Andrew Wilkes is the principal of Wilkes Advocacy Group and an associate pastor at the Greater Allen AME Cathedral of New York.He wasa former Sojourners policy and organizing fellow, a 2010-11 Coro Fellow in Public Affairs, and the extremely blessed fiancé of Gabriella Cudjoe. He is a recent and proud graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary.
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THE BLACK SOCIAL gospel is a critically important religious tradition—one that Gary Dorrien gives exquisite treatment in Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel. This is the second installment of a two-volume series. The first, The New Abolition: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel, won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award in Religion. The black social gospel, Dorrien explains, focuses not only on a political economy of justice—on matters including labor, land, and democratic use and ownership of capital—but also, unlike white social gospels, on racial equity.
Breaking White Supremacy explains the family tree of transformative religion that birthed Martin Luther King Jr.’s unique, but not unprecedented, practice of Christianity in Jim Crow America. Dorrien contends that mystic and author Howard Thurman, Morehouse College president Benjamin Mays, and Howard University president Mordecai Johnson provided examples of black Christian piety for King, which along with liberal theological education at seminaries in the northern region of the country shaped King to push America to become the social democracy it has never been.
Crafting the Prophetic Voice
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. did not initiate black prophetic preaching; he was, rather, initiated into it. Rev. Kenyatta Gilbert’s A Pursued Justice: Black Preaching from the Great Migration to Civil Rights is a theological origin story about the distinctive rhetorical tradition that is black prophetic preaching.
The text begins by naming the social crisis of the Great Migration—shorthand for a massive demographic shift of 1.5 million African Americans from the South to the North between 1916 to 1940—as an essential context for understanding black prophetic preaching. This tradition of Christian proclamation—which Gilbert calls “exodus preaching”—is framed in the context of black pastors seeking to respond theologically to the pressures of injustice, prejudice, and segregation that black migrant workers navigated in Northern urban communities in the inter-war period. Of special note, Gilbert surfaces the social gospel tradition of African-American clerics who, unlike white social gospel leaders Walter Rauschenbusch, Josiah Strong, Washington Gladden, and others, demonstrated a desire to not only build institutional churches that confronted industrial evils but also to address systemic issues of lynching, police brutality, and so on.
While the entire book makes an important contribution to the study and practice of preaching, the third chapter, in particular, sparkles with insight. Within it, Gilbert marshals a solid cast of intellectuals—including Paulo Freire and Zora Neale Hurston—to land on a four-part definition of prophetic preaching. He contends that prophetic preaching unmasks systemic evil, remains hopeful in difficult situations, aids listeners in naming their own reality, and displays a will to adorn. The criterion of adornment—with patient attention to aesthetic categories of beauty, vision, and desire—is some of the most creative theological writing, in any genre, that you are likely to read. On a practical level, the definition provides a yardstick against which working preachers and homiletics faculty can assess the strength of contemporary pulpit work.
How to Liberate Scripture
MOST RADICAL JESUS theologies begin with the gospel of Luke. In a tour-de-force work, Liz Theoharis’ Always with Us? What Jesus Really Said about the Poor illustrates that the gospel of Matthew also offers a relevant statement of “God’s coming reign of abundance, dignity, and prosperity for all.” Centering this effort is Theoharis’ striving to “rethink the role of the church in the world and to challenge some of the most widely held misinterpretations of the Bible and poor people.”
Appropriate, accurate interpretation of Matthew 26:11, where Jesus says to the disciples that they have the poor always with them, is the burden of the book. In performing this task, Rev. Dr. Theoharis, founder and co-director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary, demonstrates the rarefied exegete’s blend: granular analysis and big picture vision. She effectively critiques the various theological justifications for structural poverty that stem, in part or whole, from a mishandling of this passage.
HEBERT ROBINSON Marbury’s Pillars of Cloud and Fire: The Politics of Exodus in African American Biblical Interpretation achieves the distinction of providing fresh insight in well-covered territory. Marbury, with imagination and impressive intellectual range, explores the uses of Exodus by African Americans in struggles for freedom, respect, and full inclusion into the democratic mechanisms of American political life.
For the past four decades, scholars in fields as disparate as African-American religious history, preaching, rhetoric, constructive theology, and American studies have noted a fundamental duality: White Christian immigrants perceived Britain as Pharaoh and America as the Promised Land; enslaved Africans, by contrast, saw America as a strange land in which white Christian immigrants were Pharaoh. Instead of covering this important though beaten path, Marbury employs an alternative strategy.
What’s his take? Marbury’s book acknowledges this rich history, specifically the first two generations of African-American biblical scholarship. Then he pivots quickly to define cultural studies as a foundational discipline anchoring his reading of the text. What this means is that Marbury unpacks the significance of scripture by assessing the canonical account as well as the life-world and aims of individual interpreters who employ what Hebrew Bible scholar Renita Weems calls reading strategies for the text. The arc of Marbury’s analysis stretches from the antebellum era to the black power movement.
Another Way is Possible
Andrew Wilkes is an African Methodist Episcopal minister who serves on the editorial board of Democratic Socialists of America’s online journal, Religious Socialism. Danny Duncan Collum interviewed him in October 2015. Click here to read more about Christianity and socialism in this month's Sojourners.
Sojourners: Why have you chosen to identify yourself as a socialist?
Andrew Wilkes: What began to change my thoughts is when I realized that another way of organizing land, labor, and capital is possible and was already happening locally, regionally, and in some respects nationally. Gar Alperovitz’s book What Must We Then Do?, John Nichols’ book The “S” Word, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s witness of a black social gospel and democratic socialism all proved seminal to me.
What does it mean to you to call yourself a socialist? Socialism, on a basic level, prioritizes human rights over property rights and our obligations to one another over conventions about the natural, efficient operations of markets. Socialism means a way of making decisions about the use of resources that seeks to end preventable human misery more than turning an ever-increasing profit. It’s an ethical vision that also entails shared sacrifice for mutual gain—for instance, paying more in taxes to support health care, education, and other services that are free at the point of access.
I do not take socialism to mean the complete abolition of private property, contracts between individual parties, or the utter erasure of markets. Instead, socialism for me means the ascendancy of meeting human needs through public provision, cooperative ownership, and private businesses that include collective bargaining and government regulation. It also means that working individuals who produce goods and services have a significant say in shaping, owning, and influencing the institutions that shape their day-to-day quality of life.
How do you see those ideas relating to your Christian identity and Christian ministry? I joined the Religious Socialists of DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) to find an institutional outlet for my political commitments. I think it’s inaccurate to suggest that the Bible can be marshaled in direct support of socialism. I do think that every Christian has to inquire about the society that best represents or foreshadows the dreams and desires of God for humanity. For me, the kind of socialism I’ve just described is the best society.
To be black in America is to listen to death daily. To hear mothers wailing at unnecessary funerals, to see fathers mourning lost sons, to offer graveside prayers that puncture the heart of God — this is the sorrow song of a people, and a nation, haunted by racism.
Over our heads however, I hear the sweet, dark sounds of freedom in the air, calling for the dry bones of democracy to arise from the segregated sinews of our society. The multiracial chorus of protestors chanting, "I can't breathe," the die-ins, the walk-outs, and the highway-halting actions of youth from New York to Chicago to Tallahassee to Los Angeles represent a thirst and hunger for righteousness that includes and yet transcends voting.
To join within this symphony of justice, I am calling faith communities to participate in a national #DialInForJustice during the month of December. The goal is to call the Unites States Department of Justice and local police departments, communicating our desire to see systemic reforms to policing in America. This initiative seeks to lift up faith-filled voices alongside the already existing trumpet blasts of groups like the Organization of Black Struggle, Dream Defenders, PICO, Sojourners, and so on.
A Handbook for Justice
Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World. IVP Books.
The Church's Alternative Currency
The Economy for Desire: Christianity and Capitalism in a Postmodern World. Baker Academic
Power and the Poor
The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto. SmileyBooks
How to Proclaim Restoration
Missional Preaching: Engage, Embrace, Transform, by Al Tizon.
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