Pastor as Prophet
Two weeks ago I had the privilege of visiting Memphis, TN for an honoring of the late, great, Martin Luther King Jr. As I have mentioned before in a previous post, the race relations topic has been on my mind and heart ever since the race riots in Charlottesville took place nearly 8 months ago. Shortly after the incident, I invested many hours reading some of King’s works, including Letter from Birmingham Jail.
I saw something in Charlottesville that I could not unsee. I saw the face of injustice and oppression, and it could have been my twin. My racial sins are different than the rioters, but I had to acknowledge that they still existed. I believe Dr. King’s letter spoke to me directly when he said, “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
So I’ve been on a journey. A journey of learning, reading, writing, thinking, praying and seeking the Lord’s wisdom to know what I can do. What does non-violent direct action look like for a 26-year-old white, privileged pastor, at a predominately white, upper-middle-class church in Orlando?
Which brings us to today. As I sat in the middle of a crowded auditorium in Memphis, surrounded by 4,000 other people, I listened to two voices: one black and one white, coalesce to rebuke “the appalling silence of the good people.” Dr. Russell Moore and Dr. Charlie Dates preached with profound conviction, prophetically, as they brought the message of God’s justice and righteousness to white evangelicals. (To learn more about the word evangelical and how it has changed, even recently, go here or here.)
Moore’s passage of choice was Matthew 23, in which Jesus rebukes the Jews for saying that they would have never treated the prophets like their fathers did. Their fathers had killed the prophets when they called them out for their idolatry. (This, in fact, will be the crowd that eventually puts Jesus to death on a cross, killing the very prophet who is far better than Jeremiah, whom their fathers killed.) Of prophets, Moore said, “We are comfortable to honor prophets when they aren’t able to speak anymore.” The Jews were able to honor a prophet like Jeremiah and decorate his grave when he was long gone because he could not meddle in their lives any longer.
The church runs the same risk this week as we honor the life and death of the late great MLK Jr. In his time, pastors in the South saw him as a threat to the status quo and continually asked him to be patient, to not push so hard, to wait for justice to come on its own. We look back now and say that we would have stood with King on the side of Justice and yet, we now sit 50 years later with more African American men incarcerated, higher unemployment, and an increasing rate of broken families. King was right: “human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.”
So what should I do as a white evangelical? What should we do as a majority, white, evangelical congregation? We honor this prophet now that he is dead, but have we heard his message? Have we internalized the words of his letters and sermons to the point that we recognize that they are dripping with truth, God’s truth, and that as such it has authority over us? It is easy to honor the idea of Martin Luther King Jr. and the symbol of freedom that he is in America. We give subtle nods to his influence (have you ever been in a city that didn’t have a street named after him?) and yet issues like mass incarceration, minimum sentencing, social class segregation, and police brutality remain pieces of the fabric of our culture.
So we must ask ourselves: how similar are our sins to that of our fathers? Are we, as a group of white evangelicals, guilty of continued apathy? Have we sought to maintain the status quo, “more devoted to order than to justice; [preferring] a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice” (MLK). Have we turned a blind eye to injustice because it does not affect “our people”?
Who, exactly, are our people? Need we be reminded that the Kingdom of God, when seen in its fullness, will not look a whole lot like our sanctuary on Sunday mornings? Not because there will be no white people present, but because there will be a beautiful mosaic of every tribe, tongue, people, and nation crowded around the throne of grace praising God and unveiling his glory and the beauty found in all the peoples of the earth.
The religious leaders of Jesus’ time struggled with this same question. One particular expert of the law asked Jesus, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus answered by sharing one of our most treasured parables, The Good Samaritan. With this parable, Jesus tore down a longstanding view on the racial division between Jews and Gentiles (Samaritans). The assumptions of the religious leader were shattered, in assuming only his fellow Jew was his neighbor. In his piety and self-proclaimed righteousness, he thought God preferred the Jew over the Gentile. The truth is, God prefers everyone made in his image.
Who is your neighbor? Who are your people?
As believers, every tribe, tongue, people, and nation are our people.
Dr. Dates reminded us in his sermon that seeking justice and righteousness is, in fact, the very cause that Jesus took up. Romans reminds us that Jesus, through his death on the cross was both our justifier and brought about perfect justice. As we are united to Christ, justice and righteousness is our cause too. He went on to remind us that African Americans have long turned to the white evangelicals of this nation asking that they leverage their privilege and join their voices to those who have less of a voice or no voice at all. Sadly, we have not answered the call. Can we repent of our silence? Can we be humble enough to be told of our own blind spots? Will we be moved enough by the message of our King to allow our assumptions of racial tensions to be challenged and possibly dismantled?
We stand here, 50 years later, holding the same prophetic message in hand with the same marching orders. Take up the cause of justice and righteousness for all those who are stamped with the image of God… all people. Be resolute in your decision to keep your eyes open and alert to injustice in your city and your community and be prepared to take action. Build relationships, learn the history, study the policies, read the research, become aware. Figure out what you can do and take up the mantle, pick up the burden of your non-white brothers and sisters. Perhaps then these next 50 years will make a difference. I pray we'll look back and see that the 50-year celebration of Dr. King’s life was a watershed moment, propelling us into a new day of freedom, love, and unity.
As a pastor and a shepherd of the flock at First Pres, part of my role is to give voice to God’s enduring commitment to justice and righteousness so that echo of his precept reverberates in the hearts of all those that I have the privilege of shepherding. Like the prophets of old, God uses pastors to reveal the idols of his people through the preaching of his word. This mantle of mine may mean you and I may disagree on some things. In the end, you may hate me, but I cannot with a clear conscience know the truth and keep it to myself. The Gospel truth that MLK Jr. brought to bear on the American people has stood the test of time not because they were his words, but because it was and is God’s truth. Human dignity, justice that eradicates oppression, love, and unity… these are enduring ideas because they reflect the character of God.
Tanner Fox is the Minister for Mission at First Pres. He’s a recent grad of Reformed Theological Seminary and holds deep affection for people, movies, sports and Jesus Christ. As Minister for Mission, he leads the charge to help you love and serve the city and the world. firstname.lastname@example.org