A Prophetic Witness in Trying Times

Eddie Glaude, addressing the 2009 Conference

(Edited transcript)

Glaude_Eddie2_2009Thank you for your welcome. I’m trying to figure out, why am I here? My theology amounts to a series of intuitions. Raised Catholic, but baptized in Baptist waters at Morehouse College, a scholar of a naturalist, John Dewey, a kind of historian of ideas when it comes to African-American religious practice, and someone who imagines himself as a kind of public intellectual of sorts in this confusing moment – I’m trying to figure out, why did they invite me here? The only answer I came up with is to tell you the truth: It’s to speak from my heart about this moment. I hope that we can have a dialogue about what this moment represents for each of us as American citizens, and what this momentpresents to us as persons who claim to be Christian.

A Prophetic Witness in Trying Times. I’m a professor, so I’m going to pitch a little hard. But I’ve seen the topics – you guys are ready.

The great George Herbert Mead, a pragmatist sociologist, understood the past as a condition of the present. Without it, we lose our temporal bearing in the moment we occupy. We understand where we are, the things we care about and the current lives we live, in light of the doings and sufferings of others who have come before us. But for Mead, there are moments in the present, the emergence of novelty, that do not follow from the past – that the past relevant to which it was novel cannot be made to contain. In other words, its newness is seen in relation to our past experiences. Hence the phrase “It’s unlike anything we’ve ever experienced before.” Those experiences themselves cannot help us account for the newness itself. (I’m going to bring it home; just stay with me.)

For the present, Mead argues, there is always a past; and in those moments when true novelty emerges and our current story cannot account for it, we must tell ourselves a story that in fact will. The past will vary as the present varies. How, then, do we account for those moments that fundamentally reorder how we understand ourselves and the world we inhabit? We return to the past, to the archive, to that which marks out and in a sense selects what has made the peculiarity of the new, possible. Let me make this a little bit less abstract.

We find ourselves in this momentous present, as American citizens, the beneficiaries of a grand but deeply flawed experiment in democracy, confronting the novel in the form of our first African-American president. And as a nation, we are struggling to account for his emergence and the significance of his presence to our national self-conception. As such, we’re manically returning to the archive, searching desperately our national past to make sense of and to select what has made this peculiarity possible. Some find resources for this effort in our national myth: we are after all the shining city on the hill, as Reagan’s riff on John Winthrop – the redeemer nation, a nation with a divine calling to be a beacon light unto the world. President Obama’s election, for some at least, further solidifies this self-imagining. Others appeal to a progressive understanding of American history: even though we have fallen short in relation to our stated principles, we as a people are always striving toward a more perfected union – wrongs are realized and righted here. That realization and correction confirms our inevitable end, namely a perfect union – so slavery’s stain is no more, women’s marginalization no more, Jim Crow no more, all in the forward march to the end which we are destined to reach. Still others find no need to appeal to history at all. America, they might say, has never been bound by the past. It is a nation predicated on an open-ended future, and President Obama exemplifies this fact. We have no need, they might argue, to be concerned about the problems of the past. His election announces that we have removed the burdens of the old only to embrace with unbridled enthusiasm the possibilities of now and of the future.

So, three traditional ways of accounting for ourselves: national myth, progressive history, or we are outside of history altogether. Now each of these approaches should sound familiar, because they have provided, in one way or another, a framework for our national history as it is. But the underlying challenge here, what makes this effort so charged with the emotion of uncertainty, is that this man, this particular body, brings into view those experiences of a people who have called into question the very premises of the story that we’ve told ourselves as a nation. For Obama to be the occasion to return to the archive demands, at least for me, an encounter that can only result in a deep and profound national shudder – or, as we have too often seen, in evasion of serious matters, or retreat into the comforts of adolescence.

Since its inception, the United States has struggled to reconcile its democratic commitments with undemocratic practices. I suppose most nations and people struggle with the contradiction in their midst; it’s all too human. But the United States, the so-called city on the hill, has had to grapple with, even fight over, the disturbing presence of its slaves and their children. Indeed our status as property, our standing as second-class citizens, undermine for some at least, the national claim of divine favor, or minimally call into question our democratic values. From early colonial petitions, immigration schemes, abolitionism, eventually or perhaps tragically the Civil War, and to the black freedom struggles of the mid-20th century, race matters have haunted our national promise, casting in grisly relief the unsightly side of American democracy. At the heart of our national malaise, at its very core, has been an adamant refusal to accept black folk as truly American, a refusal to accord them dignity and respect and to recognize their central place in the making of this nation.

The collateral effect of this refusal has too often been what James Baldwin described as an estrangement, a sense of being in but not of a place, a feeling of distance from and a longing for home, not so much a literal state of exile, but a state of being much like that of Franz Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, of being unhoused in one’s own home. The difference, of course, is that no monstrous transformation is required. You don’t have to wake up as a bug – blackness is sufficient.

Obama’s presidency represents for some at least, a final ritual of expiation, a purging of the wages of our national sin. We can finally call this place home. But this view, which I believe is true to a point, when combined with Obama’s incorporation into the traditional narratives of American exceptionalism, only deepens our national racial malaise.

It seems tragically that Obama’s election was the result of a Faustian bargain, by which race can no longer be so easily – as if it ever was – invoked in public conversation about national policy. It seems that our first African-American president, and the efforts to account for his presence, occasion the most recent iteration of what Ralph Ellison brilliantly described as the fantasy of an America free of blacks. Ellison published in 1970 an insightful essay entitled “What America would be like without Blacks.” Ellison was complicated in 1970; he wasn’t your typical black nationalist. In this essay, Ellison rightly rejected any attempt to deny the centrality of African-Americans to this fragile experiment in democracy. Our style, our language, indeed our very presence, are essential to the distinctiveness of American life, he argued. That presence also calls attention to the contradictions that have shadowed our country since its inception. It is here that the American fantasy takes root – our national effort to rid ourselves of the great scandal of the United States of America, that recurring fantasy of solving the basic problem of American democracy by getting shut of the blacks through various wishful schemes that would banish us, Ellison writes, from the nation’s bloodstream.

Obama’s presidency ironically gives new life to this fantasy, and we are weaving a past to account for it. For some, he cannot talk explicitly about racial inequality without being accused of engaging in bad identity politics. And if he chooses to do so, if Obama chooses to address race head-on, he must delicately balance his formulations with talk of self-help and personal responsibility. When he talks to black folk, he has to lecture us about being responsible so that you can feel better about yourselves. African-Americans are not completely banished; our presence, however, no longer disturbs and disrupts America’s hubris. We are now its face.

President Obama is not the beginning of some post-racial era. Instead his limitations – not his alone, but ours as a nation – deepen a dangerous racial game, our other national pastime. What we are witnessing is a deepening of our national pathology, a scandalous silence about the various ways racism continues to impact the life chances of so many of our fellow citizens, as some seek finally to get shut of blackness. Unemployment today is 10.2%; African-American unemployment is well over 16% – can’t talk about it. It’s been that way for over two, three, four decades – can’t wrap our minds around it. Obama can’t talk abut the fact that 45% of those folk who are uninsured without health care are black and brown people. Can’t talk about it. Can’t talk about the disproportional representation of black and brown folk in the prison industrial complex – Obama can’t talk about it. Can’t talk about those who are wallowing on the underside of American democracy, as America struggles in this particular economic downturn, in this depression-like state, black folk and brown folk and poor folk are catching — I can’t say it in the pulpit. Poverty is a bad word in Obama’s mouth. Black folk and brown folk, how do we muster the courage to speak truth to the reality that so many folk in the United States are left behind?

What is happening right before our very eyes is an attempt to account for the novel, the emergent that is Obama, by appealing to a past that confirms America’s inherent goodness. That appeal secures our national conscience in the illusion of innocence, an innocence which can now finally be protected from the wounds of “our Negroes” –because for some, they have now been rendered truly and ironically invisible. I’m reminded, as quite often happens these days, of the words of the late, great James Baldwin. In 1951, in an essay entitled “Many thousands gone,” with the voice of a white narrator, Baldwin wrote these words: “Time has made some changes in the Negro face. Nothing has succeeded in making it exactly like our own, though the general desire seems to be to make it blank, if one cannot make it white.” When it has become blank, Baldwin writes, when “the past is thoroughly washed from the black face, as it has been from ours, our guilt will be finished.” Obama, blank, a purging ritual. Baldwin went on to write in that same essay, “In our image of the Negro breathes the past we deny – not dead, but living yet and powerful, the beast in our jungle of statistics.” He wrote, “It is this which defeats us, which continues to defeat us, which lends to interracial cocktails [or worship services] their rattling, genteel, nervously smiling air. In any drawing room, at such a gathering, the beast may spring, filling the air with flying things and unenlightened wailing.” Baldwin goes on to write, “Whenever the problem touches, there is confusion, there is danger. Wherever the Negro face appears, a tension is created, the tension of a silence filled with things unutterable. It is a sentimental error, therefore, to believe the past is dead. It means nothing to say it is all forgotten, that the Negro himself has forgotten it,” Baldwin writes. “It is not a question of memory. Oedipus did not remember the thongs that bound his feet; nevertheless the marks they left testified to that doom toward which his feet were leading him.”

The novel, the emergent, as Mead described it, calls for a past that accounts for it. I’m of the mind that simply fitting Obama into an American narrative of exceptionalism fails in this regard. Much more is required of us; indeed how we look back affects how we move forward. It is not enough to say, “Come, you are now a part of America.” It requires a fundamental reexamination of what we mean by America.

The structure of feelings cannot remain intact, and this demands a prophetic voice. What do we mean when we use the word “prophecy”? Are we talking about a practice that somehow discloses a future and gives us a glimpse of things to come, or a way of talking that is at least on its face more acceptable than mere fortune telling but seeks to uncover for us our fortunes? Prophecy in my view is not about the future at all. It is all about the present and how we give voice to enduring principles that animate our traditions, principles that somehow have been compromised by the choices of people. At its etymological root, to prophesy means to speak on behalf of something or someone, be it God, be it nation, be it muse – the prophet is one who speaks, yet her speech derives its authority, not from some inner source, but from something outside. It is a form of common complaint, in the sense that the prophet “assesses the world from a unified view of reality, a view that has undergone years and years of testing by previous generations.” Prophecy involves hope for deliverance, a hope not simply based on the actions of fallen and finite men and women. If that was the case, the road to despair would be a short one, given the pervasiveness of misery and evil in our lives. This hope is grounded in a regulative ideal towards which we aspire, but which ultimately defies historical fulfillment. One hopes not for a heavenly kingdom on earth – that would be impossible to achieve – but rather that men and women would assume a prophetic stance with an eye towards that kingdom beyond history, in which the evils of the world are seen as part of the exigencies of life, as challenges to confront, and with the help of God to overcome.

The prophetic voice then demands solidaristic efforts to resist suffering. We must engage in ongoing conversation and critical reflection upon the conditions of our living; so we join with others and we aim for a new and better social order. And in those moments of profound novelty, prophetic voices aid us in our efforts to give an account of our conditions of living, an account that highlights the blind spots, the blind spots that turn our attention away from “the least of these.” To begin to account for this moment, this Obama moment, requires of us an existential encounter with the fullness of our history and the historical wounds that reside therein. Americans have a nasty habit of rushing past wounds. I’ll say it again: If we are to account for this moment, it requires of us an existential encounter with the fullness of our history and the historical wounds that reside therein; you can’t rush past that to some utopia. Those strange fruit dangling from poplar trees, you can’t rush past that. All of those worn souls who struggled for basic civil rights in the south, many of whom suffer from something akin to past-traumatic syndrome, you can’t rush past that. Those who languish in ghettoes with no possibility for a decent wage and adequate education, any possibility beyond the misery of their circumstances, we can’t rush past that. We can’t rush past our dead. We can’t rush past them. Yet and still, yet and still, we can’t linger too long, or better, rot there. One must strike a delicate balance between piety and self-reliance.

Ralph Waldo Emerson urged us to read history and its meanings in order to discover how it might serve us in this insistent present. But unlike Emerson, for the descendants of slaves and their intimacy with white supremacy, historical wounds frame our reflections about the constraints of history and the possibilities made available to us in our reading of it. Emerson’s words still ring true: “The dead sleep in the moonless night. My business is with the living.” But for those whose skin bears the markings of a different journey, the business of living requires coming to terms with the dead, precisely because their ghosts continually haunt.

I’m reminded of those darker souls, who by the mysteries of history were snatched from their native lands and brought to this country. I’m reminded of their initial embrace of Christianity, and that the slave holders knew that there was something unsettling about the gospel, and in the hands of the oppressed, that this religion could generate a different kind of spirit. They understood that point so well that they were initially reluctant to allow missionaries to proselytize among the slaves. They were only convinced to allow them to do so, when the argument was made that Christianity would make them better slaves. Listen, the extent to which this view was held is best seen in what black candidates for baptism were required to assent to. Listen: “You declare in the presence of God and before this congregation that you do not ask for the holy baptism out of any design to free yourself from the duty and obedience that you owe to your master while you live, but merely for the good of your soul and to partake of the graces and blessings promised to the members of the church of Jesus Christ.” For those committed to the evil of slavery, race and greed colored their religious commitments.

We do not see as a result of such obvious hypocrisy, the embrace of Christianity by slaves into the great revivals of the 1740s and 1780s. For during these revivals, there was an emphasis, not simply on religious instruction, but rather on the inner experience of God’s love and grace through conversion. God’s presence was capillary. He flowed through the very bloodstream of the converted. This conversion experience held tremendous implications for the life of the slave, just as it did for those who experienced the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. The slave was made anew. She was transformed by the reordering presence of God. You see the slaveholder misunderstood that religious instruction cut at least in two ways. One could teach the slaves the prayers, the doctrines, the rites of Christianity; but if they were to be more than mere parrots of the faith, they would have to understand the meaning of Christianity. But it is precisely in this that the slaveholder had little control, for as Albert Raboteau, my brilliant colleague, writes, “In slave religion the slaves brought their cultural past to the task of translating and interpreting the doctrinal words and ritual gestures of Christianity. Therefore the meaning which the missionary wished the slaves to receive, and the meaning which the slaves actually found, were not the same.”

So much so, that the slave, as Howard Thurman noted, undertook to redeem the religion of the slave master that had been profaned in their midst. Their embrace of Christianity reflected a fundamental transformation of spirit. They were no longer defined by the power relationship of master and slave, they no longer saw themselves as simply extensions of the master’s will: God’s presence in their lives short-circuited the power that defined the master-slave relationship. They were now beholden to a master who was no respecter of persons, but gave his son to die for all, bond or free, black or white, rich or poor; and by virtue of that relationship, and the spirit which manifests it, their material existence was reordered. The power of Christianity for the slave rested in its prophetic dimensions, and many Christians today, black and white, would do well to return to those early American Christians. My colleague Stanley Hauerwas needs to stop looking to the first century, but to turn instead to those early American Christians, who like those on Pentecost were filled with the new wine, because of the transforming power of the Spirit. Indeed Christ’s message does not justify the order of things; it reorders personality and the world.

But today we have too many Christians who would put the Pharisees to shame. They walk around like they’re spiritual aristocrats, condemning folk to hell like they have a patent on God’s grace and love. Humble yourselves! They want to protect fetuses, but they say little about the babies that are suffering right here, right now. They want to define what constitutes genuine, loving relationships, but they seemingly have no love in their hearts for those who are different from themselves. They want to talk about values, but they socialize their children into unloving and undemocratic dispositions. What are you saying to your child when you say you can’t sing to the Lord over there because those folks are different, they’re sinners? You’re teaching them to hate in the name of the Lord. They preach about the bounty that is the Lord in terms of material acquisitions. Prosperity gospel, orienting the saved to riches and material goods instead of urging them to criticize greed and mendacity. We’ve got an ATM religion running around here today. They’ve become deaf to the prophetic message of Christ and offer little help in accounting for those lost in the fog of this current moment.

Where is the church in this moment? We’re busy worrying about losing all of our members to these non-denominational megachurches. Where are Christians in this moment? Where are the prophetic voices in this moment, who are willing to offer a counter to those who find in the Gospel, hate? When are we going to step up for Christ, in front of all of these Constantinian Christians, these folk who are content to walk the corridors of power? We don’t need any more court prophets today.

The past we may find to account for President Obama matters a great deal. And the work of prophetic voices in aiding us in accounting for it is central. I’m going to return to James Baldwin. He wrote in a wonderful essay, that many folk don’t read, “A white man’s guilt”:

History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read, and it does not refer merely or even principally to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways. History is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities and our aspirations. To recognize history’s presence in us, then, is to understand the absolute necessity, I want to maintain, of fingering history’s jagged edges, in order, if just for a moment, to prick our frames of reference, and to unsettle our established identities.

For Baldwin, and I agree, the past orients us appropriately to the task of self-creation and of reconstructing American society. Baldwin’s words again: “In great pain and terror, one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is, and formed one’s point of view.” “In great pain and terror,” because therefore one enters into battle with that historical creation, oneself, and attempts to recreate oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating. One begins to attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history. But obviously, Baldwin writes, “I’m speaking as a historical creation, which has had to bitterly contest its history, to wrestle with it, and finally to accept it in order to bring myself out of it.” Obama is not the occasion for us to run from our past; he’s the occasion for us to stare it squarely in the face, so that we can imagine a bright future, not to continue our living in Never-Never Land, in the state of perpetual adolescence that we lived in for so long as a country.

Baldwin’s words provide a blueprint for addressing the challenges of our moment. We cannot discard the past as a nation, or in our churches. It is what it is. We must understand all too well its charm and magic. If we are genuinely to move forward, we must honestly confront this nation’s and our church’s history, in all of its complexity, and see how their imprint informs and shapes our choices. Confronting them genuinely allows us, at least for a moment, to break loose from their tyrannical power, so that we may imagine ourselves and the nation anew. History’s ghosts, even when they intrude on our efforts to account for the novel, occasion an opportunity, burdensome though it may be, to reflect on the difficulty of belonging. How we manage that difficulty involves how we orient ourselves to the problem. Baldwin placed much faith in shifting the object of our concern; we turn to the past to account for the urgency of now and to better equip ourselves to invade the future intelligently, and with love.

In the end, I accept America’s past, not out of reverence, but because of an unyielding faith in future possibilities made possible by our presence here today. It is a wager that memory can work on history, to open up space for those of us who struggle to forge a distinctive life in light of the wounded lives already lived. And for those of us who hold up the life of Christ, we need to ask the question in these times, to those Christians who have become too adjusted to injustice, Whatever happened to the solemn blessings that opened the Sermon on the Mount? “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are the meek, for they shall possess the land. Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are they that hunger and thirst after justice, for they shall have their fill. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. Blessed are the peacemakers.” (Obama?) “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be the children of God. Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

You can’t be a Constantinian Christian and bear witness to this message. You can’t be obsessed with walking the corridors of power and bear witness to this message. When Jesus read the scroll of Isaiah, he declared that we, if we hear him, must work prophetically to transform this world. This is not milque-toast liberal Protestantism here. To release the captives and to help the blind to see, to work for the liberation of all of those who are locked out, despised and rejected, to unsettle the world – that is the role of the prophetic voice. If you’re a Christian and you’re walking around and folk ain’t unsettled by being next to you, what’s going on? That’s our charge.

Prophetic Christians must stand against the idolatry that masquerades as Christ’s message, even if it’s in a black body. That is the charge to keep I have, as the old hymn goes. “A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify, a never-dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky. To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill – oh, may it all my powers engage, to do my Master’s will.” Prophetic witness in these trying times. Thank you so much.

Eddie Glaude
Professor of Religion and African American Studies
Princeton University

Address delivered to the
Covenant Network of Presbyterians
November 6, 2009

Comments will go through moderation before they are posted. Those wishing to leave a comment must include their full name and a working email address, and all comments must be respectful and civil. Personal, ad hominem, or anonymous comments will not be allowed.