God and the Struggle for Racial Justice in the Undergraduate Theology Classroom

“The person and community with a feel for God is not aiming to penetrate into the sacred. Rather, she is striving to be penetrated and actuated by the sacred, eager to yield to its force. . . . History forms a vehicle for God’s actions in the world. The Jewish question is a question of God to us.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel

Recently I was invited by the editors of Horizons: The Journal of the College Theology Society, to contribute an essay for their theological “roundtable” on teaching for racial justice. I’ve long been a student of the great Jewish philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. His life and writings – or more precisely, the question of God that haunts his life and writings – provided a fruitful entry point and framework for me to reflect on my approach to the history of racial injustice, white supremacy, and Black resistance and faith, spirituality and hope, in the classroom.

It’s an essay I’d like to share more widely with people of faith and especially with white Christians and Catholics who yearn to educate themselves on the witness of African American spirituality and the contemporary struggle for justice in movements like “Black Lives Matter,” yet don’t know where to begin. In my view, the classics in Black literature are a very good place to start. Writers like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W. E. B. Du Bois and Maya Angelou, provide a powerful perspective on American history (not just “Black History”) and the remarkable ways that faith in God and God’s own yearning for justice has sustained the Black community, for 400 years and more, through unspeakable trials.

In sum, I take my inspiration in the essay not only from Heschel’s life and writings but also from “the transcendent pull” that Black literature “exerts on me and my students as we engage it together in the classroom.” If you have the time and inclination to dive in, the article is linked below. I’d welcome your feedback in the comments section.

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