Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the African American church appears to be at a crossroads between yesterday and tomorrow. In many of the pulpits held by the pastors who walked with King stand new men and women who are pressing forward with a renewed social justice mission. They seek to renew and fulfill King’s call for a “Beloved Community,” a world without racism and discrimination in which all people, poor as well as rich, can share in the bounty of life. At this critical juncture, we asked two local pastors about the challenges facing the black church and where they believe it needs to focus itself. Their answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
On the one hand, the black church appears to be lagging behind movements like #BlackLivesMatter as either late adopters or reluctant risk takers who opt out completely. That reluctance seems to be grounded in the notion that the church cannot participate in a movement that does not have it at the center. On the other hand, when one considers the great work of Rev. Dr. William Barber [in North Carolina], the architect of the Forward Together Moral Movement, we see the black church at the forefront of activism and advocacy for human rights.
I believe the black church needs to reestablish itself as a change maker of significance that is at the table on matters of importance, especially to its constituency. In the case of movements like #BlackLivesMatter, the black church needs to think outside the box. Not long ago, [the predominantly white evangelical campus group] InterVarsity Christian Fellowship released a clarifying statement on their decision to be co-belligerents with #BlackLivesMatter, a movement with which they admit they sometimes disagree, but they still believe it is important to affirm that God created their black brothers and sisters. Co-belligerence is the activity of Christians working with non-Christians for a common political, economic or cultural cause. It is to be partners in the fight while maintaining our ultimate alliance to God. That is where I believe the black church needs to be willing to go to confront the challenges of today.
Redemption is possible for anyone. Today, we have to see the beloved community beyond the lens of black and white. The beloved community is not only possible, it is inevitable if we as Christians truly embrace who we are and seek to live as persons who are made in the image of God and sent into the world as resurrection people defeating death, despair and degradation with the love of God in Christ Jesus.
We can turn to the work of Bishop Desmond Tutu for understanding.
In his book No Future Without Forgiveness, Bishop Tutu shares the fine line that had to be navigated when he chaired his country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In his words, the commission worked on the basis that “there was a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for Ubuntu (a Zulu word meaning the essence of what makes one human) but not for victimization.”
For Christians, “ubuntu” has special meaning because it is the crucified and risen Christ dwelling within each of us that makes us human in a special way. We are new creations in Christ and daily we carry Christ into the world, to our friends, neighbors and everyone we meet. “True reconciliation” requires that we embrace ubuntu, your humanness and my humanness, which transcends all that divides us.
The black church that I know and love is the black church that marches in the prophetic tradition of Martin Luther King Jr., Prathia L. Hall, Lewis Anthony and others. It is important to point out that the black church did not come to an end in 1968 and did not fold up operations in 2008. It has remained on the battlefield.
Having said that, the black church cannot rest on its history. As wonderful as it is, it must move forward. I believe that this is what my good friend Eddie Glaude was trying to say in his provocative essay, “The Black Church is Dead.” It was a challenge, a needed challenge. We must continue to stand up for the least, the last and the lost.
The sin of income inequality in our nation must be addressed, the destruction of lives and families due to mass incarceration must be challenged, and the right to vote for all citizens must be protected, and it must be exercised. My mentor Marian Wright Edelman has preached for 45 years the shame that in America, children have unequal childhoods, and this must change. There is a desperate need for us to “green the church” and become active in the fight for environmental justice. . . . Quite frankly, there are so many causes demanding our attention that all you have to do is choose your seat and sit down. Rosa Parks showed us that by sitting down, you can stand up.
It was in 1963 that Dr. King penned his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and in it he addressed some of the same dismay that I have today when it comes to some who call themselves Christians and yet seem to value nationalism above the teachings of Jesus and the love for all of God’s children reflected in the Gospels. Yet I still have hope, and it could be that the beloved community will be realized outside of the church, perhaps in the progressive political community that better reflects a love for all.
The poet Elizabeth Alexander had the high honor of writing and reciting a poem, “Praise Song for the Day,” for Barack Obama’s first inauguration. There is a stanza in the poem where she speaks of a shared belief system [that morally unites the religious and nonreligious.]
“Some live by ‘love thy neighbor as thyself.’
Others by ‘first do no harm’ or ‘take no more
than you need.’ What if the mightiest word is love?”
There is no higher value than love, and in love lies the hope we so desperately need. We face many challenges today. We need faith leaders to preach, teach and practice love — love for all!
Hamil R. Harris is a former Post religion writer who is now an adjunct professor at Morgan State University.