By Marvin A. McMickle, Ph.D.,
President, Professor of Church Leadership, Director of the Program of Black Church Studies at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School
I recently wrote a review for a book entitled, The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope by Wendell Griffen. Griffen is both a Baptist pastor and preacher, and a Circuit Judge in the State of Arkansas. He begins his book with as clear a description as can be found concerning the challenges set before those of us who are engaged in Christian ministry today. He raises this question: How do you preach the gospel of Jesus during and after the presidency of Donald Trump? What should preachers be saying while immigrants fleeing death and suffering around the world are being told that the welcome doors of this nation of immigrants has been slammed shut in their faces? What should we be saying while the Affordable Care Act is being killed with no replacement for the health care of 20 million people anywhere in sight? What do we say when our president makes the absolutely ludicrous claim that he lost the popular vote because 3 to 5 million people voted illegally? Which, by the way, is something that nobody in the world believes except Donald Trump? What do you say when Trump said that Mexico was going to pay for his border wall, and then announced that he wanted the funds to come from U.S. taxpayers, and that Mexico would reimburse us at a later date?
What should you and I be saying when people in The White House are talking about the use of “alternative facts?” How do we preach when Trump has approved the building of a pipeline owned by a foreign country that will be shipping oil to foreign ports, and that will most certainly have oil spills that will impact the water supply for at least 8 states? What part of the gospel comes to your mind when the President of the United States goes on TV and lies about the media saying that the CIA started the notion that they were behaving like Nazi Germany, when those words came from his own Tweets? What do we say when he lies about the murder rate in Philadelphia, or the size of the crowd at his inauguration, or that he and the Mexican president agreed to postpone their meeting after the Mexican president had earlier announced that he was not coming because of Trump’s insulting Tweets?
What do you say as a preacher when people all over the world are already wondering whether they can believe anything that comes out of the mouth of the President of the United States?
What do you say when the leader of the free world is openly talking about his desire to use torture in the interrogation of prisoners? What do you say when the president and a room full of old men stand around signing an executive order that denies federal aid to any country that even gives women advice and council about birth women’s reproductive rights? How do you preach when the Commander in Chief of our armed forces removes the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, our nation’s highest ranking military leader, and replaces him with an avowed white nationalist named Steve Bannon who has absolutely no foreign policy experience whatsoever? What do you say as a preacher when people all over the world are already wondering whether they can believe anything that comes out of the mouth of the President of the United States?
Wendell Griffen has set a challenge before all of us, but especially before those of you whose ministries are just beginning during the Trump presidency. What should we be preaching while Donald Trump is president? By the way, everything I just mentioned happened in just his first week in office. Only God knows what other insanities and absurdities Donald Trump is yet to unleash. We are living at a time when a narcissistic, thin-skinned, pathological liar with zero political experience, surrounded by the least experienced Cabinet in United States history is acting and speaking on our behalf.
What should preachers say when the vast majority of the members of Congress in both parties are saying nothing publicly, or are falling in line with Trump to protect their political careers. What should preachers of the gospel say when Steve Bannon has announced that members of the news media should “keep their mouths shut” and when he also declares that the news media is “the opposition party?” Think of it, Donald Trump is cozying up to Vladimir Putin and the Russians while declaring a war on CNN, ABC, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Associated Press.
There really are only two options set before us. On the one hand, we can do what Steve Bannon told the news media to do; keep our mouths shut. We can say and do nothing. We can look the other way while one national value after another is sacrificed on the altar of alternative facts. We can let Kelly Anne Conway, and Sean Spicer, and Reince Priebus, and Donald Trump lie to us every day; even when they know they are lying or when they have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. Or we can heed the words of Jesus from Revelation 2:8-10 that says, “Be faithful unto death, a and I will give you a crown of life.
Do not be compliant. Do not be accepting. Do not be passive. Be faithful. Preach about justice. Preach about the equal worth of all human lives. Remind the world that God’s favorite song is not “God Bless America.”
Be faithful is my charge to every CRCDS student, alumni, faculty member, staff member, Trustee and donor. Be faithful is the charge of Jesus to every preacher and teacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Be faithful is my charge to everyone who loves and exalts the name of Jesus Christ. In this world of alternative facts and fictional numbers, be faithful. When a group of mostly old white men stand around the Oval Office deciding what is in the best interest of the United States, be faithful. When the single-most ill-prepared person in American history is now serving as our President, do not be silent. Do not be compliant. Do not be accepting. Do not be passive. Be faithful. Preach about justice. Preach about the equal worth of all human lives. Remind the world that God’s favorite song is not “God Bless America.” God’s favorite song is “He’ Got the Whole World in His Hands.” Be faithful. In the face of racism, be faithful. In the face of religious bigotry, be faithful. When old men are telling young women what must be done concerning reproductive choice, be faithful. When walls to keep people out are being built in a nation almost entirely comprised of the descendants of immigrants, be faithful. Be faithful to what it means to be an American. Be faithful to what it means to be a compassionate human being. Be faithful to what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. Be faithful!
It may be risky to stand up and speak out during the coming weeks and months. But silence is not an option. We face the same choice that German Christians faced in the 1930s Most of them looked the other way, kept their mouths shut, fell in line with National Socialism, and by their silence gave consent to everything that happened in Europe between 1937 and 1945. But a few of them resisted, remained faithful, authored the Barmen Declaration, exalted Christ above the political chaos of their time; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, Gerhard Ebeling, Rudolph Bultmann. Those are not just names on a course syllabus. Those are persons who remained faithful in the face of death!
I am convinced that what we are facing today is nothing less than a second Post-Reconstruction period. As you may remember, the Reconstruction was that period in U.S. history between 1865-1876 when it seemed as if the doors of opportunity were opening for those who had endured the evils of slavery. The 13the Amendment was adopted that essentially ended slavery in this country. The 14th Amendment was adopted that guaranteed equal protection under the law for all people in this country. The 15th Amendment was adopted that guaranteed to black males the right to vote. Think of the irony of that; black men who had been born and raised in slavery could vote even though their former white female owners were not! With that right to vote more than 2000 black people were elected to office at the local, county, state, and federal levels. A black preacher named Hiram Revels was appointed by the Mississippi State Legislature to serve in the United States Senate; occupying the seat last held by Jefferson Davis who resigned to become President of the Confederacy. The future seemed amazingly bright for the freedmen.
Then, in one of the ugliest moments in U.S. political history, the election of 1876 was so close that the House of Representatives had to decide who would be the next president. In order to win support from Southern legislators, Rutherford B. Hayes promised that if he were chosen he would remove all the Union soldiers from the South and turn power in those states over to those who had formerly been Confederate soldiers and slaveholders. He was selected, and he kept his promise. Voting rights for blacks were stripped away. All legal protections were removed. A brutal form of white supremacy enforced by whips, guns, beatings, burnings, lynchings, and an amazingly silent church settled over this country for the next 80 years. Post-Reconstruction was the undoing of all the progress made between 1865 and 1876.
I do believe we are heading into a second Post-Reconstruction era. I viewed the election of Barack Obama as a kind of second Reconstruction. I was a voting delegate to the Democratic Convention in Denver in 2008. I was there when Hillary Clinton called for the delegates to choose Barack Obama by acclamation. I was there when he accepted the nomination in the football stadium used by the Denver Broncos. I was there when a predominantly white nation elected an African American to be the President of the United States. I am now 68 years old, and I never dreamed that such a thing would happen in my lifetime, but it did. In fact, it happened twice, in 2008 and again in 2012. I was as hopeful as anyone that America was about to move into the fullest expression of equality and opportunity for all.
Now look at where we are less than ten years later. Voting rights are already under attack in states across the country. Laws are being introduced in states across this country that would allow people to use their car to run over peaceful protesters who are blocking traffic as part of a non-violent demonstration without facing any criminal prosecution. There were people at the March for Life last week who not only wanted to have Roe v. Wade reversed, but they also want to outlaw the use of birth control pills. The progress we were making under President Obama on climate change, nuclear weapons, immigration policies, and so much more has largely been halted in Trump’s first week in office.
Desmond Tutu of South Africa was not loved by F.W. De Klerk when he called for an end to apartheid. Oscar Romero was not beloved by the regime in El Salvador when he spoke on behalf of the poor and oppressed in his country. Martin Luther King, Jr. lost the friendship of Lyndon Johnson when he spoke out against the Viet Nam War.
What are you going to preach and teach and say during the next four years? I hope you will stand on the challenge of Jesus to be faithful unto death. It is not the task of preachers to be politically correct or personally popular with politicians and policy makers. Moses was not best friends with Pharaoh. Samuel did not sip tea with Saul. Nathan stood up to David. Elijah was not loved by Ahab and Jezebel. Jeremiah was not on the invitation list of Zedekiah. Herod Antipas did not heap praise on John the Baptist. Pontius Pilate did not step in to save his dear friend, Jesus. We are not called to be silent, or compliant, or tolerant of evil, or obliging of ignorance, or mute in the face of misery. To be silent in response to evil is to be irrelevant when discussing any other topic. Desmond Tutu of South Africa was not loved by F.W. De Klerk when he called for an end to apartheid. Oscar Romero was not beloved by the regime in El Salvador when he spoke on behalf of the poor and oppressed in his country. Martin Luther King, Jr. lost the friendship of Lyndon Johnson when he spoke out against the Viet Nam War.
At some point in your ministry the prophets must stop being characters from ancient Israel that you read about in text books. At some point the prophetic spirit must take root inside of you and me. We must be the ones who say, “Here am I, send me.” Here in Rochester we must stop admiring the courage of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass and start acting and sounding like them. I come again to the words from Wendell Griffen, “what will we say during the presidency of Donald Trump?”
Has it occurred to you how few people in the church are saying anything right now? Not one leader of a black national church body has issued a public statement. Nothing has come from the American Baptist Church or the Southern Baptist Convention, or any other national Christian community except for a wonderful statement about immigration policy from J. Herbert Nelson who is the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church USA.
Where is Joyce Meyer, or T.D. Jakes, or Joel Osteen or any other televangelist who always have so much to say about “living our best lives now?”
I find it odd that national church leaders have so much time to discuss whether women should preach, but they have nothing to say about this. They have so much to say about homosexuality, but nothing to say about this. Where is Joyce Meyer, or T.D. Jakes, or Joel Osteen or any other televangelist who always have so much to say about “living our best lives now?” Where are they when a prophetic word is needed? Where are the liberation theologians who are always quoting “Go down Moses?” Where are the Womanist scholars when women’s rights are being attacked? Now is not the time for a lecture in a classroom. Now is the time to use every public platform available to us to stand up and be heard. Be faithful! Now is not the time to vent our frustrations at cocktail parties and around our dinner tables at home. Now is the time to borrow a line from the movie Network and cry out as loud as we can: I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any longer.
Here is what Jesus tells us to do; be faithful unto death. Do not be content to be outspoken in your pulpit every Sunday, be faithful every day and everywhere. Do not worry about being prosperous. Do not fret about being popular. Do not spend time being successful according to worldly standards. “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses his soul.” Do not get caught up in church politics. Do not spend more time inside your church than you do lobbying for what is right. Be faithful! Don’t just be tenured, be faithful. What good is it to be a distinguished professor if you are not prepared to be faithful when the world needs you most.
Remember that entrenched power always tries to push back. One of the great parallels to the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction is the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation. The Reformation that began almost 500 years ago, was an attempt to reclaim authentic biblical faith around the principles of the authority of scripture over the authority of the Pope, and salvation by faith in Christ rather than salvation through any works or penance assigned by a priest. Most of us know the names Of Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, John Knox and Ulrich Zwingli. Things were moving along beginning in 1519, but there was an almost immediate push-back from the Roman Catholic Church and from Catholic monarchs in Spain and other countries to restore the old order. A thirty-year war was fought in Europe driven, at least in part by those two competing forces. During all that stood Martin Luther at the so-called Diet of Worms in 1521. When ordered by the Pope to recant his views, Luther simply said, “Here I stand. I can do no other.” He was excommunicated by the Pope, but Luther was faithful to Jesus Christ.
Now it is time for preachers in the era of Donald Trump to do the same. You may never get invited to the White House or to Trump Tower, but you will receive the crown of life. That is more than enough reward for me.