Call to prayer, call to repentance

September 8th, 2015

Sunday, September 13, 2015 has been deemed a day for a “Call to Prayer, Confession, Repentance, and Action” by the Council of Bishops of the United Methodist Church. This is a day dedicated to the “Ending Racism” initiative of Pan-Methodist churches as led by the AME Church, one of whose churches, Mother Emanuel in Charleston, SC, was on June 17, 2015, violently desecrated when a self-avowed racist, twenty-one year old, white male murdered nine black people in cold blood as they prayed. By his action and declaration that he was trying to begin a “race war,” as well as by sustained actions of police and a criminalizing justice system against black people over the years, it is apparent that many in what some term as a “Christian nation” have failed to take in and take on Jesus’ mission statement in Luke 4:18-19:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me.
He has sent me to preach good news to the poor,
to proclaim release to the prisoners
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to liberate the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

This is a decree that promotes abundant life with health, sustenance, liberty and justice for all. Yet, over the years, the church has been a co-conspirator in a war against the humanity of black people from the inception of this nation. With America now having the distinction of imprisoning more people than any other nation in the world, imprisonment has become part of America’s “final solution” on how to rid itself of the presence of so many black people in its midst. 

A call is a challenge, a word heard from the mouth of God that requires a life change and creates cultural dissonance in those called. Biblical examples of call contain components of Jesus’ mission statement that an individual has been ordained by God to tell others of a coming change in status. Abraham was to leave behind and start afresh; Jeremiah would uproot and destroy, then plant and build; Isaiah would cry in the wilderness,* where nothing can be heard because ears are stopped and minds are closed; Moses would tell ol’ Pharaoh to “Let my people go!” And unmarried, pregnant Mary of self-defined low status celebrated her favor in God’s eyes by saying, “He has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty-handed” (Luke 1:52-53).

A call is not about comfort, but a fire shut up in the bones, that upon release may get you vilified by those unwilling to change, or killed by those who hate you. Jesus warned that they hated him and they will surely hate those who follow in his way (John 15:18). Following God’s call is not easy, comfortable or about maintaining the status quo. God’s call is about change, overturning tables, doing something so different that our backs will be straightened after all these years (Luke 13:10-17), that the first will become last and the last, first (Matthew 19:16-30).

The Call from our bishops is to confess. Confession is more than saying “I’m sorry.” It is naming that for which one has caused grief. When we bring children together to offer apologies, the offender must name that for which she/he has caused suffering. When criminals receive a lesser sentence than deserved, the plea bargain requires that they must give elocution to that which they have been found guilty, clearly stating the wrongs they perpetrated against society. If we are to end racism, the actual crimes against black humanity must be elucidated and spoken out, that hatred against black people is a severe by-product of what 1 Timothy 6:10 deems as being the root of all evil, the love of money.

From the root, by-products of white privilege, theologies that demonize blackness, white racial superiority philosophies, race prejudice, and systemic racism have sprung, created to justify the enslavement of Blacks so that white people could become rich and build wealth. White people made and make “iniquitous decrees and oppressive statutes” in order to add house to house and field to field (Isaiah 10:1, 5:8, NRSV), leaving the people of the land with nothing and then calling them “lazy” and creating other myths of unworthiness to good fortune, as well as depriving them of their rights. 

Such horrific by-products will take more than the beating of one’s chest, tears of grief, and anguished cries of guilt to remediate. As burdened as we were with “toting that barge and lifting that bale,” black people are once again burdened to the hilt with white guilt, their cries of ignorance, helplessness, and frailty in all things dealing with racism. White people, white churches must do their own confessing, look into their own hearts, history and habits, and speak the words of how the present generation of white people, from the most recent European immigrant to the poorest Appalachian, benefits from racial and economic injustice against black people because it appears, “There is no righteous person, not even one. There is no one who understands” (Romans 3:10). 

The white church has been complicit, with Methodists abandoning its early stance that being Methodist and owning slaves was incompatible with Christian practice so completely that by 1844, the Methodist Episcopal Church split in two (South and North), one slave-holding, the other benefitting from a system that continued to accept the gifts of slave labor through trade, the enforcement of fugitive slave acts and by the practice of race prejudice. After the Civil War, in 1870 the colored members of the MESouth established a new denomination, the Colored Methodist Episcopal (becoming Christian Methodist Episcopal in 1954) with land given for church buildings and liturgy written by former masters and promises of remaining apolitical by the Blacks.

Before the war and the split, in 1896, the black Methodists of the John Street Church in New York City removed themselves from the racial distress caused by white members, eventually forming the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. And before that, Richard Allen and his companions in 1787 were wrenched from their knees as they prayed at St Georges in Philadelphia in their old spots, rather than in the newly built gallery which black members had built with their own hands, not realizing that the expansion project was dedicated to their segregation. Richard Allen and his fellow black worshippers left, never to return. Allen confidently moved forward, founded and became the first bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. 

You may note that there is something of a circle here, a return to a time of prayer, a circle that has been broken again and again by the violence of Whites toward Blacks. The call is to confess and repent. Indeed, the confession is for the purpose of repenting, to convert to a new way of doing things, becoming committed to thought processes that will empower the people to create a miracle of justice and love by the power of the Holy Spirit.

John the Baptist challenged the powerful people of his time to bring fruits worthy of repentance. He did not tell them what those fruits were, only that they were not related to their ethnicity and background. In today’s terms, it would mean that being white does not make you more worthy to God and it is time for white people to make amends that will be pleasing to God and restorative to God’s people of a darker hue. Such outcomes will require prayer, prayer that no fist or gun can interrupt because it is constantly in the hearts of all those who call themselves Methodists in America and beyond. Understanding that walking hand in hand, singing “Blacks and Whites together” is no longer sufficient, the world is waiting to see what the fruits of repentance will be.

Will the initiative to end racism simply be one more burden on the backs of black people already struggling to survive or will white Methodists, by their own actions, by their own willingness to open eyes and ears, by their own willingness to be doers of the word, find a way to shoulder this burden of their own creation?

*The Hebrew word for wilderness is midbar, meaning 'without word.'

All biblical quotes except where indicated are CEB.

comments powered by Disqus