left churches that refuse to take up God’s work outside the walls of their church. What I observed and Glaude’s contention back in 2010 are microcosms of a larger issue for churches in America.
Christians Can Be Bad Neighbors
As strange as this sounds, I want you to consider the possibility that some, not all, of our churches and sisters and brothers in Christ, are bad neighbors to billions of people. Much of it is unintentional but still nonetheless true. Like the priest and Levite, we pass by neighbors in need. We might look at their suffering for a moment before departing to do something “more important.” Often, we pretend not to see destitute and dying people around us or we are a part of congregations and organizations that are oblivious of the work being done in their communities and around the world.
I have become increasingly concerned with the blindness and isolationism in which too many Christians are trapped by their involvement with the busyness of American life and congregational life. (The former issue I will take up in a later piece.) American churchgoers are so busy attending worship services and activities that there is no time to engage broader issues affecting the world, especially the pressing human rights issue taken up by entities such as the United Nations or its specialized agency UNESCO. Many are busy going to church, not in being the church in the world. While church attendance and worship are important parts of Christian faith, they are not the ONLY parts, not even the main part.
I am not the only one concerned. More Christians are growing tired of churches, leaders, and institutions that are socially disengaged, content to leave Jesus sleeping under bridges, starving to death, or languishing in refugee camps while we go to worship services, small group meetings, and cookouts. American congregations are being challenged to do more than provide spaces for religious activities like worship, prayer and preaching. They are expected to effect change in communities in decline and in the world as a whole, but doing this will require pastors and churches to venture outside the “insular” world of congregational life.
Re-Situating American Christians in the Story of the Good Samaritan
In the story of the Good Samaritan, the priest and Levite had to go somewhere. There was some place more important to be, something more important to do than help this person in need. What was it? Where was it? We have the same problem today. There is always some place we have to be, something more important to do than helping neighbors in need. We see suffering that we do not act to disrupt. We use busyness as an excuse not to understand why so many of God’s children are trapped in oppressive cycles that produce misery and death. We go to church and let preachers justify our continued participation in “hating” our neighbors (because if I were working in the mines in the Congo, neglect would feel like hate). Our scandal (mine included) are the institutions, structures, and processes that have gotten in the way of people created in the divine image. In fact, in the coming months and years, we need a radical reimagining of how we do life and its relation to society, so we can begin to open our eyes to human suffering and to love our neighbors by doing something about the violence that produces human suffering. Our churches and theological institutions will play a pivotal part in this.
Conclusion and an Invitation
The story of the Samaritan begins with a question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” and ends with Jesus saying, “Go and do likewise.” Saying that this passage is challenging is an understatement. Jesus does not say “go to church and you will inherit eternal life” nor “ask me into your heart, and you will inherit eternal life.” He says, “love your neighbor like this Samaritan” because, in the end, we are not just members of a congregation, we are disciples of Jesus and members of God’s kingdom that radically broke into the world 2,000 years ago. We are called to bear witness to principles and values rooted in self-sacrifice, love, justice and truth. We are called to resist powerful systems and people who oppose God’s sovereignty and cause us to conform to the world.
The call of the gospel means two things about being good neighbors. First, it means that churches have a responsibility to the world around them and all people, not just their families and fellow church members. Second, it means that our responsibility to neighbors near and far includes both stewardship and discipleship issues. These are things the gospel “demands” of us as followers of Jesus Christ, things we will give an account of before the Holy One on the day of judgment. Being a good neighbor is not something we can dismiss. It is a requirement you and I must wrestle with every single day as we take up the cross and follow Jesus, maybe the most difficult requirement Jesus gave us. Think about it this way. Christian discipleship means asking ourselves this question every day: “What do I have to do not to be like the priest and Levite to a neighbor in need?” Doing this will radically re-order things like our priorities, values, time, commitment and finances.
God used my recent trip to bring clarity to certain aspects of public faith I teach students at BSK and pastors across the country. I learned that new connections can be sources God uses to teach and encourage us in the work of justice.
So, I want to invite you to make this connection as well. I plan to take a group of Christian leaders to the next session of Permanent Forum for People of African Descent. I want you to learn about the Forum and the United Nation’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. I hope to see some of you soon in New York or Geneva.
Questions for Further Thought
- As members of this country and various institutions within it, what steps can we take to become more informed about the plight of neighbors near and far?
- We cannot continue to have spaces that hide us from the devastating toll of suffering in the world. So, what would it mean to bring brief videos and visuals of human suffering into our churches and homes to disrupt the culture of blindness and callousness?
- Getting informed about human rights issues is not optional for Christians. How can churches create mechanisms and partnerships that inform, educate and engage their congregations and members of the community about the pressing issues of our times?
- Some connections can be a waste of your time, resources and spiritual energy. What are appropriate ways to align yourself with churches and organizations doing important work in the world?
Lewis Brogdon (Ph.D.) is the executive director of the Institute for Black Church Studies and Associate Professor of Preaching and Black Church Studies at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky in Louisville Kentucky. He is a frequent contributor to Christian Ethics Today.
 For more information about the forum go to https://www.ohchr.org/en/permanent-forum-people-african-descent.