February is Black History month. In 1976 the United States government officially acknowledged this month as an annual celebration of noted Black historians, scholars, educators, and publishers. School days for me during the month of February meant learning about historical Black figures like Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr. The posters would go up and we’d be required to dive into heavy research on who these people were and what they did. But as quickly as the posters went up, they disappeared when the calendar turned over to March 1. As earnest as our research had been, once February ended, these people were basically forgotten.
February is a wonderful time to reflect on the lives of Black Americans and the contributions they had on society. It’s a time to teach kids about American history. It also presents a great time for local media to highlight the “heroes” of their respective communities. But I wonder if there’s a different, perhaps even better way, that Christians approach embracing the historical significance of Black Americans and culture.
Set Aside, But Not Equal
I don’t suggest that Christians withdrawal from the celebration in culture at large. By all means, honor worthy heroes along with the mainstream. But the better way I’m suggesting — the Christian approach — is to celebrate Black history throughout the whole year.
Many of us have a real desire for racial harmony. But cramming our heads full of history for one month won’t necessarily build a broad awareness of the issues our country still faces. If anything, the fact that we have this one month segregated from the other eleven reminds us that we’re still a long ways from real reconciliation.
Personally, my experience growing up made me sense the topic of Black history to be less important than others. We set aside a month for study and then bleached any mention for the rest of the year. It seemed like filling a quota — doing something that was assigned, but not worthy of learning more than 28 days.
But I think, for American Christians, there are compelling reasons to learn beyond February. Here are four reasons why studying our country’s history and important African Americans has year-long significance.
1. We gain perspective.
Getting to know our shared history throughout the year can help us gain understanding and perspective. Specifically, in the church, it could be a means of building community and helping us learn how to bear one another’s burdens (Galatians 6:2). Bearing the burden of another is a way to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Our nation’s history of oppression and segregation continues to carry a sting for many, both white and black. Understanding the gravity of the situation can only help us in relating to the pain so many still carry.
2. We open doors for evangelism.
Gaining a better grasp on history and important figures of our past can open the door for evangelism. In his sermon, Becoming All Things to All Men to Save Some, John Piper expounds 1 Corinthians 9:19–23 — the familiar verse where Paul shares that he becomes all things to all people. Paul has a purpose in this pursuit. Piper explains:
Five times he says that his aim is to win people. Verse 19: “that I might win the more.” Verse 20: “that I might win the Jews . . . that I might win those under the law.” Verse 21: “That I might win those who are without law.” Verse 22: “That I might win the weak.”
So five times he says that his aim in adapting to the way people live is to win them. Then at the end of verse 22 in his summary statement he says, “I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some.” So he says his aim differently here. Five times it was “to win” people; and now it is “to save” people.
Knowledge and understanding of other’s history can be a catalyst for open dialogue. Of course, we wouldn’t want to assume that knowledge equates to full understanding, but it can help. And furthermore, and possibly most importantly, this knowledge can display a genuine interest in others (when done as unto the Lord). This will lead to opportunities to share the gospel.
3. We welcome greater diversity in our homes.
We can all benefit from learning and discussing history, especially as it relates to culture in the United States. Learning about culture can open the doors for hospitality in our homes. In a previous article for Desiring God, I give practical and theological reasons for why we might pursue diversity in our homes.
4. We can prepare for our changing demographic.
It has been highly documented that the United States will not look the same over the next 50 years. Namely our demographics are rapidly changing due to immigration and higher birth rates of minority children. If this is the case, Lord willing, our churches will not look the same either. Sundays continue to be the most segregated day of the week and with the rise of minorities in our country, there should be a rise in multi-ethnic churches. By learning about each other now, we will be more equipped to serve one another in our congregations.
Celebrate Black history in February. Learn and give thanks. But let’s not stop there. Ultimately, it’s not a celebration of a single people, but a recognition of the diversity among God’s image-bearing creatures — the diversity among every tribe, tongue, and nation for whom Jesus died.