Liberating the Incarnation

More often than many of us would like to admit, powerful Christians have held captive the truth of the incarnation rather than releasing it in order to dismantle society’s inequitable power structures.



I turned 34 on Aug. 9, the day that black teenager Michael Brown was killed by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri. Even though the news of Brown’s death didn’t break until that evening, I had spent most of the day feeling a distinct and somewhat unsettling mix of gratitude and sorrow.

You see, just days before I turned 34, I learned that the average life expectancy of a black female slave in 19th-century America was 33.6 years, significantly lower than white women of the era.

33.6 years!

The realization that I probably would not have lived to celebrate my 34th birthday had I been born in 1780 instead of 1980 overwhelmed me, triggering both gratitude for how far we have come on issues of racial equality and sorrow for how far we still have to go.

As an educated, privileged black woman, I will likely live a long and secure life. But I cannot say the same for many of my black brothers and sisters, who fight to survive at the dark intersection of racial and economic inequality.

The evening of my birthday, upon hearing the news of Brown’s death, I mourned the inequality that still plagues America, lamenting that we have not yet collectively atoned for the original sin of slavery. Slavery’s ongoing legacy of shortening black lives was powerfully displayed in this young man’s death.

Since Aug. 9, I have formed a habit of singing and praying the old Negro spirituals as I cope with the events surrounding Ferguson and the regular challenges of life as a reconciler.

I know of no collection of Christian songs that so powerfully balances hope with despair, and gratitude with longing, nor any people group with more credibility. As the Advent season approached, I looked for Negro spirituals on the incarnation and Christ’s birth to help frame my hopeful longing.

But much to my disappointment, I could find only two or three Christmas-themed spirituals!

Black theologian, pastor and reconciler Howard Thurman explains the dearth of Negro spirituals on this topic in his book Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death:

Concerning the birth of Jesus, very little appeal was made to the imagination of the slave because it was not felt wise to teach him the significance of this event to the poor and the captive. It was dangerous to let the slave understand that the life and teachings of Jesus meant freedom for the captive and release for those held in economic, social, and political bondage.

The slave masters correctly feared that the good news of the incarnation would empower the slaves in unimaginable (and perhaps uncontrollable) ways. Indeed, the incarnation is all about freedom for slaves.

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