The Power of the Pulpit: Black Pastors and Social Justice
By Gilda Daniels
Once upon a time, a minister could both criticize and love America. Now, such statements are characterized as anti-American, or worse, as hate speech.
Loyalty and race. These are the perplexing and polarizing issues that presidential candidate and frontrunner, Barack Obama, very humbly and powerfully chose to speak to the nation about after snippets of past sermons by his former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, caused a firestorm of controversy. As a law professor and granddaughter and daughter of Baptist pastors, I listened in earnest.
The fact that a presidential candidate needed to explain words that were not his own, but those of his former pastor’s is a testament to how far we have not come. The fact that people were surprised that words such as Pastor Wright’s would be uttered in a sermon shows a lack of familiarity with the legacy of the Black Church. Pastor Wright’s legacy can not be embodied in the thirty second sound bites proliferating the media, but rather from the tradition from which his legacy and his words were birthed, the Black Church.
Historically, the “Black Church” has been a voice for social justice and outspoken concerning injustices, whether the injustice occurred in the pews or politics. A sermon from a black minister that was critical of the United States was once commonplace and necessary to achieve change. Black ministers have been front-line witnesses to the anger, pain and degradation confronted on the African American community from slavery to more contemporary concerns, and traditionally they have spoken out. Once upon a time, a minister could both criticize and love America. Now, such statements are characterized as anti-American, or worse, as hate speech.
On March 31, 1968, four days before he was assassinated, Dr. King gave a speech entitled “Remaining Awake Through A Great Revolution” where he criticized America’s involvement in Vietnam, saying:
I am convinced that it is one of the most unjust wars that has ever been fought in the history of the world…It has played havoc with our domestic destinies… This day we are spending five hundred thousand dollars to kill every Vietcong soldier. Every time we kill one we spend about five hundred thousand dollars while we spend only fifty-three dollars a year for every person characterized as poverty… The judgment of God is upon us today. And we could go right down the line and see that something must be done–and something must be done quickly.
Forty years later these words remain relevant and prophetic and could have been spoken in any church with a social justice mandate on any given Sunday. Pastor Wright’s legacy, not the sound bites, is consistent with pastors who believe the church has a mandate to achieve social justice. The desire to assist the least, the less and the lost, however, has been lost in the new mandate for personal achievement-my purpose, my goals, my god, my prosperity.
Has the black church lost its relevance? Has the church remained demographically the same, but the message of social justice become merely an announcement in the Sunday program-along with choir rehearsal, bake sales and voter registration drives- instead of a centerpiece of its call to live and look like Christ, to speak truth to power, to set the captives free?
Has it fallen into the evangelical abyss where only gay rights and abortion are the “political” issues that are espoused from the pulpit, not social justice issues, such as, poverty and homelessness or issues that disproportionately affect African Americans and other minorities, such as the resegregation of schools and affirmative action?
Can the church — regardless of the demographics, black, white, brown, red or yellow — seek a higher standard and play a relevant role in the political process? A role that embraces our differences. Can we reject the culture of polarization and do as Barack Obama suggests — disagree and still love. Can we disagree and walk in peace? I hope to have a president who knows when to strike and when to pray. I hope that s/he will also not be afraid to listen to the prophetic voices.
As the daughter and granddaughter of Baptist pastors, I believe that the church still has a lot to say and to do to ensure that we live in a “more perfect union.”
Let the Nation say, “Amen.”
Gilda Daniels is an Assistant Professor at the University of Baltimore Law School and a former deputy chief in the U.S. Department of Justice, civil rights division.