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Reflection: St Joseph the Black, pray for us

An editorial reflection from Nate Tinner-Williams links the father of Jesus to the experience of African Americans in a strange land.

(Josephite Pastoral Center)

In his seminal text, “A Black Theology of Liberation”, the late Dr. James H. Cone made the salient assertion that God is Black.

“The black theologian must reject any conception of God which stifles black self-determination by picturing God as a God of all peoples. Either God is identified with the oppressed to the point that their experience becomes God's experience, or God is a God of racism… The blackness of God means that God has made the oppressed condition [His] own condition. This is the essence of the biblical revelation.”
(Cone, 1970)

In some ways, it was a statement meant to scandalize. A proposition meant to prick the consciences of those who, while comfortably worshipping a White Jesus, would be disgusted at the thought of their Lord and savior resembling those whom they despised.

It was, in that way, a claim based on the truth.

It is also a generative statement, one with explicit implications. If God is Black, then Jesus is Black. If Jesus is Black, then the Blessed Virgin Mary is Black. And if Mary is Black, then her fellow tribesman St Joseph is Black, too.

While this is of course a matter of solidarity rather than genetics, I still find it telling, if true.

We are preparing to celebrate tomorrow the feast of St Joseph, the patron of so many people, places, movements, and religious communities (including the one to which I aspire). I think it only right, then, to reflect today on St Joseph the Black, that venerable figure to whom we look as a father, as a helper, and as a guide in tribulation.

That Joseph who meditated on the words of the holy prophet Simeon, which predicted his son and his wife’s incomparable suffering in a hostile society. He, the “Terror of Demons”, can yet empathize with the Black struggle.

That Joseph who fled to the desert of Africa, to hide among those who resembled him and his family, so that the lawful authorities of his day would have no recourse to seize and oppress them. He, the protector of families, can hear our cries for safety from police brutality and criminal injustice.

That Joseph who, by his textual silence, showed that even the voiceless can shake the world to its very foundations, amidst shadows of doubt and darkness. He, the keeper of holy secrets, knows our fight to be seen and heard.

St Joseph the Black knows the hurt and pain of the forgotten, and he is the patron of all workers—those who work for free, for inadequate pay, and for wages so insignificant when weighed against unmet needs.

The father of a Black Christ sees the families, homes, communities, and legacies stained by the dark mark of terrorism, sabotage, and institutional silence. For every child without a father, and for every father in the wilderness of life, the patron of fathers intercedes.

Tomorrow, we will feast, remembering and celebrating a man we have never seen but know so well. We will lean on his prayers. We will venerate his image in various forms, on the walls of churches and in the recesses of our hearts.

But it seems important too that he be remembered in the marginalized, just as we remember Jesus—his savior and ours.

St Joseph the Black, remember us, too.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger, a seminarian with the Josephites, and a ThM student with the Institute for Black Catholic Studies at Xavier University of Louisiana (XULA).

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