“God is raging in the prophet’s words.” ---Abraham Heschel
“You build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say ‘ If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.” Thus you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” ---Jesus (Mt. 23:29-31)
"And you can swallow
Or you can spit
You can throw it up
Or choke on it
And you can dream
So dream out loud
You know that your time is coming ‘round" ---U2, Acrobat
“You cannot invite those children over here. They are black.” The man standing in front of me was the leader of a little church that I worked in right after college. He wielded all of the power. It was a very rural area. I had gone over to the “poor section” and invited children to come over to a church activity we were having and I was being chastised for it. It had never crossed my mind that there might be a problem. It was not 1963. It was 1993, but it was still very much in the heart of the old Confederacy. I only made him angry when I pointed out the fact that the church sent financial support to people who served in Africa. That was different in his mind. That was Africa. This was America, more specifically, his America. I could not resist stating the obvious irony that if those missionaries were successful in Africa then this man would be spending a long time in heaven with black people. “When we’ve been there ten thousand years...” was sung almost every week in that church. If he could spend ten thousand years with black people in heaven, I could not figure out why his grandchildren could not spend an hour with black children at a church function. He looked me in the eye with all of the seriousness of men who are serious about such things and growled, “There will be no black people in heaven.” Except he used another very offensive term to refer to African-Americans. I sputtered and stammered in shock and he continued. “When we get to heaven we will be made like him for we will see him as he is and everyone knows that Jesus was not black.” I had to know just how he knew that Jesus was not black. His reply was, “God is light and in him is no darkness at all.” He was serious. The problem was that he was not some uneducated bumpkin from the sticks. He was a retired insurance salesman and an elected official in the town! It had never occurred to me that people really believed that white missionaries were going to Africa to help make people white one day in heaven and let them practice being Anglo-Saxons until then. After a long argument, he finally conceded that I could invite those children with one qualification. He said, “Just don’t let them play in the back yard. The neighbors who live around the church might see them.” He obviously knew our neighbors better than I did. He was afraid of their racism as only a fellow racist could be. He knew that what was in his heart was also in theirs.
I barely escaped that tradition. It was a hellish nightmare that nearly destroyed my soul. I have encountered racism all of my life. It was present in the school where I was a ministerial student. It was present in my church, neighborhood and the culture I grew up in. I do not remember the struggle for civil rights. Dr. King was murdered before I was born. The world I grew up in was a world that was still reeling from the collision of two storm fronts. One front was the prophetic word. The other was the status quo of “devout” Southern culture. The prophetic word in the Hebrew Scriptures declared that God was not interested in songs and sacrifices. God wanted justice. Worship with a blind eye toward injustice was blasphemy to God, declared those troublesome prophets. No matter “how sweet the sound” of Amazing Grace sung beautifully in Southern churches each week, there was a stain on the very soul of our culture that could not be wiped away with sacred melody. Classic Christian theology teaches that sin cannot be really be dealt with until it is truthfully named, owned and claimed in the process of repentance and reconciliation. Racism is a sin to be repented of. It is not simply a “blind spot” that otherwise good people happen to have. People act as if it is a minor problem like constipation. It is a terminal cancer that devours souls.
Everyone bemoans the silence of God until it is broken. People long to hear God speak. They want to hear the “word of God”…that is, until they finally get it. Then they want to toss it back as if they are playing a holy version of “hot potato.” Prophets are always inconvenient because the prophetic word is a sword. The prophetic proclamation is always bigger than the person speaking it and it is always like lobbing grenades into a fireworks factory. It destroys security and privilege so that justice may sprout and thrive. We love to venerate prophets long after they are gone, but at the time of their visitation “respectable” people want to silence their uncomfortable, radical rumblings. They put them on a cross or assassinate them on a balcony in Memphis.
This photograph is of our local monument to Dr. King. He had long passed away when I had that confrontation with the elderly church leader. That man whose theology of exclusion still held sway in his little fiefdom had lived through the storm currents of Dr. King’s prophetic word. He had heard and chose not to respond. Sadly, he had allowed it to pass over him and he missed the truth. That was then, but as we pause to remember the martyred prophet today, I cannot help but be a little frightful for the church. What uncomfortable prophetic word are we in danger of missing ourselves because it would mess up “the way we have always done” things? We deride the hard hearts of our ancestors a generation ago at our peril if we cannot learn from their mistakes. Abraham Heschel once wrote, “The things that horrified the prophets are even now daily occurrences all over the world.”