April 27, 2018 – Roger W. Lowther
Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis fifty years ago on April 4, 1968. On that same day this year, MLK50 events celebrating the life and legacy of Dr. King took place all over the city. You could feel the excitement in the air, reinforced by police escorts zipping famous people around the city, blocked-off streets, and a lot of security. All month long, we as a city have been talking about Dr. King in social media, schools, churches, and around dinner tables.
I attended the MLK50 conference put on by the Gospel Coalition in the convention center downtown. Four thousand people attended and apparently one million saw it online. (You too can watch the plenaries and panel discussions online. Speakers emphasized African-American theology of redemptive suffering, which teaches that God will use the unearned suffering of African-Americans for some greater purpose. In the conference, I realized that God is already using the Middle Passage, 250 years of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, racism, and ongoing disparities to bring healing and to spread the gospel around the world, especially in the country of Japan.
During the Civil Rights era, Dr. King led nonviolent protests in order to address issues of injustice. He called this a “creative” approach to suffering, rooted in the cross and designed to bring a redemptive outcome. In the famous “I Have A Dream” speech, Dr. King said:
I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow jail cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of CREATIVE SUFFERING. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.
Nonviolent approaches to suffering stem from a long heritage in the African-American community of “creatively” engaging suffering. In fact, African-Americans artists have been doing this from the very beginning through song.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Nobody knows but Jesus.
Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Glory, Hallelujah!
Slaves responded to injustice and suffering by singing songs of unquenchable hope in light of the cross. “Nobody Knows The Trouble I’ve Seen” sings of personal “trouble,” while also clearly pointing to Jesus, the one who suffered on our behalf. As a result, suffering is redeemed allowing for the praise and glory of hallelujahs. This is one of the best examples of faith that God works through our suffering. “We’ll Understand It By And By” also affirms the belief that God will bring good from suffering. We cannot understand why we have so many trials, but this must not lead us to despair but rather to trust in God that he will make a way out of no way and “lead us to that Blessed Promised Land.”
Trials dark on every hand, and we cannot understand
All the ways God would lead us to that Blessed Promised Land;
But he guides us with His eye and we’ll follow till we die,
For we’ll understand it better by and by.
And when the prophet Jeremiah asked the question, in utter despair, “Is there a balm in Gilead?” (Jeremiah 8:22), the African-American slaves responded with an emphatic, “Yes!” They changed the question mark into an exclamation point. As one of the speakers, Mika Edmondson, put it, “Here we see a positive belief in the dawn which uses the midnight of life as a raw material out of which it creates its own strength. This was the growing edge of hope that kept the slaves going amid the most barren and tragic circumstances” (Mika Edmondson. The Power of Unearned Suffering. Lexington Books: Lanham, 2017, 37). Slaves found hope and healing in the gospel through their creative response to suffering.
There is a balm in Gilead, To make the wounded whole.
There is a balm in Gilead, To heal the sin-sick soul.
During the Civil Rights era, Dr. King led nonviolent protests in order to address issues of injustice. He called this a “creative” approach to suffering, rooted in the cross and designed to bring a redemptive outcome. When we faced tremendous suffering along the tsunami-stricken northeast coast of Japan seven years ago, it was natural to bring in gospel choirs. The clear message of hope amidst suffering completely changed the atmosphere of every shelter, church, outdoor venue, and public venue in which we sang.
When we brought our first gospel choir from Memphis to Japan 13 years ago, we were frequently asked questions like, “Why is black gospel so popular in Japan?” This popularity has only grown over the years to include other art forms such as hip hop, an art form born out of the suffering of African-American urban youth. (You can see Brazilian missionary JP and my son Aidan do hip hop street evangelism here.) I believe the popularity of gospel music in Japan is rooted in its clear message of hope. Rather than ganbatte kudasai, ”Keep it up! Don’t give up!” the message powerfully becomes “There IS a balm in Gilead. You can be healed! You can become whole!”
Like thousands of others in Japan, O-Chan and his wife Asami both became Christian through black gospel choir ministry in Japan. O-Chan is now trained as a pastor and works with black gospel music to spread the gospel and plant churches in Japan. You can read their story here.
God is working through African American artists to creatively engage suffering with the gospel. This is the arts in mission. This is God working through African-American suffering to bring a message of hope and healing, spreading the gospel to millions around the globe. May God continue to bring this message of hope to the people of Japan.
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