Black preachers holding press conferences about gay marriage and churchgoers boycotting Election Day? I wonder if our squabbling about gay rights amid so many greater problems plaguing the black community is a symptom of a bigger issue for the church — impotence in the community. In Acts 1:8, Jesus tells of the power believers would receive to have a wide community impact. Yet, we waste energy on what is ultimately a private personal matter between a person and who they choose to live their life with. Perhaps gay marriage is that low-hanging fruit that’s easier for the church to pick at.
Amid all the talk about gay marriage rights and the black church at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s 42nd Annual Legislative Conference last week, I was intrigued by a panel discussion among some of the nation’s leading black preachers that actually targeted a more critical community concern. Ironically, the panel was moderated by the Rev. Al Sharpton (my Brownsville, Brooklyn homeboy), who the same day was prominent at a press conference where preachers correctly urged churchgoers to NOT sit home on Election Day in protest of President Obama’s support of gay marriage rights.
The panel dealt with the church engaging the public policymaking process. Sharpton, who heads the National Action Network, pointed out that during the civil rights movement of the ’50s and ’60s, most black church leaders sat back or criticized as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists risked their lives out on the limb reaching for more important community fruit. Sharpton began by asking each panelist what the church should focus on to improve the black community.
PREACHING TO THE PREACHERS: Rev. Al Sharpton moderated a panel discussion with black clergy at the Congressional Black Caucus. (Photo: Michael Holahan/Newscom)
The Rev. Charles Williams II, president of Detroit’s National Action Network chapter, stressed church involvement in economic development. “The only institution that we still own is the black church. It may not be perfect, it has faults, but it’s the best thing that we’ve got going,” he said.
Juan Thomas from Chicago said that historically black preachers and lawyers (for example, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell and Thurgood Marshall) have worked closely together to affect public policy. This must continue. “After this cycle we need to do our part to changes these voter ID laws and suppression laws,” added Thomas, who is also an attorney and the secretary of the National Bar Association.
The Rev. Timothy McDonald, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, said that churches had abandoned discussions about “the sin of poverty” in favor of the prosperity gospel.
Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination, noted the AME’s history of political engagement dating back to Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black person sworn into the U.S. Congress. “We need to sit at the table while you’re (elected officials) making the decisions because we’re right there in the trenches … We can tell you what’s working and not working.”
The Rev. David Alexander Bullock of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park, Michigan, targeted health care disparities such as, the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “The church refuses to move from the pulpit to the pavement … We’re sleeping with each other on Saturday, shouting on Sunday, and dying on Monday.” He also mentioned the prison industrial complex, which disproportionately targets African Americans.
The Rev. Dr. Suzanne Johnson Cook, the United States Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom, urged black clergy to get involved in policymaking, including at the international level. “We have to be local, but we have to go big, go global.” She added there needs to be more alliances with other communities, such as Hispanics, to address common concerns.
The Rev. Lennox Abrigo, of Seventh Day New Covenant in Hyattsville, Maryland, also emphasized the need for community partnerships. He mentioned his church’s relationship with the American Cancer Society to bring early diagnosis to black men who may be suffering from cancer. “I’ve promised God that I’m not going to restate the problem anymore. I’m just going to go out and make things happen,” he said.
The Rev. Dr. Wendell Anthony, president of the Detroit branch of the NAACP, also targeted economic development, noting that 50 percent of black households in Detroit make under $25,000 per year. He said the number of children under 18 living in poverty is 53 percent. “It’s not just Detroit; it’s your city,” he said. “… As a pastor, I have to speak to that on a daily basis.” There needs to be a “social gospel ministry” that speaks to public policy, he said. “We have so many issues, we can’t deal with them all, but we can deal with those issues and policies that lift people up every day.”
So what do you think? Is the church doing enough with its power to uplift the community? And, before you answer, remember that WE believers ARE the church.
SEIZING THE NATIONAL MOMENT: Thousands marched to NYC's Times Square last month in support of Occupy Wall Street movement. (Photo by Mata Edgar/Newscom)
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter” — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
On a cold Monday morning, I ran across the foregoing quote at Zuccotti Park, ground zero of the Occupy Wall Street movement. It’s quite a scene. The general assembly regularly convenes forums, teach-in sessions, and conversations on topics like economic theory and social movements.
The emergence of Occupy Wall Street, along with the continued thrust of the Tea Party, signifies an intensity of citizen engagement that many Americans have not seen in decades. These civic currents also illustrate that some things — tax policy, the distribution of economic productivity, and the expenditures of government among them — are worth debating and dramatizing in public.
More ominously, the vigorous extraparliamentary movement from the left and the right is a populist indictment of our legislative branch — an indicator that many citizens are incensed about the inefficient impasse of lawmaking in Washington. I found it striking to witness a group of people bearing the elements night and day to make a political point. Occupy Wall Street, to be sure, is an act of political theater, but it is also a display of asceticism in the service of communicating a point of view.
Regardless of our socioeconomic views, Occupy Wall Street invites us to express our convictions more consistently, and when deemed appropriate to do so sacrificially. Very little mention of sacrifice and struggle occurs in our churches. In the words of Martin Luther, many of our pulpits have exchanged a theology of the cross for a theology of glory, a strange pattern of speech that rarely mentions disease, death, and despair.
When is the last time your church spoke about something penultimate that mattered? Churches can and should speak of ultimate matters — life and death, sin, and salvation, creation and consummation. But what of penultimate things? Shouldn’t churches offer words of wisdom and love here as well — “on earth as in heaven”?
Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Church in Atlanta who preached a series on greed and the Great Recession, argues that churches should converse about issues that grip the nation. Occupy Wall Street meets that standard.
The life of the church may not end when we are silent about things that matter, but it is certainly impoverished. There is, of course, a time to be silent. But, as even the most casual Bible reader knows, there is also a time to speak.
It’s no secret that the American public is less than pleased with the performance of its national political leaders. As Republicans and Democrats once again threaten to shut down the federal government over budget disagreements, more Americans are becoming fed up. Anecdotes of anger and distrust have been repeated at length from the mouths of journalists across the country. A recent CNN poll joins a string of others that reflect America’s growing uneasiness with the White House and Congress. The findings of these polls are no surprise to those struggling to make financial ends meet, pay for college, or find a decent job.
Only 15 percent of Americans approve of how Congress is managing the economy. Only about 40 percent approve of the job President Obama is doing in leading our country. It’s safe to say Washington politicians don’t possess a good reputation these days.
Common sense, which seems to be increasingly less common, will tell you that reputation is important. Even the reputation of non-breathing entities, like companies, can be broken by a loss of confidence or a reputation for dishonesty (Enron, anyone?). Common sense would also suggest that Congress and the president should begin listening very closely to the desires of those who voted for them.
If the 2008 Obama campaign helped inspire a new movement of young and engaged voters, and the Obama presidency helped stoke the emergence of the fiery Tea Party, then the current economic crisis seems to be fostering a new scrutiny from voters who are demanding less partisan dogmatism and more practical results from Washington. This is the reason why, for instance, President Obama cranked out his ambitious proposal for a new jobs bill and immediately hopped on a bus to tout its benefits to voters across Middle America.
While the Middle East is continuing to wrestle with the negative and positive repercussions of the “Arab Spring,” America is undergoing its own kind of political uprising. The fallout of the debt-ceiling debate, high unemployment, and the global economic breakdown is causing a sharp awareness of just how important politics is to our everyday life. On the swift wings of social media like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, more Americans are reaching out and connecting with others who share their struggles and their convictions.
Many Americans are beginning to take a long, hard look at what their political parties stand for and are for the first time truly recognizing what lies behind the banners of donkeys and elephants. They are beginning to debate and school themselves on federal programs and legislation that were formerly relegated to Political Science 101 term papers.
Social Security, unemployment benefits, health care, class structure, welfare, immigration reform, tax cuts, abortion, and gay marriage are but a few issues that are forcing Americans, in the wake of Congress’ total disassociation with the public consciousness, to reevaluate what it means to exercise their political voice.
This renewed “awakening” has consequences for those in Washington and those unhappy with it. For some it means kissing reelection goodbye, for others it means confronting personal biases against their fellow Americans to forge common bonds and promote positive changes in their communities.
It means recognizing the true political beliefs of our neighbors and ourselves — beyond the Red State/Blue State trope. It means daring to talk about the deep divides in worldview that may exist inside and outside of party lines. It means rejecting some popular philosophies and embracing others.
It means taking time to read, watch, and listen.
It means talking, debating, and at times arguing.
For Christians it means being more focused and intentional in our prayers.
It also means a yearning for real answers to our problems.
The growing frustration in America, fueled by Washington’s legislative intransigence, is driving a political awakening that is something new for many Americans. It is a painfully personal coming-to-terms with where one stands as an American, regardless of party affiliation. It is a willingness to make tough decisions about the future, and to make short-term sacrifices for the nation’s long-term wellbeing.
It is an awakening driven by the harsh, inescapable realities of our new economic environment.
Our political leaders would do well to turn their eyes and ears toward an American populace more poignantly aware than ever of its political interests and influence.
The members of Congress may be demonstrating that they have lost their will to seek practical solutions, but those that elected them certainly have not.
In One But Not the Same, Pastor Chris Williamson challenges us on our divisive “churchanity” and renews the call for unity and diversity in the body of Christ. Plus, his surprising views on Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and political parties.