Because my mother died at a relatively young age, my main link to her family came through my great aunt, Flossie Johnson. I became close to Aunt Flossie during my nearly eighteen years of pastoral ministry in Washington, DC, the city where, on a streetcar in 1946, she met Clifton Johnson, her husband of over sixty years. Sometime in the 1930s, as part of the Great Migration, Flossie moved from rural South Carolina with one of her older sisters, Josie (my grandmother), and Josie’s daughter, Loetta (my mother). I never learned all the circumstances behind these women’s trek north, but the decision to leave home is never easy. Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Random House, 2010) makes clear how the Great Migration was largely due to domestic terrorism from hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan, directed toward African Americans. Also, life in the northern states held the promise of lucrative employment opportunities. Not long after the movie, The Help, circulated in theaters, I had a conversation with Aunt Flossie about how the movie resonated with her own life. She had no desire to see the movie, saying, “Dennis, don’t you know all the females in your family did domestic work for white people?”
I will never fully know or appreciate the mess these women had to face: the verbal abuse they took, the segregation they endured, the humiliation of having to clean up other people’s mess, and the thankless task of cooking other people’s meals while caring for other people’s children. Then on top of that, to have to cook, clean, and care for their own families! What a burden these women carried for years upon years. Yet there are so many of us who could say that with all the injustices that these women—and men—had to endure, there is also a legacy of great faith.
A few years ago I participated in the funeral service for Aunt Flossie (Clifton had passed away a few years earlier, but both lived well into their nineties). The eulogist was a retired federal judge, having been one of few African Americans in such a role, and a fellow member of Aunt Flossie’s church. He had been held in Aunt Flossie’s arms shortly after he was born, and grew up living across the street from her. The eulogy, while acknowledging some of Aunt Flossie’s difficult life journey, emphasized her virtuous character. “She lived according to the Golden Rule,” the judge declared. All present knew how true that was. Flossie Johnson had lived a humble life in arguably the most powerful city in the world, demonstrating faith more tenacious, and love more generous, than many professing Christians with power and status in that same city.
Christians have been taught—obviously as well as subtly—that only the powerful in society have the ability to teach anything of substance. And the lessons from the marginalized are only for other marginalized people, not applicable to the dominant culture. Yet, what Scripture and experience demonstrate is that oppressed and marginalized people are our most powerful teachers of what it means to follow Christ, if only we are ready to listen and learn. My recent book, Might from the Margins: The Gospel’s Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice (Herald Press, 2020), describes how those who are powerless in the eyes of the world do not deserve pity, but attention and honor as teachers of the Jesus Way. We see Jesus, a marginalized Jew, in the lives of those society disregards, minimizes, and silences. As the apostle Paul told the Corinthians, “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor 1:26–29 NRSV).
Perhaps the main question the letter 1 Peter addresses is: How should Christians think and act within a culture that is hostile toward them? First Peter addresses Christians who are alienated by the broader culture. Peter writes to people who do not have the luxury of prominence or high status in their society. Peter writes to people who are under scrutiny. Peter writes to people whose lives are in a precarious position. At the time of his letter, Peter’s readers are facing hassles, slander, alienation, judgment, and social isolation because of their faith. His readers are suffering.
The first readers of this letter carried the status of alien, stranger, and members of the diaspora—a status that indicated their conflict with non-Christians. These people could not be at home in the world because the world became hostile to them. That’s the precarious situation of anyone on the margins. Alienated, diaspora people are the ones who suffer. And when they are also people of faith, those oppressed believers can teach us what the NT sometimes calls hypomonē: endurance, faithful perseverance. For example, Peter addresses the enslaved (2:18–25) and women (3:1–6), people who have historically been the most vulnerable and marginalized. The believing wives demonstrate a needed method of evangelism: how to win over unbelievers without a word (3:1); and the enslaved who hear Peter’s letter and follow his instructions, are in the blessed position of walking the way Jesus walked (2:23–25), providing a poignant example for the world. God has made it so that if we want to see Jesus, we don’t look to the powerful; we look to the apparent powerless! First Peter shows us that those who have been oppressed are the very ones who teach us the way of Christ.
Over seventy years ago, the poet, mystic, and theologian Howard Thurman presented a problem that, to a large degree, remains with us. In his classic, Jesus and the Disinherited (Abingdon, 1949), Thurman notes:
I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times that I have heard a sermon on the meaning of religion, of Christianity, to the man with his back against the wall. It is urgent that my meaning be crystal clear. The masses of men live with their backs constantly against the wall. They are the poor, the disinherited, the dispossessed. What does our religion say to them? The issue is not what it counsels them to do for others whose need may be greater, but what religion offers to meet their own needs. The search for an answer to this question is perhaps the most important religious quest of modern life.
Contemporary expressions of Christian faith focus on the powerful, the popular, and the prestigious, who are overwhelmingly white. In fact, white evangelicalism has enjoyed a degree of social hegemony in the USA. Consequently, it is often hard for white people to understand how the practice of Christianity can be oppressive for those on the margins. Those who, as Thurman puts it, “live with their backs against the wall,” struggle to flourish in a society that was not constructed for them. To make matters worse, some of the most zealous Christians in the country are reluctant to recognize the injustices marginalized people deal with on a regular basis. Charles W. Mills, in The Racial Contract (Cornell University Press, 1997), points that out with standpoint theory: “in understanding the workings of a system of oppression, a perspective from the bottom up is more likely to be accurate than one from the top down” (109). Those who occupy society’s lowest caste position are the best to diagnose society’s injustices and to discern a more righteous path.
Consider, for example, the exodus story of Israelites enslaved under an unnamed Pharaoh’s ruthless regime. God demonstrated liberative power to free the Israelites and rebuke Pharaoh’s oppression. The freedom of the once-enslaved Israelites becomes not only an example of God’s power to deliver, but also an affirmation of how a relatively small and apparently insignificant group of people can shame the world’s most powerful nations.
Books on justice and reconciliation often discuss the need for love. I agree that love is necessary, provided we understand love as more than sappy sentimentality. In my experience, people demand love at the expense of justice. Oftentimes white people want to hear and see Black people be quick to forgive injustice. After all, there are plenty of examples—even in recent years—when Black people have been killed and members of the family or larger community have forgiven the white killers. For some white people, the proof that Black people have the capacity to love is our apparent ability to forgive quickly. I’ve had white friends assert that one essential thing that Black people teach them is the beauty of forgiveness. I wish our main lessons didn’t come from our oppression. We have so much else to teach.
Of course forgiveness is biblical and is Christ-like. But forgiveness need not obscure injustice. Forgiveness isn’t a performance. Forgiveness, however, releases our souls from the burden of hatred, which ultimately destroys. When we love ourselves, we can demand justice as well as unburden our souls through forgiveness.
Jesus recited the OT command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; cf. Matt 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27). The apostle Paul echoes the same command (e.g., Rom 13:9; Gal 5:14). Loving ourselves helps us to know how to love others. But oppressive systems often make it difficult for marginalized people to love themselves. I’m old enough to remember James Brown singing, “Say it Loud, ‘I’m Black and I’m proud.’” We needed that anthem. Data had shown that African Americans internalized some of the negative messaging we’d received over centuries. We needed to convince ourselves of our own worth in the eyes of God and others. We needed to embrace our beauty, intelligence, ingenuity, and creativity. We needed to love ourselves.
Even today we struggle to help our children to love themselves. When a simple slogan, such as “Black Lives Matter” is denied, scrutinized, and even vilified by vocal white Christians, it becomes increasingly necessary to assert that God loves us and to grow in love of ourselves. As we grow in love for ourselves, it will become easier to face the challenge of loving our enemies. After all, our enemies are not just ideological, they are empowered with lethal weapons and legal protections. Some of our number have been killed by police—even with some deaths being ruled as homicides by the authorities—only to have no one held responsible. But love has power. It has the power to embolden us, motivate us, and sustain us in the fight against injustice.
The fictional nation of Wakanda is central in Marvel’s Black Panther universe. Ostensibly a simple agricultural society, Wakanda is really home to advanced technology. In the blockbuster Black Panther movie, Wakanda, mixing science with its spiritual traditions under its leader, King T’Challa, manages to stifle a threat against the world’s safety and ongoing security. During a critical scene in the movie, when King T’Challa is incapacitated, an entourage seeking assistance approaches Chief M’Baku and his Jabari tribe. As the entourage draws near, the white CIA agent, Ross, begins to explain the predicament. Right then, M’Baku pounds his staff repeatedly and barks loudly. The rest of the Jabari tribe begins barking so persistently that Agent Ross is drowned out. When I saw that scene in the theater, I could barely remain in my seat! I wanted to cheer loudly because I have had countless experiences of white people presuming to speak for me. The white elite, even when outnumbered (as in the fictional Wakanda and non-fictional South Africa) have grown accustomed to minimizing non-white people. White people—including Christians—are accustomed to being the central focus of practically all conversations. Consequently, Might from the Margins is not primarily addressed to white Christians. I write for other marginalized people to encourage us to exercise the power that we already possess. We do not have to wait to be empowered by white people or to receive permission from white people to speak, write, or act as we dismantle systems of injustice and demonstrate genuine faith in Jesus.
Furthermore, just as Agent Ross was an ally of the people of Wakanda, there are white people who see themselves as allies of marginalized people in our country. And in the same way that Agent Ross had to know when to be silent and not speak over—or even for—the people of Wakanda, white allies today do well to know the value of listening and not speaking for people who have their own voices.
People like my Aunt Flossie have more to teach us than we might first imagine. What she and others like her do is demonstrate the faithfulness, love, and upright character of Jesus. Marginalized people know the path of suffering is the path of Jesus. Marginalized people know that suffering doesn’t simply “teach us a lesson”; it connects us uniquely to Jesus, the “man of sorrows.” Jesus stands in solidarity with the marginalized. Consequently, we find power to serve the Lord in challenging times. We find might from the margins.