In the 1960s the African American church was at the center of the civil rights struggle, but today, in the wake of the Charlottesville saga, black pastors do not appear to be as vocal and organized as they once were.
The Rev. William H. Lamar IV, pastor of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in the District, spoke about the role of the church in this time with Hamil R. Harris, an adjunct professor at Morgan State University and a former Washington Post staff writer. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: On Aug. 12, an apparent white supremacist in Charlottesville allegedly ran over counterprotesters who came out to stand up against neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan and other groups gathered for a unity rally against the removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. What should be the faith community’s response?
A: The faith community, particularly the Christian community, must see the events of Charlottesville as symptomatic of our failure. By and large, Christian faith in America is a sentimentalized expression of personal piety. Jesus has become a doorman who opens the portals of eternity.
The movement of Jesus was violently persecuted by Rome and religious leaders who served as chaplains to the empire. Today, many who claim Christian faith are fully aligned with the American empire and are fully supportive of the racialized violence and oppression that has funded and still funds this empire. They helped to elect this president who morally equates white supremacists [with] those whom they oppress. They are satisfied with vague notions of personal salvation while not giving a damn about the sociopolitical and economic hell which assails many around the world. Jesus preached that the reign of God is now, not tomorrow.
What has happened and what will happen is as much the result of theological malpractice as it is the result of political malpractice.
The faith community must be about the work of sociopolitical transformation in the here and now. We must be faithful to this vision as was Jesus.
Q: When former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama were in the White House, there was an Office of Faith-Based Initiatives. Has there been any outreach from this president in terms of bringing diverse faith leaders together, and is that important?
A: I have not been contacted by President Trump. But these programs at their worst can lull the church into a prophetic slumber. Often these are bones.
And a church busy chewing on bones discarded by the state will refuse to bark. And when we refuse to bark, the weakest among us become food for the predators that surround us.
Q: I interviewed a professor from Howard University who attends Metropolitan. She said that while she attends your church, she doesn’t come there for politics but for faith. This professor’s views reflect a growing attitude among millennials. How does the church recapture this generation?
A: Every justice is costly. But the history of America and the world proves that injustice is costlier.
Churches and preachers who claim to be apolitical are usually firmly aligned with the politics of American empire.The African Methodist Episcopal Church in general and Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in particular are clear about our politics.
Ours are the politics of Jesus, and when this nation’s politics are at odds with our politics, we speak and act boldly and without fear.
In his letter from the Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King appealed to white religious leaders to join blacks and others to deal with racism, and yet, 11 a.m. on Sunday is still very segregated and evangelicals have been silent. Is there any talk of coming together?
This cannot be solved by another kum-by-yah annual prayer breakfast or King Day service.
This will only be solved when America and her churches are willing to confess to their ultimate loyalty to whiteness and to empire. I cannot countenance another political leader saying that what we are seeing is not American.
What we see is fundamentally American. It is the America my ancestors knew. It is the America future generations will know unless America is willing to atone for her sins, redistribute power, and pursue a peace that is not the absence of conflict but the presence of economic, racial, gender and political justice.
Q: You have been arrested for protesting President Trump’s position on immigration and other things, but we are not generally seeing the thousands of protesters like we witnessed in the 1960s.
A: Too many persons have been lulled to sleep by the trinkets of middle-class life in America. Too many believe that they and their children will know safety and prosperity. A rising stock market doesn’t ensure progress. People fighting for their freedom and the freedom of others makes progress a possibility.
This nation has never granted freedom to anyone. Freedom has had to be demanded and fought for. And the fight continues. We cannot and do not bequeath rest to our progeny. We bequeath awareness and the willingness and responsibility to fight for justice.
Q: Is there a plan to challenge the “alt-right” [a far-right white supremacist movement]? Are some church leaders afraid to get involved?
A: Those who are afraid are confused. Clarity will build courage. We work on behalf of the God of the universe and the God of all people. Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church and all who know our Lord will continue to do what we have always done. We will worship. We will liberate. We will serve.