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David R. Swartz

A New Day Dawning?

21st-century evangelicals.

Attempting to evade her white owner's sexual advances, Harriet Jacobs, author of the earliest extant female slave narrative, climbed into an airless, mice-infested, nine-feet long, seven-feet wide, and three-feet high attic-like garret under the roof of her grandmother's house in 1830s North Carolina. Hidden there, the prostrate Jacobs reflected on Jesus' suffering during Holy Week. His crucifixion on Friday culminated in the God-forsakenness of Saturday's entombment in the grave, she noted, not unlike the claustrophobic space she presently occupied. If Jacobs, who eventually escaped across the Mason-Dixon Line with the help of abolitionists, could identify with the suffering Christ of Friday and the abandoned Christ of Saturday, the dominant white men negotiating her future emphasized Sunday's "triumphal Lord of the Resurrection."

Peter Heltzel, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and assistant professor of theology at New York Theological Seminary, seeks to integrate these two profound theological insights. Too often, he asserts, white evangelicalism's emphasis on Sunday's victory over death obscures black evangelicalism's emphasis on Friday, the day when Jesus was lynched. Heltzel demands that "the white architects of a Euro-American modernity be interrogated concerning the problem of race." In Jesus and Justice he does precisely that, circling back to Friday's injustices, only to return again to Sunday in declaring his confidence in a resurrection of authentic social justice. Switching metaphors, Heltzel concludes that American evangelicalism has matured into a prophetic movement "in a shade of blue-green—blue representing the tragedy of black suffering and green symbolizing the hope of a new social engagement with poverty, AIDS, and the environment."

Following a lengthy and learned discussion on the ambivalent evangelical heritage of antebellum slavery and antislavery activism, Heltzel fast-forwards to two prominent 20th-century ...

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