From Prophetic Anger to Apocalyptic Hope
The recent controversy over Rev. Jeremiah Wright has initiated a new conversation about race in America. It has done so by making clear to white America what almost every black American knows-that 40 years after the civil rights movement, there are still two Americas. More pointedly for Christians, it is manifestly evident that we have two churches. After the integration of schools, the military, and the workplace, the church remains the single most segregated institution in America.
Across this divide, black Christians necessarily maintain a double consciousness, knowing how to talk to their white brothers and sisters while also keeping alive the distinctive language of the black church. White Christians, however, are taken aback when they hear the "angry" tone and anti-American sentiments of prophetic black preaching. It is hard for us to believe that such rhetoric could be called Christian.
Like any pastor, Rev. Wright has been wrong. (I do not, for example, think it is prophetic to say that whites created the HIV virus.) But we would do well to remember that the same pastor who Barack Obama has distanced himself from also gave him the phrase "the audacity of hope." While it has made for a good book title, its origin in the prophetic tradition of black preaching points us to the peculiar nature of Christian hope.
Apocalyptic hope is one of the distinctive marks of black preaching. We pay lip service to this tradition in our annual Martin Luther King Day services, but we are tempted to water it down. We overlook the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. spent the last year of his life criticizing America's role in the Vietnam War. It is almost never mentioned that on April 4, 1968, just hours before he was assassinated, King phoned Ebeneezer Baptist Church to say that his sermon title for the next Sunday would be "Why America May Go to Hell."
Black anger is not now nor has it ever been absent from prophetic black preaching. Like Jeremiah Wright after him, Martin King preached to a church that knew firsthand the extent of injustice in this nation. Many things have changed in forty years, not the least of which is the fact that a black man is seriously contending for the presidency of the United States. But the black church knows that the wealth disparity between blacks and whites has not changed since 1965. Black Christians in America know that nearly one half of their sons will not finish high school and a third of them will go to prison. Divorced from our black brothers and sisters, most white Christians do not know this reality.
But if we learn to tell the truth about race, what can Christian hope look like? It cannot be the hope of false prophets who say, "'peace, peace' when there is no peace," pretending that blacks and whites do not continue to suffer from a racial wound. But neither can our hope be entirely satisfied with progressive politics that calls us to move forward by getting along. Apocalyptic hope is audacious enough to admit that the problem is deep in all of us and the only solution is a love that comes from beyond us.
In the civil rights movement, no one was angrier about the plight of black people in this country than James Baldwin. His gift with words only served to sharpen his criticism and make his attack on white power more pointed. Yet, it was James Baldwin who wrote in a letter to his nephew, "the really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept [white people]