The Silent Black Megachurch Pastor: We Need to Wake Up, Y’all.

The Silent Black Megachurch Pastor: We Need to Wake Up, Y’all.

WAKE UP and Imitate the TeacherLike most of you, I’ve been following news stories about Mike Brown, Eric Garner and Tamir Rice over the course of the past several weeks and days. I watched in horror as St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert P. McCulloch announced that Darren Wilson would not be indicted in Brown’s death. I looked on with unspeakable grief as headlines flooded my social media accounts, all indicating that no charges would be filed against the officer who choked Eric Garner to death. I’ve read with deep offense numerous stories seeking to criminalize twelve-year-old Tamir Rice.

As I’ve followed these stories via various news outlets and in the world of social media, I’ve experienced a deep sensitivity to the phenomena of absence and silence. I’ve paid special attention to the ways in which influential faith leaders are (or are not) using their platforms to call out the injustices which have diminished and even extinguished Black lives in America. Almost predictably, there are certain white pastors whose presences are conspicuously absent– but their silence is not my concern. Of greater concern to me is the silence of Black ministers, many of whom pastor megachurches consisting of thousands of African American Christians.

For instance, it’s impossible not to notice that the Facebook and Twitter pages belonging to T.D. Jakes (which currently host 3.85 million and 1.68 million followers respectively) are devoid of references to the deaths of Brown, Garner and Rice. The same is true for the heavily-followed social media accounts belonging to folks like Creflo Dollar, Frederick Price and Juanita Bynum. However, abundantly distributed on all of their accounts are posts inviting devotees to “press into their anointing,” “go to the next level,” “defeat the devil,” and of course— buy a new book or register for the next conference.

You may feel tempted to dismiss those named here as low-hanging fruit– but before you do, please consider this: These “low-hanging fruit” are operating the most successful church model(s) in the country today. They have a certain something that pastors all over the country have been trying to cultivate and duplicate: Credibility. Broad Appeal. Undeterred Followers. Staying Power. They are the empowered few—wielding television and media reach, but yielding little in terms of advocacy at a time when compelling mobilizers are needed more than ever. I think it’s more than fair to ask why the people who are arguably the Black community’s most influential religious leaders have had little if anything to say about issues that impact our lives so profoundly.

And so, in recent weeks I’ve felt repeatedly drawn to consider what it means for high-profile Black religious figures who have captive audiences of thousands of people (diverse populations, no less) to forfeit their prophetic mantle when Black folks most need their ministry.[1] I’ve thought about the state of Christianity in America, and the ever-growing need for the justice-centered message of Jesus to overtake and supplant the self-centered message of salvation that has come to dominate Protestant theology. And unceasingly, I’ve ruminated on the degree to which “Religion is the opiate of the masses…”[2]’—that is, I’ve thought about the condition of our collective consciousness as religious Black folks. At times, it does indeed seem as though we’ve been sedated—as if we’re asleep. I’ve wondered whether the success of the new civil rights era will require religious Black people to abandon the prosperity preachers who “cry out ‘Peace, peace!’ when there is no peace…”[3]

What does it mean to succumb to sedation at the hands of religious leaders who are more concerned with taking us to some nondescript “next level in God” than they are concerned with the level of oppression we experience? What is the cure for this kind of sedation? Can we wake up?

_______

References:

[1] By “prophetic,” I’m speaking to the responsibility to call an oppressed people into freedom, and not to the practice of telling people that God is getting ready to give them a new house, car or husband/wife. Yes, I have very strong opinions about the latter, but this article is not the appropriate space in which to air those concerns.

[2] Karl Marx said this.

[3] “From the least to the greatest, their lives are ruled by greed. From prophets to priests, they are all frauds. They offer superficial treatments for my people’s mortal wound. They give assurances of peace when there is no peace.” Jeremiah 6:13-14

How Do We Counter Religious Extremism?

How Do We Counter Religious Extremism?
From left to right, Rabbi Serotta, Rev. Brinton, Imam Shareef, Rabbi Langner.
From left to right, Rabbi Serotta, Rev. Brinton, Imam Shareef, Rabbi Langner.

On Thursday evening, I attended an interfaith clergy dinner that featured four panelists who each answered the question, “How do we counter religious extremism?” I thought the panelists offered great answers to this question, so I’ve decided to share their wisdom here. Their (paraphrased) contributions to the discussion were:

We Must Accept That We Need One Another
“We must develop a theology of mutual need. I need you in order to be a complete human and better practitioner of my own religion. We are to learn from one another how to pursue the good. We must also remember (as stated by another religious leader) that religious texts without context are only pretext. We must remember that in scripture, God says, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all peoples,’ and not ‘a house of prayer for all people,’ [the implication being that God intended a diversity of groups to seek access to the Divine and that God intends to welcome those groups.]”

–Rabbi Gerald Serotta, Executive Director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington

We Must Focus On Our Commonalities
“The Qu’ran is commonly translated to say, ‘People of the book, come to that which is common.’ [For Muslims, people of the book are non-Muslims who follow a revealed scripture.] However, this verse can be interpreted to say, ‘Family of the book, come to that which is common.’ The word family implies a connection, even between strangers, that isn’t found in the word people. Further, the Qu’ran says, ‘save yourself and your family’. We have a responsibility to save [or preserve the lives and well-being] of one another because we share a core and basic identity: human.”

— Imam Talib Shareef, 4th Resident Imam of the historic Masjid Muhammad, also called the Nation’s Masjid

We Must Embrace Our Own Faiths While Being Hospitable to Others
“Recently in Jordan, religious leaders were instructed to preach peace or risk legal consequences. Personally, I believe religious freedom is important– so I happen to believe that this is the right message, but the wrong approach to encouraging the message. What can’t be disputed is that we religious leaders have a responsibility to shape a peaceful, hospitable conversation about our own religions and those practiced by others. Movements toward this kind of moderation can be alarming to exclusivists because some assume that we must subtract from our devotion to the truths of our own religions in order to affirm the practices of people outside our faith. However, we can counter extremism without subtracting from our own sense of truth by simply being hospitable to people of other faiths– by breaking the fast for Ramadan with a Muslim friend, or by hosting an interfaith meal.”

— The Rev. Henry Britton, Freelance Religion Journalist

We Must Be Willing to Reinterpret Our Holy Texts
“As trained readers of scripture, we know that our holy books contain difficult or even undesirable texts. We must be willing to re-read and even reinterpret these texts if we are to properly engage them in each generation. The practice of reinterpreting religious texts is not foreign to the Jewish faith. Rabbis have reinterpreted texts numerous times throughout history in order to lean toward peace or deal with challenges within the Jewish community. We must acknowledge violence in our texts, and we must develop new contexts for the meaning of that violence. [In other words, we must decide that violent texts are descriptive, rather than prescriptive.]  We must resist triumphalism– and could do so by adopting an attitude of what Jewish mystics have called tzimtzum, or a posture of contraction (withholding, or even shrinking back). Strength and confidence are not exhibited when we claim sole possession of the truth; rather, strength and confidence are demonstrated in our humility, and in our willingness to hold back against the urge to claim sole truth.”

— Rabbi Gilah Langner, Educator and co-founder of the Kerem journal

(I found this event very enjoyable and look forward to attending others in the future.)

Unchanging steel vs. malleable clay: Thoughts on how we interpret the Bible

Unchanging steel vs. malleable clay: Thoughts on how we interpret the Bible

the bibleI came across an interesting article today by blogger Andrew Sullivan titled “The Trouble With Religion“. In it, he quotes a New York Magazine interview of Dr. Reza Aslan– a Muslim, religion scholar and the author of two best-sellers, including the explosively controversial Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Dr. Aslan has been commenting fairly often in recent days on the now famous (or infamous?) exchange involving Bill Maher, author Sam Harris and actor Ben Affleck.

For those of you who aren’t in-the-know, Maher and Harris are two very loud voices in the anti-religion sphere, both of whom unapologetically believe that all Muslims sympathize in some way with the extremist views and/or practices found within Islam. When commentary by Maher and Harris during the October 3 taping of Real Time began to devolve into a series of Islamophobic generalizations, Affleck chimed in to demand a more balanced assessment of Muslim opinion and practice. The argument between the three men became utterly caustic, and the coverage of the discussion has prompted numerous religious thinkers to weigh in.

While Dr. Aslan’s commentary in NYMag was great as a whole, there was one specific point that really stuck with me. When attempting to explain whether religions are inherently violent, he said:

I think the principle fallacy of not just to the so-called New Atheists, but I think of a lot of critics of religion, is that they believe that people derive their values, their morals, from their religion. That, as every scholar of religion in the world will tell you, is false.

People don’t derive their values from their religion — they bring their values to their religion. Which is why religions like Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, [and] Islam, are experienced in such profound, wide diversity. Two individuals can look at the exact same text and come away with radically different interpretations. Those interpretations have nothing to do with the text, which is, after all, just words on a page, and everything to do with the cultural, nationalistic, ethnic, political prejudices and preconceived notions that the individual brings to the text. That is the most basic, logical idea that you could possibly imagine, and yet for some reason, it seems to get lost in the incredibly simplistic rhetoric around religion and the lived experience of religion.

…And to me, there’s a shocking inability to understand what, as I say, a child would understand, which is that religions are neither peaceful nor violent, neither pluralistic nor misogynistic — people are peaceful, violent, pluralistic, or misogynistic, and you bring to your religion what you yourself already believe.

Upon reading Aslan’s words, I began to consider the manner in which many Christians approach and use scripture. It occurred to me that we do indeed think of the Bible as something that has been “given” to us by God, when we should think of the Bible as a collection of texts to which we’ve given numerous interpretations throughout history. We think of the Bible as something that has given us a specific narrative about the world, without acknowledging that we are, in fact, the ones who assign and propagate biblical narratives. When it comes to the biblical narratives we choose (whether this involves our chosen theory of atonement, our perspectives on sin and human worth, our thoughts about women in ministry, our beliefs about gays, our beliefs about other religions, or even our perspectives on war), we like to believe that we have passively received something to which we are enslaved and for which we have no responsibility– when the truth is that we are conscious and responsible actors with the power to change these narrative(s) at any time. Again, we assign these narratives to the texts. We are responsible.

We think of our ancient texts as a static, unchanging steel message, given to us by some divine being from another realm, when it’s actually more like a ball of malleable clay that has always bent to our influence– good or bad. It’s our responsibility to acknowledge this and to change the narratives that we mold using the scriptures, especially if we desire to rescue the faith from the eroding influence of fundamentalism.

Joel Osteen (who as far as I know, has never hosted a seminar on Biblical literacy, Bible history or comparative theology for the 20 million viewers who tune in to hear him each month) starts each of his sermons with the following mantra:

This is my Bible.
I am what it says I am.
I can do what it says I can do.
Today, I will be taught the Word of God.
I boldly confess:
My mind is alert, My heart is receptive.
I will never be the same.
I am about to receive
The incorruptible, indestructible,
Ever-living seed of the Word of God.
I will never be the same .
Never, never, never.
I will never be the same.
In Jesus name. Amen.

I remember attending a church fairly often in Columbus, Ohio that recited this mantra before each service, even though the church wasn’t affiliated with Osteen. We were very attached to our belief that each of our Bibles said things specifically about us, and that our Bibles outlined things that we could do. (This included some belief that we could and should control both governments and their people based on our interpretation of the Bible.) We were not asked to consider the biases we brought to our engagement of scripture. We were also not asked to think of the needs that we each brought to scripture: The need for inspiration. The need for answers about the world. And sometimes, the need to be affirmed in our worldview, or the need to be right.

I look back on the “This Is My Bible” mantra and now wonder what would happen if millions of Christians were instead trained to say:

This is my Bible.
I am a witness to what it says, and a student of why it says what it says.
I can do as much research as I wish on the origins and intended uses of these texts.

Today, I understand that my biases impact my perception of what God’s Word is, versus what these words are,
However, I humbly and boldly confess:
My mind is alert and my heart is receptive, as I seek a message that will shatter my biases.

We will never be the same, because we seek a story that will make us all whole.
Others have used these texts irresponsibly in the past, but we will never make that mistake.
Never, never, never.
We will never be the same.
In Jesus name. Amen.