Why America Needs the Uncensored Prophetic Voice of the Black Church (by Adam Taylor)

March 19, 2008

Hat Tip: God’s Politics

Adam TaylorThe 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.

  • Rev. C. Solomon

    I have invoked the Biblical prophets many times myself, in order to defend the voices of prophetic black ministers (including my own). And as we all shoud be aware of by now, Jeremiah was considered a traitor for prophesying against his own nation. Not only Christians, but Minister Farrakhan, and some non-believers have been equally prophetic – and for the same reason they are hated in America!

    America’s problem is explained in scriputre: Because sentence against an evil work is not executeded speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil Eccl 8:11. This inchoate nation has gotten away with evil even before its 232 year old inception date! If God were to apply the same rule-of-law to the evil portionof white America, that the evil portion of white America has applied, seemingly to everyone else in the world (instant judgment), America’s problem would have been cured a long time ago!

    Isn’t it interesting that in a nation where conservative Americans claim to believe in the rule of law and order, that their belief in law and order has often been suspended, when applied to white America? Just consider what America is doing today in Iraq as an example! Whites have always exempted themselves from the rule of law (International or Divine Law) that they have made up and applied to others. White men, along with our our government have always given themselves immunity to kill with impunity!

    Today, our government is murdering innocent individuals and taking over countries around the world, just as they did when they came overseas and took over this land! Any other human, black man, foreign national, government or citizens of any other nation, would reap the vengeance of America for engaging in similar behavior! If you could, ask Saddam Hussein whether that is true or not true?

    Shortly after Dr. King broadened his social justice message to include America’s evil behavior in Vietnam, he was slain! America has never been punished sufficiently, for its most egregious crimes against native and black Americans? I often wonder how many of our slave brothers and sisters, and those who have experienced prolonged discrimination in this nation, died in faith, believing that God’s word was still true?

    Despite the scriptural injunction that God’s annointed are neither to be touched nor are his prophets to be harmed – historically, the opposite was true. God’s prophets were touched and harmed in many ways, and apparently without any immediate retribution or sanctions. Many of the prophets, including Jesus, were slain!

    So we had better get accustomed to the prospect of being tortured or killed. And for tht matter, we will be ostracized, tormented or possibly put to death, particularly when we are speaking out or taking on the most powerful white hegemon in the world.

    I have explained to white Americans, that if you would simply learn from your past mistakes with black Americans and listen to us, that we could teach you how to live peaceably with other nations of the world like the DPRK, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, China …! Not another bullet would have to be fired.

    What black American prophets, and the black nation in America can be truly proud of is that we have taken on the most powerful nation in the world (more powerful than Pharoah and the Egyptian Empire); and without resources, weapons or another allied nation to support us – we have done better against them than any other nation in history!

    Excellent article!

  • http://heavenawaits.wordpress.com/ mariane

    A man is not a prophet if he declares things that are not true. He is a false prophet. I would put REv. Wright in this category. MLK also if he said anything wrong. He was a preacher, not a prophet.

    I would not call the U.S. “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today’ either. Unless someone is blind, they will see Communism, Nazism, Islamic terrorists, jihadists.

    America has always tried to defend freedom in countries that asked us to help. It is the only country that has had more soldiers die trying to help other nations. The ingratitude, and evil rejection of violent enemies who are fighting us, does not constitute a legitimate complaint.



The views expressed on this blog are those of Heber Brown, III and his alone unless otherwise noted.

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