By Alan Bean
Three Friends of Justice people are attending the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference at the Drake Hotel in Chicago this week. Melanie Wilmoth and I are here, as is the Rev. L. Charles Stovall, Friends of Justice board member and associate pastor at St Luke United Methodist Church in Dallas. Speaking of Methodists, a contingent of 40 United Methodists from across the nation, led by the indefatigable Rev. Laura Markle Downton, are in Chicago for the conference. These are the folks who recently convinced their denomination to divest from for profit prisons.
I was bone weary when we entered the old fashioned elegance of the Drake Room for evening worship, but I left pumped and inspired. The highlight of the evening was a stunning sermon on the familiar story of Daniel in the lion’s den from the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson, pastor of St. Paul’s Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia. Watson preaches in the traditional black style. In the final ten minutes, brief bolts of organ music punctuated every phrase. “I know it’s late,” he assured us, “and I ain’t gonna keep you long. And I hope you know that, coming from a Baptist preacher, that don’t mean nothing.”
Dr. Watson didn’t just preach in the old time fashion, he interpreted the scriptures in the old time style, literally. If God could deliver Daniel, the preacher told us, God can deliver you.
Normally, this would bother me. Isn’t this Daniel in the lion’s den thing just a folk story? I mean, it didn’t really happen, did it? And didn’t the author of the story refer to King Darius when it should have been Cyrus? And can I really believe that if somebody threw me into a den of hungry lions I would emerge unscathed?
I wasn’t the least bit bothered by Dr. Watson’s straightforward exegesis, and I’ll tell you why. So long as the preacher gets the application right, I don’t really care what school of biblical interpretation he follows. Watson talked about the lions of mass incarceration and felon disenfranchisement. He compared the steadfast obedience of Daniel to the grace Barack Obama has shown when the lions in his world insisted he produce a birth certificate. When Watson came to the part where knaves use flattery to appeal to a king’s vanity, Watson talked about black politicians who don’t realize they are being used until the game is over.
The story of Daniel, like so many stories from the Bible, is about remaining faithful in the face of oppression. Black America understands that message. Earlier in the day, Susan Taylor, Editor Emeritus of Essence Magazine and the founder of a nationwide mentoring program for at-risk children, told us about her visit to one of the fortresses on the African coast where, for centuries, men, women and children waited for the slave ship to come. In graphic detail, she described the horrors of the middle passage. She said African Americans need to teach these things to our children and, if we have forgotten, to ourselves.
This is precisely the kind of stuff that makes white Americans profoundly uncomfortable. All of that stuff happened so very long ago. It was awful, to be sure, but why talk about it in polite company; it’s divisive, it just stirs things up. I didn’t own any slaves and none of you have a personal experience with slavery so . . . let’s call the whole thing off.
Black America needs to talk about the stuff white America needs to forget. Or maybe we too need to remember, we just don’t know it yet.
Dr. Jeremiah Wright gave the benediction tonight. Yes, that Jeremiah Wright. Barack Obama’s former pastor. The guy who enraged white America by suggesting that America’s chickens might be coming home to roost. I was riding in a van with several black passengers when the towers fell in Manhattan. Their reaction mirrored Wright’s. Black and white Americans live in two different worlds, experientially and religiously.
There are plenty of white folks who share the ethical commitments of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference. We oppose the war on drugs, we think mass incarceration has been a disaster, and we want to address the conditions that foster violence and joblessness in poor urban neighborhoods. But you would never hear a white person who believes these things preaching like the Rev. Dr. Lance Watson. Most white progressives would be offended by biblical preaching. If religion must be referenced at all, let it be generic religion, devoid of narrative content. None of that Jesus stuff.
White progressives (with a few blessed exceptions) associate words like Jesus, Bible, prayer, salvation and deliverence with the religious Right. And, to be fair, the religious folk you see on the television and hear on the radio rarely reflect the kingdom priorities of Jesus.
Unlike their white counterparts, black progressives can, to paraphrase the Rev. Dr. Freddie Haynes, think and shout at the same time. “If you think,” he told us, “you will thank. Think about how great our God is and you can’t help but get your shout on.”
Why do white Christians have such a hard time mixing kingdom ethics with shouts of praise. I’m not sure, but the world would be a better place if we got over it.