When the gospel isn't very good news
‘I thought I had to erase the part of me that was black…’
When Lisa Sharon Harper accepted Christ in the early 1980s, she felt that her political priorities had to be converted as well.
“I was a black girl living in a mostly white town,” Harper tells Eternity. “My family was the only black people I knew within a five-mile radius of where we lived. So I was desperate to belong. After accepting Christ, there was a real deep sense of belonging, not only to him but also in the community of the church, and that was deeply healing.
“But still there was that part of me that thought, in order for me to belong, I had to erase the part of me that was black, the part of me that grew up Democrat, the part of me that thought Jimmy Carter was the good guy.”
Harper says this is how it was to grow up an evangelical Christian in the 1980s, a time she describes as the “rise of the religious Right.” She says the subtext of the movement said that if you’re not Republican, you’re not Christian, and that to be Christian you have to be Republican.
“So I did it – I went full tilt. I marched in pro-life rallies; that’s what I thought it meant to be Christian,” she says.
“I marched in pro-life rallies; that’s what I thought it meant to be Christian.” – Lisa Sharon Harper
“But the problem was I didn’t have any sense of how God loved me, as an African-American woman. I had absolutely no sense of how the good news of the gospel intersects with my own family’s history on American soil as enslaved people.”
Twenty years later, Harper took a pilgrimage across the American South, constantly asking herself what the gospel had to say to her own history.
After that, she says, “I had to face the fact that my understanding of the gospel had nothing to say to my own ancestors’ experience on American soil.”
“I had to face the fact that my understanding of the gospel had nothing to say to my own ancestors’ experience.” – Lisa Sharon Harper
She reflects on the experience of her great-great-great grandmother, the last enslaved person in her family, who was forced to be a breeder for her white masters (that is, she was raped and forced to bear 17 children, many of whom were sold for profit as slaves). She says, “I imagine myself going up to her one night after she’s been raped and saying to her what we were taught to say, back in college, that ‘Jesus loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.’ Can you imagine?
“It hit me that if the gospel is not good news for those who need good news the most, for the least of these that Jesus talked about in Matthew 25, then maybe my understanding of the gospel is not good enough.”
Today, Harper says that she would say something very different to her great-great-grandmother. She would want to say: “Even in the midst of the desolation of oppression, God is there. God speaks light into the darkness. God cuts the darkness and births goodness into the world.
“Our God is committed to cutting the darkness with light.” – Lisa Sharon Harper
“For my great-great-great grandma, who has only known slavery and whose ancestors have only known slavery and rape – in the middle of this, she can hold on to the reality that the darkness is here but our God is committed to cutting the darkness with light. There is no oppression that wins, ultimately. The darkness has boundaries and that boundary is light.”
Harper wants to see all Christians, and all people work for justice, particularly for the weak and downtrodden in society. “If you say you’re a follower of Jesus, if you’re not working for justice, you’re not following Jesus.
“If you’re not working for justice, you’re not following Jesus.” – Lisa Sharon Harper
“My dream is that we would come to a time when, within the church, we recognise that if you are made in the image of God you are human. And if you are human, you are called to exercise dominion in this world, stewardship of this world. You are called to cultivate it, protect it, serve it. And my prayer, hope and goal is that the church especially, and then everyone in greater society, would be able to see and recognise the image of God in all and craft ways of living together in public spaces together that cultivates the capacity of all to lead and steward the world.”
Harper will be in Australia in late October for The Justice Conference, a movement and a gathering of Christians passionate about social justice, where she will encourage all Aussies to take small steps in working for justice.