I first met J. Alfred Smith, Sr in 1995 when he preached a series of prophetic-evangelistic sermons at First Baptist Church Kansas City, KS. Charles Kiker (a founding member of Friends of Justice) was pastor of FBC at the time and I was there to provide the music. Dr. Smith and I were chatting informally before the first service; he was telling me about the impact the war on drugs was having in his community. To my utter astonishment, the man began to weep uncontrollably–something I had never seen a preacher do before. He wasn’t the slightest bit embarrassed by his tears. In fact, he behaved as if weeping was the normal and appropriate response to the circumstances in which he found himself.
J. Alfred Smith, Sr. was Senior Pastor of Oakland’s Allen Temple, one of the premier pulpits in America. He is now Pastor Emeritus of that church; his son, J. Alfred Smith, Jr., has since taken over as Senior Pastor.
J. Alfred Smith, Sr. and several of his parishioners were tremendously supportive during our justice struggle in Tulia, Texas. It was there I began to understand the tears I had witnessed several years earlier. I last saw Dr. Smith at the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta a couple of years ago.
The sermon below addresses several issues regularly featured on this blog. Dr. Smith talks about the betrayal of “the prosperity gospel”, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the need for a new kind of Christianity, or, from an African American perspective, the recovery of the old prophetic gospel that once animated the civil rights movement.
AN ADDRESS BY J. ALFRED SMITH, SR.
2010 Annual Pastor and Laity Conference
Los Angeles Metropolitan Church
Luke 1: 19-21; Deuteronomy 18: 17-20
Our theme suggests that like Zechariah the priest, the priests today have lost their prophetic voice. Yes, they can artistically perform all of the priestly functions as worship leaders. They admirably entertain and excite people in the performance of the required religious ceremonies, but they have lost their prophetic voice. The scriptures in Deuteronomy 18:17-20 suggest that some who speak have never had a prophetic voice.
Dr. Jeremiah Wright, fearless prophet of our age, has said members of the Black Church are flocking to ‘religious’ leaders who are totally out of touch with the liberation agenda and who are wholeheartedly preaching greed as the ‘new level’ of spirituality to which they have ‘transitioned’. Black parishioners are interested in large gatherings of praise where Darfur, Sudan, Angola, the Congo, and Colombia never get mentioned. Black parishioners are interested in large gatherings of praise where they can gather for an entire week of getting their praise on and getting their shout on, speaking in tongues and spending their dollars. What is going on in the Black church with 50,000 believers gathering to get high spiritually is comparable to 80,000 Blacks gathering to hear Nelly or 50 Cent with his empty head. Between Nelly and Negro preachers, between Dollar and 50 Cent, however, the Black Church in North America is on the verge of a breakdown. She is severing all ties with the church that produced a Gabriel Prosser, a Denmark Vesey a Nat Turner and a Kairos Document. Dr. Wright’s words were predicted as early as January 6, 1954, when Dr. John Bennett spoke about our condition as an all inclusive American church.
On January 6, 1954, in Christian Century President John C. Bennett of Union Theological Seminary told us that we have lost our theological balance, At that time the church emphasized a peace of mind gospel. On April 16, 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., issued his classic; A Letter from a Birmingham Jail. In this letter, Dr. King expressed deep disappointment over the laxity of the church in being a prophetic voice in an unjust society.
In the year 1967, Frantz Fanon, a French Black psychiatrist wrote Black Skin, White Masks rejected the white-scripted narrative into which he was born while issuing “a call to human solidarity, a call to blacks and whites and to all human beings to move from the inhuman voices of their respective ancestors so that a genuine communication can be born.”
In 1969, Professor James Cone of Union Theological Seminary wrote in Black Power and Black Theology: “God will unquestionably vindicate the poor. If God is to be true to himself, his righteousness must be directed to the helpless and the poor, those who can expect no security from this world. The rich, the secure …can have no part of God’s righteousness because of their trust and dependence on the things of this world. Since James Cone, there has been a shocking reversal of calling for prophetic justice in preaching and teaching. Black and white popular media preachers in this post colonial and post modern age preach a soft and easy gospel called the prosperity gospel, The Word-Faith Movement. I am sad that the prosperity gospel preachers do not encourage helping the hurting and helpless of the world. They do not speak out against the sins of oppressors who oppress the oppressed. They feel no pain with those in our inner cities or in the two-thirds world who are without food, shelter, health care, and employment. They do not address the American issues of failed public schools, the growing prison industrial complex, the failure of the economic stimulus to address the needs of America’s working class or even the humanity of the working poor and the disabled. I am sad that our bias toward the Old Testament or the First Testament has not given us a fuller understanding of wellness, wholeness, and God’s shalom for the lost, the least, and the lowest. Without demonizing prosperity gospel preachers, it is my prayer that preachers can offer the message of hope and can buttress the faith of struggling multitudes with raising false faith and false expectations.
More and more I am challenged by prophetic Christian leaders like Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Martin Luther King, Jr. When I compare my life with their courage and cross bearing, I am moved by the old Negro spiritual my ancestors sang: “Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.” In a fallen world peace at any cost and security at any price, and success without integrity are sins which mute the message from God, “to love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with God.” Roman Catholic Dorothy Day founded the catholic worker communities. They house the homeless, feed the hungry, live simply like Jesus, seek worker justice for farm workers, and the poorest paid. They resist war. Dorothy Day was born March 3, 1927. She died November 29, 1980. She said: “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily.” She also said: “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Dorothy Day challenges me in saying “The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each of us.”
Fannie Lou Hamer (1918-1977) was the granddaughter of a slave and the youngest of 20 children. As a share cropper civil rights activist she worked for political, social, and economic rights for all Americans. Though Hamer wanted children, a white doctor had her sterilized without permission, so she adopted daughters instead. In attempting to register blacks to vote in Mississippi, she lost her job and was nearly beaten to death by the police. At the 1964 Democratic National Convention, she was refused a seat as a delegate with the black delegates of the Mississippi Freedom Party. The all white party delegation was seated instead. This was the last year that the Democrats refused to seat any delegate from a state where anyone was illegally denied the right to vote. Sister Hamer was an inspiring gospel singer and a captivating preacher. Sister Fannie said: “Sometimes it seems like to tell the truth today is to run the risk of being killed, but if I fall five feet four inches in the fight for freedom, I’m not backing off.”
Like Amos, the social justice prophet of 8th Century B.C., Fannie Lou Hamer had no formal church ordination. She had no denomination support, or theological credentials. She had to drop out of school when she was twelve years old to work in the cotton fields as a share cropper. Her Bible educated her. Like Detrich Bonhoeffer she was willing to die for the sake of righteousness.
Bonhoeffer died in Germany at the hands of Hitler because unlike many German Lutheran pastors, he chose to be a prophetic voice for God instead of a weak echo of status quo preaching. Many American gun carrying church members worship guns for personal use while spending greedy sums of money on weapons of mass destruction to either be sold to nations who often end up using these same weapons in a later war to kill young innocent, idealistic American soldiers. Some of these church members belong to the religious right, the moral majority or the Christian Coalition.
Their brand of American Christianity practiced what Bonhoeffer called cheap grace. Born February 4, 1906, and martyred for his faith on April 9, 1945, Bonhoeffer resisted the evil teachings of Hitler. In 1935, he founded an underground seminary where he wrote The Cost of Discipleship, After spending six weeks in America at Union Theological Seminary while worshipping with Black Christians at Abyssinian Baptist Church in the Harlem section of New York, he decided to return to Germany and take a stand above ground against Hitler. He was placed in prison on July 20, 1944, and hanged at Flossenbűrg on April 9, 1945. Bonhoeffer taught us that we are often guilty of cheap grace because we want to be saved without becoming disciples. We want our titles, our recognition, our big churches, our preaching popularity, our name, our fame, our respectability, at the expensive death of Jesus’ shed blood on the cross of Calvary. Bonhoeffer said: “It is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ living and incarnate.”
My sister, Dr. Iva R. Carruthers warns that prophets are safely embraced and celebrated when they are dead and unable to walk among the people. Because most of us like comfort rather than the cross, because many of us love approval rather than criticism, because some of us find it easier to be gate keepers, and yes people for the status quo, we say no to courageous action that caused Rosa Parks to be locked up for not giving up her seat on a segregated Montgomery, Alabama bus. But thank God for the prophetic response Martin Luther King, Jr., gave to her plight. As Dr. Carruthers reminded us true prophets, ask not how close they can get to Pharaoh or how much money they can make. Therefore, to reclaim our prophetic voice let us not be silenced by betrayal, backstabbing, or berating. Let us not be quiet for fear of Judases over there, or nay sayers who would seek to discourage you or traitors who would pull themselves up in the eyes of power holders by pulling us down.
Let us not be quiet for fear of Judases over there, or nay sayers who would seek to discourage us or traitors who would pull themselves up in the eyes of power holders by pulling us down.
Let us reclaim our prophetic voice and address the fact that more African American males in California enter our prison system on a weekly basis than the number of African American males who enter U. C. Berkeley on a yearly basis. Fifty times more African Americans enter our prison system than our leading universities. Let us address the FDIC study that African Americans and Latinos in California are under banked more than any where in the nation. African Americans make up 54% of the under banked. Let us reclaim our prophetic voice and point out that the major banking institutions targeted predatory subprime loans to people of color. The large numbers of African Americans and Latinos whose homes have been foreclosed have caused a housing loss in both communities that have set our home ownership levels to those of the depression era. The fiscal crisis has deeply diminished the aspirations of our youth. Seventy percent of African American and Latino youth and young adults are unemployed.
Stand on the wall, prophets. Speak up for the marginalized. Wall Street banks that brought our economy to the brink of disaster were rescued by trillions of dollars of our taxpayer money, then paid us back by using that money to hire lobbyists to convince our lawmakers in Washington to kill financial reform. They took our money, but cut back on lending. They took our money and made record profits and paid themselves record bonuses. Now we have record unemployment, bankruptcies, and foreclosures. Speak prophets.
Health care legislation is not about the health needs of people. Health care legislation is about compromising with health care providers and the insurance companies who prioritize profits above the proper care of persons. People of color are the victims of greed while lawmakers enjoy the best health care paid for by the taxpayers.
The greedy exclude the needy with a just philosophy, but the message of the prophets is equal justice for all of God’s children.
Speak to us Amos, prophet of 8th century B.C. Speak to us as you spoke to Martin Luther King and Fannie Lou Hamer. Tell us that ultimately God will not judge us on the basis of budgets or buildings, the basis upon which we judge our own ministry success. Tell us that it is not about titles, or preaching popularity or political prestige. It’s not about names or numbers. It’s not about being part of a celebrity culture. It is not about where we preached, but what we preached at our church services we conduct on Sunday. It is not about what celebrity preacher preached at your Church, the number of noses counted to hear him, or the number of services you conduct on Sunday, or the number of green backs collected for tithes and offerings, or the number of nickels counted in the poor saints offering. Did we lift our voice to plea that justice will run down as waters and righteousness as a mighty stream?
Tell them about Jesus, prophet, priest and King. Tell them about Jesus, the one who justifies you and me before God, The Righteous Judge. He never had a website; never had a face book page; never had his own television show. He was loved and hated. He was admired and reviled. He was praised and criticized. He was crucified on an old rugged, Roman cross. Jesus, God’s justice; He suffered, bled and died, for us, the unjust clergy, the unjust church, the unjust world. He cried out for us to have peace with God. He cried out so that we could have prophetic integrity. Can’t you hear The Just One crying for our justification: “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Sent by the Lord am I;
my hands are ready now to make the earth
the place in which the kingdom comes.
Sent by the Lord am I;
my hands are ready now to make the earth
the place in which the kingdom comes.
The angels cannot change a world of hurt and pain
into a world of love, of justice and of peace.
The task is mine to do, to set it truly free.
Oh, help me to obey; help me to do your will.