One of the blessings of modern technology is that busy people can now download electronic books online and read them at their leisure. One of the books Iâ€™m now reading is â€œThe Universe Bends Toward Justice: Radical Reflections on the Bible, the Church, and the Body Politicâ€ by Dr. Obrey M. Kendricks, an AME Theologian and Professor at the New York Theological Seminary.
In the first Chapter, Dr. Hendricks expresses both his affinity for and frustration with contemporary Gospel music. He begins that chapter with a 1997 quote from modern Gospel icon Kirk Franklin: â€œPeople need to get high off something spiritual, and Iâ€™m the holy dope dealer. I got this drug, I got this Jesus rock. And you can have a type of high that youâ€™ve never experienced.â€
Dr. Hendricksâ€™ thoughts resonated with me. I enjoy modern Gospel songs like â€œThe Presence of the Lord is Hereâ€ and â€œPraise Him in Advance,â€ but they only emphasize praise and personal experience. Spirituals like â€œGo Down, Mosesâ€ and â€œWe Are Climbing Jacobâ€™s Ladder, Soldiers of the Cross,â€ however, are products of an era when Godâ€™s children of color were struggling with slavery and striving for freedom. They emphasize shared struggle and shared responsibility for positive action, and became anthems of the 20th century civil rights struggle.
Some now argue that the struggle is over and that we can focus on praise and personal prosperity, but that argument doesnâ€™t hold up in the face of reality. As I write these words, the South Carolina Republican Presidential Primary is looming on the horizon and the candidates are offering outrageous, racially divisive, â€œred meatâ€ rhetoric to their voting base. Their pandering to the fears of bigots and their quest for nomination not to serve the people but to â€œbeat Obamaâ€ says loud and clear that we have miles to go before we live in a post-racial America.
The historically black church was born and forged in the crucible of injustice, fought for freedom and dignity down through the years, and gave rise to what is now known as Liberation Theology. In many respects, however, the historically black church has become a dim reflection of what it used to be.
Some of Americaâ€™s largest and fastest growing black churches emphasize â€œpraise and personal prosperity,â€ with an obligatory nod to the needy once found only in predominately white churches that salved their collective consciences by doing acts of charity for the poor without really changing their lives. Some pastors choose to be pragmatic rather than prophetic and wonâ€™t take stands on social issues and public policy, lest they offend those looking for â€œfeel goodâ€ religion or those who award monetary grants to bolster their churches. As AME Bishop John Hurst Adams says, â€œItâ€™s hard to bark when youâ€™re chewing on a bone.â€
The struggle for human and civil rights still goes on and is still critical to many of those in communities served by historically black churches, but many churches are â€œmissing in actionâ€ when it comes to changing systems that impact the lives of their parishioners and only offer â€œspiritual popcorn,â€ which is light, tasty and easy to swallow but far less than spiritually nutritious. Many of those in our communities still look to the church to advocate for them and to the pastors they financially support to take stands that they canâ€™t comfortably take. Theyâ€™re too often simply told to â€œpraise the Lordâ€ and â€œcount on Jesusâ€ and not encouraged to â€œfight the good fightâ€ or to work to see that justice and righteousness flow freely for all of Godâ€™s children.
Weâ€™ll elect a President of the United States in 2012, and the church needs to play a role in our doing so by registering, educating and mobilizing voters, by speaking truth to power and by confronting those who drape the politics of racist fear and division in the cloak of religion.
We must be prophetic rather than pragmatic, so that we can honor those who fearlessly and faithfully sacrificed and suffered to gain the rights that we now enjoy. To do otherwise is to insult their memory and to spit in the face of the Jesus who confronted the powers-that-be of His day, and who advocated for the well being of those shunned and oppressed by polite society. That timeless spiritual imperative should carry us beyond pragmatic praise to positive action, for the words of our ancestors in the faith are still true – if we donâ€™t stand for something, weâ€™ll fall for anything.