A thought and a question: Is our gospel one of comfort, or is it a disturber of our comfortable indifference to crucial issues in our culture. This question has come back to me with the reminder that this spring is the 60th anniversary of the historic Brown-vs.-the Board of Education decision by the U. S. Supreme Court. It has been made more insistent as I have been reading the memoirs of Representative John Lewis, who was such a key figure in the emergence of the civil rights movement/protests of that period. I have lived through so much of this.

For me it is more than an idle question. I was a young pastor in the North Carolina city of Durham during the 1960s, and Durham was, in many ways, a microcosm of the civil rights movement and the tensions that it aroused. Durham was, in those days, a textile and tobacco town with two major universities. The white community was essentially racist and comfortable with the patterns of segregation, as were many of the older black citizens who found some security in that system. But, a younger generation of black college students pressed the issue, and was joined by many from the white college community of that small city.

For me, there was nothing in my training to equip me to pastor a church that was deeply rooted in the racist South when such an issue of racial injustice emerged so inescapably. Very few pastors wanted to raise such a disturbing issue with their congregations, even though many of them knew there was racial injustice that was deeply imbedded. Among pastors, in the security of their own conversations, there were debates as to whether it was their role to be ‘priests’ and to comfort God’s people, or to be ‘prophets’ and speak the disturbing word.

In my own white community it was dangerous to one’s career to speak of integration of the races within the church. The voices from the white community who were willing to speak to such an irresistible cultural tide only came from the margins. So, a good portion of the white church either ignored, or slept through that critical period. A couple of us managed to get an overture passed which amended our denomination’s book of church order to insist that no one should be denied a place in worship because of race. That, along with some preaching through (especially) the Minor Prophets, with their emphasis on justice, enabled our small church to confront the issue, though we lost a considerable number of the congregation when the first black students began to participate in the congregation

Was it disturbing? Of course! Was it also liberating? Absolutely! Can one be both prophetic and priestly as a church leader? We must be. Jesus told his followers that he “came not to bring peace but a sword,’ to divide and set parents against children and vice versa. But the implementation of justice also brings comfort and hope.

I watched much of the church sleep through, or escape from facing issues of questionable wars (such as Vietnam), and from the turbulence of a restless youth culture. Yet the scriptures speak so clearly to the necessity of the church being God’s prophetic people, who continually exegete the cultural setting of their witness with all of its turbulence, and then speaking prophetically to the role of God’s people in just such realities. Every believer should be both a disturber and a comforter.

And now, there is emerging inescapably another tide of injustice, what with the dominance of wealth in the the top 1%, and the suffering that results from economic injustice—yet the scriptures speak more to the issue of the dangers of wealth, and the worship of mammon, and it’s effect on a society, than to almost any other issue. We watched the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, and the responses to it. Comfortable church folk don’t want to be disturbed by such issues, especially “in church,” but the gospel is a double-edged sword. We dare not sleep again.

About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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