It’s not news to say that this has been a crazy, rancorous election season—perhaps the most ugly in modern history, many pundits claim. Maybe. But when I reflect back on earlier election cycles, there seems to have been plenty of media-infused hostility that we tend to mute in our nostalgic remembrance. The 2008 election of “hope and change,” for instance, was hardly without its own trumped-up controversies.
Looking back on the 2008 campaign, I can’t help but think about a community organizer from Chicago—a community organizer who became pastor to the 87 members of Trinity United Church of Christ in 1972. A community organizer who adopted the motto “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian.” A community organizer and leader who, during his time at Trinity, helped birth more than 80 ministries that ended up extending beyond the walls of the church to touch the nation and even the world. Under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr., Trinity grew to become one of the largest congregations in the predominantly white United Church of Christ denomination. The church currently has over 8,000 members.
Rev. Wright, who served Trinity for 36 years, had long been known for his prophetic preaching ministry—it had won him recognition as one of the top Black preachers in the United States—when, in 2007, the world was introduced to him as “the pastor of presidential candidate Barack Obama.” Suddenly, his preaching began to come under a firestorm of criticism by corporate media, which played seemingly endless loops of sound bites—out of context, without interpretation—from his sermons.
Rev. Wright’s fiery rhetoric and critique of the American empire eventually forced then-Senator Obama to denounce him and rescind his membership from Trinity United Church of Christ. But as Wright told the press, he wasn’t running for office. “I’ve been running for Jesus a long, long time, and I’m not tired yet,” he said. Because of that commitment, Wright warned presidential candidate Obama, “If you get elected, November the 5th, I’m coming after you, because you’ll be representing a government whose policies grind under people.”
I remember getting emails from clergy across the country during that contentious time. One pastor told me that he loved Rev. Wright, but his timing was wrong, to which I replied, “Whose timing? God’s timing or political timing?” It seemed as though some faith leaders had become political strategists, trading in their prophetic voices for the historical symbolism of electing the first Black president.
Unfortunately, symbolism can prove disappointing when it comes down to the real lives of individuals who reap few of the benefits of American “progress.” According to a recent study by the Institute for Policy Studies and the Corporation for Economic Development, it will take the average Black family 228 years to build the wealth of an average White family today. Yet during the 2008 election cycle, some clergy who historically had embraced the prophetic preaching of Wright seemed to struggle with his prophetic praxis. They were willing to muzzle their own prophetic voices in order to elect the first Black president.
Prophetic Rhetoric and The Social Justice Avatars
I am blessed to know many of the nation’s leading prophetic Black preachers. These are preachers who every Sunday morning remind us that Jesus and justice go hand and hand. These are preachers who speak about mass incarceration, the war on drugs, state sponsored violence, living wages, health care, sex trafficking and more. Raising the consciousness of our churches about these issues is very important work. But is prophetic rhetoric enough?
In his new book A Pursued Justice: Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights, Kenyatta Gilbert explains that prophetic Black preaching “unmasks systemic evils and deceptive human practices by means of moral suasion and subversive rhetoric” and “connects the speech-act with just actions as concrete praxis to help people freely participate in naming their reality.” Thus prophetic preaching is more than the spoken word; it is embodied word.
When prophetic rhetoric is not connected to just actions as concrete praxis, the preacher can become much like a social justice avatar—like an online freedom fighter who advocates for justice one click at a time but never engages in the battle for justice offline.
Online, we can be whomever we choose and spout prophetic language with the best of them, but an important question remains: Who are we, and what are we doing, when we are not operating in the digital universe? It’s all well and good for the social justice avatar to critique mass incarceration, the war on drugs, state sponsored violence, homophobia, sexism and patriarchy—but is the individual behind the avatar also fighting against those wrongs in the non-digital world? The online social justice avatar, like the preacher, sometimes can give the appearance of the prophetic without ever embodying it in real life.
As Rev. Wright showed, embodying the prophetic outside of the pulpit and outside of social media platforms may be costly, but it’s a price worth paying. South African activist and theologian Dr. Allan Boesak put it this way: “God will ask, ‘Where are your wounds?’ And we will say, ‘I have no wounds.’ And God will ask, ‘Was there nothing worth fighting for?’”
We must be careful not to trade in our prophetic voices for presidential roundtables and advisory boards that only seek to co-opt our prophetic rhetoric for political power. This has happened far too often over the past ten years. Indeed, many people feel that much of the Black church fell into prophetic slumber during the candidacy and presidency of Barack Obama—and that it only began to reawaken after Ferguson. Then, at last, without waiting for a charismatic preacher to lead it, a movement emerged that went beyond offering prophetic rhetoric. Its participants display a stunning willingness to lay bodies on the line for justice.
The Black church has been central to every major political and social movement in the African American community, and it still has a major role to play today. Rev. Wright represents the best of the Black church’s preaching and prophetic traditions. We must honor him for his sacrifice and willingness to speak truth to power, in season and out of season—and for the ways in which he has connected the preached word with just actions as concrete praxis.