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Is There A Black Prophetic Anymore?

March 2, 2010

In the brief history of the African-American, the idea of the spiritual, whether it be the church, the mosque or the street has always stood at the center of all that we considered black community.  Many African Americans still attend church or temple, and acknowledge that religion is very important in their lives. According to the PEW Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, some 87% of African Americans identify with a religious entity.  However, the notion that these venerable institutions are core to black life – that they are the centers for the moral conscience of the country has faded into near memory.

The reasons for this shift are replete, but for me, the most important reason is embodied in the words of Dr. Eddie Glaude, Professor of Religion and African-American Studies at Princeton University:

…we have witnessed the routinization of black prophetic witness. Too often the prophetic energies of black churches are represented as something inherent to the institution, and we need only point to past deeds for evidence of this fact. Sentences like, “The black church has always stood for…” “The black church was our rock…” “Without the black church, we would have not…” In each instance, a backward glance defines the content of the church’s stance in the present — justifying its continued relevance and authorizing its voice. Its task, because it has become alienated from the moment in which it lives, is to make us venerate and conform to it.

But such a church loses it power. Memory becomes its currency. Its soul withers from neglect. The result is all too often church services and liturgies that entertain, but lack a spirit that transforms, and preachers who deign for followers instead of fellow travelers in God. The Huffington Post, “The Black Church is Dead.”

I would like to concur with Dr. Glaude, black America is at the precipice. We are experiencing some of the most negative outcomes in our community in the last 30 years. Our unemplpoyment rate is double (in some places triple) the national average, a third of our children are growing up in poverty, our males are the most incarcerated, we experience the highest levels of foreclosure and there is a palpable since of worry about our future.

Most recently, we have seen an instance of evil, that during the 60’s would have had our activated clergy calling for large scale protests. I speak of the unconscionable behaviour of Sen. Jim Bunning (KY).  Who has single-handedly blocked the benefits of thousands of unemployed citizens, caused the immediate furlow (without pay) of some six thousand Federal employees, and ceased the payment of claims to doctors of medicare patients. In it’s day, the outraged leadership of the African American clergy would have mobilized masses of demonstrators to the very doors of the Capitol in protest. Today, we are impotent by our silence, and complacent by the abscence of our action.

I believe the “routinization”, as Glaude so names it, of the black prophetic witness has served to numb the conscience of the young lions of the black church.  Ask yourself, where is the voice of this generations clergy? Who are the Malcolm’s and Martin’s of our time? When Haiti crumbled, who were the prophets calling for the world to attend? I would say you would draw a blank.  There is no great presence, there is no collective sound of the black prophetic conscience sounding from this generations oracles of faith.  This is an indictment to me personally. As a professed voice of the prophetic witness, where have I been? 

But today, I am a voice crying in the wilderness – calling on my brother and sister clergy to once again find it’s voice. Throughout the generations, the black church, and  further the black and spiritual, must refresh itself with the energies of the young if it is to remain a motivating force in our community and the nation.  How does this happen, first by realization.  We must understand that prophetic energy does not come from the ingenuity of an institution, but it is the providence of God to the men and women who realize that fulfillment is found in the pursuit of the good of all, or in the words of Mahatma Ghandi:

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.

I am chastened often by these words to keep hold of my prophetic conscience, but now also to find my voice in the present. 

Secondly, we must have organization. It was by the strength of collective voice that the soldiers of our glorious past forced this country to adhere, in some ways, to it’s better angels; Thirdly, we must have action. The prophetic is never realized in conversation, but in action. 

I challenge those of us of the African diaspora in America who have in some way or form declared themselves a voice to the broken-hearted, the blind or the captive to return to the purpose we have been called, for in all manner of religion we as the interpreters of the day have been set to the purpose of calling all men to be their better selves.

So young preachers, clerics, priests, and grios let us unite again our voices to the cause of the prophetic witness, and that cause remains the same. That we tell all men what is good – that we implore all men to do justice, that we show them how to love kindness, and teach them to walk humbly; and in so doing assert our place in the conversation of this age.

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