The Prophetic Witness: An Uninvited Guest

Series -- Trump Tweet - 20180801 - Prophetic Witness - Uninvited Guest


As with past presidencies, the Christian community is being challenged to interpret the Trump administration and inform the broader society out of its prophetic witness. To consider the issues of the day without a definitive response is to rob the earth of its needed salt [Matthew 5:13] and hide one’s light under a bushel [Matthew 5:15]. In Part I of the series “Trump, Prison Reform, and the White House Briefing with Black Clergy“, we take a look at a  controversial White House meeting hosted on August 1, 2018. Future articles will look at key issues related to the state of criminal justice in America.


 
Afirestorm of debate erupted following a White House meeting that featured a number of black Christian clergy. As reported, television evangelist Paula White contacted various ministers to ostensibly discuss prison reform with Donald Trump. Videos that surfaced suggest the meeting was an epic failure, both in format and nature. First, given the optics of the meeting itself. And second, in light of the of lack of policy substance discussed given the state of criminal justice reform under the Trump administration. 
 
The implications of black clergy meeting with the current White House occupant requires a response. One that sets aside questions that critics cannot definitively answer. And a response that raises questions, critiques, and offers lessons at this critical time in our nation.
 
WHAT WE CANNOT ARGUE
 
During a recent CNN interview of John Gray, Don Lemon acknowledged the South Carolina pastor’s post-meeting explanation to his congregation. Lemon then asked, “So why did you go?” 
 
Gray responded with seeming conviction, “I believe the Lord sent me.”
 
Lemon’s question is certainly on the minds of many who took issue with the meeting. However, it does not get to the heart of the concern. Nor does it leave the concerned with a sense of certainly. Ultimately, no one can honesty place himself or herself inside the relationship between God and Gray to either confirm or disprove the pastor’s answer. Only God can weigh the motivations of a person’s heart, even in moments when one suppresses these motivations from oneself. Perhaps God did instruct Gray to attend the meeting. Also possible is that Gray attended for personal glory and decided that inserting God provides an iron-clad excuse. Another scenario might suggest that God called Gray to attend with instructions that Gray failed to follow. Critics might also posit that Gray simply “got it wrong”, or misunderstood, what God was saying. We simply cannot attest t to the accuracy and authenticity of Gray’s answer to Lemon’s question. Ironically, those who trust Gray’s response and those who do not trust it share a common uncertainty. And to the extent that other clergy adopt Gray’s explanation, observers will inevitably confront the same realities.
 
In addition to the motivation question, the topic of prayer also emerged during debates after the meeting. In defense of their attendance, pastors pointed out that praying for the current White House occupant is a basic Christian responsibility. Any reasonable understanding of Christianity acknowledges a common human condition that we are all in need of prayer. To deny prayer, that is to reject the opportunity to pray for another human being is in direct opposition to God’s clarion call on the lives of the faithful.
 
The problem with this line of discussion is this. Pastors raising the issue of prayer do so by effectively erecting a strawman. Namely, one would be hard-pressed to find [Christian] critics complaining that clergy would have the audacity to pray for Trump. Exploring this topic served little more than shifting the attention to a plausible, unchallenged topic away from legitimate criticisms that demanded a more reasoned discussion.
 
And so, let’s move away from motivations that we cannot know with certainty. Let’s move beyond the prayer discussion that had little (if anything) to do with the overriding criticism. This allows a collective focus on the weightier matters to which the attendees have yet to adequately address.
 
 
 
OPTICS, THE ROOTS OF CONTROVERSY, AND BIBLICAL REFLECTIONS
 
Optics matter. Consider the imagery of Jesuits that regularly convened with Hitler and how those lasting images became a crimson stain on Catholicism. After Hitler ordered the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, Croatian Catholic newspaper Nedelja declared:

God, who directs the destiny of nations and controls the hearts of kings, has given us Ante Pavelić and moved the leader of friendly and allied people, Adolf Hitler, to use his victorious troops to disperse our oppressors and enable us to create an Independent State of Croatia. Glory be to God, our gratitude to Adolf Hitler, and infinite loyalty to our Poglavnik, Ante Pavelić. – West, Richard (1995). Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia. New York, New York: Carroll & Graf. ISBN 978-0-7867-0332-6.

 
A treasure trove of images remain of southern ministers that stood proudly with Ku Klux Klan members. Attended White Citizens Council meetings. And that provided political cover for segregationist governors, public safety officials, and other officials, during the very moments that civil rights workers suffered dogs, water hoses, lynchings, bombings, and shootings.
 
Associations work like megaphones, sending loud and clear signals to a wider audience. Jesus engaged “undesirables” such as the tax-collecting Zacchaeus and Roman soldier Nicchodemus. But these interactions were on Jesus’ terms, openingly informing the faithful on what the Apostle Paul later called “the ministry of reconciliation” [2 Corinthians 5;18]. This then, raises an understandable criticism of black clergy that met with Donald Trump.
 
This particular host has established his proclivity for belligerence, racism, and lies. Trump called African nations, “shit hole” countries. He falsely equivocated white nationalists in Charlottesville with protestors for justice; comments made in the wake of the killing of 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Trump demonstrated an inexcusable level of callousness towards the grieving widow of fallen soldier Sergeant La David T. Johnson. His very rise to national political prominence came on the heels of a six-year “birther” witch hunt. And 30 years after his call for criminal punishment of the Central Park Five, after the five teenagers were exonerated in the 1989 case involving the rape of Trisha Meili, Trump has yet to offer a public apology (not to mention financial gesture to pay for his contribution to their hardships). And more recently, the Trump campaign to demonize Muslims and brown people have created a climate of heightened bigotry that rationalizes making “Mexican” synonomous with rapists, murderers, and thugs. A campaign that leaves a large segment of American perfectly accepting of tearing infants and young children from their parents who, in many instances, are fleeting desperate conditions in Central and South America.
 
Against this backdrop, the scheduled focus on prison reform was supplanted by a cavalcade of praises to Donald Trump and his administration. Loyalist Darrell Scott went as far to esteem Trump as the most “pro-black” president in our lifetime. John Gray 
“wisdom and insights in leading our nation”,  

Under the watchful eye of news reporters, the gathering of clergy was reminiscent of similar staged events that, in many respects, define the Trump presidency. The infamous photo opp with Vice President Pence and Congressional leaders shamelessly flagellating over Trump as the latter soaked in egotism.  The all-to-frequent appearances at staged events with his base, shouting their exuberance, without regards to scandals, erratic behavior of America’s current CEO, indictments of Trump advisers and Russian nationals, and a Mueller investigation that is creeping ever so closely towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. After witnessing the pomp and circumstance of a military parade during his February meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump noted, “I want a parade like the one in France.” While controversy and disagreements hover over Trump like a lingering storm cloud, one thing is certain. The Reality Show Executive in Chief does enjoy the lights and cameras; action or lack thereof, notwithstanding.

 
This then, is the heart of the debate as to whether or not black ministers served the African Americans by sitting down with Trump, in what appears to be the latest of photo opps. A 25-minute Periscope video entitled “Chairs with no legs…..black preachers at the table with trump!“, Pastor Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple (Baltimore, MD) called the meeting “a stain on the body of Christ. This is a stain on our community“. 
 
Should black pastors have attended a meeting in an environment of racial hostility, when the lightning rod of vitriol is scheduled to be seated at the center chair? Does the Lord require of Christians, clergy and non-clergy alike, to answer the call in the midst of considerable tension in this nation? What does it mean to be labeled  “leaders” under such circumstances and to whom are these leaders accountable? In the fog of this debate, one could easily lose site of the core perspectives, challenges, grievances, and learnings that surround the question, “What do you when Donald Trump comes calling?”
 
These questions have great significance during arguably the most polarizing administration in American history. And how the public, particularly leaders, answer these question goes a long way in determining where segments of the electorate are empowered or manipulated by these gatherings. We tackle these questions, through a faith/social activism lens, in a way that extends beyond Donald Trump and applies to politicians in-general. 
 
First and foremost, the Scriptures inform us that title and power, notwithstanding, invitations sometimes arrive with disingenuous, hidden, manipulative, and destructive motives in-mind. In the 22nd chapter of Book of Numbers, King Balak feared a looming overthrow by the masses of children of Israel assembled on the Jericho side of Jordan, along the border of Moab.[Numbers 22:3] The Scriptures record that Balak dispatched messengers to instruct the prophet Balaam to pray on behalf of “distressed” Moabites. However, Balak’s call for prayer was, in-fact, a request that the prophet “curse” the children of Israel.[Numbers 22:6]. A series of exchanges between Balaam and Balak included the latter’s plan to tempt God’s people to engage in sexual deviance. The scheme was hatched to kindle the anger of God against the Israelites, enabling Moab to prevail in battle. Secular rulers are not immune to wicked inclinations. And here, Jesus’ instructions to exercise wisdom [ Matthew 10:16] is as effectual when dealing with people in power as it is when confronting other life situations.
 
through this faith lens, we can consider biblical examples where the people of God opted to outright reject invitations to stand before seats of power and influence. One of the Scriptures’ classic demonstrations involved the prophetic Nehemiah. Nine decades after the children of Israel returned from Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem, Nehemiah went on hiatus from his position as Persian Judea’s Governor and cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes I in order to rebuild the broken city of his kinsmen. The ambitious project moved through a series of obstacles, including the ongoing efforts of Sanballot, Tobiah, and Geshem to undermine the prophet’s construction program. The conspirators invited Nehemiah to a meeting in the Plain of Ono, located about 30 miles northwest of Jerusalem, “Come, let us meet together in on of the villages in the plain of Ono.” [Nehemiah 6:2]  However, their recent dealings informed the prophet of the hidden intentions in men that from the beginning were “grieved” that “there was a come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel”. [Nehemiah 2:10]  Consequently, the prophet rejected the invitation in one of the Old Testament’s most often quoted passages:
“And I [Nehemiah] sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down:why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?

In black churches across the country, it is not uncommon to hear ministers homiletically embellish the prophet’s response, “OH NO, I’m not going to Ono!

In other hostile climates, God led his ministers to avoid the traps of despots. In 1 Kings 16:33, the Scriptures reveal that King Ahab “did more to provoke the LORD God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him“. [1 Kings 16:33] The faithful might have readily concluded that such was a time so in need of a prophetic confrontation with power. However, God instead led Elijah to remove himself from ground zero of an evil administration and take up temporary residency by the brook Cherith for an undisclosed period of time. [1 Kings 17:3]

These three cases establish a precept. [2 Corinthians 13:1] Namely, that God does not uncategorically require ministers to “show up” as a response to invitation and certainly not out of personal ambition. We are to be mindful of intent, particularly when empirical evidence sufficiently informs our conclusions. Consequently, no hard-and-fast rules (i.e., biblical tenets) mandate accepting invitations, even from secular leaders like Donald Trump. That said, people of faith, who are so often inserted into the political designs of today’s leaders, can likewise entertain practical approaches to meeting with powerful individuals. Doing so provides spaces for a spiritual critique and demonstrates greater accountability to those being represented.

ANOTHER WAY

Consider this one person’s manifesto to the Christian community, particularly black clergy, on how best to leverage these moments and avoid giving weight to the stigma of “coonin”, “Uncle Tom”, or “sellout”. The prophetic traditions of the African American experience is deeply entrenched in the culture of a segment that confronted slavery, black codes, jim crow, and their offspring. Blacks have had no other choice than to understand well how to distinguish representation from mere personal ambition. As such, leaders must choose their commitment and welcome the consequences of their choice. But rarely, if ever, can they have both. The black community will not allow the darkness of personal agenda disguised as ministerial self-aggrandizement. And indeed, God will ultimately expose it – Luke 8:17, Luke 12:3, 1 Corinthians 3:9-15, 1 Corinthians 4:5.
 
As such, practical steps can be taken Pre-Meeting, Meeting, and Post-Meeting for those who truly claim to be prophetic leaders in the rich traditions of the black Christian experience.

PRE-MEETING

When that call comes to sit with people and organizations in the seats of power, whether in politics, academia, or commerce, a responsible witness must entertain and explore the following:
 
1. Know the agenda.
 
Here, one must first ask, “What are the tangible objectives (i.e., outcomes) for which a given meeting is called?” If prayer for healing or other outcomes is the agenda, the invitation must be accompanied by the host’s acknowledgement of his/her role in both prevailing conflicts and potential resolutions. If the central purpose is policy reform, black clergy must ask a number of key questions that get at the hidden intents of the inviter: 
  • Will policy experts be attending the meeting?
  • As a matter of self-examination, are the invitees the best the nation has to offer out of their active roles in the policy domain – in this case, criminal justice? One might note, for instance, that persons such as Michelle Alexander were not invited to the meeting despite her extensive work on the topic of mass incarceration.
  • What is the format of the scheduled meeting? How much time will invitees be given to discuss their perspectives in-detail?
  • Would the inviter be open to invitees yielding their invitation to another individual that is more equipped to address the matter(s) of concern?
  • What product will emerge from the meeting? Will, for instance, the meeting take on the style of a summit that ends in an official statement, memorandum of understanding, or other agreement that participants can share with their respective constituencies?
  • What to-date has the inviter done specifically to demonstrate an honest commitment to this matter(s) for which the meeting is called? This, of course, can be confirmed through independent research i.e., news reports, legislative initiatives, etc.

2. Preparation. 

Invitations to meet with senior officials have the potential to be transformative or like the lighting of a firecracker that has a faulty wick. The Apostle Paul admonished his student, Timothy, to not be a “novice”. [1 Timothy 3:6] In an era where the black community has amassed more expertise than at any time in our nation’s history, clergy need not carry the load of public policy. However, for those who do, it is a dis-service to sit at the table of policy discussions without a sharpened sword on the topics under consideration. To Pastor Jamal Bryant’s point, the recovery of voting rights for ex-felons is a fundamental issue in the black community. As noted in a previous article, America now has over 6.2 million individuals – disproportionately black – that are disenfranchised from our most basic exercise of citizenship.  The Sentencing Project, a group actively involved in criminal justice policy, reports that one out of every 13 African American has lost his/her voting rights, compared to one out of 56 non-blacks. The implications are enormous. Myriad tentacles of public policy and practices beg for reform, including police abuse, criminalization of black life, excessive force, and economic abandonment of the urban core in favor of fiscal policies that favor the most elite in American society.  Clergy that choose to insert themselves into this and other policy matters cannot be satisfied with having a “good heart” alone, when technical, fiscal, political and other considerations must be addressed to bring about reasonable change.

One might note that Donald Trump made bold overtures to the black community during the 2016 campaign. His ostensible “New Deal for Black America” outlined specific policy commitments. For instance, Trump committed to accessing FEMA resources to address blight in poor communities. His promise included business loans to help individuals transition from public assistance. These and other matters have been lost in the prioritization of befriending Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, relocating the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and pushing through a $100 billion tax cut of which 84% benefits roughly one percent of the population.

Other than empty congratulations to Trump, the meeting attendees appeared ill-equipped to have a serious discussion about policy. 

THE MEETING

You’ve put on a beautiful suit and called your family members to watch for the news coverage. The DVR is running to capture the moments. And now, you’re in the meeting. Now the question becomes, “Is the spirit that shaped God mouthpieces in times past on the list of actual attendees or was he uninvited as persona non grata?” Will you be Moses before Pharoah? Daniel before King Darius? Or will you be as Balaam that sought the riches from opportunities afforded by his prophetic calling?

These moments present probing choices and the seductions of ambition. The tug of being “glad” to be in the room is only as powerful as the hope that it will not be the last time there. The pressure of being stigmatized creates an invisible fence of capitulation. However, it is here that the prophetic witness is either seated at the table or given convenient instructions to go away until the Sunday comforts of standing behind a pulpit or on a glitzy stage.

What choices might this guest make in these moments of revealing one’s own commitments? What might a true leader do that not only honors God’s mandate for a just society but also respects the weight of accountability to the people you are called to represent? The choices are several, including:

  • In the minutes allotted, simply speak truth to power. This is not only prophetic but it is also extended as a First Amendment right to bring “grievances” to our nation’s leaders.
  • Ask the difficult questions. The Scriptures encourage us to “try every spirit”. The readily to speak an adulterated truth to power does not assumes that the underlying spirit at-work in convening a particular meeting is that of God.  Neither does this witness avoid revealing the hidden intents of moments in the presence of presidents, kings, or other clergy. In this recent meeting, a simple question could and should have been raised, “How are we to reconcile your stated interest in criminal justice reform at a time when you’ve maintained to your base that [black] NFL players fighting for justice are ‘sons of bitches’?”
  • Serious demands that serve as a test of authenticity. For instance, these invitees could have demanded that, as a show of good-faith, Donald Trump ends the disrespectful assault on black athletes that exercise their free speech in protesting police brutality. Trump’s commitment in that area would not only send a message to the black community, but also inform his base that disagreements on this vital issue need not stoke deep-seated racial animus in our nation.
  • Call colleague to the challenge, “Shall we serve God or man? Shall we be Moses or acquiesce as Balaam?”
  • In the event, these opportunities unfold as more self-indulgence than substance, it is perfectly acceptable to graciously and respectfully excuse yourself from the meeting.

POST-MEETING

Attendees at the White House briefing in-effect contributed to the controversy by dismissing a vital element of critical moments over the long course of civil rights in our nation. Leaders upheld a sense of accountability to the community. Whether in steamy churches during the Montgomery Bus Boycott or grand announcements in open forums following closed door sessions between Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, post meeting communications sustained confidence, provided hope, invoked a spirit of trust, and provided a source of dignity that affirmed the aspirations of the masses.
 
Post-meeting exchanges offer up tentative agreements. They discuss what transpired and what failed to transpire. Future actions are conveyed. Recommendations and assistance solicited. And other practical issues and actions are raised. This meeting might have led to a challenge to Donald Trump to ,”In 30 days, sit down with Department of Justice Secretary Jeff Sessions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer , House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the Congressional Black Caucus so as to chart a real/tangible course for legislative action on the most contested aspects of criminal justice reforms“.
 
This briefing offered no such follow-up, at least not in a public way. Hence, the extent to which discussions have taken place, whether by the individuals involved or their apologists, has centered around defending the attendees. And as mentioned, even the defenses miss the point of the criticisms.
 
The absence of a post-meeting further underscores another dilemma that faces African Americans. Namely, that the broader community learns from these experiences that a ready reserve of blacks are available to cast aside the prophetic traditions for the seductive influences of being “on the list”. And as long as a culture of me-ism inculcates today’s “prosperity gospel”, willing beneficiaries — will come calling.
 

IN CLOSING

Nothing is more politically self-indulgent than to call in ministers that are absolutely void of unleashing a prophetic witness in an hour that certainly demands it. This so-called briefing saddened many and for good reason.  And it is an affront to the witness of Christ that fought, suffered, and died for justice.
 
And yet, this testimony is not mean-spirited or belligerent. It finds its roots in the God of the Scriptures. It seeks not to injure, but to correct. This witness clings to both justice and mercy, love and grace, reconciliation and hope for a better future. It serves as an ambassador of the King of Kings. And it seeks that which the Holy One of Israel decrees for his creation. Truly prophetic voices, whether they emerge from Democrats or Republicans, set aside political ties in the face of pressing social issues. The world at-large is watching. Many will interpret Jesus Christ and Christianity through the actions of faith leaders when called upon to stand (or sit) before secular leaders.
 
In this current environment that exude white nationalism, raises questions about America’s underlying constitutional structures, and mocks decency, the absence of prophetic voices has led to others rising as the “rocks that are crying out” in ways that God has called of clergy. The African American community holds in high esteem LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, Angela Rye, Eric Reid, DL Hughley, Kamala Harris, Malcolm Jenkins, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and others for standing in the face of the leader of the free world persistently assaulting civil discourse. Slurring African nations, black and Hispanic-Latino groups. Undermining our nation’s institutions (e.g., including the media). And openly exhibiting hostility towards leaders of America’s international allies – while placating longstanding enemies. Individuals that resist Trumpism have not cowered to an administration that legitimizes callously tearing children from parents, pandering to the racist elements within his base of support, and promoting policies that cater to the wealthiest Americans while expanding the nation’s debt. Amid the outpouring of protest, we cannot forget that God has called faith leaders to lead. To take up the Cross as opposed to handing it off to other sacrificial lambs. 
 
The above recommended, collectively defined as “Another Way”, are intended to help clergy respond appropriately to invitations. For the broader community (i.e., the “represented”), these recommendations offer litmus test to discern authenticity from false pretense, commitment to the calling from commitment to one’s personal enlargement. This White House meeting failed to live up to the prophetic traditions that date as far back as a black Christian, Frederick Douglas, challenging President Abraham Lincoln on the tumultuous question of slavery. And for that, the criticism is deserving. The lessons, imperative.
 
 

*** If you have not already view Pastor Bryant’s video, this invites and encourages you to do so. If you hear no audio, click the mute icon on the video window to turn on volume.


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That’s Just Wrong: Reflections on Donald Trump and Black Clergy

Series -- Trump Tweet - 20180801 - Prophetic Witness - Uninvited Guest


As with past presidencies, the Christian community is being challenged to interpret the Trump administration and inform the broader community. To consider the issues of the day without a definitive response is to rob the earth of its needed salt [Matthew 5:13] and hide one’s light under a bushel [Matthew 5:15]. In this series, “Trump, Black Clergy at the White House, and Prison Reform“, we take a look at a  controversial White House meeting hosted on August 1, 2018 and the state of criminal justice reform in America.  We begin the series with this article. It looks at some of the question and topics raised about the meeting and why they distract from a more critical issues. Future articles will offer lessons that better enable black faith leaders to respond to political invitations. And we will close the series out by looking at the state of criminal justice in America with a focus on a number of related policy topics.


 
Afirestorm of debate erupted following a August 1, 2018 White House meeting that featured a number of black Christian clergy. As reported, television evangelist Paula White contacted various ministers to ostensibly discuss prison reform with Donald Trump. Videos that later surfaced suggest the meeting was an epic failure, both in format and nature. First, given the optics of the meeting itself. And second, given the lack of policy substance for under an administration whose commitment to reforms is dubious; we will explore beginning in Part III of the series. 
 
The implications of black clergy meeting with the current White House occupant requires a response. One that sets aside questions that critics cannot definitively answer. On the surface, the questions appear necessary. But we will examine why they are the wrong discussion points that distract from more meaningful discussions. Part II of this series, “The Prophetic Witness: An Invited or Uninvited Guest” will address problematic areas of what took place in the White House meeting and offer lessons for future invitations during this critical time in our nation.
 
MOTIVATIONS, THE INEVITABLE DEAD-END QUESTION 
 
During a recent CNN interview of John Gray, Don Lemon acknowledged the South Carolina pastor’s post-meeting explanation to his congregation. Lemon then asked, “So why did you go?” 
 
Gray responded with seeming conviction, “I believe the Lord sent me.”
 
Lemon’s question is certainly on the minds of many who took issue with the meeting. However, it does not get to the heart of the concern. Nor does it leave the concerned with a sense of certainly. Ultimately, no one can honesty place himself or herself inside the relationship between God and Gray to either confirm or disprove the pastor’s answer. Only God can weigh the motivations of a person’s heart, even in moments when one suppresses these motivations.
 
Perhaps God did instruct Gray to attend the meeting. Also possible is that Gray attended for personal glory and decided that inserting God provides an iron-clad excuse. Another scenario suggests that God called Gray to attend with instructions that Gray failed to follow. Critics might also posit that Gray simply “got it wrong”, or misunderstood, what God was saying. We simply cannot attest to the accuracy and authenticity of Gray’s answer to Lemon’s question. Ironically, those who trust Gray’s response and those who do not trust it share a common uncertainty. And to the extent that other attendees adopt Gray’s explanation, observers will inevitably confront the same realities. Namely, that we are left with our belief and suspicions, trusts and distrusts. Politicians understand this quandary, which can at time lead to using high-profile figures (including clergy) as pawns for manipulating the broader public.
 
THE “STANDING IN THE NEED OF PRAYER” FALLACY
 
In addition to the motivation question, the topic of prayer also emerged during debates after the meeting. In defense of their attendance, pastors pointed out that praying for the current White House occupant is a basic Christian responsibility. This line of reasonable resonates with a large segment of the black community. Many over the age of 40 at-least, can attest to growing up in black churches, where children choirs sang, “Not my mother, not my father, but it’s me o’ Lord. Standing in the need of prayer.” The Apostle Paul encouraged: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18]
 
Prayer changes things. It’s a widely 
 
Any reasonable understanding of Christianity acknowledges a common human condition that we are all in need of prayer. To deny prayer, that is to reject the opportunity to pray for another human being is in direct opposition to God’s clarion call on the lives of the faithful.
 
The problem with this line of discussion is this. Pastors raising the issue of prayer do so by effectively erecting a strawman. Namely, one would be hard-pressed to find [Christian] critics complaining that clergy would have the audacity to pray for Trump. Exploring this topic served little more than shifting the attention to a plausible, unchallenged topic away from legitimate criticisms that demanded a more reasoned discussion.
 
And so, let’s move away from motivations that we cannot know with certainty. Let’s move beyond the prayer discussion that had little (if anything) to do with the overriding criticism. This allows a collective focus on the weightier matters to which the attendees have yet to adequately address.
 
 
 
OPTICS, THE ROOTS OF CONTROVERSY, AND BIBLICAL REFLECTIONS
 
Optics matter. Consider the imagery of Jesuits that regularly convened with Hitler and how those lasting images became a crimson stain on Catholicism. After Hitler ordered the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1941, Croatian Catholic newspaper Nedelja declared:

God, who directs the destiny of nations and controls the hearts of kings, has given us Ante Pavelić and moved the leader of friendly and allied people, Adolf Hitler, to use his victorious troops to disperse our oppressors and enable us to create an Independent State of Croatia. Glory be to God, our gratitude to Adolf Hitler, and infinite loyalty to our Poglavnik, Ante Pavelić. – West, Richard (1995). Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia. New York, New York: Carroll & Graf. ISBN 978-0-7867-0332-6.

 
A treasure trove of images remain of southern ministers that stood proudly with Ku Klux Klan members. Attended White Citizens Council meetings. And that provided political cover for segregationist governors, public safety officials, and other officials, during the very moments that civil rights workers suffered dogs, water hoses, lynchings, bombings, and shootings.
 
Associations work like megaphones, sending loud and clear signals to a wider audience. Jesus engaged “undesirables” such as the tax-collecting Zacchaeus and Roman soldier Nicchodemus. But these interactions were on Jesus’ terms, openingly informing the faithful on what the Apostle Paul later called “the ministry of reconciliation” [2 Corinthians 5;18]. This then, raises an understandable criticism of black clergy that met with Donald Trump.
 
This particular host has established his proclivity for belligerence, racism, and lies. Trump called African nations, “shit hole” countries. He falsely equivocated white nationalists in Charlottesville with protestors for justice; comments made in the wake of the killing of 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Trump demonstrated an inexcusable level of callousness towards the grieving widow of fallen soldier Sergeant La David T. Johnson. His very rise to national political prominence came on the heels of a six-year “birther” witch hunt. And 30 years after his call for criminal punishment of the Central Park Five, after the five teenagers were exonerated in the 1989 case involving the rape of Trisha Meili, Trump has yet to offer a public apology (not to mention financial gesture to pay for his contribution to their hardships). And more recently, the Trump campaign to demonize Muslims and brown people have created a climate of heightened bigotry that rationalizes making “Mexican” synonomous with rapists, murderers, and thugs. A campaign that leaves a large segment of American perfectly accepting of tearing infants and young children from their parents who, in many instances, are fleeting desperate conditions in Central and South America.
 
Against this backdrop, the scheduled focus on prison reform was supplanted by a cavalcade of praises to Donald Trump and his administration. Loyalist Darrell Scott went as far to esteem Trump as the most “pro-black” president in our lifetime. John Gray 
“wisdom and insights in leading our nation”,  

Under the watchful eye of news reporters, the gathering of clergy was reminiscent of similar staged events that, in many respects, define the Trump presidency. The infamous photo opp with Vice President Pence and Congressional leaders shamelessly flagellating over Trump as the latter soaked in egotism.  The all-to-frequent appearances at staged events with his base, shouting their exuberance, without regards to scandals, erratic behavior of America’s current CEO, indictments of Trump advisers and Russian nationals, and a Mueller investigation that is creeping ever so closely towards 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. After witnessing the pomp and circumstance of a military parade during his February meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump noted, “I want a parade like the one in France.” While controversy and disagreements hover over Trump like a lingering storm cloud, one thing is certain. The Reality Show Executive in Chief does enjoy the lights and cameras; action or lack thereof, notwithstanding.

 
This then, is the heart of the debate as to whether or not black ministers served the African Americans by sitting down with Trump, in what appears to be the latest of photo opps. A 25-minute Periscope video entitled “Chairs with no legs…..black preachers at the table with trump!“, Pastor Jamal Bryant of Empowerment Temple (Baltimore, MD) called the meeting “a stain on the body of Christ. This is a stain on our community“. 
 
Should black pastors have attended a meeting in an environment of racial hostility, when the lightning rod of vitriol is scheduled to be seated at the center chair? Does the Lord require of Christians, clergy and non-clergy alike, to answer the call in the midst of considerable tension in this nation? What does it mean to be labeled  “leaders” under such circumstances and to whom are these leaders accountable? In the fog of this debate, one could easily lose site of the core perspectives, challenges, grievances, and learnings that surround the question, “What do you when Donald Trump comes calling?”
 
These questions have great significance during arguably the most polarizing administration in American history. And how the public, particularly leaders, answer these question goes a long way in determining where segments of the electorate are empowered or manipulated by these gatherings. We tackle these questions, through a faith/social activism lens, in a way that extends beyond Donald Trump and applies to politicians in-general. 
 
First and foremost, the Scriptures inform us that title and power, notwithstanding, invitations sometimes arrive with disingenuous, hidden, manipulative, and destructive motives in-mind. In the 22nd chapter of Book of Numbers, King Balak feared a looming overthrow by the masses of children of Israel assembled on the Jericho side of Jordan, along the border of Moab.[Numbers 22:3] The Scriptures record that Balak dispatched messengers to instruct the prophet Balaam to pray on behalf of “distressed” Moabites. However, Balak’s call for prayer was, in-fact, a request that the prophet “curse” the children of Israel.[Numbers 22:6]. A series of exchanges between Balaam and Balak included the latter’s plan to tempt God’s people to engage in sexual deviance. The scheme was hatched to kindle the anger of God against the Israelites, enabling Moab to prevail in battle. Secular rulers are not immune to wicked inclinations. And here, Jesus’ instructions to exercise wisdom [ Matthew 10:16] is as effectual when dealing with people in power as it is when confronting other life situations.
 
through this faith lens, we can consider biblical examples where the people of God opted to outright reject invitations to stand before seats of power and influence. One of the Scriptures’ classic demonstrations involved the prophetic Nehemiah. Nine decades after the children of Israel returned from Babylonian captivity to Jerusalem, Nehemiah went on hiatus from his position as Persian Judea’s Governor and cupbearer to the Persian King Artaxerxes I in order to rebuild the broken city of his kinsmen. The ambitious project moved through a series of obstacles, including the ongoing efforts of Sanballot, Tobiah, and Geshem to undermine the prophet’s construction program. The conspirators invited Nehemiah to a meeting in the Plain of Ono, located about 30 miles northwest of Jerusalem, “Come, let us meet together in on of the villages in the plain of Ono.” [Nehemiah 6:2]  However, their recent dealings informed the prophet of the hidden intentions in men that from the beginning were “grieved” that “there was a come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel”. [Nehemiah 2:10]  Consequently, the prophet rejected the invitation in one of the Old Testament’s most often quoted passages:
“And I [Nehemiah] sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down:why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?

In black churches across the country, it is not uncommon to hear ministers homiletically embellish the prophet’s response, “OH NO, I’m not going to Ono!

In other hostile climates, God led his ministers to avoid the traps of despots. In 1 Kings 16:33, the Scriptures reveal that King Ahab “did more to provoke the LORD God of Israel to anger than all the kings of Israel that were before him“. [1 Kings 16:33] The faithful might have readily concluded that such was a time so in need of a prophetic confrontation with power. However, God instead led Elijah to remove himself from ground zero of an evil administration and take up temporary residency by the brook Cherith for an undisclosed period of time. [1 Kings 17:3]

These three cases establish a precept. [2 Corinthians 13:1] Namely, that God does not uncategorically require ministers to “show up” as a response to invitation and certainly not out of personal ambition. We are to be mindful of intent, particularly when empirical evidence sufficiently informs our conclusions. Consequently, no hard-and-fast rules (i.e., biblical tenets) mandate accepting invitations, even from secular leaders like Donald Trump. That said, people of faith, who are so often inserted into the political designs of today’s leaders, can likewise entertain practical approaches to meeting with powerful individuals. Doing so provides spaces for a spiritual critique and demonstrates greater accountability to those being represented.

ANOTHER WAY

Consider this one person’s manifesto to the Christian community, particularly black clergy, on how best to leverage these moments and avoid giving weight to the stigma of “coonin”, “Uncle Tom”, or “sellout”. The prophetic traditions of the African American experience is deeply entrenched in the culture of a segment that confronted slavery, black codes, jim crow, and their offspring. Blacks have had no other choice than to understand well how to distinguish representation from mere personal ambition. As such, leaders must choose their commitment and welcome the consequences of their choice. But rarely, if ever, can they have both. The black community will not allow the darkness of personal agenda disguised as ministerial self-aggrandizement. And indeed, God will ultimately expose it – Luke 8:17, Luke 12:3, 1 Corinthians 3:9-15, 1 Corinthians 4:5.
 
As such, practical steps can be taken Pre-Meeting, Meeting, and Post-Meeting for those who truly claim to be prophetic leaders in the rich traditions of the black Christian experience.

PRE-MEETING

When that call comes to sit with people and organizations in the seats of power, whether in politics, academia, or commerce, a responsible witness must entertain and explore the following:
 
1. Know the agenda.
 
Here, one must first ask, “What are the tangible objectives (i.e., outcomes) for which a given meeting is called?” If prayer for healing or other outcomes is the agenda, the invitation must be accompanied by the host’s acknowledgement of his/her role in both prevailing conflicts and potential resolutions. If the central purpose is policy reform, black clergy must ask a number of key questions that get at the hidden intents of the inviter: 
  • Will policy experts be attending the meeting?
  • As a matter of self-examination, are the invitees the best the nation has to offer out of their active roles in the policy domain – in this case, criminal justice? One might note, for instance, that persons such as Michelle Alexander were not invited to the meeting despite her extensive work on the topic of mass incarceration.
  • What is the format of the scheduled meeting? How much time will invitees be given to discuss their perspectives in-detail?
  • Would the inviter be open to invitees yielding their invitation to another individual that is more equipped to address the matter(s) of concern?
  • What product will emerge from the meeting? Will, for instance, the meeting take on the style of a summit that ends in an official statement, memorandum of understanding, or other agreement that participants can share with their respective constituencies?
  • What to-date has the inviter done specifically to demonstrate an honest commitment to this matter(s) for which the meeting is called? This, of course, can be confirmed through independent research i.e., news reports, legislative initiatives, etc.

2. Preparation. 

Invitations to meet with senior officials have the potential to be transformative or like the lighting of a firecracker that has a faulty wick. The Apostle Paul admonished his student, Timothy, to not be a “novice”. [1 Timothy 3:6] In an era where the black community has amassed more expertise than at any time in our nation’s history, clergy need not carry the load of public policy. However, for those who do, it is a dis-service to sit at the table of policy discussions without a sharpened sword on the topics under consideration. To Pastor Jamal Bryant’s point, the recovery of voting rights for ex-felons is a fundamental issue in the black community. As noted in a previous article, America now has over 6.2 million individuals – disproportionately black – that are disenfranchised from our most basic exercise of citizenship.  The Sentencing Project, a group actively involved in criminal justice policy, reports that one out of every 13 African American has lost his/her voting rights, compared to one out of 56 non-blacks. The implications are enormous. Myriad tentacles of public policy and practices beg for reform, including police abuse, criminalization of black life, excessive force, and economic abandonment of the urban core in favor of fiscal policies that favor the most elite in American society.  Clergy that choose to insert themselves into this and other policy matters cannot be satisfied with having a “good heart” alone, when technical, fiscal, political and other considerations must be addressed to bring about reasonable change.

One might note that Donald Trump made bold overtures to the black community during the 2016 campaign. His ostensible “New Deal for Black America” outlined specific policy commitments. For instance, Trump committed to accessing FEMA resources to address blight in poor communities. His promise included business loans to help individuals transition from public assistance. These and other matters have been lost in the prioritization of befriending Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, relocating the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and pushing through a $100 billion tax cut of which 84% benefits roughly one percent of the population.

Other than empty congratulations to Trump, the meeting attendees appeared ill-equipped to have a serious discussion about policy. 

THE MEETING

You’ve put on a beautiful suit and called your family members to watch for the news coverage. The DVR is running to capture the moments. And now, you’re in the meeting. Now the question becomes, “Is the spirit that shaped God mouthpieces in times past on the list of actual attendees or was he uninvited as persona non grata?” Will you be Moses before Pharoah? Daniel before King Darius? Or will you be as Balaam that sought the riches from opportunities afforded by his prophetic calling?

These moments present probing choices and the seductions of ambition. The tug of being “glad” to be in the room is only as powerful as the hope that it will not be the last time there. The pressure of being stigmatized creates an invisible fence of capitulation. However, it is here that the prophetic witness is either seated at the table or given convenient instructions to go away until the Sunday comforts of standing behind a pulpit or on a glitzy stage.

What choices might this guest make in these moments of revealing one’s own commitments? What might a true leader do that not only honors God’s mandate for a just society but also respects the weight of accountability to the people you are called to represent? The choices are several, including:

  • In the minutes allotted, simply speak truth to power. This is not only prophetic but it is also extended as a First Amendment right to bring “grievances” to our nation’s leaders.
  • Ask the difficult questions. The Scriptures encourage us to “try every spirit”. The readily to speak an adulterated truth to power does not assumes that the underlying spirit at-work in convening a particular meeting is that of God.  Neither does this witness avoid revealing the hidden intents of moments in the presence of presidents, kings, or other clergy. In this recent meeting, a simple question could and should have been raised, “How are we to reconcile your stated interest in criminal justice reform at a time when you’ve maintained to your base that [black] NFL players fighting for justice are ‘sons of bitches’?”
  • Serious demands that serve as a test of authenticity. For instance, these invitees could have demanded that, as a show of good-faith, Donald Trump ends the disrespectful assault on black athletes that exercise their free speech in protesting police brutality. Trump’s commitment in that area would not only send a message to the black community, but also inform his base that disagreements on this vital issue need not stoke deep-seated racial animus in our nation.
  • Call colleague to the challenge, “Shall we serve God or man? Shall we be Moses or acquiesce as Balaam?”
  • In the event, these opportunities unfold as more self-indulgence than substance, it is perfectly acceptable to graciously and respectfully excuse yourself from the meeting.

POST-MEETING

Attendees at the White House briefing in-effect contributed to the controversy by dismissing a vital element of critical moments over the long course of civil rights in our nation. Leaders upheld a sense of accountability to the community. Whether in steamy churches during the Montgomery Bus Boycott or grand announcements in open forums following closed door sessions between Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Lyndon B. Johnson, post meeting communications sustained confidence, provided hope, invoked a spirit of trust, and provided a source of dignity that affirmed the aspirations of the masses.
 
Post-meeting exchanges offer up tentative agreements. They discuss what transpired and what failed to transpire. Future actions are conveyed. Recommendations and assistance solicited. And other practical issues and actions are raised. This meeting might have led to a challenge to Donald Trump to ,”In 30 days, sit down with Department of Justice Secretary Jeff Sessions, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer , House Speaker Paul Ryan, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, and the Congressional Black Caucus so as to chart a real/tangible course for legislative action on the most contested aspects of criminal justice reforms“.
 
This briefing offered no such follow-up, at least not in a public way. Hence, the extent to which discussions have taken place, whether by the individuals involved or their apologists, has centered around defending the attendees. And as mentioned, even the defenses miss the point of the criticisms.
 
The absence of a post-meeting further underscores another dilemma that faces African Americans. Namely, that the broader community learns from these experiences that a ready reserve of blacks are available to cast aside the prophetic traditions for the seductive influences of being “on the list”. And as long as a culture of me-ism inculcates today’s “prosperity gospel”, willing beneficiaries — will come calling.
 

IN CLOSING

Nothing is more politically self-indulgent than to call in ministers that are absolutely void of unleashing a prophetic witness in an hour that certainly demands it. This so-called briefing saddened many and for good reason.  And it is an affront to the witness of Christ that fought, suffered, and died for justice.
 
And yet, this testimony is not mean-spirited or belligerent. It finds its roots in the God of the Scriptures. It seeks not to injure, but to correct. This witness clings to both justice and mercy, love and grace, reconciliation and hope for a better future. It serves as an ambassador of the King of Kings. And it seeks that which the Holy One of Israel decrees for his creation. Truly prophetic voices, whether they emerge from Democrats or Republicans, set aside political ties in the face of pressing social issues. The world at-large is watching. Many will interpret Jesus Christ and Christianity through the actions of faith leaders when called upon to stand (or sit) before secular leaders.
 
In this current environment that exude white nationalism, raises questions about America’s underlying constitutional structures, and mocks decency, the absence of prophetic voices has led to others rising as the “rocks that are crying out” in ways that God has called of clergy. The African American community holds in high esteem LeBron James, Colin Kaepernick, Angela Rye, Eric Reid, DL Hughley, Kamala Harris, Malcolm Jenkins, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, and others for standing in the face of the leader of the free world persistently assaulting civil discourse. Slurring African nations, black and Hispanic-Latino groups. Undermining our nation’s institutions (e.g., including the media). And openly exhibiting hostility towards leaders of America’s international allies – while placating longstanding enemies. Individuals that resist Trumpism have not cowered to an administration that legitimizes callously tearing children from parents, pandering to the racist elements within his base of support, and promoting policies that cater to the wealthiest Americans while expanding the nation’s debt. Amid the outpouring of protest, we cannot forget that God has called faith leaders to lead. To take up the Cross as opposed to handing it off to other sacrificial lambs. 
 
The above recommended, collectively defined as “Another Way”, are intended to help clergy respond appropriately to invitations. For the broader community (i.e., the “represented”), these recommendations offer litmus test to discern authenticity from false pretense, commitment to the calling from commitment to one’s personal enlargement. This White House meeting failed to live up to the prophetic traditions that date as far back as a black Christian, Frederick Douglas, challenging President Abraham Lincoln on the tumultuous question of slavery. And for that, the criticism is deserving. The lessons, imperative.
 
 

*** If you have not already view Pastor Bryant’s video, this invites and encourages you to do so. If you hear no audio, click the mute icon on the video window to turn on volume.


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About Kenneth

As Co-Founder of LowdCrowd, I hope that we make positive societal contributions through this resource.

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