The book of Jonah is an interesting one. We find the story of a reluctant prophet who would rather see an entire nation of people destroyed than receive the mercy of the Lord. We see an individual with a divine mandate intentionally attempt to not carry out that mandate. The prophet Jonah boards a ship heading in another direction gets entangled in a storm that forces him to admit his flawed attempt to evade ministry, and eventually gets him the in belly of a large fish that forces him to rethink his relationship and purpose with God. Jonah is indeed one good read. I have found myself in Jonah’s shoes on a number of occasions. I had rather see some persons retained in their messy affairs of life than deal with the mandate of God to minister to them.
What is disturbing about Jonah isn’t that he was swallowed by a large fish or that he reluctantly repents and carries out his mission. What is disturbing to me is the way the book ends. It ends so abruptly. Jonah speaks as if he were the biggest disappointment to his call as a prophet of Jehovah. He had been sitting outside of the city of Nineveh angry at God and himself for feeling as if he had been manipulated by God into carrying out God’s mission. He had understood God’s mercy and benevolence towards mankind. He had experienced firsthand when he was on the boat headed to Tarshish and after he had been thrown into the sea and swallowed by a large fish. In spite of all of this, even though he was repentant and grateful, he was still reluctant.
For many, reluctance is a big burden of ministry. Those who have been in ministry long enough have encountered individuals they were reluctant to minister to. While there are plenty who rejoice in being called to prison ministry, pastoral care ministry, and especially the pastoral ministry, there are more who are very reluctant to serve “the least of these.” Service requires both the desire to go and the need to follow. What Jonah experienced was nothing short of simply being human. Reluctance is more present in ministry than many pastors and church members would care to admit. It can be challenging when confronting our own biases and prejudices about those we are commanded to serve and minister to.
What makes Jonah’s narrative interesting is the way he confronts God about regarding His immediate compassion upon seeing the Ninevites turn from their evil way. I would argue that there are plenty of clergy just like Jonah. We would rather see God’s judgment and condemnation on people we have deemed undeserving of His grace. Perhaps this is more succinctly seen in contemporary political and religious freedom movements. There are those standing by their right to religious freedom condemning others choosing to express the same. It is destructive and does not demonstrate the character of God to non-believers.
Another interesting thing about this narrative is that while Nineveh likely had early connections to the ancient Jews, that connection had long been lost by the time of Jonah’s mission there. The question then becomes why did Jehovah even desire for them to hear from Him and repent? It was clear that the great city of Nineveh was enjoying prosperity without God and He apparently tolerated it for generations. This could have contributed to Jonah’s reluctance. Think about the number of times pastors have preached in communities infested with crime of all kinds and not one person responds to the invitation to abundant life (not even after funerals lol). Yet immediately after hearing the cry from the reluctant prophet about an imminent overthrow of their great city in 40 days, they all believed God from the youngest to the oldest. Even the king made it a public law that everyone cries out mightily to God so that His anger would be turned away from them. If only people would heed that message now and produce similar reaction, what a marvelous change this country and world would see!
In spite of Jonah’s reluctance, the people still received. It begs the question of how much our reluctance matters when it comes to God’s mission. We may feel like pawns in God’s game of repentance, but ultimately what He desires for individuals gets accomplished. We may go into and come away from a divine ministry assignment throwing a big tantrum, but the reality is we are still being used to the glory of God the Father. Reluctance in ministry does not take away the need for ministry. There will be moments in service to the Father that we will utterly despise, but when the seed has been planted, watered, and grows, it will be one that will bring forth fruit for generations to come.
Recently, the New Republic magazine published an essay that created frenzy within the black public intellectual community. The Rev. Dr. Michael Eric Dyson published a 10,000-word essay lambasting his former friend and mentor, Dr. Cornel West. Dr. Dyson lamented Dr. West’s descent into irrational outburst of public disdain against President Barack Obama. The essay establishes the formidable voices these two black intellectuals have forged over the last two decades of American history. Dyson writes that West’s influence has not only waned, but has run its course in the annals of black prophetic voices in the 20th and 21st centuries.
Both men rose to prominence as notable voices of the hip-hop generation, speaking against the powers that be. They became the new voices of a different timbre of black liberation theology. Both men are deeply rooted in the black religious experience. Dyson is an ordained Baptist minister who has pastored and now lectures and teaches across the country. West is the son of a preacher, and while not in ordained ministry of any capacity, has been recognized as a prophetic voice on race, gender, social, and religious matters. Both are prolific authors (I own several of their books) and are highly esteemed by the hip-hop community culture as gurus and prophets. Indeed both have contributed to the storied fables and rhetorical synopses of the hip hop culture by either the spoken word genre (West has released several spoken word albums) or the dissection of hip-hop icons (Dyson has written several articles and books icons such as Tupac Shakur). However, their biggest connection is that both esteem Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as a modern day prophet and seek to fill the void of his prophetic voice that was lost after his assassination.
While both Dyson and West have created for themselves a large public sphere for their intellectual prowess and prognostication, much of what they say and write remains largely unknown to many Black Americans. West rocketed to fame with his book “Race Matters” the seminal piece of writing that has continued to generate the main thinking points for contemporary racial thought. Dyson’s articulate, incredibly rapid speech filled with the highest of eloquent words, and swift cadence captures the ears of black and white listeners alike. Both still fail to connect to the general body of black believers, the faithful churchgoers who have yet to be liberated from an over-idealized existence in the faith of the black church and its religious experience. In that sense, both seem not to matter to the Master of their souls.
It is from this perspective that the “beef” between Dyson and West as exposed in the article is an elegy to the authentic prophetic voice that the Black church and community needs. What made the voices of James and Cecil Cone, King, Gardner C. Taylor, Howard Thurman, E.V. Hill, C.A.W. Clark, Leon Sullivan, and others is that they spoke to the masses and the master under the prophetic unction of an oppressed people. They have been revered as pillars of black faith and social empowerment. Both Dyson and West’s voice have been sullied by the esteem given them by the very media that once denied those aforementioned giants seats at the table (though to be fair, the American has become a different beast since the time of some of the aforementioned preachers). Dyson and West have both been the go-to scholars for the media to help bring that tense intellectual edge to matters that affect Black America. For some, Dyson and West represent the best and brightest of minds and voices in the Black community. For others, Dyson and West represent sell-outs who no longer authentically connect to the world or the people they speak for. For this writer, Dyson and West present only a pericope of the black intellectual prophetic voices that are yearning to engage on the same platform. Dyson and West only matter to the masters of the airwaves and not the Master of the “souls of Black folks.” When the prophetic voice becomes mainstream, it can no longer be prophetic. It becomes nothing more than a minstrel show. When the prophetic voice creates dissension among those to whom it has given. It loses its authenticity and power. When one prophetic voice uses the element that helped to shape it as an attack against another, it becomes nothing more than sounding brass and tinkling cymbals.
We are in need of authentic prophetic voices in the black community. We are in dire need of black intellectuals who are unafraid to once again proclaim what “thus says the Lord” to the masters of this American universe. We are in need of scholars who can help reshape the black mind into the great one it once was. While both Dyson and West will still share space in the amphitheater of public intellectuals, their fates have been sealed as nothing more than media puppets whose voice is no longer prophetic but leaning more towards pathetic.
I find it interesting that 50 years after most of the pinnacle moments of the civil rights movement in American history are on the brink of destruction because of events such as the shooting of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO. Black men have been killed either by accident or by force by white police officers for a very long time. Cities are poised for riots and black people are crying racism all across the land.
This made me wonder if Americans are suffering from some kind of racial nostalgia. Nostalgia is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “the pleasure or sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.” It is as if we want to go back in history and experience the marches protests and tensions of the civil rights movement. Young black people want to see justice but they have no idea what justice really looks like. Older black adult want to have a sense of justification for what they condemn as white racism against young black men. It is as if those who were not in the movement are getting a second chance at the movement.
Of course, this is not beneficial to the country at all. It only creates a greater sense of angst and disgust among black and white races. It is as if we want the tension to continue instead of creating an environment where it does not exist. The longer we continue to bring up the issue of race the longer we will live in an age where race matters more than being compassionate humans.
The reality is that there is more racial tension now than it was 50 years ago. We are creating an atmosphere where race is as dangerous as any nuclear device could ever be toward the destruction of this country. There is no solution as how to bring about an end to this nostalgia, but we must be vigilant to stop creating the environment for that destruction. We must target the media outlets that continue to maintain the undercurrent of racial tension. We must demand greater accountability from leader to not incur more racial tension. We must demand that both races realize that we have achieved more together than we have ever done apart.
We must remember the past and acknowledge the very bad things that happened. We must move forward and not live in the nostalgia that keeps us in bondage. The Ferguson fiasco only brings to light a false reality that media and others are creating with the hope of maintaining a strong delusion of progress through protests. We err on the side of nostalgia when we continue to attempt to recreate actions and passions of our ancestors and mother’s when we should be putting our hands to the plow and not looking back.
I grew up hearing the rhetoric of the coming race war and from what I am seeing now, I believe we are not far from one. I love my country and I love my race, but the nostalgia must go. There is absolutely nothing that can be done to change the past. If we learned anything from the Reconstruction Period in American history, it is this: Blacks and whites in the country learned that to be a great country, we had to be a great people. We had to be Americans first. This state of nostalgic tension could possibly leave this country in a very desolate place that it may not recover from.
Domestic Violence is a very serious offense. We hear stories of tragedy and triumph and the will to survive from both men and women who have been victims of domestic violence. The recent news of a professional athlete abusing his spouse is nothing new. What makes this different is the fact that the leadership in professional sports are finally starting to speak up against their players. The release of a horrific video depicting a black professional athlete knocking his fiancé out cold only adds to the concern of black athletes and the prestige of domestic violence.
Twenty years ago, America witnessed O. J. Simpson, one of its athletic heroes become the primary person of interest in a double homicide. Simpson went from being a beloved athlete and actor to the spark that ignited debates about black athlete’s prestige. This prestige was not only one of wealth accumulated but of a disconnect from the common vestiges of the regular black man. This prestige is one of alienation from the consequences the average black man endures resulting from decisions made out of anger or frustration. This prestige drew a big line of distinction between those who were the investments of billionaires and those black men who were the discarded and dejected of society. The prestige allowed professional football athletes to all but get away with murder. We saw it with, Adam “Pac Man” Jones, Ray Carruth, and even the legendary Jim Brown. These men succeeded in the game on the field, but failed in the game of life.
We have made professional athletes into role models for our young black children. Parents put their hopes in dreams of a talented player making it to the big leagues. Some parents only lightly address some of the aggressions their boys manifest while playing sports. While it is true that this aggression is good on the football field, the basketball court, the baseball field, or the wrestling mat, it is not good for interaction with others outside of those arenas. Young black men develop this aggression early and when not properly assessed and treated, it carries over into the relationships with females. This often ends in acts of domestic violence that destroys the lives of all involved.
Not even a century ago, it was the intent of professional sports promoters and team owners did all they could to keep black men off their teams. We had leagues of our own where we were able to manage and control our players with dignity. Players carried the pride of all Blacks on their shoulders. They were afraid to do anything that would bring shame to not only them but also the entire black race. They mastered the art of concealment and discretion better than some politicians did. Black team leaders and owners understood the value of the player’s integrity, skill, and talent. There is a great disconnect today. Today’s black players are nothing more than expensive investments beginning as young as Pops Warner and AAU leagues.
As long as this exploitation continues, we will likely see black athletes excel on the playing field while exploiting the privilege they have as celebrities and investments. To counter this, we must be vigilant in helping young black find means to address their aggression. Just as we educate them about the perils of street and thug life, we must do so with them regarding the value of the female life. We must educate them of how the smallest incident of aggression against a female can do enough damage and follow them throughout their lives. While we do not want parents to dissuade their children from pursuing professional sports careers, but in the process, help them understand the pitfalls of achieving that goal. Our black male children are seeing what they have been told are role models fall into the pit of diminished life because of their acts of violence and aggression. We must be vigilant if we want to see the patterns of privileged domestic violence stop so that we can create a new pattern of privileged love and honor from our black men.
I’ve been watching a lot of young preachers on television and on the internet via youtube, myspace, etc. and have become a bit discouraged and upset. I will be the first to admit that I am somewhat of an ambitious preacher. I would love to have a large media ministry that is doing well. I would love to have my photo done professionally and placed on flyers as a featured speaker at a large conference. I would love to promote my church as one of the fastest growing in my denomination or city or state or country. I would love to flaunt my expensive appearance with matching outfits, nice SUVS or luxury vehicles. However after seeing all that alot of these young men an women do to get ahead, I realized that they all had three things in common:
Name Dropping, Extraordinary Reflections, and Uninhibited selling of their souls.
First, in order to make it big, you have to know somebody big. I think of my acquaintance with Smokie Norful. I’ve known Smokie since college and his father is my mentor. Im sure that if I were really ambitious, I could build on the fact that I know he and his father alone to selfishly promote my ministry. I’ve had the privilege of meeting several highly recognized ministry personalities personally on more than one occasion. That’s how people who are looking to make it in Hollywood or the secular music industry get stuff done for them. They drop names of who they’ve worked with (no matter how good or bad) to advance their careers. Even while in graduate school, I learned that its to one’s advantage professionally to name the major professor you studied under. Name dropping really can help your case for promotion. It doesn’t matter if you are good, most people won’t really do background checks on their preachers. They go by the preacher’s word and that preacher’s word may be based on simply a name they dropped to get them where they wanted.
Next there is the all to well known reflecting. I use the word reflecting in the same sense that I use the word storytelling. Everyone has a story to tell and it isnt the story itself but how you tell the story that will make you or break you. For example, I share the story of my mother being killed when I was five years old. The story I share is consistent with the facts that have been shared with me from family and documents. I have no need to exaggerate because there really isn’t anything to exaggerate about. However, I could use that same story of how I survived as a victim of domestic violence and overcame the difficulties of post traumatic stress disorder to discover God in the midst of tragedy. That put a very different twist on my story. THere are many preachers with great stories of triumph, but there are even more with borrowed stories of triumph. One news reporter stated that when there is no new, simply make it up. You wouldn’t believe how many preachers borrow stories or simply make them up. The same borrow reflections or simply make them up. This is found heavily in the charismatic, word of faith, pentecostal type churches. When people are seeking for extra-biblical experiences to justify their religious experience, they will be sure to be duped by preachers claiming to have had them. There are just too many preachers who have duped people through false revelations and experiences and have profited from them. I pray I never get to that point, but I can tell you that I have sure been tempted to blow the trumpet of heaven, talk with angels and Jesus, raise dead to life. and a whole lot of stuff. I’ve also been tempted, no let me be honest, have borrowed the stories of others to make my life and my ministry seem more appealing. It wasn’t hard to do. All I simply had to do was tell a story. I didn’t have say whether it was personal or even true. I had the upper hand and knew that about 99% of the people listening to me were not going to take the time out to investigate anything that came out of my mouth! That in itself is a very scary thing to know.
Lastly, there are so many preachers who unashamedly and unabashedly promote themselves while selling their souls. They sell their souls to the very world that they have been called to preach against. Think about how many preachers are becoming mainstream and calling themselves life coaches. Let’s be honest, no one needs a life coach! We just need to repent of sin and then get into a productive and intimate relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Self-promotion gets a person nowhere fast (at least with God). I watch television and get virtually sick to my stomach sometimes as I watch preachers shamelessly promote their latest book (which is nothing wrong if it is enabling Christians to become liberated, independent thinkers) or product. I would think that as preachers, we would learn that Jesus nor any biblical apostle or messenger profited from their message (except the ones who did it for profit such as Balaam and other false prophets). I understand producing quality messages for the sick and shut, a shifting church membership and other things, but to do it just to be seen, Christ says that the people who do that already have their reward (see Matthew 6:1). It is a matter of praxis that God is concerned about. It’s not how you show it, but how God sees it.
I’m amazed that alot preachers forget that there were new testament sorcerors who attempted to duplicate the authentic working of the Holy Spirit. The people were duped and in one instance practically controlled by these magnificent men who worked wonders (See Acts 8:9-11, 14-17). The thing was that this man Simon was a believer and had been baptized, but was still trying to be a con man. He wanted the power to give the Holy Spirit like Peter and John, but was rebuked and told that his silver was perishing with him because he thought he could buy God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. That same ambition is very much alive in today’s western church. I wouldn’t have believed it if I wasnt trying to do the same thing myself at one time. I discovered how easy it was to start a ministry, get a few supporters, do a few revivals, then start a church, then see all that fall apart because it wasn’t God ordained. It was a very hard pill to swallow. It’s one thing to manipulate people, but to sell your soul in hopes of manipulating God is a dangerous thing. I used to think it funny when I would hear stories of people selling their souls to the devil for fame or fortune, but I have come to realize that far too many preachers are doing it at this very moment. They may not be signing their names on a contract, but they are truly parlaying in the fame and recognition given them by the very world they are supposed to reject.
So I believe I have laid it out there. If you want self promotion, just drop a few names, add a story or reflection (be sure to make it a good and believable one), and then shamelessly sell your soul to the cause of fame and fortune even if its in the name of GOD Himself and you will get exactly what’s coming to you.
Following the high profile antics on Black Liberation Theology Pastor/Teacher Jeremiah Wright during the recent Presidential Campaign, and several other high profile black ministers falling into various problems financially, spiritually, and of course morally, I’ve been asking myself “Are black preachers in real trouble?” More and more black preachers are falling away from the root of the black church: social action, the preaching of the authentic gospel, and strong conservative family and political values. I’m of the opinion that once we as black preachers got away from that, we got away from reality.
I’m sure that there will be plenty of people that would argue that what I said isnt the complete truth. I would probably agree that it isnt the complete truth because I certainly do not know the complete truth. I do however know what should be happening in the Black church. That is social, ecomonic, spiritual and moral liberation. Why isn’t that happening? THe answer is simple. Black preachers have always loved fame. We follow after fame more than we follow after God. That can be argued for Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, T.D. Jakes, and even myself. Of course we would never state that publicly. That would all but destroy our public ministry. It is evident with the false gospel some of us preach, the preoccupation with personal wealth and prosperity, the less socially active we are (not in regards to marches, protests or things of that nature, but in matters concerning education, sexuality, and technology gaps). The black preacher has become a class of its own both materially and philosophically. As the spread of prosperity gospel overrides fundamental Christianity, many black preachers have set themselves up to fail. That does not imply that all black preachers who proclaim that message from their pulpits are completely in error, it simply states that more younger black preachers are being seduced into this theology without fully comprehending the consequences of their actions. Myself included, have been duped into the popularity complex versus the authentic preacher complex. For the black church to remain authentic in its cause and mission and existence, the black preacher must return to that authenticity without fail and without flaw.
As the world encourages more diversity and cultural and moral tolerance, the black preacher cannot afford to fully do so without losing a great amount of his/her identity to the black church. That is to say that the more diverse we become as a church body, the more black preachers need to cling to the heritage, the message and the mission of the black church. The diverse world would not like for black preachers to continue preaching a theology of liberation but rather a message of tolerance and change and love of all humankind. That sounds good, but there is no real way for an authentic black preacher to preach that message without addressing the continual racial issues that still plague our world.
I return to the original question. Are black preachers in real trouble? Will the old regimen of black preachers with a prophetic voice in their world cease to exist once they are gone? Will young black preachers like myself who were trained by them, educated, and are attempting to be contemporary miss the mark and fall o step with the current trends and lose all that they left for us to continue in? I believe that we as black preachers, particular the younger ones are in very serious trouble. Its a trouble that’s not just a moral one, a theological one alone, but it is a trouble of the very existence of a culture and race centered around the black preacher and the black church experience.