The following story was published in 2009, but we here at UrbanFaith.com still believe it captures the essence of Gardner C. Taylor. Dr. Melvin Banks, founder of Urban Ministries, Inc., had the privilege of hearing Taylor preach to the masses and counsel other ministers, making him a minister’s minister. Of this, Dr. Banks shared:
“It was my privilege to have heard Dr Taylor speak on several occasions, not only as a preacher but also as a counselor to ministers. I fully agree with the assessment that he was “the prince of preachers.” Not only was he always sound in his exegesis of the text, relevant in applying Scripture to the current social situation and personal needs of people; he had a pulpit demeanor that showed that he had been with Jesus. I learned that he always began on Monday morning preparing his sermon for the following Sunday. He studied each day of the week through Friday. He would take no appointments on Saturday, choosing rather to pray and reflect all day in preparation for his delivery on Sunday. Would to God that every minister of the Gospel follow his model. The world has lost a great spokesperson for the Gospel.”
The Urban Ministries, Inc. and UrbanFaith.com extends our condolences to the Taylor family, friends, colleagues, mentors, and more. We have certainly lost a great in our community.
Rev. Gardner C. Taylor
Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the “Prince of Preachers,” summed up his philosophy of preaching this way: “Above all, [the preacher] must put heart work into his preaching. He must feel what he preaches. It must never be with him an easy thing to deliver a sermon. He must feel as if he could preach his very life away before the sermon is done.” Gardner C. Taylor knows something about this kind of preaching. For more than 50 years he has “preached his life away.” In 1979, Time named him “the dean of the nation’s black preachers,” and in a recent issue of the Christian Century, he was dubbed the “poet laureate of American Protestantism.”
“Gardner Taylor is a consummate communicator,” says William Pannell, professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Southern California. Timothy George, dean of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School, concurs: “More than anybody else I have heard in my life, Gardner Taylor combines eloquence and passion in the endeavor of preaching.”
As pastor of the 14,000-member Concord Baptist Church of Christ, Taylor, 77, labored as shepherd and prophet in Brooklyn’s rugged Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood for 42 years until his retirement in 1990. Today, as Concord’s pastor emeritus, Taylor is called upon to fill pulpits, give lectures, and provide keynote addresses at churches and educational institutions throughout the country. Though the legend of Gardner Taylor is great, those who know him readily admit the actual man is even greater.
Taylor is a grand, stately figure, so it is odd to see him behind the wheel of his late-model Ford rather than perched behind a pulpit. As he drives by Concord Baptist Church, I call out the street name on the corner sign: “Rev. Gardner C. Taylor Boulevard.”
“Yes, it’s a great honor,” he chimes in. “But I come from Louisiana, where they named the state law school for former governor Richard Leche. His name was placed high up on the building, engraved in stone. However, when he was sent to the penitentiary, they took it down.”
Such wry, self-deprecating humor is customary with Taylor, who regularly uses anecdotes and personal remembrances to deflect attention away from himself and toward the business of preaching the gospel.
Baptist Genes and a Defining Moment
Born on June 18, 1918, to the Reverend Washington and Selina Taylor, Gardner Calvin Taylor inherited “Baptist genes” that many assumed would lead him to pastoral ministry. But he recalls, “I recoiled from the thought of being a preacher. I wanted to go to law school and become a criminal lawyer. My boyhood friends in Louisiana tried to discourage me from that idea, though; at that time, no black person had ever been admitted to the Louisiana bar.”
Taylor, nevertheless, continued his plans and gained admission to the University of Michigan Law School. But in 1937, prior to leaving for Michigan, Taylor was involved in a tragic car accident. As he drove one night in rural Louisiana, a Model T Ford suddenly cut across his path. “I tried to avoid them, but I couldn’t,” he recalls. Both of the passengers in the other car died. And, though Taylor survived, he was left “shaken at my roots.” Not only were two men dead, but they were two white men. And the only witnesses to the accident were a white farmer and a white oil refinery worker.
“In that day, for a white person to tell the truth about a black person in that situation was incredible; but those men told the truth. I would not be here today if they had not.”
Through that jarring event, Taylor received his call to the ministry. “I was surprised by God’s grace. I had been brooding about my future for a long time, but that was the defining moment.”
Taylor went on to three “bright years” at the Oberlin School of Theology, where he developed a scholarly appreciation for a wide range of subjects. While at Oberlin, Taylor met his wife and pastored a church in Elyria, Ohio. Following Oberlin, he served pastorates in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and finally at Brooklyn’s Concord Baptist Church. Taylor was only 30 years old when he arrived on the scene at Concord, which in 1948 was already a flourishing congregation of over 5,000.
Taylor deepened Concord’s now 148-year tradition as a prestigious and vital presence in the heart of New York’s inner city. He not only filled pews on Sunday morning, but he took faith out onto the streets. “One must get out of life and into the Bible,” he says. “But there are also times when one must get out of the Bible and into people’s lives.”
In Spite of the Preacher
Taylor’s holistic grasp of the gospel has resulted in a church that serves as a model for urban congregations across the nation with its commitment to community outreach and development. With Taylor at the helm, Concord established a senior citizens’ home, a fully accredited Christian grade school, a professionally staffed nursing home, and an economic-development program that draws on a $1 million endowment to provide grants to various social projects in the Brooklyn area.
But despite his tireless work in the roles of pastor and community activist, the wider world will always see his oratorical gifts as his defining quality. And understandably so.
“Often, in spite of the preacher, the people are ministered to,” he says. “The Word of God breaks through the preacher by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Taylor recounts a story from his days as a fledgling minister in Baton Rouge. In that Depression-ravaged era, he was in the midst of a sermon one Sunday evening when suddenly the electricity in his small church building flickered out. Encased in darkness, the young Taylor stood motionless, not knowing what to do. Finally, an elder deacon yelled out from the congregation, “Preach on, preacher, we can still see Jesus in the dark.” And that’s what the preacher has been doing ever since: proclaiming the Word into and amid the darkness.
Listening to Gardner Taylor preach is like “hearing the voice of God,” a colleague of Taylor’s has said. As quoted in Time, Richard John Neuhaus, now editor-in-chief of First Things, expressed amazement at Taylor’s ability to “[play] with a single word. … He whispers it, and then he shouts it; he pats, pinches and probes it.”
Listening to Taylor speak over an informal meal, like our lunchtime meeting, or under any circumstance is akin to hearing him on a Sunday morning. Even his common language is colored with rich poetic rhythm and imagery. He is not a preacher by profession but by nature; it’s who he is.
Richard Lischer, professor of homiletics at the Duke Divinity School, says Taylor can draw applause from his listeners by simply reading a text. In his book The Preacher King, Lischer writes, “On one occasion as [Taylor] read some of the proper names in Luke 3 (Tiberius, Ituraiea, Trachonitis), members of the congregation began responding, ‘My Lord, My Lord!’ ”
Noted preaching scholar James Earl Massey believes Taylor has “one of the best working vocabularies of any minister alive.” Massey, who recently retired as dean of the Anderson (Ind.) School of Theology, has been a friend of Taylor’s for more than 20 years. He says Taylor’s command lies in his breadth of cultural knowledge. “He has a firm understanding of the best of both African-American and Anglo-Saxon culture,” he explains. “The best preaching is that which can go beyond one’s self and one’s own culture to touch others who are from different backgrounds — and that’s what Dr. Taylor does.”
“Dr. Taylor is a person who is able to move effortlessly across denominational and social boundaries to touch people’s lives,” adds Timothy George, who was introduced to Taylor as a student at Harvard Divinity School in the early seventies when the school flew Taylor in once a week to teach a homiletics course. But George remembers it being more of a course on life. “He has such great wisdom and tremendous theological depth and insight.”
Indeed, “wisdom,” “depth,” and “insight” are woven through all of Taylor’s preaching. The force of his sermons exercise both mind and soul. Like many traditional African-American pulpiteers, Taylor applies a meandering introduction that is as much a mental warm-up for the preacher as it is a preface for the sermon topic. But once Taylor launches into the body of the message, the congregation is transfixed by his skillful handling of the scriptural text. Both sound and content combine to propel the sermon to its roaring climax.
One is immediately gripped by Taylor’s flair for cunning exposition. He is at once storyteller and theologian. Thus the apostle Paul is presented as “a deformed wanderer with the label of Tarsus on his baggage.” And familiar passages are reenvisioned with profound implication: “Paul was filled with competence and commitment, on his way to Damascus from Jerusalem. … But on that road where he was, Somebody else was on that road. Because Somebody else is on every road. I don’t know what road you’re traveling today — it may be a road of great joy, it may be a road of sorrow — but Somebody else is on it.”
Taylor himself is less certain about the mechanics of his preaching. “Black preachers used to have a formula for delivering a sermon,” he told Leadership journal in 1981. “Start low, go slow, get high, strike fire, retire. But I can’t offer a formula for how I deliver a sermon; it depends on the sermon, on the mood of the preacher, on the mood of the congregation.”
Taylor insists that, whatever a sermon does, it must bring humanity in touch with its Creator. “There’s no excuse for the preacher if he or she is not speaking to people for God,” he says. “Preaching that does not bring in the vertical aspect of the sermon — the impact of God upon human life — cannot be called a sermon.”
Preaching in the Real World
Preaching “the impact of God upon human life” is an admirable aim. But often the human life becomes so complex, so messy that pat theological answers seem inadequate for speaking to a congregation’s concerns.
Taylor remembers countless instances when he was called upon to minister against the backdrop of both personal and national crises, such as World War II, the Cuban missile crisis, and the civil-rights revolution. “As I preached during those difficult days, I wanted people to know that God is still on the throne,” he says. “I couldn’t predict the future; I could only give them the assertion made by my old theology dean, Thomas Graham: ‘Faith is reason gone courageous.’ ”
Taylor’s own darkest night came earlier this year when his wife of 52 years, Laura Scott Taylor, an accomplished intellectual and community leader in her own right, was tragically killed by a city vehicle while crossing a Brooklyn street.
Laura Taylor was the founder of the Concord Baptist Elementary School, where she served as principal for 32 years without pay. “She was a very fine scholar and intellectual herself,” says William Pannell. “She was the one who exposed him to the theater and a much broader cultural and artistic pallet.”
“She was a very sharp and classy woman,” Taylor says of his wife. “At one point, I had gotten too involved in Brooklyn politics because of the size of the church. After a while, my wife said to me, ‘Your preaching is getting very thin.’ It was one of the most scathing things I’ve ever heard. I soon got out of preaching too much about politics.”
Taylor has now lived through the pain and grief about which he has consoled so many others. “They told me, ‘You have to listen to what you told us now, Pastor,’ ” he says. “The assurances that I passed out to people before — I thought I was sincere, and I thought I understood what they were going through. But I did not.”
In a recent address to his former parishioners at Concord, Taylor’s sorrow was visibly evident. “We are grateful to you [for your kindness during our loss],” he prefaced his message. “But I must not dwell on that now, because sometimes the heart is so sore — incurably so — that it cannot stand the touch of memory. So I will go forward.”
Through his forward journey, Taylor has gained an even greater appreciation of his faith. “When you come to personal crises in your life, as I have, I don’t know what people do without faith,” he observes. “I don’t always have a calm assurance about it, but I believe in all my heart that God will not do us evil. And when I understand what he is doing, I will appreciate it.”
Lately, Taylor speaks often of “the illusion of permanence.” He says, “I don’t think the young could live very well without that illusion. But as one gets older, this life begins to show its true quality of impermanence and unreliability. I believe God has ordained it so that as we must leave this world, it becomes less attractive.”
Besides being recognized as the senior statesman of African-American preachers, Taylor was a close friend and ally of civil-rights activist Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he supported during a particularly tense period in black Baptist circles. During that chaotic time 35 years ago, Taylor, King, and other ministers were involved in a controversial split from the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A. (NBC, currently the largest black denomination in the U.S.) after a fierce debate over King’s civil-rights agenda. Some within the NBC felt it was too politically liberal. As a result, Taylor and others, led by the important work of Cincinnati pastor L. Venchael Booth, went on to form the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which today has a membership of 2.5 million.
Taylor is one of the few surviving Baptists who were involved in that ugly dispute. “Younger Baptists don’t talk about it much anymore,” he says, “but it was a very difficult time in my life. I lost many friends.”
A Classical Evangelical
Despite being so intimately tied to modern African-American history and despite his stature as a gifted orator, Taylor remains largely unknown within the evangelical community today. “It’s just another sign,” says Timothy George, “of the ghettoization of the church.”
Perhaps Taylor’s ability to move in and out of diverse Protestant circles — both mainline and conservative — has contributed to his lack of recognition among evangelicals. But, as Lischer notes, while Taylor “infuses his sermons with principles drawn from the liberal view of human nature and history,” he “holds to an explicitly evangelical doctrine of salvation centered in the substitutionary atonement of Christ.”
But does Taylor consider himself an evangelical? Only in “the European sense,” he says. “European evangelicalism had a commitment to the gospel in its outreach toward human beings and the sufficient work of Jesus Christ,” Taylor explains. “But it was not a rigid kind of doctrinaire position, as it has been among many evangelicals in America.”
He adds, “I think evangelicals need a social conscience about the people who are least defended and most vulnerable in the society. If Christianity is not that, forget about it.”
Still, Taylor is encouraged by the hopeful signs of racial reconciliation that are emerging in the church today. Although he regrets that Concord Baptist Church never achieved a greater level of racial diversity during his tenure there, he appreciates the new sensitivity among Christians to the issue. “It is impossible, I think, to estimate the enormous impact that the whole evangelical community could have on this nation if it would free itself of its bias of race.”
Coming Back Empty
When Taylor volunteers his ideas on what makes a “great preacher,” the discussion turns to his list of personal heroes — a multiracial aggregate of pulpiteers. He speaks fondly of what he considers a golden age of preaching in New York during his early days in Brooklyn, when preachers like George Buttrick, Robert McCracken, Sandy Ray, Paul Sherer, and Adam Clayton Powell filled local pulpits.
That great tradition of preaching, fostered by Taylor and others, reverberates from today’s pulpits in one form or another. The call-and-response liturgy, rhythmic pacing and intonations, and holistic scriptural exposition are very much in evidence within contemporary black churches. Younger ministers such as James A. Forbes Jr., of the Riverside Church of New York and Gary V. Simpson, who succeeded Taylor as pastor of Concord Baptist, carry on the tradition of passionate black preaching. Yet some fear that there may be more flash than substance among many preachers in the younger set.
Taylor has no worries about the future of African-American preaching but does offer one cautionary note: “There is not too much emotion in the African-American church, but there is too much emotionalism. If what one is dealing with is so great, so gripping that it defies expression, then, yes, I can understand the emotional praise and preaching; but when it is done as a device, I think it’s reprehensible.”
He admits that he, too, had an obsession with emotion and calculated eloquence in his younger days. “At one point, I wanted to take elocution to train my voice,” he told Leadership. “My wife discouraged me from it, so I never did it. Her reasoning was that preaching never ought to be a finished thing, a polished performance. She was right.”
In these, his twilight years, Taylor speaks openly about the reality of old age: “You have only to look on my countenance to know that my years have faded into the light of the common day,” he said in a recent address. “But I can say this to you: Every time I have felt at the end of my tether, the old promise has come true. There has been restoration; there has been renewal; there has been revival.”
What makes a great preacher? “In the Book of Ruth, Naomi says, ‘I went out full, and I’ve come back empty,’ ” Taylor says. “That’s the story of life. It’s also the story of preaching; we must keep ourselves full so we can empty ourselves in the pulpit.”
At the end of Taylor’s sermon “A Promise for Life’s Long Pull,” he offers a word on his life’s ministry, drawing from his favorite black spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead”:
” ‘Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain’ … But then, just at the end of my tether; but then, when all of my strength seems spent and gone; then, when I come almost to the borders of despair; then, when I feel frustrated and confused and out of it; ‘Then … the Holy Spirit’ comes and ‘revives my soul again.’ ”
AND IT COMES TO THIS: After a long, acrimonious presidential campaign, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, American voters will decide whether Barack Obama earned another four years in the White House, or whether Mitt Romney gets a chance to lead the nation. (Photo: Newscom)
During a seemingly endless 2012 election season, at times we’ve felt like the “Bronco Bama” girl in this viral video. When will it end? Presumably, on Tuesday — we hope.
Until then, we’ll continue to endure the attack ads, the conflicting polls, and the toxic bickering in the social media realm. According to various surveys, this year’s electorate is one of the most polarized in years. This forum will not solve that problem, but we thought we’d invite a few UrbanFaith contributors to share their perspectives on what to expect if President Obama is re-elected, as well as what to expect if Mitt Romney should win the presidency. Check out their opinions (which, we should say, belong to them and not necessarily UrbanFaith), then take a moment to give us your response in the comments section below.
Short Memories, Shorter Patience
By William Pannell
Ah, another opportunity to play at being sagacious. If Mr. Obama is re-elected, I would expect that he will face another four years of deadlock on key issues. Since Congress seems stuck on ideology and not the good of the people, I would expect the Republican Party, now in the firm grip of Tea Party ideologues, will continue to play games all the while having no real alternatives to offer in place of the ones they oppose. And of course, Obama will be a lame duck President in the last two years anyhow, so there goes the neighborhood.
I suspect that Mr. Romney will be elected. White, working-class Americans have very short memories. They have already forgotten that it was Romney’s party that got the country in the mess it is in. And we Americans are terribly short on patience, so if the poor man couldn’t solve real problems (which by their nature are now global problems) in four years, throw him out. Mercy, I hope I’m wrong. But I also suspect that white Americans, or many of them, have never felt comfortable with a black man in the White House. They, of course, are not racists; they are merely pro-white and Romney is all that. By the way, I voted for Mr. Romney’s father when he was governor of Michigan. He probably would have made a good President.
President Obama’s re-election will renew the now undercurrent spirit of genuine concern for the poor. The civic emphasis will shift from the middle-class to reveal the President’s implicit and visceral aim to center the country’s energies and resources toward those in America who need help the most. We will see a resurgence of the middle-class, not as an end in itself, but as the primary avenue toward uplifting the masses of the country’s poor. The President will challenge the rich and the middle-class to open their hearts to make room for those people who find themselves locked out, left behind, and languishing in economic and social sectors. President Obama’s re-election will lift the spirit of the poor across the country. They will greatly benefit from the good news of his return to the leadership of the country and the free world, and from the significant changes that his policies engender for the lives of millions across a wide socio-economic spectrum.
An election of Mitt Romney to the nation’s highest elected office will cause a rise in social unrest in urban areas across the country, and growing acts of terrorism aimed at the U.S. in the world. Simply, millions will release their pent-up anger and frustrations. Many disillusioned souls will act-out their sense of hopelessness, and their angst against a prejudiced and racist America who once again failed to do the moral and political right thing. African Americans will entrench and push back in their activism. A refreshing commitment of the masses to the historic struggles of African-descended people will refocus on the self-determination and empowerment of black people and communities. In reaction to the military-type solutions of Romney for resolving national conflicts on the world front, a radical Islam will thrust itself to the forefront and make as many terror-laden statements as possible. World de-stabilization will grow.
Finally, whomever the country elects as President, the current Christian theological debate will focus on the true meaning or workability of what is genuine “Evangelicalism.” The 2012 electoral politics will thrust into the forefront of the discussion those who are “Evangelicals” of African-descent. The historical and cultural context of believers and churches in the black experience — in both the U.S. and the African Diaspora — will give rise to the most potent definition of historic and genuinely contextualized Christ-centered orthodox or “Evangelical” faith, and to true expressions of its social, economic, and political way of life. Jesus the Gospelizer — the bearer of Good News for the poor — will center this authentic definition. Electoral politics in the U.S. will be the impetus for Black Evangelicalism to come of age and offer leadership in these theologically troubling times.
Rev. Dr. Walter A. McCray is a Chicago-based writer, a leader in Black evangelicalism, and president of the National Black Evangelical Association. His latest book is Pro-Black, Pro-Christ, Pro-Cross: African-descended Evangelical Identity (Black Light Fellowship, 2012). He defines Black Evangelical identity along cultural and theological lines. His statement above reflects his personal views.
Education Is the Key
By Valerie Elverton Dixon
I believe that President Obama will be re-elected. I believe that he will follow through on his plan to strengthen public education and to open doors of opportunity for more people to have access to higher education and/or job training. When I was a girl, I was taught: “Education is the key.” In my life, that has proved to be true.
Education is the key, not only to a good job, but also to self-knowledge. Education is the key to human moral evolution and to human freedom. I think that President Obama will continue to encourage schools to experiment with curriculum, different pedagogical models and teacher and parental training that will inspire students to love learning. Once students understand that the ultimate subject of their education is their own lives, their own questions, their own striving to identify and to perfect the unique gift they have to give to the world, they will have a made up mind to study. And nothing is more powerful in any field of endeavor than a made up mind.
I expect President Obama to keep his promise to rebuild America. He has said that he will use half the savings from the wars we are no longer fighting to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure, including building schools. I hope that he will expand this to enter into public/ private partnerships to rebuild the waste cities, towns and villages in America. This can provide jobs and be the opportunity to exercise an ethics of aesthetics that will make communities beautiful.
If Mitt Romney is elected president, it is hard to know exactly what he will do since he is very often on all sides of all issues. However, I think we can count on him to appoint right-wing Supreme Court justices, to put public education on a glide-path to privatization, and cut taxes for the rich, leaving nothing for community revitalization.
So, I am hopeful that President Obama will win because, in my opinion, this will be the best thing for the nation and for the world.
Valerie Elverton Dixon, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and founder of JustPeaceTheory.com. She is a regular contributor to God’s Politics, The Washington Post On Faith, and Tikkun Daily. Her forthcoming book is Just Peace Theory Book One: Spiritual Morality, Radical Love and the Public Conversation.
The Rise of Jim Crow Jr.
By Randy Woodley
Since the election of President Barack Obama, we have seen a new wave of racism rise across our nation. The kind of racism expressed over the past four years is different than the more overt, socialized Jim Crow era racism. Today, it is unpopular to be called a racist so racism has become more polite, being couched in political jargon, “dog whistles,” voter suppression and public policy aimed at the least of these in society. Meet Jim Crow Jr. The most overt hatred over the past four years has been directed at President Obama himself. Regardless of which candidate is elected, what I think we can clearly see is that there is a desire on the part of some, to “go back,” ushering in another era of racism that could become socialized and institutionalized in America. Jim Crow Jr. is knocking on America’s door.
An election favoring Mitt Romney is inextricably intertwined in this rising form of racism. I believe a Romney presidency will open wide the door to a new form of Jim Crow directed at non-White citizens of the United States. Regardless of whether or not Governor Romney were to return to a more moderate form of politics, or even disassociates himself with the radical right he aligned himself with to get this far, he is their candidate. They have used him as much as he used them. With the re-election of President Obama we do not know whether or not Jim Crow Jr. will subside but it is likely, especially if there is more democratic control in the House and Senate, that it will take the “wind out of the sails” of socialized racism. Obama is one of the most intelligent Presidents in American history. His story is truly an American story in which all Americans should take pride. If the racist rhetoric and proposed policies should subside during the President’s second term, perhaps more Americans will be able to see him in a better light. There will always be racist among us, but in the past four years they have captured many who would not normally fall in their line. If Obama is elected, perhaps more of those White Americans who have been swept away in the “flurry” will be able to claim President Obama as their President
Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley is Distinguished Associate Professor of Faith and Culture, and Director of Intercultural and Indigenous Studies at George Fox Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Dr. Woodley is a Keetoowah Cherokee and author of the new book Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision (Eerdmans). Randy blogs at The Huffington Post, Ethnic Space and Faith, Emergent Village Voice and Sojourners.
Our Politics Are Soulless
By Larycia A. Hawkins
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you can expect the worst angels of our nature if Barack Obama reclaims the White House. And rather ruefully, I must inform you that you can expect a similar result if Mitt Romney wins. Presidential politics are a soulless affair.
Here’s what you can expect if you believe President Obama’s experiences of four years past can usher in “an economy built to last”:You should brace yourself for intensified partisan rancor as Congress doubles down on its intransigence given the loss of the presidency in a closely divided race where voter nullification may very well be the feeling people are left with if the popular vote winner in the national election loses in the electoral college. The debt ceiling debate will seem like a piece of cake compared to the looming deficit reduction debate in the next Congress. The middle class Obama purports to champion will be lost in the vitriolic mayhem of civilized debate.
You should prepare yourself for more insidious symbolic racism in the form of racialized rhetoric and images, including, but not limited to “shuck and jive” metaphors of the Commander in Chief, monkey cartoons and evolutionary caricatures of the obviously black President, an unambiguous noose lynching the hope and change President of a country where lynching signified that citizenship and hope and democracy were reserved for whites only, and the racialization of ostensibly race-neutral policies via claims that healthcare is merely reparations from the welfare president.
Here’s what you can expect if you believe Mitt Romney’s the man to “restore America” with his five-point plan:You should reread 1984 to refresh your memory as to the meaning of doublespeak, since the (presumptive) Democratic minority in Congress will strenuously and unanimously oppose all the policies of the newly minted Presidential agenda — even those policies that they agree with — in the name of representation and e pluribus unum. Never mind that a few short years ago, they castigated Republicans for denying a recently enthroned President Obama the same presidential courtesy.
You should prepare yourself for religious wars. While the first freedom of the Bill of Rights is religious freedom — the free exercise clause enabling individuals to choose religion and the establishment clause barring the state from imposition of an official religion, there will be a resurgence of religious intolerance surrounding Romney’s Mormonism. If you think that Romney’s nomination as the Republican candidate for the general election signifies that we are past all that Mormon-bashing, think again. Just as Obama has been characterized by the right as Muslim and foreign-born, expect the left to frame Romney in a similarly disdainful fashion on the basis of his faith. One need only recall recent caricatures of the Christian Right as seeking to engender an American theocracy or the prevalence of media stereotypes which wrongfully equate evangelicals with fundamentalists and which equate both evangelicals and fundamentalists with what are often depicted as solipsist and reactionary cultural practices — homeschooling and having thousands of children. Musicals, movies, and musicians that ostensibly normalize Mormons must be held in tandem with reality shows that portray Mormon men as misogynists and polygamists and Mormon women as oppressed and helpless. Religious intolerance will rear its ugly head if Mitt is the man.
Why, you may ask, is a political science professor avoiding a discussion of the issues that will emerge under an Obama or Romney regime? For one simple reason — the soulless politics of our day incentivizes hateful race baiting and religious bashing rather than substantive policymaking. Yes, bills do get passed under divided government — even landmark policies like the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. But partisan rancor persists amid a seemingly soulless brood of politicians who, on the surface, have more in common than in difference. Rancor proliferates and policymaking is a casualty of the political battle.
While I regrettably expect little of the political context to change come January 2013, I submit that knowing is half the battle. To be shrewd as snakes, we should expect more of the same old politics. To be innocent as doves, we should both demand and expect change from politicians and pundits, especially those who claim to be cross-bearers. Rather than engaging in soulless rhetoric and tasteless tactics, rather than applauding and patronizing the ideologues and elites who propagate misinformation about Mormons and make racist remarks about the first black President, we should demand enemy-loving politics that produces justice-laden policies.
If soulless politics continues, you should look in the mirror. If substantive politics fail to protect the weak and vulnerable, the rocks will cry out.
Dr. Larycia A. Hawkins is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Relations at Wheaton College. She is a co-editor of the book Religion and American Politics: Classic and Contemporary Perspectives. Her research includes projects exploring black theology and its relationship to political rhetoric and black political agendas, like those of the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP. Prior to academia, she worked in state government administering federal programs, including the Social Security Disability program and the Community Development Block Grant.
The Church Must Step Up
By Wil LaVeist
If President Obama is re-elected, but the split Congress (Republicans controlling the House, Democrats controlling the Senate) remains, we can count on more of the same gridlock. Republicans will focus on winning seats in the 2014 mid-term election and holding out to win the presidency in 2016. Democrats will do the same. If Mitt Romney wins, but has a split Congress, he’ll face a similar challenge for similar reasons. If either winner gets a Congress that is on their side, they will have a better chance of pushing their agendas. But wait — “the filibuster” looms. Only a drastic threat (war, economic collapse, etc.) would likely shake either party to compromise.
Either way, churches in predominantly black communities should step into the moral gap to inspire people to pursue righteousness, fairness and grace towards others in their own lives — to get their own houses in moral order. We should spark a “moral civic revival” — rallying people to shine their lights on the deepening tragic immoral disparities (health, economics, housing, education, incarceration rates) that exist in predominantly black communities across the nation. Leading by example with solutions, we should urge fellow Christians and Americans of all persuasions to see these growing disparities (rooted in the sin or racism) as a national crisis that endangers all of us. We should demand accountability from elected officials, regardless of party affiliation. Perhaps in this new climate, more public servants will emerge in the spirit of Joseph — willing to serve not their own narrow self-interests, but all of the nation’s people regardless of race, ethnicity or faith. We know the God who lives in us maintains control no matter who lives in the White House. We must act on what we know.
Today when the world hears the word “evangelical,” it often associates the term with a white, politically conservative brand of Christianity. Those within the evangelical movement, however, know the reality is far more diverse. In fact, defining the identity of the movement and sorting out its many theological and cultural dimensions has been the subject of countless books and conferences over the past 200-plus years. One group that has helped assert the existence and valuable contributions of non-white evangelicals is the National Black Evangelical Association (NBEA). Over the years, the group has provided intellectual community and spiritual support to a who’s who of Black scholars and preachers — influential leaders such as Tom Skinner, Tony Evans, Howard Jones, Clarence Hilliard, Carl Ellis, and Melvin Banks (founder of UrbanFaith’s parent company, UMI).
Next week in Chicago, the NBEA will host its forty-ninth annual convention. Rev. Dr. Walter A. McCray, author of several books, including The Black Presence in the Bible, has been president of the NBEA since 1999. UrbanFaith recently spoke with him about the history of the organization and why this year’s conference has a special focus on missions and Christianity’s African roots.
URBAN FAITH: Give us some brief background on the NBEA. How was it formed and what’s its purpose?
REV. WALTER McCRAY: In 1962, Black evangelical leaders prayed. They were praying in different locales across the nation. They prayed in California, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Detroit, and other places. They prayed about themselves and how they could reach their Black communities with the Gospel of Christ. They prayed earnestly, and they prayed for their unity and cooperation in the ministry of Christ. Women prayed, men prayed, ministers prayed, laypersons prayed, young prayed, old prayed. And God answered their prayers in an exceptional way. He gave them an idea, and an organization through which they found Black Christian fellowship and empowerment to accomplish their goal — reaching the lost, making the wounded whole. So in 1963, in L.A., the National Negro Evangelical Association (NNEA) was born.
The co-founders of NNEA, which later became the NBEA “National Black Evangelical Association,” composed an impressive gathering of dedicated servants of Christ, who were committed to the Lord’s church. It was a small but powerful group that included the likes of Rev. Aaron M. Hamlin, Mother Dessie Webster, Rev. Marvin Prentis, Bishop Holman, and the host pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Rowe. Others joined this number at the inaugural convention: Rev. William H. Bentley, Missionary Ruth Lewis (Bentley), Rev. Tom Skinner, Rev. Howard Jones, Rev. Charles Williams, and others.
So, this new association of brothers and sisters, which also included some white believers, formed around three important values: fellowship, ministry, and networking resources. Their overriding passion was to win the lost, and to provide support for churches and leaders who were attempting to do this amidst the revolutionary times of the 1960s. It was no small task, but their God was not lacking the necessary greatness and power for the challenge! So they marched forward.
You’ve been leader of the NBEA since 1999. In your view, what is the state of black evangelicalism and the wider evangelical movement today?
The state of evangelicalism today, as intentionally labeled and defined, is one that has a changing face. Due to its emphasis on “diversity,” its face is changing from white to other ethnic groups. Yet, it maintains its centeredness and dominance in maleness, and White and Western culture. I recommend Soong-Chan Rah’s book The Next Evangelicalism for an overview of where things are going. The next evangelicalism in America is discoverable in immigrant and indigenous ethnic communities. Evangelicalism is growing in areas of the Southern hemisphere. Black evangelicalism, of the intentional variety, is undergoing redefinition along cultural and theological lines. There is a reawakening of Black consciousness and its theological applications within the socio-political sectors of White evangelicalism, and especially as a pushback against politically right-wing evangelicals. Some White evangelicals also are pushing back against their very socially and politically conservative counterparts. When it comes to the implicit side of African American evangelicalism, vis-à-vis the Black Church, we see a state of flux, wherein traditional Black Christian faith, amidst pressing social challenges, is grasping to reconnect with the core cultural and social values of their African-descended peoples.
The annual convention convenes next week. Could you tell us a little bit about what you have in store for those who attend?
The theme is “Looking Black to Move Forward: Reclaiming Our Heritage, Fulfilling Christ’s Mission” (Psalm 68:31). This is our second meeting of a two-year emphasis on missions. We will emphasize looking back into our past, so that we can see how God has historically used Black people in His redemptive work. We will also look into our present so that we can appreciate the Black spiritual contributions and other resources that the Lord has placed at our disposal to do His work. We have jam-packed our program with a wealth of speakers, and topics that can benefit local Black communities, as well as Africa and other places to which Christ calls us to serve.
Could you talk a little bit about the African American church’s relationship to local and global missions?
The African American church needs more intentional involvement in missions. Pressing needs among Black Americans have served to capture the focus of our churches — sometimes to the abdication of our responsibilities of spreading the Gospel of Christ throughout the world. Our people must recapture the missionary fervor of Black churches and missionaries of previous generations. We must be both indigenous and international in our mission endeavors. For instance, we must work to redeem our imprisoned men especially and others from “the New Jim Crow” that Michelle Alexander talks about in her important book. At the same time, we must send bi-vocational workers to the mission fields of Africa to dig wells for clean water and stem the tide of the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Then, we must rescue women and young girls who are enslaved in sex-trafficking. Black believers and churches have a “both and” responsibility. Validated “charity” begins at home, but it must then spread abroad in the true fashion of the divine love of Christ, whose giving and sacrificing continues to manifest itself beyond the sectors of one’s immediate group or culture.
The African roots of Christianity will be one of the topics discussed at this year’s convention, and I understand the theologian Thomas Oden will be addressing the event via Skype. Could you talk about the importance of this and what the church needs to understand about the church’s historic African connection?
So-called Black evangelicalism has existed for over two-millennia. Those roots are found in the Black/African peoples of the New Testament, and in the early African church of the second century A.D. and beyond. Tom Oden and the Center for Early African Christianity have been doing a premier, paradigm-shifting work in demonstrating, in the words of Oden’s book, How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind.
As Black peoples, we must look back to the earliest stages of the Christian faith to discover how God worked through and used African people and African Church Fathers in His work of salvation and redemption. We must discover how they wed their faith to their culture in ways that were positive and made tremendous contributions to the Christian faith worldwide. From the second century onward, the Christian faith first spread from south in Africa to north in Asia and Europe. NBEA’s Institute for Black Evangelical Thought and Action will explore these topics and more at the convention.
What else can people look forward to at the convention?
Prayer, fellowship, food, networking, information, celebration, book signings, workshops, preaching, teaching, mission-opportunities, and much more happen next week. We invite all: Blacks and non-Blacks, women and men, youth and young adults, pastors and laypeople, churches and organizations, professionals and non-professionals, missionaries and sending agencies, community workers and global partners — we invite all who desire to strengthen themselves in holistically sharing the Gospel of Christ with their Brothers and Sisters in the Christian faith. Together, we want to “Reclaim Our Heritage” as we “Fulfill Christ’s Mission.”
The NBEA convention takes place April 25-28 at the Chicago/Oak Lawn Hotel. Click here for more information.
“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” – Luke 2:8-14
This holiday season, we’ll once again listen to preachers in pulpits, children in angel and shepherd costumes, and animated characters on TV recite those words from Luke 2 proclaiming the miracle of Christmas. And the Bible translation we’ll most likely be hearing will be the King James Version, which marks its 400th anniversary this year.
Out of the countless modern translations of the Bible now available to readers, none of them has surpassed the popularity of the King James Version. In fact, a recent survey by the American Bible Society found that 45 percent of regular Bible readers still use the King James Version.
Commissioned by England’s King James I in 1604 and finally published in 1611, the KJV is still recognized as “the authorized version.” A conference of churchmen in 1604 had proposed the new translation on the basis that existing translations “were corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original [Hebrew and Greek text].”
That same year, the Protestant king approved a list of 54 prospective revisers, from which 47 translators were selected to work. They were divided into six committees, working separately at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. Committees are typically accused of compromising their products. In this case, the joint translation was superior to the work of any previous translator.
By the time the King James Version appeared, there were vernacular translations of the Bible circulating in Protestant and Catholic Europe. But in England, King Henry VIII, styling himself as head of the church, banned and burned copies of the Bible translated by William Tyndale, fearing that an accessible Bible would make England “a nation of priests,” according to William Tyndale: A Biography by David Daniell.
For his trouble, Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake in 1536.
Eventually Henry softened his objections, allowing one Bible in each of England’s churches. Later, King James believed that an accessible Bible might reconcile citizens of different religious persuasions, so he authorized the translation that bears his name. Ironically, its translators incorporated Tyndale’s scholarship.
The new translation appeared during the lifetime of William Shakespeare and John Donne, enhancing not only Christian revelation but English culture and expression. To this day its text is considered poetic. Familiar English expressions come from the King James Version, including “lamb to the slaughter,” “skin of our teeth” and “chariots of fire.” It is widely credited with providing Protestant churches with a unified sacred text.
The King James Version of the Bible also remains the translation of choice among African American Christians. “Because so many people are familiar with the language and poetic elegance of the KJV Bible, I tend to use it in situations calling for pastoral comfort and consolation,” says Cheryl J. Sanders, senior pastor of Third Street Church of God in Washington, D.C., and professor of Christian Ethics at Howard University. “The KJV is not merely quoted in the prayers, songs, and sermons of the African American churches — this biblical language and imagery flows from the hearts and lives of believers at prayer, in praise, and in prophetic ministry.”
William Pannell, senior professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, believes the KJV provides a type of spiritual and social anchor for black churches today. “The staying power of the King James Version may be understood by the ongoing need for security and certainty, especially among older church members. In a society where change seems to be constant, and worship styles move further away from recognizable sights and sounds, the language of the KJV is a welcome reminder that not everything is up for grabs.”
Jamal-Dominique Hopkins, associate professor of biblical studies at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, says the KJV’s prophetic importance cannot be underestimated, even though it may no longer be the most accurate of translations. “As a 17th century translation, the King James Version does not have the benefit of having relied upon the most significant manuscript finds of the 18th, 19th, and 20th century,” he explains. “This, however, does not diminish or deter the brilliance and power of the Holy Spirit in its effective use over the last 400 years. The KJV has played a part in the conversion of souls, the healing of the afflicted, the liberating of the oppressed, and has been a testament to God’s unwavering truth.”
Hopkins thinks the KJV’s enduring popularity with black Christians also reflects the African American tradition’s affinity for colorful and dynamic forms of expression. “In a positive way, we as a people are enamored with the theatrical. Theatrical forms, as a genre of cultural expression, permeate throughout the African Diaspora; this plays itself out in our music, our dialog, our literature, and our fashion — and these subsequently take center stage within many of our churches. The poetic 17th-century lingua franca of the KJV rhythmically resonates with our experience. Its language and phrasing are anything but dull.”
What translation of the Bible will you be reading this Christmas?
After 400 years, for many of us those King James angels will still be bringing “good tidings of great joy,” as they tell us exactly where to find that “babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.”
Portions of this article were reprinted from a Scripps Howard News Service column by David Yount, used through arrangement with the Newscom wire service.
Health-care reform is here, but the debate rages on. What does the passing of the bill really mean for America? Nine top Christian scholars and activists weigh in on the good, the bad, and the future. (more…)