In times of turmoil, brutality, fire and rage, black preachers have always turned to the Old Testament prophets.
Hear Jeremiah addressing the king and his court: “Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan and the widow, or shed innocent blood. … (If) you will not heed these words, I swear by myself, says the Lord, that this house shall become a desolation.”
There’s plenty more where that came from. No one is shocked when black pastors take biblical texts about sin, justice, repentance and mercy and weave them into images and headlines from the news, said the Rev. Terriel Byrd, urban ministry professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University. This is a crucial role they have always played in their communities and as bridgebuilders to others.
“Even when they know that what they’re going to say will be rejected, they dare to speak as prophets,” he said. “They aren’t afraid to preach what they need to preach. If you go to church during times like these, you know a black preacher will not be silent.”
After decades of studying the art of preaching — he is the former president of the African American Caucus of the Academy of Homiletics — Byrd knows that traditions are different in white sanctuaries. But he is convinced America needs to hear from all kinds of preachers after the killing of George Floyd, his neck under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
On the streets, some white police are kneeling — this is powerful symbolism on many levels — with protestors in prayer. Unity across racial lines in churches will be just as important.
Black church leaders will be on the scene during peaceful protests. When it’s time to heal and clean up, all kinds of religious believers will take part — black, white, whatever. But will they be able to speak together?
“It’s crucial for white-church leaders to step forward and take a leadership role at this moment,” said Byrd, reached by telephone. “If we have some true partnerships form, with a real sense of honesty and equality, we could see a way forward and make real progress fighting this injustice.”
This is not, of course, the first time that clergy have faced this challenge.
In the spring of 1992, I was part of a Denver Seminary team that led a seminar blending studies of the Old Testament prophets with efforts to respond — through preaching and religious education — to spiritual signals drawn from mainstream news and entertainment. Half of the participants were white, and half were black.
Obviously, it was impossible to ignore the Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of four Los Angeles police officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King, after a lengthy high-speed chase. In five days, 55 people died, more than 2,000 were injured and 1,000 buildings were damaged or destroyed.
The seminary’s president — the late Rev. Haddon Robinson, a world-famous homiletics professor — approved a unique assignment during the riots. We asked each white student to contact a black pastor, seeking insights into the next Sunday sermon. Black students contacted white pastors, with the same goal.
Every black pastor contacted by our students directly addressed the LA riots and most quoted biblical prophets. The big idea: America needed to repent, because there was enough sin and brokenness in this storm of racism and violence to touch us all. One white preacher addressed the riots, if I remember correctly. Several said they couldn’t interrupt planned sermon series.
Years later, Byrd and I discussed the sobering lessons learned in that seminar, while we were teaching together at Palm Beach Atlantic.
The current crisis — reaching from coast to coast — demands a wider response. Silence is not an option, Byrd told me this week.
“Many white pastors seem afraid of being rebuked or being accused of causing division in their pews. I understand that they may not think they have as much freedom” as preachers in black churches, he said. “But, if white-church leaders say, ‘We will stand together against racism,’ that will matter right now. … People know black preachers will say this. But who will join them?”
Terry Mattingly (tmatt.net) leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tenn. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.