Prophets rarely fare well in their own historical setting. Their clarity of vision disturbs the nonchalance with which most people engage their personal context. Prophets scrutinize those policies and practices that most of us blithely ignore, and they shine the light of justice into the dark corners.
I visited the New Millennium Baptist Church in Little Rock on Sunday, and I saw prophetic witness in action. This gathered community welcomes everyone and relishes the diversity that comprises the congregation. They have boldly decided that they would reject prejudice in every form and that their community would be free of patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism, and fundamentalism. People can bring the whole of themselves into that community and find acceptance. As the final preacher in the Martha Stearns Marshall emphasis on women preaching, that was indeed my experience.
It is not surprising that it is a small congregation; many folks are just plain scared of that much grace and of finding common humanity with radical otherness. We too often scurry into our little tribes and presume that our culture is the normative one. This congregation describes itself as “inclusive, progressive, welcoming followers of Jesus Christ.” This requires mature cultural competency.
The founding visionary of this church is Wendell Griffen, distinguished jurist and gospel preacher. Recently he published The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope, a call to followers of Jesus to ponder what discipleship looks like during and after the presidency of Donald J. Trump. The Rev. Dr. Griffen’s distressing conundrum is this: “how President Trump’s political support by people who self-identify as evangelical followers of Jesus can be reconciled with the love and justice imperatives of the religion of Jesus.” He calls us beyond “moral and ethical dwarfism” to prophetic hope, which Scripture richly funds.
Long a critic of the prison-industrialist-capitalist complex, Griffen warns of the ethos of expendability fueled by the American empire. Immigrants, sexual minorities, persons of color, the poor, women, faith traditions other than Christian, and persons suffering chronic illness are all at risk in the new political reality. The resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism are evident; emboldened hatred of others is part of the social landscape. Prophetic witness calls this out and refuses to let it go unanswered.
Returning to the city where I lived from 1976-1979 surfaced many feelings. I had served an all-white church, lived in an all-white neighborhood, and knew too little about the rich black culture of the city. Being a part of an upper-middle class church, I was oblivious to the abyss of poverty many endured. As beneficiary of educational privilege, I was insulated from the limited vocational options afforded the under-educated. Thankfully, I see more clearly now.
Prophetic witness requires us to be awake to the real circumstances we inhabit. As followers of Jesus, there is a fierce urgency for us to work for the common good. Our time summons us out of Christian quietism to public advocacy for justice.
Molly T. Marshall
Central prepares creative leaders to make an impact for good in diverse ministry contexts.