On Saturday, September 21, 2013, the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies held the first social justice forum of the 2013-2014 academic year. The Divinity School was honored by the presence of visiting scholar Obery Hendricks, author of The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted. In his lecture titled “The Politics of Jesus: Liberation and Spirituality,” Hendricks argued that Jesus has been depoliticized within the institution of the Church. He challenged us to develop a spiritual response that dismantles our understanding of the popular passive Christ and to construct an interpretation of Christ that requires us to speak and to act against structural sins. Following the lecture, both he and students engaged in a dialogue about our responsibility as church leaders and activists to recreate the Revolutionary Jesus—both within the Church and beyond its four walls—and to respond to the injustices of our day. In response to Hendricks’ lecture and his book on how this misconstrued conception of Jesus has damaged the Black Church, I offer this reflection.
by Brian Anthony Cash, MDiv
The Absence of the Revolutionary Jesus
Historically, the Black Church has earned the reputation of speaking prophetically amidst the oppressive systems within their cultural paradigm. The Black Church has given birth to prominent social justice leaders such as the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., Sojourner Truth, Congressman John Lewis, Dorothy Height, and other leaders who have emerged from the Black Church tradition. The Black Church has been a leading force in the world, influencing neighborhoods and communities since its emergence from the silent hours of worship in the hush harbors of slave plantations; however, I am deeply concerned with the current state of the Black Church.
My concern for this transformative institution develops from the hermeneutical lens which has altered the character of Jesus. The gradual alteration of the character of Christ has progressively silenced the prophetic voice in the Black Church. In his book The Politics of Jesus, Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., professor of Biblical interpretation at New York Theological Seminary, expounds upon the dangerous ground one treads when the true image of the revolutionary Jesus is transformed to a passive mild-mannered teacher. My concern, therefore, for the Black Church hinges on the damage caused by a hermeneutic of Jesus which anesthetizes the Church’s prophetic voice in the twenty-first century.
As a result of the Black Church’s prophetic voice being silenced, systems of oppression continue to thrive and flourish in the same communities where these churches are located. Ironically, the silence of the Black Church’s prophetic voice has consequently given birth to the voice of passivity to injustices and violence to love. Hendricks argues that religious leaders have spoken against homosexuality, abortion, and other religious issues; however, these same religious leaders are silent on issues of world poverty, gun violence, and other social ills which plague the people who fill the pews in their churches.
When the Church is afforded the opportunity to revolt against destructive laws, such as “stand your ground,” the Church is silent. Within this silence, the Trayvon Martins of the world are murdered without adequate justice being served while the George Zimmermans of the world can murder and live absent from retribution.
The Black Church’s apathy toward social injustices and oppressive systems connect with the Church’s tainted view of the revolutionary Jesus. Preaching about a nonpolitical Jesus results in valuing the spiritual over the physical. In his book Spirituality and Liberation, the American theologian and activist Robert McAfee Brown calls this dilemma the “Great Fallacy” whereby the sacred becomes separated from the political; moreover, the Great Fallacy arises from an image of the passive Jesus who accepts Roman dominance and acquiesces to an oppressive culture. A docetic ideology permeates the Black Church’s methodology for operating in ministry .The consequences of a passive nonresistant Jesus plague our awareness and aptness to act in the face of injustices in the world. False interpretations of Jesus’ turning the other check, rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and other passages of Scripture that support the non-revolutionary Jesus are destructive to the true image of Christ. The prophetic voice of the Black Church; consequently, remains silent because the individuals who assume leadership roles have skewed the image of Christ.