Living out the ‘fierce urgency’ of the prophets in U.S. culture

Article first appeared in Baptist News Global

Prophets rarely fare well in their own historical setting. Their clarity of vision disturbs the nonchalance with which most people engage their personal context. Prophets scrutinize those policies and practices that most of us blithely ignore, and they shine the light of justice into the dark corners. They challenge our assumptions; thus, we treat them as annoying “troublers of Israel.”

In his wisdom-laden book, The Prophetic Imagination, Walter Brueggemann writes, “The task of prophetic ministry is to nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Always linking prophetic witness with hope, he adds: “Hope is the refusal to accept the reading of reality which is the majority opinion … and hope is subversive, for it limits the grandiose pretension of the present, daring to announce that the present to which we have all made commitments is now called into question.”

I visited the New Millennium Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark., on Sunday, and I saw prophetic witness in action. This gathered community welcomes everyone and relishes the diversity that comprises the congregation. They have boldly decided that they would reject prejudice in every form and that their community would be free of patriarchy, racism, sexism, homophobia, classism and fundamentalism. People can bring the whole of themselves into that community and find acceptance. As the final preacher in the Martha Stearns Marshall emphasis on women preaching, that was indeed my experience.

It is not surprising that it is a small congregation; many folks are just plain scared of that much grace and of finding common humanity with radical otherness. More often we scurry into our little tribes and presume that our own culture is the normative one. This congregation describes itself as “inclusive, progressive, welcoming followers of Jesus Christ.” This requires mature cultural competency and a healthy theology of the Body of Christ. It also demonstrates the necessary dynamism of ecclesiology, which pays attention to its historical moment and cultural setting.

The founding visionary of this church is Wendell Griffen, distinguished jurist and gospel preacher. Recently he published The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope, a call to followers of Jesus to ponder what discipleship looks like during and after the presidency of Donald J. Trump. The Rev. Dr. Griffen’s distressing conundrum is this: “How President Trump’s political support by people who self-identify as evangelical followers of Jesus can be reconciled with the love and justice imperatives of the religion of Jesus.” He calls us beyond “moral and ethical dwarfism” to prophetic hope, which Scripture richly funds.

Long a critic of the prison-industrialist-capitalist complex, Griffen warns of the ethos of expendability fueled by the American empire.  Immigrants, sexual minorities, persons of color, the poor, women, faith traditions other than Christian, and persons suffering chronic illness are all at risk in the new political reality. The resurgence of white supremacy and white nationalism are evident; emboldened hatred of others is part of the social landscape. Prophetic witness calls this out and refuses to let it go unanswered.

Returning to the city where I lived from 1976 to 1979 surfaced many feelings. I had served an all-white church, lived in an all-white neighborhood, and knew too little about the rich black culture of the city. While there, I did learn a great deal about a key event in the American Civil Rights Movement, the integration of Central High School. With prophetic courage, nine black students tested a landmark 1954 U. S. Supreme Court ruling that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. On Sept. 4, 1957, the first day of classes at Central High, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas called in the state National Guard to bar the black students’ entry into the school. Later in the month, President Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the “Little Rock Nine” into the school, and they started their first full day of classes on Sept. 25. This was storied Little Rock history, but the lingering effects of the conflict shaped much of civic life, and pernicious racism continued.

Being a part of an upper-middle class church, I was oblivious to the abyss of poverty many endured, and I failed to see the demographic lines. As my youth were beneficiaries of educational privilege, I was unmindful of the limited vocational options afforded the under-educated. Once again, I was not conscious of the racial implications. Thankfully, I see more clearly now.

Prophetic witness requires us to be awake to the real circumstances we inhabit. As followers of Jesus, there is a fierce urgency for us to work for the common good, or our faith looks rather flaccid. Our time summons us out of Christian quietism to public advocacy for justice, a hopeful form of resistance to the dominant culture.

Dr. Molly Marshall
President, Central Baptist Theological Seminary
Shawnee, KS