Danté Stewart’s Shoutin’ in the Fire: An American Epistle is a beautiful and troubling book. It’s beautiful because it’s a testimony to Black-strength, Black-resilience, and Black-pride. It’s troubling because I’m a white reader who was confronted with the meaning of whiteness. But the synthesis of this beauty and this trouble is that it’s essential if you want to hear a contemporary voice speak aloud about what it means to be Black and Christian and American (p. 6).
The title comes from the story in the Book of Daniel where the three Hebrews are thrown in the fiery furnace by the order of the King of Babylon. The title is unpacked through chapter-after-chapter of testimony as to how the Black Church is a witness to this spirit—the spirit of fidelity in the midst of a life-and-death trial. This book is written with the recent murders of Black Americans from Treyvon Martin to George Floyd being always present but also with white silence, especially white, Christian American silence, blaring in our ears.
I was raised as a Oneness Pentecostal who left that tradition for the broader, more mainstream white Evangelical Church. Stewart was raised as an Apostolic Pentecostal who left his tradition for the broader, more mainstream white Evangelical Church. Eventually, Stewart leaves white Evangelicalism and in the process is able to rediscover some of the life-giving treasures of his Apostolic Pentecostal roots. I have left Evangelicalism as well but I couldn’t look back to my Oneness Pentecostal roots with the same fondness. It was easy for me to see that the major difference is that Stewart’s Apostolic Pentecostal community was held together by more than its doctrine but also by the shared experience of being Black Americans, a shared experience I didn’t have with my fellow white Oneness Pentecostals. In other words, my white Oneness Pentecostalism didn’t contribute to my struggle for freedom or the for the recognition of my humanity like Stewart’s Apostolic Pentecostalism did for him. As I read, I could see that Stewart had experienced something in his formative years that I couldn’t and that while our Christianities shared creedal similarities, that’s where the parallels mostly end (though running, shouting, tongue-taking, etc., are shared experiences).
White Evangelicalism didn’t try to rip my identity from me. But white Evangelicalism did try to rip Stewart’s identity from him. And his departure from white Evangelicalism was when he realized he had a role to play in the struggle for Black-liberation in this country. That’s when he was empowered to read Martin Luther King Jr., James Cone, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, et al. And that’s when Stewart was given words that informed his voice as a writer. When you read this book, you’ll be glad that Stewart found his way out of white Evangelicalism because we need his voice: it’s prophetic, it’s poetic, it’s powerful.
The two chapters that will live in my brain forever are “Rage.” and “Back Roads.” It’s in “Rage.” that Stewart explains how he recognized the power and life-giving strength of Black-rage against white supremacy and its impact. But this is also the chapter where he talks about his journies in white Evangelicalism, how he wanted to be accepted in those circles, how he found himself being numbed to the Black experience in this country, and how he escaped.
Stewart writes of how he initially responded to a question asked across social media, “What radicalized you?” with the tweet “JESUS & JAMES BALDWIN” but how he then came to realized that as important as Jesus and James Baldwin were to him, “It wasn’t Jesus or James Baldwin who radicalized me. It was white people. Apathetic white people.” (pp. 78-79) Stewart tells stories about how his Evangelical Church tried the whole “racial reconciliation” approach, which for those in the know, is often code in many Evangelical Churches for “Black Christians are welcome to join our white Church and embrace our traditions, music, hermeneutics, etc., as long as you don’t make us feel bad about the state of race relations in this country”. But as Black people were murdered by the police, Stewart realized he was not in a place that seemed to care. Their approach to racial reconciliation was to do a small group study around a book written by John Piper (p. 80). Yes, John Piper.
As I read this, I remembered my time in white Evangelicalism. While my experience was nothing like Stewart’s because I’m white, I can say that his criticism of white Evangelicalism’s approach to racial reconciliation is every bit as problematic as that chapter describes, and their sense that their theology is normalized “theology,” traditional “theology,” even orthodox “theology,” rather than a specifically situated expression of white theology is what makes it all so very troubling.
It was “Back Roads.” that made me stop several times to digest Stewart’s words. I want to share three extended quotes from that chapter, then I’ll shut up, step aside, and encourage you to buy and read this book:
“Any conception of God, Baldwin wrote, must deal honestly with the ways Black people are unloved in American society and in the American church and give us all something that helps us to work for a world in which all bodies experience what God desires.”Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 111
This reminds me of the words spoken by Irving Greenberg, who wrote in Cloud of Smoke; Pillar of Fire: Judaism, Christianity, and Modernity After the Holocaust (p. 506), that, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.” Likewise, no Christian theology can be done in America that isn’t credible in the presence of Black Americans who have seen white American Christians hide behind their theology while continuing their acts of oppression. (As James Cone taught us as Adam Clark recently reminded us.)
“If the white folk I worshipped and went to school with and had dinner with had the imagination to see C.S. Lewis’ Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as Jesus, then I knew there should have been no problem when Black folk said Jesus was Black and Jesus loved Black people and Jesus wanted to see Black people free. Just as they found meaning in the symbol of Aslan’s representation of love, I found meaning in the symbol of Jesus’ solidarity with Blackness. But, sadly, I found out that many could see the symbol of divine goodness and love in an animal before they could ever see the symbol of divine goodness and love in Blackness.Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 115
These words remind me of the embarrassing and shameful response I heard from many white Americans to the statement, “Black Lives Matter”. Many of the same people who could listen to the Beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit…those who mourn…the meek…those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…the merciful…the pure in heart…the peacemakers…those persecuted,” and recognize that Jesus was being derogatory toward the rest of humanity but instead was highlighting the special value of those often overlooked and trampled on by society, somehow couldn’t stand the idea that Black Americans were saying, like Jesus, “In a country that says we don’t matter, we declare we matter.” Instead, many white Americans just reinforced the point by trying to silence Black voices.
“I saw why they insisted on saying Jesus was Black. Of course they were not talking about his skin color, though he definitely wasn’t white; they were talking about his experience, about his solidarity with the oppressed, about his universal love, about his commitment to God’s just future, about his healing of wounds, and his good news that Black life does not end in this moment but will forever be beautiful, worthy, and loved. They knew Jesus knew what it meant to live in an occupied territory, knew what it meant to be from an oppressed people, and in a place that does not care about your religion—at least not the way they practice it—but does care to remind you of its idea about your place in society. The threat you pose to their lies. They knew Jesus knew what it was like for people who looked like him to care more about being in proximity to power, and he knew that those in power did not care about people that looked like him.”Shoutin’ in the Fire, p. 117
When I first read James Cone critique of whiteness, I was taken back; I was upset. I didn’t get it. I thought he was talking about me, the individual. This meant I needed to hear what he was saying because I was identifying with whiteness—not pigmentation but the cultural perks and privileges that come with being recognized as “white” in America. If I wanted to follow in the ways of Jesus, I’d have to abandon my pride in my privilege, in my whiteness, like the “rich young ruler” was asked to abandon his pride in his privilege, in his wealth. When I read the last quote from Stewart, I was reminded of this ongoing challenge for white Christians like myself that want to do better. We must recognize that if we’re going to learn to be Christians, we must learn from the people with whom Jesus would surround himself, with whom he’d identify, with whom he’d be in solidarity.
Go read Shoutin’ in the Fire.