Free at Last? by Carl Ellis

Carl Ellis (a friend of Redeemer, along with his wife Karen) has written a survey and analysis of the African American experience as it intersects with God’s word and Christianity, but it’s much more than that. In this space I want to introduce you to two of Ellis’s valuable concepts, from among many: (1) White Christianity-ism and (2) the soul dynamic.

Ellis begins with Frederick Douglass’s distinction between the Christianity of Christ and the Christianity of this land.

Douglass said, “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.” The ‘Christianity of this land’ Ellis helpfully labels White Christianity-ism.

The atrocity of race-based chattel slavery and the Jim Crow south was often done in the name of ‘Christianity,’ but it was not the Christianity of Christ. It was something less. It denied that all people are created in the image of God. It denied God’s righteousness and his heart for those on the margins. It denied the injustice of oppression, especially arbitrary oppression based on the melanin of someone’s skin.

It wasn’t Christianity. It was White Christianity-ism.

African American culture rejected White Christianity-ism, but presupposed God. The journey of suffering in relationship with God produced what Ellis calls the ‘Soul dynamic’—a theology that weeps with righteous anger at oppression and simultaneously recognizes that in God’s economy suffering is never in vain. After all, suffering is at the heart of the Gospel. African American culture has embraced suffering in a way that gives a depth of expression in the human experience, which is commonly called ‘soul.’ Soul culture is fertile ground for the gospel.

Ellis’s critique of Black responses to White Christianity-ism and resulting black cultural phases drives us back to the Gospel. He explores the Neo-colored phase (we need to earn dignity to be welcomed by White folks), the Negro phase (we need enter the melting pot through imitation), and the Black phase (an inversion of White humanism where Black is good and White is bad), among others.

To deconstruct White Christianity-ism, Ellis suggests that we need to turn to the Christianity of the Bible. Biblical Christianity teaches that all people are created in the image of God—and therefore are beautiful and equal. Biblical Christianity teaches the radical ethic of Christian love—even in the midst of suffering.

With a robust soul dynamic, dignity found in the image of God, and relationships governed by Christian love, Carl Ellis outlines the ingredients for a new way forward.