Christians are united because of what Jesus has done on the cross to purchase our redemption. Though we happily embrace our diversity as people of different colors, ethnicities and nationalities, we are united first and foremost by a common Story, one that begins with the loving, creative power of God and climaxes in Jesus Christ who died and rose again for our sins.

Christian unity means that the stories of other believers become our family stories. When we read about Christians suffering in the Sudan, we are compelled to offer our prayers and support because, regardless of race or ethnicity or social status, they are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Likewise, the story of the African American brothers and sisters who suffered under slavery two hundred years ago becomes our story too. That’s why a book like Beyond the Suffering: Embracing the Legacy of African American Soul Care and Spiritual Direction (Baker Books, 2004) provides a great service to the church. Authors Bob Kellemen and Karole Edwards describe how African Americans cared for one another during their time in slavery. In watching the Christian response of many slaves, we learn how to care for one another within the context of the local church.

Beyond the Suffering combines historical accounts and personal stories. By going back and forth between the history of the period and the specific stories of people caught in slavery, the authors are able to recommend practical modern-day applications for soul care.

The title describes the book well. This book is not just about suffering and sin. It’s about how grace moves us beyond both.

What do we learn from the testimony of these forefathers in the faith? For one, counseling is not merely an individualistic endeavor. We tend to think of care and counseling as one individual helping another. But the African American testimony shows us how families, churches, and communities can corporately provide soul care.

The authors provide a chilling example: “the moan,” a feature of life on the slave ship. It was “the language of stolen strangers, the articulation of unspeakable fears, the precursor to joy yet unknown.” By sharing “the moan,” many slaves creatively and corporately responded to their crisis, write Edwards and Kellemen. (54)

In our African American brothers and sisters, we discover a biblical theology of suffering. The authors write:

“When listening carefully, we detect the sounds of hope. While enduring the outrage of being bought and sold and while being engaged over the attempted annihilation of their identity, the enslaved African Americans created a biblical sufferology. Through their theology of suffering, they faced hurt candidly and unearthed hope spiritually. Specifically, they coped with the heartbreak of relational separation through the hope of heavenly reunion, and they tackled the depersonalization of identity thievery with the awareness that they bore the image of God.” (61)

In their chronicle of suffering and redemption, Kellemen and Edwards dispel some long-lasting myths. For example, historical accounts often depict the African American father as beaten down and oppressed by slavery, so much so that there was no positive male figure in the home. But the authors demonstrate the fallacy of such thinking by looking at actual slave testimonies of strong fathers and husbands.

Another popular myth perpetuated by some historians is that the slaves converted to a generic God. But one look at the hymns and preaching of the African Americans dispels such a thought. The slaves converted to Christ “based on a biblical understanding of who he is – Savior -and who they were – sinners.” (101)

The most refreshing aspect of this book is that the authors do not shy away from the sinfulness of victim and oppressor alike. The slaves did not only need earthly rescue. Just like their masters, they recognized their need for God’s forgiveness too.

My favorite chapter in this book is “A Sorrowful Joy,” which describes the importance of the slave songs and spirituals. In contrast to so much of today’s happy-peppy worship music, the songs birthed through suffering demonstrate a deep hunger for God’s intervening justice and comfort. The spirituals demonstrate the importance of pointing us to the Savior, not to abstract solutions that merely make us more “self-sufficient” sinners.

Beyond the Suffering is a treasure of African American history, and since it tells the story of brothers and sisters in Christ, it is also our story. We have much to learn from this period of history. Beyond the Suffering is a great place to start.