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.
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.
With the recent shooting of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, another face added to the pantheon of black martyrs. At one time this pantheon included icons such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Emmit Till, Medgar Evers, and even John and Robert Kennedy. The aforementioned individuals were assassinated for the cause racial inequality and injustice that was prevalent during the superficial age of American exceptionalism of the 20th century. While America was showing strength on the world stage, it was allowing its own citizens to be egregiously desecrated, beaten, and even lynch under the guise of national and ethnic pride.
For generations, the pantheon of black martyrs was on display in frames on the walls of many homes in the black community. Black civic and religious leaders would routinely speak the praises of those men and women we held in high esteem. We would see their likeness portrayed in dramatic expression throughout the year as we yearned for more like them to rise from the churches, ghettos, and streets and speak words of empowerment and liberation to us once more.
As the 21st century has entered its second decade, the faces of the pantheon of black martyrs have changed. We now see the faces of Tupac Shakur, Christopher “Notorious BIG” Simmons, Adamou Diallo, James “Jam Master Jay”Mizell, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant III, Trayvon Martin¸ Eric Garner, and now Michael Brown. These individuals were not on the front lines of civil rights protests or movements. They were not aligned with forces of evil intent on destroying white American privilege or power. These individuals were simple human beings who happen to have darker hued skin. Some of their deaths were the results of lifestyles that although on the edge, brought them notoriety and celebrity. Others were simply ordinary men, who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Nonetheless, their faces have been added to the pantheon of black martyrs.
What makes the latter’s addition so significant? Perhaps it is the fact that those men were all martyred for a cause other than equality, justice, and peace. Perhaps it is because their faces reflect the myriad of justice disparities faced by people of color in these great United States. It is more likely that these men represent a hope for change that has not come. They represent the continual saga for freedom that has yet to be fully ascertained. These new faces bring to light the darkness of the past when some felt justified in taking the life of black men and women. Their deaths though deemed justifiable by some in law enforcement, are not justifiable for the cause of advancing humanity.
Their violent deaths reflect a deeper oppression beyond that of a supposed post-racial America. It reflects a generation of identity and leadership voids begging to be acknowledged and attended. It reflects a generational gap that has been largely ignored by our elders who have found success after their marches and protests of the 50’s and 60’s. It is the fury of a generation feeling slighted civically, socially, economically, and educationally. It is the pantheon that reflects the withdrawal of courageous men and women standing against oppression of disenfranchised blacks in urban areas once populated by soul businesses happily catering to their patrons with the knowledge that they were not only in business for themselves, but also for their people. It is the pantheon reflecting the age of the “race hustlers” gains fame and fortune at the expense of another black person’s violent demise at the hands of white and black people, with little to no regard for the value of human life.
So what then should be done in lieu of this knowledge? How do we honor the new faces in the pantheon without discrediting the sacrificial foundation of the founding ones? My suggestion is to empower our people to see beyond the temporary bliss of media hype on the plight of Blacks in America. We must rise as a phoenix from the ashes of self-contempt and victimization and become the sacred masters of our present and future. We must empower this new generation to see this pantheon of black martyrs as icons of a royal priesthood, a chosen race, children, and heirs of the Most Benevolent and Merciful Creator. We must present to them the pantheon as faces of humanity blessed of God. It is only when they see the faces in this pantheon of martyrs from that perspective that they will be emboldened to change the cycle of death into one of life, liberation, and love.
When most people think of the black church, a vision of hooping preacher’s tuning up to bluesy organ playing, gospel choirs robed and swaying to upbeat music, members shouting and dancing as they are moved by the spirit to do so, and everyone dressed in their Sunday’s best with the ladies wearing the biggest hats one can imagine. That is the idealized version of the black church, but it isn’t the reality. The reality is that the black church is about as diverse as any other ethnic group’s religious expression. There are the Methodists (of which I am affiliated), the Baptists (of which are my religious origins), the Pentecostals (the liveliest of the group), and more recently the non-affiliated fellowships, assemblies, and what not that is becoming the more reticent trend. The black church has certainly come a long way since the Christian religion was introduced to African tribes and new slaves arriving in the west.
Historically when we think of the black church we must think of the movements that brought about a sense of connection for black slaves and freemen in the western world. Leaders such as Richard Allen with the Free African Society, William Seymour and the Azusa movement (later adopted by Bishop Carlton Pearson), C.H. Mason and the Church of God in Christ movement (this led to splinter groups such as the Church of Christ Holiness, USA, the Assemblies of God, and several other COGIC organizations that took the name but not the leadership), and the National Baptist Conventions (USA, America, Progressive, and more recently the National Missionary Baptist and Full Gospel Baptist Fellowship).
The black church has had it’s moments of a collective identity particularly one of social and economic oppression. The local black church has until recently been the epicenter of activity in the black community. There are some churches that have managed to stay and grow within their communities even as demographics have changed and there are others that have taken up shop in the suburbs and managed to experience exceptional growth numerically yet have diminishing influence on their members regarding social and political issues. During the years of Reconstruction and Jim Crow up to the Civil Rights movement of the mid 20th century, the black church was the driving force for education, economic thrift and development, and social justice. This isn’t the case anymore.
The black church as a collective is becoming largely discombobulated and outdated. This is evident as more black pastors begin to function independently of a denominational governing body and become celebrities in their own right. Take for instance, Bishop T.D. Jakes, author, entrepreneur, motivational speaker, movie and music producer and now talk show host. 20 years ago, he was a rising star from West Virginia and is now considered by many to be the 21st Century Billy Graham. There is also Dr. Michael Beckwith, motivational speaker and contemporary mystic who was featured on “The Secret” a best selling documentary about wealth and prosperity creation. There are many more that have reached the pinnacle of both religious and secular success and wealth. These represent the great change the black church has undergone in the last two centuries.
For me, the biggest thing about the contemporary black church is how stifled it is. While there is a great thrust of religious diversity in the American society, the black church has seemingly only been in mark time. What is interesting is that the more mainline streams of black religious experience are attempting to find relevance in latter day movements such as the charismatic and apostolic movements. This is more prominent on the African continent and in Latin America than anywhere else. As this is occurring, more blacks are beginning to find identities outside of the black church. More are identifying as non-believers (atheists/agnostics), Buddhist, hindu, and even turning to western African religious traditions (voodoo, ancestral worship, etc). There are also new sects such as the Black Israelites rising up in pockets of the south and the north.
It’s still a good thing to know that there is a black church. Its a powerful communication of how we as a people collectively managed to adapt to new oppressions in a new world. We took the religion of the masters and made it our own. We used a tool that was created to keep us in bondage as a way of empowering us to rise out of that same bondage. We developed a culture within a culture that is emulated by other ethnic groups around the world. We found a way to make the church of Christ an instrument of prosperity for the preacher and the community. The challenge now for the black church is to find a way to reconnect to those things that got us this far. It is time to go back to the “old landmark”. It is time to celebrate our diversity without crippling our power. I believe this can be done and know it should be done. The question now is “will it be done?”