by Monique Duson
In the past, the Center for Biblical Unity has celebrated Black History Month. During the first year of the ministry, we made several posts promoting it on social media. Last February, Kevin Briggins and I shared our fond childhood memories of celebrating it. We also discussed some of our concerns about the holiday. Later in the year, I blogged about my increasing discomfort with Black History Month.
This year, as I’m seeing social media posts on Black History Month, I’m challenged again. I’ve found myself asking, “Is there a biblical standard for celebrating race, especially in the church?” This article is not meant to tell you or your family what to do, but I want to share where I am in my journey and where CFBU is going on this issue.
The Beginning of Black History Appreciation
Black history is and always has been American history. Unfortunately, due in part to racism, many of the contributions of black Americans were overlooked or ignored until the early part of the 20th century. This omission motivated black historian Carter G. Woodson to create Black History Week in February 1926. Black History Week offered the opportunity to educate people, especially black people, on the unique and sometimes unknown contributions made by African Americans and to celebrate those who helped pave a better way of life for black people. Carter thought that changing race relations in the United States ought to include presenting an accurate history of America and all its contributors. In his first Black History Week, Woodson highlighted the contributions of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, as both were seen as pivotal figures in the history of African Americans.
My History with Black History
I’ve participated in Black History Month services in both black churches and multiethnic churches. The services in the black churches have been quite different from what I’ve experienced in multiethnic or predominantly white churches.
For instance, in many black churches, Black History Month is a time for reciting speeches and poems from black leaders and authors like Martin Luther King, Maya Angelou, and Langston Hughes and performing African dances. In fact, the first time I danced in church, it was to perform an African dance during a black history celebration. We celebrate the inventions and advancements of black Americans, recount the racial injustices experienced by African Americans, and pray for a safer, less racialized tomorrow. It’s not that we don’t know the history of African Americans (or like we didn’t do basically the same presentation last year), but there is a strong felt need to make sure that our history is honored. I don’t think that’s an objectively bad thing (although I do still question whether it belongs in a church service).
Moving Away From Black History
I remember celebrating Black History Month in my multiethnic church just once. When the older black woman who spearheaded it left, so did the black history service. This confused me at first. I had come to believe in the necessity of Black History Month. You see, when I was in the black church, black history services didn’t just make sense; they seemed crucial. And it could be argued that black history celebrations in a church largely composed of older white people are probably more necessary.
Reflecting back, however, nothing was lacking during my time in that multiethnic church. Just because every February wasn’t filled with salutations to black Americans, did not mean that whiteness was at play, blacks were marginalized, or racism was the cultural default. Our leadership's goals were to keep the worship of Jesus central, followed by the equal love of neighbor. As we loved Christ and our neighbor, regardless of skin color or ethnic heritage, the cultural landscape of our church community naturally grew, along with the appreciation of cultures. We had a Spanish congregation, a Farsi congregation, and a Brazilian congregation, and that was in addition to the multitude of differing ethnicities present within our English-speaking congregation. Naturally, those congregations brought their cultures with them. This didn’t happen because my pastor went on a campaign to support or highlight any one group, but because we had a focus on worshiping Jesus. That focus spilled over to those in the community and drew others in—others from every ethnicity within our community.
Moving Toward a biblical vision of humanity
As I’ve considered Black History Month over the last few years, especially the celebration of black history during Sunday morning church services, I’ve become increasingly skeptical about celebrating Black History Month in the local church service.
The modern concept of race emerged out of the Enlightenment. Classifying humans through a racialized lens (e.g., black and white) is a relatively new practice and would have been foreign to any of the biblical writers. In contrast, the Scriptures refer to people by ethnicity or nation of origin (for example, Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans or Ruth the Moabite). There are a few instances where skin color is used as a descriptor (e.g., Jeremiah 13:23), but it’s not seen as a central identity marker. The consistent underlying assumption throughout Scripture is that God made Adam and, through him, became all of the nations. This would include all of the different shades we see today.
From the beginning of the church, God’s people have been part of a multicultural, multiethnic, multilingual global assembly (see Matt. 28:19-20; Acts 2:8-11). Scripture calls out disciples from among the nations to become citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven. We see this goal fulfilled in Revelation 5:6-10 and 7:9.
Our culture has trained us to see through the lens of race, but Scripture tells us there is only one human race with varying ethnicities. The gospel is to go out to the nations, growing from the small mustard seed and spreading like yeast in the dough (Matt. 13:31-33).
Making a Shift
As Krista and I continue to grow with the ministry, we are shifting away from emphasizing months based on the social construct of race. We want to take the best version of Black History Month, which started as a meaningful (and fun) appreciation of African American culture, and broaden it to include all cultures. We want to foster an environment of cultural sharing and learning. Because we are Christians, we want to shine particular light on helping the Body of Christ appreciate the way that the gospel has gone out to the nations.
This is why, we’ve decided that, moving forward, we will use the month of February as Cultural Appreciation Month. Our goal is to make this an annual feature on our website and social media in an effort to pioneer a new way for God’s people to share and celebrate one another’s cultures.
Maybe your Christian school or church wants to join us?