Ed: This post is the first in a new series called “Reclaiming the Bible’s Prophetic Voice,” in which Council staff consider the biblical and theological roots of their work. You can read more from the series here.
Recently, I heard a powerful message from the Rev. William Barber. Many Council folks know him. He’s the President of the NC NAACP and pastor of the Greenleaf Christian Church (Disciple of Christ) in Goldsboro. The power of his message was not in fiery delivery. It was a low-key conversation with a group of fifty or so progressive leaders, sitting in a circle in the chapel of University United Methodist Church in Chapel Hill. The power was in the profound thoughts he expressed and in the clear rightness of his words.
While no summary can do justice to Rev. Barber’s message, his call to these leaders, both religious and secular, was that we need to reclaim the language of morality and spirituality which undergirds our work on a host of social justice issues, from health care to creation care. For those of us in the faith community, this means unabashedly quoting our scriptures and citing the teachings of our churches.
I could resonate with his words. I grew up as a Southern Baptist and will defer to no one in my love for the Bible. I used to be able to quote extensive passages, and I made it to the state finals in the “Sword Drill” as a high schooler. But as I grew older, I also heard some religious leaders misuse the Bible – take texts out of contexts, read back into the texts ideas that weren’t there, and take the Bible as an inerrant document all of whose words apply equally to life in the 20th (now 21st) century. A strong wake-up call for me was reading a book from the mid-1800s, written by a Baptist leader in the South named Richard Furman, who used the Bible to justify slavery.
Because we didn’t want to be confused with religious figures whose reading of the Bible was very different from ours, some of us backed away from being so obvious about our faith, so verbal in our use of the Bible. Sadly, that enabled those more conservative voices to seem even more to be the only voices for people of faith, for those attempting to apply ancient sacred texts to life in a much different and more complex world.
Rev. Barber is calling us, rightly I think, to reclaim the teachings of our Bible: that God and God’s people care for those who are vulnerable and excluded; that God loves justice more than religious ritual; that Jesus came to tear down the walls of race and gender and economics that divide us. For those of us who live out of a “prophetic spirituality” (a phrase Rev. Barber used, quoting Archbishop Desmond Tutu), that means proclaiming unabashedly the reasons our faith calls us to work for quality public schools, for living wages, for equal justice, for a progressive tax structure, for social services, for reducing the impact of global warming.
Over the next months, as time permits and the Spirit moves, I’ll be writing occasional reflections on Biblical passages that call progressive, prophetic people of faith to justice, compassion, and peace. Some will be passages important to me over my adult life. Others will be ones I’ve come to appreciate more as the years have gone by. None will be lengthy treatises, just some things that are important to me and maybe are important to you too.
–George Reed, Executive Director