The notion that the existence of suffering represents a lack of love or presence on the part of God is an age old dilemma for people of faith. It is difficult for us to reconcile the sovereignty of God and the belief that God loves us with the existence of suffering in the world. However, if we accept the cross of Jesus Christ as the center of our faith as Christians, then we have the beginnings of being able to deal with this dilemma. From the pain and suffering of the cross God brings life and salvation.
When we consider the experience of African-Americans in the U.S. in light of the Incarnation and the centrality of the cross, then we are confronted with the truth that God does not cause the suffering but God does redeem the suffering. God brings life out of death. God brings good from bad. God used Joseph’s mistreatment by his brothers to save not only Joseph’s family but many more people of that region during a widespread famine. It would be a mistake to try to draw a direct line from this event and the experience of African Americans. However, there are some parallels that can be made.
African Americans have not been destroyed or even disabled by their treatment in this country. To the contrary, we have persevered and prospered in many ways despite the difficulties and oppression. African-Americans have taken what was intended to bring death and used it to not necessarily bring life but to find strength to carry on. Soul food is the creation of enslaved people taking the scraps and left overs they were given and turning these ingredients into delicacies. These same people took work songs and developed spirituals which have become an art form in our contemporary world. There are countless inventions that have been created by African-Americans and many more that were not credited to them because of their legal status. Again this is not the same as Joseph’s experience but it shows how God can take what was meant to destroy or degrade to bring forth life and beauty.
The suffering of African-Americans in this country rightly understood can be instructive to what it really means to be a Christian. The experience of African-Americans in this country is arguably the closest to the experience of Jewish Christians of the Bible. Both groups were held as slaves and then suffered oppression and abuse for years after liberation from slavery. Both groups had to “steal away” to worship Jesus. So that although there may not be this sense of triumph or victory at this present moment there is a history of overcoming that dates back to the time of the ancients. The same God that brought Israel through the suffering of slavery and Jewish Christians through the suffering of Roman oppression is the same God that has in the past, is currently, and will continue to see African Americans through suffering and pain in whatever form presented.
Grace and Peace.