Music, journalism, slang, bluster – the black prophetic tradition is all around us

Mischa, 6, from Maryland, holds a megaphone in front of a ‘Black Lives Matter’ protest sign near the White House in Washington on June 10, 2020. (CNS/Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Nine years ago, in her “Love Letter to Black People,” Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza discerned the signs of the times. She used social media to prophetically highlight the sorrows and anxieties of black Americans following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin. She wrote on Facebook: “We don’t deserve to be killed with impunity. We need to love each other and fight for a world where black lives matter. Black people, I love you. We matter. Our lives matter. “

Millions of Americans responded to his message because he expressed genuine love for black people, not a social theory of anti-black oppression.

“Black Lives Matter” captures the essence of the entire black prophetic tradition. In the eyes of God and followers of Christ, black lives matter. Despite this, in recent years many Americans and, sadly, many prominent American Catholic bishops have made countless derogatory comments about a movement committed to black lives.

In a video message to a meeting of the Congress of Catholics and Public Life in Madrid last November, the Archbishop of Los Angeles José Gomez criticized the new political and social justice movements in the United States as pseudo- religions seeking to replace traditional Christian beliefs.

Last April, in an interview about his book on Catholic social teaching, Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles Robert Barron correctly explained how Catholics should “never regard economics and politics as secular, if by that we mean divorced from God and God’s purposes”. However, in the same interview, Barron connects the so-called “woke” ideologies championed by many in the United States to European modern and postmodern thinkers like Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault. According to Barron, these thinkers advocate social theories that divide humanity into oppressor and oppressed classes, focus too much on identity, demonize the market economy, and ignore God’s command to love our enemies. .

While Barron makes a compelling case for European social theories, a rich black prophetic tradition underpins current black social movements and thought.

To appreciate the black prophetic tradition, one must first turn to Judaism, prophecy, and the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament). In his classic book The prophets, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel defined prophets as people who say no to their unjust society, and their no stems from pathos or God’s concern for the oppressed. God loves the world so much that he pays special attention to neglected creatures in the world. When it comes to good and evil, God is never neutral but always a supporter of justice.

“All men care about the world,” says Herschel, “The prophet cares about God’s care.” Suffering makes God suffer, and oppression exasperates God. As God’s spokespersons, prophets express God’s deep concern for the least of us through their words and deeds.

In the first lines of Gaudium and Spes, the Second Vatican Council summed up beautifully how all Christians should live out their prophetic identity. “The joys and the hopes, the pains and the anguish of men [and women] of this age, especially those who are poor or afflicted in any way,” the council says, “these are the joys and hopes, sorrows and anguishes of the followers of Christ. Indeed, nothing truly human fails to echo in their hearts.”

The council then challenged the followers of Christ to discern the signs of the times. Prophets don’t just predict the future or recount past wrongs; they discern the signs of the times to provide insight into God’s current concerns.

Black Christians know deep in their hearts that God cares deeply for Black children, women and men who suffer under the enduring legacy of American slavery and apartheid and who continue to struggle against systemic racism. world and white supremacy. God’s pathos for black lives is the source of black prophetic tradition in the United States

The leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement do not reject Christians or Christianity; they reject the politics of respectability with churches that downplay the prophetic witness of black women and LGBTQ people.

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The black prophetic tradition began on the shores of West Africa, where tribes and villages attempted to resist captivity. It found its spiritual vitality during the Middle Passage when “the Spirit interceded with groans too deep for words” in the hearts of African women, children and men chained in the bellies of slave ships (Romans 8: 26).

It found its first expression in spirituals or religious folk songs. Despite laws denying them proper education or religious freedom, anonymous poets and musicians composed songs that expressed their unpropheticism. They sang “No more bidding block for me” and “O, freedom on me”. They linked God’s concern for Israel under Egyptian slavery with their enslavement. We see this connection in many spirituals such as “Go Down Moses”, “Didn’t Old Pharaoh Get Lost in The Red Sea”, “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “I Am Bound for the Promised Land”, to name a few.

During the Harlem Renaissance, the poet Countee Cullen would link the suffering of Jesus to the lynching of black Americans. In his poem “Christ Recrucified”, Cullen accused Southern lynchings of “crucifying Christ again”.

You even hear this prophetic tradition in jazz and blues. Billie Holiday adapted and sang Abel Meeropol’s “Strange Fruit” because the poem reminded her of her father’s refusal to seek medical treatment at an all-white hospital for his chronic lung disease. Unlike many European and Euro-American expressions of Christianity, the black prophetic tradition does not maintain a stark contrast between the sacred and the profane. The prophetic is often manifested in the words and deeds of black Christians outside of the institutional church.

Often overlooked and marginalized, black women have been the greatest prophets in the black prophetic tradition. Sexism in black churches has forced many black women to prophesy about black life and survival outside of the institutional church.

After her friend’s lynching, black journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett investigated and reported internationally on white supremacist mob violence between the 1880s and 1930s. With Mary Church Terrell and Mary McLeod Bethune, Wells-Barnett started the black women’s club movement to fight racism and improve the lives of black families.

Another example is the Women’s Political Council (WPC) in Montgomery, Alabama. After hearing complaints from black public passengers, mostly women, the WPC launched the Montgomery Bus Boycotts under the leadership of Jo Ann Robinson, an English professor at Alabama State University.

The leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement do not reject Christians or Christianity; they reject the politics of respectability with churches that downplay the prophetic witness of black women and LGBTQ people.

Because he spoke with rare clarity, Martin Luther King Jr. stands as a powerful witness to the black prophetic tradition, but we reduce him to his famous quote and forget how immensely unpopular he was in his day for speaking out against poverty and war.

The black prophetic tradition is more extensive than King – and it is all around us.

Prohibition of critical race theory, intersectional feminism, the “1619 Project” and The bluest eye will not destroy tradition. Lauryn Hill reminds us that the New Jerusalem is in every ghetto and every urban place we know. Tradition is not a social theory; it uses social theory. He uses any means necessary – poetry, philosophy, music, art, tweets, journalism, fashion, slang or bluster – to declare a prophetic no to anti-Blackness and an affirmative yes to Black Lives Matter.

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