The Prophetic Role of the African American Churches in the 21st Century
A Soul Voice
The situation of the African American church at the beginning of the twenty-first century is strikingly similar to its position at the beginning of the twentieth century. The African American church stands at a pivotal, historical point looking back on a century that included degradation, humiliation, victories, and exaltation. It was exactly one hundred years ago that W. E. B. Du Bois gave voice to the pain and promise felt by African Americans in the nineteenth century in his classic work Souls of Black Folk. The tensions within the African American church at this time were related to the allure of Booker T. Washington’s “gospel of wealth,” and the echoes of the prophetic voice of Bishop Henry M. Turner; between the focus on the inner life of the black church, as suggested by the formation of the major Baptist conventions, and the push of Black Social Gospelers like Bishop Reverdy C. Ransom; between the politics of passivity and the politics of progressivism.
Today the African American church is confronted with historical tensions that are structurally similar to that of the past century. The gospel of wealth has been repackaged as the “prosperity gospel” even as the gospel of cultural pride is submerged in and co-opted by a materialistic culture. The focus on the inner life of the church now reappears as a near exclusive emphasis on “praise and worship,” even as the whispers of the social gospel refuse to be silenced. Some high-profile ministers push political passivity while many of the lesser known continue to cry out and work for justice.
Du Bois declared that the great problem of the twentieth century would be the color line. If one were to ask today what the great problem of the twenty-first century is, there would be a number of potential answers. The emergence of technology as a key variable in the quality of life, and the inequalities that attend to its availability, have created a technological divide in our society. The economic divide, exacerbated by policies that depress wages and increase costs for those who can least afford it, hasonly grown wider. In a nation in which the wealthy are becoming wealthier, larger and larger numbers of our brothers and sisters live below the poverty line. What may appear to be an economic gap to the rest of America is most often an unbridgeable chasm for the African American underclass. What may appear to be a temporary economic setback for the rest of America quickly becomes a permanent condition for African Americans. The peculiar and disproportionate nature of this suffering may be a source for the emergence of the prophetic voice in our times. Certainly, economic inequality affects the lives of those who live below the “poverty line,” yet there are groups who, in spite of economic success, continue to experience a kind of powerlessness. These are persons who are middle income but not middle class. I would like to suggest that the great problem of the twenty-first century concerns the power line.
Freedom and Power
How can the African American church recover and reclaim its prophetic mandate, mission, and message in the post-civil rights era? How can the African American church contribute to the realization of the kind of transformation and reconciliation that is called for? What should be its prophetic voice? Do African American churches face the critical task of speaking to the powerful on behalf of the powerless?1
Fifty years after the appearance of Du Bois’s narrative, the civil rights movement emerged on the American scene. This great social and spiritual awakening of the progressive dimension of the African American was broad, though not universal, in its appeal. Two deep human needs were addressed by this movement: the need for freedom and the need for power. These needs are still present in the African American community and beyond. And these needs, I believe, should provide the context for prophetic speech and witness today.
There are two major emphases that should guide the prophetic witness of the African American church (and, I would add, all Christian communities in the United States) in the twenty-first century. The first is a “consistent theology of liberation” and the second is a “consistent ethic of empowerment.” The African American church must recognize and defend its historic claim that no form of oppression is consistent with God’s will, or cease to use liberation as its fundamental theological touchstone. As is well known, the African American church at its best has been a beacon of liberation in America. From the resistance movement during slavery to the civil rights movement, liberation has been its hallmark. Currently, the African American church, in too many instances, proclaims a “limited liberation.” This is a liberation that includes race but excludes gender. It is a liberation that includes race and gender, but excludes class. It is a liberation that includes race and gender, but excludes sexual orientation.
The key here is that groups may come to share a commitment to liberation for themselves and for others whether or not they experience oppression in the same way. A consistent theology of liberation would not be bound by the narrow and occasional moralities of a privileged and powerful minority but would call us beyond our own social locations, personal preferences, and group allegiances to recognize that if oppression exists anywhere, it exists everywhere. A consistent theology of liberation would keep the church at the forefront of the battle against sin (alienation) and its historical manifestations (oppression).
The African American church must practice an ethic of empowerment. The church must recognize and defend its historic claim that faith is essentially empowerment, and that any ministry or sociopolitical or economic structure that fosters dependence, degradation, or despair is not the product of true faith. Currently, the church, in too many instances mimicking society as a whole, appears to be a cult of dependence. This cult of dependence is characterized by a leadership that is served rather than serves. This is especially evident in some contemporary settings where the pastor rather than Christ is the object of veneration, and where worship serves more as entertainment than edification. The church must be more than the occasion for empty ritual “having the form of religion, but no power.” A consistent ethic of empowerment would keep the church at the forefront of the battle for the salvation (reconciliation) of all people, and its historical manifestation (the kingdom of God).
Prophesy to Your Own House
It is important to note that the prophetic voice is more than an objective critique of the Other. The dangers of self-righteousness and hypocrisy are ever present. While these twin dangers threaten every Christian community’s prophetic effort, the African American church, in its best moments, has been able to avoid their deleterious effects. One becomes aware of the dangers of self-righteousness when one’s own righteousness is continually disputed. One becomes aware of the dangers of hypocrisy when the truth is the key to life itself. Historically, the African American church has stood for righteousness of freedom in the midst of the unrighteousness of slavery. It has stood for the truth of human dignity in the midst of the lies of black inferiority.
This history does not absolve the African American church from its own critique. On the contrary, the African American church must first preach liberation to itself. It must practice empowerment in its own life. And when it attends to this task, it will position itself to give voice to more relevant leadership paradigms for the church. It will give voice to more relevant organizational structures for the church. It will give voice to more effective methods for the ministries of the church. It will be able to speak truth to power. From this powerful base, it will be able to, once again, “Shout the Victory!”
1 In this regard, see Anthony B. Pinn, The Black Church in the Post–Civil Rights Era (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2002); and Dwight N. Hopkins, ed., Black Faith and Public Talk. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1999).
James Evans is Robert K. Davies Professor of Systematic Theology and past president at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. He also serves as senior pastor of St. Luke Tabernacle Community Church in Rochester, New York.