The Preacher and Social Justice
The Preacher and Social Justice
BY: ROBERT DION
While there are many trending topics in the media clamoring for our time and attention, the topic of social justice seems to tower above them all. The current contextual backdrop of our American society lends itself as a visible explanation why this topic is so important. Fresh off the hills of 8 years under our nation’s first African American President, Barack Obama, it would appear that the social settings of our nation which dared to believe that change was possible, have taken a quantum leap backwards. Racial tensions are higher than ever with White Supremacists and Alt-Right movements boldly articulating their interests in stark contrast to the Black Lives Matter interest group. Our current sitting President recklessly courts extremist groups with thinly veiled statements that could easily be construed as encouragement to persist in their agendas of violence and white supremacy. There is an ever-growing list of unarmed African Americans who are the victims of what many perceive to be a disproportionate amount of police brutality with little to no consequences for the officers involved. The landscape of our American culture belies a nation divided with its inhabitants crying out for social justice.
What is the response of the Church Universal? As a preacher and/or pastor is it absolutely necessary to take a position on these issues? Is it important to tell people about the love of God rather than speak on issues that might ‘stir the racial pot’? What would Jesus do in this position? What about the Separation of Church and State?
Though the social demographics within the Black Church have changed dramatically with its constituents having more education and wielding higher degrees of influence within the corporate and secular arenas, the Black Church is still very much so the bedrock of African American experience. Given its placement in the lives of its constituents, many of whom despite their varying levels of success are still undermined by a social system that views them as subservient to their white counterparts, the preacher must engage in the struggle for social justice. To fail to engage is to be derelict in their duties as overseer and prophet to the people to whom God has entrusted them.
While the call to engage in the fight for social justice may seem to be an obvious one, the frontlines are not being overrun by clergymen eager to join the fight. There are a multiplicity of implications that might explain this lack of entry into the fight for social justice. In light of the scope of this article, I have decided to focus on three specific factors that highlight a great portion of the problem, yet leave room for hope that they can be successfully surmounted. We will first examine the phenomenon of White Evangelical Silence on matters of racism and the systemic racial targeting of the African American Community. Additionally, we will examine the disengaged African American pastor whose focus appears to be inward or self-deprecating thus precluding his/her ability to engage.
Because I believe in the efficacy of God’s grace, however; I am not without hope that any of the aforementioned scenarios are irredeemable. As a matter of fact it is my faith in the indomitable power of His grace that constrains me to point out these matters knowing that we must first confront issues head on in order to receive grace to overcome them. It is, therefore, with the lenses of God’s grace firmly affixed to the eyes of our understanding that I endeavor to walk us through this multi-layered matter.
The Phenomenon of White Evangelical Silence
The surprise election of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States of America struck a strange and discordant note with many people of color. Even more so we watched in shock and awe as many of the most conservative white evangelical Christians openly embraced him, even lauding him as God’s choice for America. These same conservative preachers who meticulously took President Barack Obama to task over everything from the color of his suit to the legitimacy of his Christianity were able to dismiss the glaring misogynistic, racist, divisive, incendiary, and egomaniacal overtones that defined his campaign without the slightest denouncement of anything he did.
It seemed (and still does seem) to be a case of “gagging on gnats while swallowing camels” when it came to our white evangelical brothers and sisters who claimed to be voting for and supporting Donald Trump as a matter of moral conscience. When confronted with the obvious hypocrisy of calling Hillary Clinton wicked, crooked, and demanding her imprisonment for crimes real and/or imagined while playing down or justifying Donald Trump’s offenses we have been met with a formulaic response of silence and deflection. It’s as if many of them lack the capacity to simply say he is wrong without a rebuttal or justification. Some have gone as far as to say that ‘Jesus and Christian values have returned to the White House’. What Bible have they been reading and what Jesus is this that they speak of because our current President looks and acts nothing like Him.
One can’t help but consider race as the differentiating factor in their embracing of President Trump versus their abject rejection of President Obama. If we hold all variables constant when comparing the two with the exception of race, we would notice dramatically different responses. In other words, the White Evangelical sect would be experiencing a collective meltdown if President Obama acted anything like President Trump.
In addition to their perceived blind allegiance to President Trump, it is their deafening silence on matters of social injustice and racism that is both hurtful and appalling. Candidly speaking, our current social culture and justice system seemingly allow police officers to shoot and kill people of color oftentimes with little to no repercussions at all. From the killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling we quickly learned that even when video evidence suggests that racism and bias play a role in the killings of unarmed African Americans, that indictment and certainly conviction of these offending cops is virtually unattainable. It is a time when many in the minority communities feel angry, helpless, and powerless yet many in the evangelical sect can’t bring themselves to address it at all. No words of encouragement. No outrage! Nothing! Moreover, when many of them do speak, it is with the same deny, deflect, and blame rhetoric akin to some of the extremist groups who are outright against racial equality.
Ironically, however; many evangelicals regain their ability to speak out when there is protest against these atrocities. The #TakeAKnee protest, in which many NFL players and supporters refuse to stand during the National Anthem as a statement against the disproportionate police brutality against minorities, has sparked outrage with many of them. Many have spoken out that the protest itself is disrespectful to our nation, the American flag, veterans, and a host of other things while characteristically side-stepping the issues that called for the protests.
I have concluded that many of these white Evangelical Christians are intelligent individuals with great capacity for deductive reasoning and are thereby quite cognizant of the atrocities of which they are silent. In my humble opinion, the reason for their silence is that the issues themselves don’t impact them. Unarmed white men and women are not being killed by police officers in the same manner in which it is happening to people of color. The agenda that President Trump is promoting in his presidency is one that appears to be favorable for them. It is, therefore, quite easy for many of them to turn an intentional blind eye and a willful deaf ear to the things that are happening.
As I stated earlier in this article, however; I don’t believe that any of these scenarios are irredeemable. It must be said that there are many white Americans who are outraged and offended about the social injustices in our country relative to people of color. Many of them do get it and have joined in the denouncement and fight against these injustices.
I believe that it is possible to add our white Evangelical brothers and sisters to those numbers if they are willing to abandon the hidden bias, prejudice, and racism within their own hearts. You can’t love a group of people yet be indifferent to the things that negatively impact them. The lack of empathy and support denote a heart issue that must be addressed.
The harsh reality is the White Evangelical Preacher must engage in the fight for social justice for ALL people. The responsibility for carrying the Gospel and ministry extends beyond those that look like us, but as the Great Commission mandates it must be brought to all people. In order to do this, however; the heart must be free of all that does not resemble our Heavenly Father. The assignation of healthy critique must be carried across racial and political party lines with its impetus deriving from the objective anchor of the Bible.
The Disengaged African American Pastor
We would sorely miss an opportunity for enlightenment and growth if we limited this conversation to the examination of the White Evangelical Preacher without engaging in discourse about the Disengaged African American Pastor. For the purposes of this article, when I refer to the pastor/preacher as disengaged I specifically mean one who is unattached to the pain of the struggle though benefitting from the presence and resources of the struggling. In our discourse we will highlight two subgroups within this particular group: The Inward-Focusing Pastor and The Self-Deprecating Pastor.
Firstly, the pastor whose sole focus is inward is concerned primarily with the size of his church, the expanse of his ministry, the financial health of his church, and the notoriety of his name, has failed to engage in the fight for social justice. With the exception of the concern for notoriety, I can’t say that the other concerns of this pastor are inherently wrong. A responsible pastor is always taking note of the ebbs and flows of membership numbers that impact the growth of his congregation as well as keeping the financial health of the church. These items, however; become problematic when they define ALL that the pastor is concerned about as they mark a proclivity of being unable to see beyond one’s immediate circle.
It is this type of self-centeredness that would allow some pastors and preachers to dismiss the pain that a community is feeling relative to social injustices in our country and go on with ‘business as usual’. This kind of self-centeredness anesthetizes the preacher to the requisite responsibilities to lift and support those in the community. Sixty to Seventy years ago the Black Church was often the launching pad for great social justice movements. The Church was the prophetic wind behind the Civil Rights Movement that allowed it breathe life into our country in a new and innovative way. Therefore, the preacher who is unable to get beyond the trappings of his/her creature comforts and selfish motivations is negligent at best.
Additionally, the self-deprecating pastor with a diminished view of his people also fails to engage in the fight for social justice. This is the pastor of color who in an effort to be accepted into the perceived affluence of white culture, will denounce and diminish any and all cries for social justice. This person, at the expense of minorities, will purport that the problem with the Black Community is the Black Community and that it is wrong to rail against social injustices by people outside of our race when black on black crime is a factor. I call these kinds of preachers/pastors self-deprecating because they are willing to diminish black lives to be accepted by other groups failing to recognize that they are not exempt from this marginalization as well. The very laws and agendas that they support in exchange for acceptance could very well be the same agendas that lead to their undoing.
Moreover, the self-deprecating mindset does give us an opportunity to refute the argument that essentially purports that we should be fine with injustices happening to Black Americans from non-blacks because we don’t seem bothered by black on black crime. If a woman who was being physically assaulted by her husband at home came to work and was physically assaulted by a coworker would we advise her not to report it because of the domestic abuse occurring at home? Of course not! One has nothing to do with the other.
Statistically speaking black on black crime is on par with white on white crime. The reality is that proximity, not inherent criminality, drive those numbers as most of them are crimes of proximal opportunities. Moreover, the narrative that Black Americans are accepting of black on black crime is a false one. We are bothered by it just as we are bothered by crimes that occur outside of our race. The difference between the two, however; is that black on black crime is not supported by a system poised to ensure that it is perpetuated. Perpetrators of black on black crime are met with swift justice as opposed to the inverse situation which is met with denial and a system that ensures that justice will not be served.
As with the White Evangelical pastor, the Disengaged African American pastor has a duty to fight for the cause of social justice for all people. One’s inward focus and preoccupation with self does not absolve them from the responsibility of serving all people. Moreover, one’s inclination toward self-deprecation does not relieve them of their call to duty as well. Once again, a look into one’s heart with a willingness to allow God to change it is pivotal to transformation. With God as the Master Heart Surgeon, total change is absolutely in the realm of possibility.
Why Must the Preacher Fight for Social Justice?
The answer to that question is simple. It is his/her duty to fight for social justice. Every level of engagement won’t be the same. There are some who are able to engage by motivating, educating, and empathizing with their congregations. There are others who wield a measure of influence in political arenas who can speak for the voiceless. There are still others with influence across ethnic groups who can spearhead efforts to bring about better understanding within the various ethnicities and subcultures within our country. Everyone can and should do something! As in the days of the Civil Rights Movement it is the job of preacher to cry aloud and spare not giving prophetic wind to the solutions for the ills of our society.
So what will you do Preacher Man? What will you do Woman of God? White and black, it does not matter. Will you remain quiet or will you raise your voice to be heard? Our children is listening. There are young people who are taking their cues from you. In the annals of history how will you be remembered? Will you be remembered as one who fought for social justice or will you be remembered as one who pretended the need did not exist?
What say you?