Attentiveness: Zakar–Remembrance and Black History
One of the most important verbs, or more specifically commands, in the Old Testament is the imperative to remember. “Remember the seventh day to keep it holy . . . Remember that you were strangers in Egypt.” Remember . . .
Approximately 165 times in Scripture God tells us to remember. This is because both what we remember and how we remember it gives us identity. Without memory, we lose both who we are and how we are loved. This is the great tragedy of Alzheimer’s. The essence of the person dissolves as the memory fades and our dear loved ones forget who they are and how much they are loved.
One of the basic ways we remember and reaffirm our identity as religions, nations, and ethnic groups is through annual or periodic remembrances. Our primary identity is given to us by God and it is reinforced through “liturgy,” the patterned work of the people. For example, ancient Israel had festivals to remember their identity as the people of God.
The Christian liturgical calendar gives us identity by reminding us of the saving work of Jesus: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Good Friday, and Easter. Each of these remembrances leads us into the grace, mercy, and love of God through Jesus Christ on our behalf. Churches have various ways of remembering these events, along with a variety of holy days that they remember according to their traditions. It is a normal and healthy community that attends to remembering, especially through a liturgical calendar. Such practices and rhythms keep us centered on the Story of God of which we are part. Healthy Christians are centered, not eccentric.
Countries also possess specific identities. In most countries, national liturgies or annual days of celebration or remembrance remind citizens of who they are as a nation. In the United States, we have national “liturgical” celebrations that Christians can honor, and Black History Month is one of them.
Like all liturgical remembrances, Black History Month is a reminder of our national identity. We read the following on the federal government’s Black History Month website:
The Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, National Endowment for the Humanities, National Gallery of Art, National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum join in paying tribute to the generations of African Americans who struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society.
The key element here is “. . . who struggled with adversity . . . .” How are we, as Christians, to think about our national liturgies, their purpose, and reason for inclusion as part of our national life’s rhythm? In a word, we are to think Christianly. We think along the lines of the Jesus of Scripture.
As a historian, when I think of Black History Month, I consider the tragedy of bad theology that in the past would assign certain humans as being inferior to others, or worse, even as being non-humans. I also think of the results of a theology that would lead a nation to such degradation. But that is not all I consider. I further ponder the Christians who stood against those lies that led to oppression. Who were they and what did they do that could lift our sites and thus our lives today?
John Marrant is one whom we should remember this month. As a free Black man from New York, Marrant heard the great evangelical preacher George Whitefield and felt called to proclaim the gospel to indigenous peoples. “Marrant lived among and preached to the Cherokee, Creek, Catawar, and Howsaw Indians from 1770 to 1775.”
Then there is George Liele (1750-1828), who was the first Black foreign missionary. He was an amazing man with great courage and conviction, who, upon his conversion as an enslaved person, preached and provided pastoral care for other enslaved people and then sided with the British during the War for Independence. By 1793 Liele had planted a church in Jamaica among enslaved people, and by 1814 he had planted churches in St. Catherine, St. Thomas, St. Mary and St. James. By the time of his death in 1826 there were over 8,000 members in his various churches.
There is a host of other names I consider during this month of national remembrance because so many great Black leaders were directed and empowered by their Christian faith: Betsy Stockton, Richard Allen, Phillis Wheatley, Lemuel Haynes, Jarena Lee. These are but a few and this short list covers only up to the early nineteenth century.
Looking with Christian eyes at our context in the U.S. during this month, we should take time to remember the Christian models of our faith who are Black.
Remember. Remember Jesus, and those who courageously followed him.
 “About Black History Month,” Library of Congress.
 “Treasures of the Day Missions Library: Early African American Missionaries,” Yale Divinity.
Dr. Scott W. Sunquist, President of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, is author of the “Attentiveness” blog. He welcomes comments, responses, and good ideas.