The media frenzy over the remarks of Barack Obama’s former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, raise critical challenge to the prophetic role and voice of the black church. These “incendiary” remarks have set off a firestorm in the media, exposing the deep divide that exists on Sundays – America’s most segregated hour of the week. This controversy serves as a stark reminder that the problem of the color line that still divides the U.S. and its churches. This often misguided debate obscures the rich and necessary prophetic role of the black church. Most coverage fails to capture the competing narratives and self-definitions of the U.S. that coexist depending on one’s race and social location. While I’m uncomfortable with some of Dr. Wright’s overly provocative rhetoric, and disagree with some of his claims (like his suggestion that AIDS was a creation of the U.S. government), I still vehemently defend the prophetic tradition that Rev. Wright has advanced over the course of 36 years of ministry. I agree with the Rev. Otis Moss III, the new Pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, that we do a grave disservice by boiling down over 207,000 minutes of Dr. Wright’s preaching into a handful of 30-second sound bites, most taken out of context.
Many may be wondering what I mean by prophetic voice and asking why it is so critical for the full vocation of the church and the health of our democracy. Prophets foretell the future in the name of God, speaking truth to power against injustice while calling us back to God’s word and kingdom. According to Obery Hendricks, “prophetic speech is characterized by an overwhelming sense of an encounter with God and a message of moral and political judgment that a prophet feels divinely compelled to proclaim … to change social orders that have stratified inequities of power and privilege and wealth so all can have access to the fullest fruits of life”. Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and so many other biblical prophets did not mince words or shy away from controversy. Like these prophets, prophetic preachers are often misunderstood, persecuted, and sometimes even killed for their words. Jesus continues this long and rich tradition when he says in Matthew 23:3, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.” This is also exemplified in the gospel of Luke when he overturns the tables of the money changers in the temple just after riding a donkey into Jerusalem on the Palm Sunday that the church just commemorated.
Arguably, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. embodied the best of the black prophetic tradition as one who courageously pronounced judgment against America for the sin of racism and the cancer of Jim Crow segregation. But King also called on America become the beloved community, ensuring that God’s demands for dignity and justice and the rights guaranteed by the Constitution were afforded to all Americans. King’s life was cut tragically short exactly 40 years ago in April because of his prophetic witness – describing the war in Vietnam as a “demonic suction tube,” calling the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, and forewarning to striking sanitation workers in Memphis that like Dives in the parable of Lazarus, “America is going to hell if we don’t use her vast resources to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children have the basic necessities of life.” Our nation is quick to romanticize the Dr. King of Montgomery and Selma, but often ignores the King of Memphis that demanded a living wage, or the King of Riverside Church who declared silence around the Vietnam War as betrayal.
A preacher’s job sometimes requires prodding and provoking a congregation, shining a light on some of our most uncomfortable realities and hard-to-accept truths. I find it hard to believe that anyone could attend a church for years and never take issue with at least some of the things that were said by even the most respected and beloved pastor. Black prophetic preaching often criticizes America for its transgressions, contradictions, and hypocrisy, but at its best does this out of a deep and abiding belief in God’s justice and love for what America could become if it lived out the full promise of her ideals. When the prophetic tradition holds up a mirror to our nation’s misdeeds and imperfections, it stands tall with the biblical prophets of old. This is good company to keep indeed.
Adam Taylor is director of campaigns and organizing for Sojourners.