Shortly after the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001 a reporter called requesting an interview about the events of that awful day. He asked me what we ministers were saying about what had happened and what is the responsibility of a pastor in such a situation. I told him that our first responsibility is pastoral. We must seek to comfort those who lost loved ones, to help them work through their anguish and grief; We must respond to the needs of those who were injured, those who had lost their jobs and the emergency workers who were involved in our rescue and recovery efforts. We must calm the fears of all of us who are at various stages of post-traumatic disorder. All of the leaders of our tradition will do their best to make sense of the tragic events and to offer prayers of healing for courage and hope to face the uncertainty of the days ahead.
But there is another responsibility. It is called the prophetic dimensions of ministry. What do I mean by that? What is the source of that aspect of a preacher’s task? And how does the prophetic dimension manifest itself in the witness of the black religious experience?
Rabbi and Professor Joshua Abraham Heschel in his classic work, “The Prophets,” describes the prophet as one who feels the pathos of God, who is moved by the heartbeat of the God of Creation, one who senses a powerful calling to be a courageous spokesperson of God’s will. The prophets speaks to both the faithful and their foes. The prophet is a seer and a sayer and even a provocateur, who speaks truth to power. The prophet holds up a plumb line against which the present policies of the nation are critiqued by principles of righteousness and justice. The consciousness of the prophet penetrates contemporary circumstances to the core of the moral and spiritual tendencies at work in the society. The prophet foretells and forthtells what is going to happen to the nation if there is no repentance and restoration to truth, justice and compassion.
The words and the dramatic declarations of judgment may be inflammatory and denunciatory but they come from a deep love for the people. There is almost an uncontrollable longing to see them repent of their misdeeds before the wrath of God visits disaster upon them. The paradoxical juxtaposition of condemnation and compassion reflects the nature of God’s love that will not let us go even as God threatens to destroy those who break faith with the covenant and desecrate God’s holy laws.
The black church has become a specialist in bringing the balm of Gilead to a people “buked and scorned” and “dehumanized and brutalized.” But on the other hand there is the critiquing aspect of the ministry. Because their members know that their only hope for survival comes from a God of love and justice who hates oppression, they grow accustomed to hearing their pastors burst forth from time to time with words of denunciation and damnation. They know that such harsh words come from the divine Mother’s love pushed to the breaking point. They also know that no matter how blood curdling the critique, compassion is just around the corner. The black church members sense that in their anguished cry for justice they are expressing the mandates of a just God. It is never a plea for themselves alone, it is a yearning for peace, justice and compassion for all God’s children. It is an incessant longing for a transformed society. In the very fabric of its existence, searching for meaning purpose and power, straining under the weight of oppressive power, there is always a restless revolutionary hope when black people gather to worship the God who has promised to deliver them from bondage. The tone, text, hymns, prayers and the preaching will reflect variations in terms of class culture and style. But their will-to-live-free creates a constant critique of the systems that binds or confines them.
We all tend to resent and sometimes reject the criticism of those who would expose our flaws or our signs of decay. Coaches, teachers, doctors, structural engineers and loving friends are expected to tell us the truth even when it hurts. Could the black church be the best friend America has ever had? We have told an unpleasant truth about a fatal flaw in our system and we have stood with our nation in every crisis we have faced. We have offered prophetic patriotic truth about the malignancy of racism, economic exploitation, imperialistic war and rapacious greed to the point that we eviscerate or pollute the environment which is our earthly home. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a prophet who helped to bless our nation with his wisdom and truth. The black church has something on its heart which it has received from the heart of God. Let us pray for the humility and grace to receive the prophetic critique from the same dark corner from which we were given spirituals, blues, jazz and the gospel of hope.
The Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes Jr. is President and Founder of the Healing of the Nations Foundation of New York and Senior Minister Emeritus of the Riverside Church. Dr. Forbes completed his leadership of this historic multicultural church after 18 years of service, to begin a national and global ministry for spiritual renewal and holistic health.