Carlyle Fielding Stewart III

Writings on Democracy, Social Justice, and Religion

Where Have All The Prophets Gone?

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Delivered at the Martin Luther King Jr Celebration.

Oakland County Ministerial Alliance, Pontiac, Michigan, January 15, 2006

“Get yourself ready! Stand up and say to them whatever I command you. Do not be terrified by them, or I will terrify you before them. Today I have made you a fortified city, an iron pillar and a bronze wall to stand against the whole land-against the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and the people of the land. They fight against you but will not overcome you, for I am with you an will rescue you, declares the Lord. ” Jeremiah 1:17-19

Martin Luther King, Jr, was one of America’s greatest prophets who spoke truth to power at a critical time in’ our nation’s history. He was from a priestly family, a long line of Baptist ministers who took seriously their calling from God, dutifully vouched safe the ministrations of the church and dispensed with great pride sacramental service to the people.

Martin Luther King was conscripted into public service as a young man in Montgomery Alabama and took up the prophetic mantle of leadership during the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It was there that he received a higher calling from God to lead his people from the dregs of segregation to the promised land of Freedom. It was there that God called him as an outsider or newcomer to Montgomery to lead a movement that would change dramatically change America and potentially change the world.

We say that Martin Luther King Jr was a prophet not only because he boldly spoke truth to power, “Thus saith the Lord,” “lived by the transforming power of the coming kingdom of God, “interceded on behalf of the poor and oppressed for distributive and retributive justice and willing to suffer hardship and death for the cause of freedom, but also because he undauntedly challenged the existing sensibilities of the power establishments in church and government.

According to the typology of David Aune, Martin Luther King was not a shamanistic prophet who was a combination of sage, soothsay and holy man or a court prophet whose oracles on the future helped circumvent catastrophes of reigning monarchs, although Dr. King’s advice to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson forewarned the coming calamities resulting from black America’s continued disenfranchisement but a free prophet, who is defined by Aune as the following: “one who stood on the institutional periphery of Israelite society, where they attempted to provoke social and religious change .. •• Acting independently of existing authority structures, they claimed divine authority to call Israel back to the ancient covenant traditions as they understood and interpreted them. 1

1 Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World, David E. Aune, pp 83-87

The prophetic leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., called America back to the fulfillment of its constitutional promise and that all men and women were created equal and entitled to certain inalienable rights.

This vision of America was rooted in a deeper understanding that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but the hand of God. 2 Freedom is not a gift provided by the state, although had made provisions for it in her constitution. Freedom is a God given right but it is up to government to enforce laws that will allow this freedom to become reality in society for all American citizens.

Free prophets understood that God is first and foremost a God of freedom and that he wills the freedom of his children as part of their covenantal relationship. That freedom is realized in the context of human community and actualized in the practice of faith and truth. That millions of black 2. John F. Kennedy Inaugural Address, January 1961. Americans were still not free was a sign of a Covenant that had been broken. The sacred oracle of freedom known as the constitution had been shattered and the highest divine oracle known as the Bible had been summarily omitted and ignored.

The prophetic ministry of Martin Luther King challenged government and the church, politics and religion to transform themselves into agencies of positive social change and transform the nature of institutional power. He challenged the church, as his letter from a Birmingham jail reveals, to shed the garments of shame and pretense and to enter the struggle for human rights, civil rights, and justice. He challenged church leaders to move from their comfortable priestly roles as votaries of establishment power to become prophetic oracles of dynamic social change. Reading various biographies of King, we discover that even his father had the most difficulty with his new prophetic role and urged him to stay in his priestly place. Both M. L and Daddy King understood the dangers of the prophetic responsibility and both feared that would it would lead to the younger King’s untimely end.

Many established church leaders were opposed to King, “Wait,” they said, “Your moving to fast change will come in due time.” “Don’t rock the boat.” Don’t make too many people mad.” The church should be the repository of institutional power and the caretaker of and not agitators of those in power.

While the church played an integral part in the success of the early Civil Rights movement, there were many of the priestly class who opposed Dr. King and the church entering a prophetic role in American society. It is one thing to administer the sacraments. It is another thing to become a living sacrament for the transformation of society. The price is too high, the cost too dear.

And so as we celebrate the birthday of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as we adore and commemorate him, as we pay our tributes, sing our songs, make our speeches, light our candles, listen to his “I Have a Dream” speech ten times over in one day, as we hear the sacrifices of those who fought and died in the magnificent struggle for freedom. As we celebrate those places and people in our nation and world where his dream has come true, listen and learn of those “dream variations” in the words of the great poet Langston Hughes, and woefully lament how the dream has become a nightmare, as we bristle with uncertainty under the Bush administration and see how the rich are getting richer and the poor are having more babies, as we see the continuation of a war of choice and not a war of necessity whose rationale has yet to be cogently explained to the American people and we see how the certain segments of the religious right and the established church are attempting to co-opt the American political process with its new Republicanism, Dominionism, and New Traditionalism, which coalesced bear the hallmarks of a new Christo Fascism. Lawrence Britt’s Monumental Work the “Early Warning Signs of Fascism are cited as follows: Powerful and continuing nationalism, disdain for human rights, identification of enemies as a unifying cause, supremacy of the military, rampant sexism, controlled mass media, obsession with national security, religion and government intertwined, corporate power protected, labor power suppressed, disdain for intellectuals and the arts, obsession with crime and punishment, rampant cronyism and corruption, fraudulent elections. 3

As we see corruption and fraud in the last two presidential elections, particularly in Florida where thousands of law abiding African Americans were purged from Florida’s voting 3 Lawrence Britt, “Early Warning Signs of Fascism.” rolls as convicted criminals, as we see how Rita and Katrina devastated certain poor black populations, as we see how certain segments of the church have been virtually prostituted, where some leaders have sold out their prophetic birthright, been bought off and compromised by certain so called faith based initiatives, especially those initiatives that have been given in exchange for the Republican vote, and as we watch the cronyism and corruption of representatives in Washington virtually destroy the tenets of representative democracy, and watch a media that has gotten in bed and gone to sleep with those in power, my question today is

“Where have all the Prophets gone?” Where are the voices crying in the Wilderness, “Make straight a highway for our God, for every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain and hill made low, the crooked places straight and the rough places plain?” Where are those screaming, “Thus saith the Lord,” the voices of protest from the church’s right, middle and left so to speak. Why in the midst of our current social cauldron has the church become silent once again? If Dr. King were alive in the flesh today he would be a man approaching 80 years of age. What would he say and what would he do about our current world? Would he have lost his prophetic concern for social justice? Would he not be concerned about the war in Iraq, the reasons cited for going to war, that even soldiers have not been properly equipped with full body armor to fight that war; would he not be concerned about the limits of corporate power and the retrenchment of rights of the little man and woman, the disintegration of the labor movement, issues of national security, the exponential increase of poverty, hunger and disease, the cooptation and privatization of health care, social security the abbreviation of civil liberties in our post 911 society; would he not be concerned that still to this very day that 70 percent of African American children are born out of wedlock and as one startling fact reveals, “Many African American children had a greater chance of growing up in slavery with two parents than they do today?” Would he not be concerned about the fact that many of our children still can’t read beyond a third grade level, concerned about the breakdown in the African American extended family, the proliferation of crime and punishment and not true rehabilitation; that many African American men at the height of their reproductive fecundity are now in prison. Would he not be concerned? Would he also not say that silence is not required, that voices must be raised that someone must say something so that something can be done?

Where have all the prophets gone? Are the prophets now more interested in profits? As Jessie Jackson says in a book title, “It’s about the money.” Is it? Where have all the prophets gone? Where are the voices of concern being raised on behalf of our people.

What if the Civil Rights movement had been dependent upon faith based money? Would it have been as effective? Faith based programs are not in and of themselves something to be abhorred. Many pastors must rely upon those initiatives to support their ministries. Without it they could not minister to the needs of their people. Without faith based money, they would close their doors. The problem is “He who pays the fiddler always calls the tune!” In accepting this money am I now expected to look the other way in matters of social justice? Must I compromise my faith, belief and principles in order to receive this money?

Where have all the prophets gone? Three basic things I would like to say quickly before I take my seat that were hallmarks of the free prophesy of Israel, ML, King’s prophetic ministry and are things the church can do today to help transform our society and world into a more just and equitable place.

1) Know the problems we now face in our world 2) Speak truth to power, 3) Be the change we wish to see in the world.

I. Become Aware of the Problems and offer Alternative Solutions.

As one wag commented, “Some of us have been asleep for so long, it makes Rip Van Winkle look like a insomniac. Rip Van Winkle slept four hundred years. The great Ralph Ellison said, “There are few things in the world as dangerous as sleep walkers.”

We must wake up and become aware of what is going on in our world. We have been seduced by modern material culture, we are enmeshed in the struggle for day to day survival, we are mislead and distracted by frivolities that take our attention away from the real thing. There is no one as astute as an informed citizen.

Have an interest in getting the correct information. Our churches should become information outlets to our people; to teach them and inform them about what’s going on in our world and how we can positively change that world. We must listen, learn, garner information, and disseminate information. Just don’t get your information from the newspaper or the nightly news. Get your information from alternative sources. The media has a vested interest in promoting life according to its point of view. Many media outlets today are more interested in making money than sharing truth. They will not speak or disseminate the kind of truth that will go against those in power. Look at the media, what are they covering? Why isn’t there more information being shared those critical decisions that are affected all Americans.

Are you aware of what’s going on? Are you aware of what’s happening in Washington, the decisions that are being made that will affect your life on the most fundamental level? Do you read the paper? Do you have access to the internet? We must become ardent observers of what’s going on in our world. Dr. King was acutely aware of the problems of his time. Nothing substitutes for awareness. We must not only watch and pray, we must become intimately aware of the world around us. When we are not aware of the world around us, we often find ourselves reacting to the world and its decisions rather than proacting. When we are not aware or ill informed it’s often too late.

Are you aware what might happen to affirmative action if Judge Samuel Alito is elected to the Supreme Court? Did you know that he will replace Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who was the swing vote for affirmative action? Do you understand the implications “and ramifications to civil liberties and civil rights if Alito is confirmed for the Supreme Court? Many of the hard won gains of the civil rights era may be lost, those that have been won through the blood, sweat and tears of many people, may once again be lost. Do you know that there are certain people in places of power in this nation who have a vested interest in turning back the clock on civil and human rights? Become aware. Stop spending time on all these other amusements and distractions, become aware and get involved in you’re the affairs of the world.

Come up with a solution to the problem. Don’t just learn the problem come up with a solution that will resolve the problem. Jesus was problem solver. The people of God should be problem solvers. We are called to a faith that makes difference in helping the world become better.

II. Don’t Be Afraid to Speak Truth to Power.

The silence is deafening. Silence is not required. We must register our voices and speak to the appropriate persons who will hear our concerns. The role of prophet is not just standing before large assemblies, waving placards and speaking in trances truth to power. Sometimes something as simple as writing a letter to your congressman or local representatives to express your views and opinions about certain legislation can make all the difference. Sometimes it is just making members of your church aware of key decisions that are being made that will inevitably affect your community.

Where are the voices of protest in the African American community? Where are the voices of concern in the community overall? The silence is deafening and sometimes that silence can be interpreted as approval or consent.

You will remember in the book of Esther how her Uncle Mordecai pleaded and reprimanded her for not speaking up to save her people who were threatened with annihilation. Stand up and speak up. As the old folks say it’s the door that squeaks that gets the oil. We must break the spell of silence. Speaking of the Supreme Court how can you have a black Supreme Court justice who virtually never speaks up or says anything about cases being reviewed? How can one sit in silence? To sit in silence when one should speak makes cowards of us all.

We are silent because fear has overtaken us. Fear cannot coexist with true faith. We live in a world where we see things and look the other way, we want not to get involved the price is too high to pay. But not to speak is to be part of the conspiracy of silence and silence is too deafening. Say something, write a poem, write a letter, call somebody, tell somebody, say something to · somebody, just don’t sit there like a bump on a log unaware and uninvolved.

We cannot during this perilous time, when the Gospel is being prostituted in the name of power politics, when the church is being made a whore for political interests that run counter to our rights and freedoms and the core values of our constitution, when our leaders have been paid off and bought off and compromised, we cannot afford to sit still and silent. Faith without works is dead, dead, dead.

Jesus got up from the grave so we can tell somebody, not sit sniveling silent watching the world go to hell. Getting our praise on and having a spiritual break through means more than just shouting in worship service. It means shouting truth, shouting the name of Jesus, shouting for peace, justice and equality in our land, shouting for the have not and those who want to have. Preachers shout from their pulpits, laity shout in the pews, musicians shout on their horns, and the people should be shouting truth from every hill and every hamlet in our land.

Don’t sit silent. Don’t be mute. Jesus made the lame walk and the deaf talk. Imagine somebody being touched by Jesus and they keep their silence.

The devil counts on our silence, relies on our silence, thrives on our silence, and is amused by our silence, but we must be willing as the people of God, to shout it out, to tell the truth to say something to somebody about how you feel about what is going on.

The church must not be silent in the wake of these life threatening changes in our world. Every church, synagogue and mosque should be shouting the truth of god, “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. ”

III. Be the change that you seek in the world.

This statement by Mohandas K. Gandhi is so true and is something that Martin Luther King lived by. In order to change the world, he understood that he himself must be changed. The old expression is the world won’t get better unless we get better and the biggest room in the world is room for improvement.

We must model the change that we seek in the world. How can you and I effectively exhort change if we ourselves have not been changed? We cannot use the do as I say do and not as I do philosophy in dealing with our world. WE must embody and personify the change we seek. In order to become change agents we need an encounter with that agent of change, Jesus Christ.

We need then conversion experience, converted from fear, converted from uncertainty, converted from doubt, converted from hesitation and second guessing, converted from anxiety, converted from trepidation, humiliation and aggravation, converted from apprehension, dissension and pretension, converted from the old way of thinking, the old way of doing things, converted from distrust of God and fear or man.

The church needs to be converted from a place of fear and doubt to a place of hope, faith and courage. It must not only be a priestly place but a prophetic place; a place that demonstrates the power of positive change through its own ministry.

Something has got to change in me before I can change that something. The church can’t become a change agent if folk in the church are afraid to change something in the life of the church. Some churches are just held hostage by the group that never wants to change, but in order for the church to change that group has got to change.

Some churches themselves are bastions of fear and no change, so how can a church become a change agent in society when folk in that church get upset cause the pastor changes his scripture or changes the subject of his sermon, or changes his tie between services, or changes his suits or changes his shoes or changes his change?

How is the church going to become the change it seeks in the world when it is scared to death to update and change some things around the church?

Who are we fooling? We can’t get to the prophetic because we are too afraid to change something for the better even within the church.

We must become the change we seek in the world.

Dr. King as with all other prophets before him was not afraid to model the change he wanted in the world.

Sometimes that change can come from something as simple as a little talk with Jesus, a little touch from Jesus, just a little walk with Jesus. Jesus was the change agent. No other man has done more to change lives in history than Jesus. Jesus was the master changer, the world changer so how can we call ourselves followers of Christ if we refuse to change for the better.

When he quit his job as a carpenter and took his ministry on the road he changed, when he drew disciples from the working class and not from the temple he changed, when he spoke truth the political and religious establishment he changed, when had women who faithfully supported his ministry he changed, died on the cross he changed, when he touched the blind man, the crippled man and the woman with the issue of blood they changed. When he died on the cross things changed. When he got up from the grace it a” changed.

We must become the change we seek in the world but first we need a touch from the master to morph into change agents.

Where have all the prophets gone? Where are those who will do my bidding? says the Lord. Who will go for me? Whom can I send?

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