Faculty Stories

For What Are We Freed?

A Conversation with Rev. Dr. Reggie Blount

Juneteenth 2024 falls amid a broad assault on basic rights within the United States, as politicians and courts seek to roll back landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act—laws that helped dismantle the Jim Crow era’s structural framework. Four years after many people confidently proclaimed that the U.S. was reckoning with how white supremacy shaped the country’s foundations, rising fascism overtly seeks its full return. It’s a national tension that surrounds the history of Juneteenth—years after the Emancipation Proclamation declared all enslaved people free, structures of sin and evil still kept hundreds of thousands bound. Speaking with Rev. Dr. Reggie Blount, he is quick to name the U.S.’s conditional conception of liberty as a fundamental violation of God’s intention for humanity.  “We strive for freedom because God strives for freedom,” says Garrett’s Murray H. Leiffer Associate Professor of Formation, Leadership and Culture and director of The Center for the Church and the Black Experience. “God believes that every person God created has value and worth.”

            Indeed, he explains that our country’s woefully anemic understanding of freedom stems from the broken theologies that have shaped too much American Christianity. “It’s easy for us to individualize freedom, to say that certain folk have a right while others don’t, if we also believe in the back of our minds that God has a hierarchy within humanity,” Dr. Blount says. “It’s a problem of theological anthropology—the way the U.S. was able to justify slavery in the first place.” One of the ways this erroneous individualism has poisoned notions of freedom is an outsized emphasis on what we are freed from—taxes, government regulations, restrictions on firearm possession, to name a few—while completely ignoring the purposes for which we are freed. “If we embrace the imago dei, that suggests there are qualities of God that we all possess,” Dr. Blount offers. “We have the ability to love, to create—we are freed to be cocreators with God.”

            Whereas dominant definitions of freedom focus on the individual, Dr. Blount observes that the history of the Black Church tells a different story. While the Black Church is not a monolith, broad consensus offers a stark contrast in how to define liberation. “In Black Church ethos, there resides a much more African collective socialization, the knowledge that freedom is not just about the individual—it is about the community,” Dr. Blount explains. “It’s an Ubuntu understanding: I am not free unless all are free.” When collective conditions are the central question in what determines freedom, threats look different, too. “Right now, the U.S. is not engaged in creation; we’re spending too much time in destruction,” Dr. Blount says. “Our question should be: How do we remove barriers, the hindrances that deny a community, a people, and a nation from living into their birthright?”

            Part of the Center for the Church and the Black Experience’s work is partnering with individual congregations to help churches ensure every person can live out God’s intention for their lives. “To follow the way of Jesus, the ultimate aim is communal transformation,” Dr. Blount says. “How are we addressing issues of food insecurity? How are we addressing affordable housing, education, environmental justice, or any other social determinants of health?” In this frame, Jesus’ call in Matthew 25—“When I was hungry you fed me, when I was naked you clothed me,”—is what creates the preconditions for true liberation.

            Dr. Blount reflects that, in cultivating these partnerships, another form of respect for communal freedom is operant, too. While many centers use their power to shape the agendas of organizations with whom they work, The Center for the Church and the Black Experience rejects this ethos. “I entered into this role committed to partnership, using whatever resources we have as a center and a seminary to help congregations make a social impact by engaging the ways of Jesus,” he says. “That means giving congregations the freedom to know their own particular community needs.” Programs that are transformative in one context might not be a priority in another. “I can’t bring a cookie cutter approach to how a congregation exercises cocreation to free their own community,” he observes. “Freedom within the partnership demands they feel free to do what is best for their own people.”

            At its best, this approach can seed constructive collaboration that can save us from political forces that seek to tear us apart. One such example is a 2023 symposium the Center organized with the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving about philanthropy and the Black Church. “Connecting philanthropic sources with Black churches, so funding can be funneled into the right places and right communities, is transformational,” Dr. Blount says. “Congregations have already been doing the work around issues of social impact. Funding sources don’t know their community better than they know it.” Trusting Black people to know and name their own priorities—to determine the plans that will best help people flourish—is an essential part of uprooting the racism that has shaped U.S. policy.

            Ultimately, for Dr. Blount, this returns to another crucial theological distinction: Whether the “dominion” we read about in Genesis refers to stewardship or ownership. “Dominion is not power over, but a calling to care for,” he says. “If we subscribe to a theology of ownership, then we get to dictate who is privileged to receive certain things and who is not. But if we work out of a theology of stewardship, then we recognize that everything we possess has been entrusted to us by God.” Again, this shifts freedom away from the individual, toward the collective. When dominion is characterized as power, it leads to individuals’ “right” to exploit both nature and communities for personal gain—theology of stewardship exposes this as abuse. No one can be “freed” to profit by depriving neighbors what they need to thrive. “Freedom is being able to understand myself and others as God’s masterpiece,” Dr. Blount concludes, referencing Ephesians 2:10. “It’s a collective call to remove any hindrance that keeps people from being able to live a masterpiece life.”