Individual spirituality at the expense of seeking God’s will for those on the margins

By Rev. Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D.

When I was ordained into the Baptist ministry in 1978, an old preacher told me I’d “better know two things: Hiscox and God’s Word.” Now, American Baptist ordination requires seminary training and a theology paper. Yet, in both cases, a crisis in biblical interpretation, caused by compromise to cultural consensus, permits Baptist Churches to exempt themselves from theological thinking that connects the life of the congregation to the challenges of the world.

It is God’s Word that tells us that we are created in God’s image, yet we stand on the sidelines and scratch our heads when our young adults say “Black Lives Matter.” Our seminary training gives us Baptist history that traces our “voting processes” back to group prayer and discernment by consensus─not the politicking of personal preference. No wonder we lack the discernment to find God in the protests against unjust systems. “Deeds, not creeds,” we learned, and then recited a covenant of community connection before celebrating an ordinance in which we witness to a politically engineered execution that God used for our redemption. Yet we feel no connection to lives lost around us.

We sing of the “old rugged cross,” while wearing shiny gold ones that help us distance ourselves from the unjust conviction of another minority who, like Freddie Gray, will die in custody while Pontius Baltimore washes his hands. We cheer a resurrection for its personal power in salvation, but miss the victory over death that vindicates faith in a God Whose power is greater than any American greatness. Our focus on individual spirituality at the expense of seeking God’s will for those on the margins would have counseled Rosa Parks to ask God for a car. “Just believe God!” I hear someone singing in the background. “What God has for me is for me.”

Hiscox can tell me how many tables are in the church. But Hiscox does not tell me about the size of the tables, nor specifically where the money goes that’s raised on one, nor the connection between a closed table and a closed society for the other. Is our covenantal responsibility so narrowly defined that one of our own children must take the bullet, wear the handcuffs or hear the cell door slam for us to see the connection?

Baton Rouge Police Officer Montrell Jackson was buried recently. In the days before his murder, he pondered publicly on Facebook: “I swear to God I love this city, but I wonder if this city loves me. In uniform, I get nasty hateful looks and, out of uniform, some consider me a threat. I’ve experienced so much in my short life, and the past three days have tested me to the core.”

What a twist on W.E.B. DuBois century-old statement: “One ever feels his two-ness…two… souls…in one dark body.”1 Out of uniform, you’re just a dispensable enemy of the state, while, in uniform, you represent the repression of the state. Out of uniform, you can still get shot. Just ask the African American behavioral therapist in Florida who found out that his degrees weren’t bulletproof.

But Officer Jackson held out hope: “Please don’t let hate infect your heart. This city MUST and WILL get better. I’m working in these streets. So any protesters, officers, friends, family, or whoever, if you see me and need a hug or want to say a prayer, I got you.”

But hate does infect the heart, untreated by rightly dividing God’s Word, devoid of prayerful discernment of God’s will and lacking community accountability. When our prayer lives focus primarily on ourselves and our personal relationship with God, then we leave ourselves open to the selfish whims of ego, or, what Richard Rohr calls the “dark side.” It’s not just the misuse of God’s name by the oppressor, but also the delusion that God’s power is reserved for individual overcoming of the structures of injustice, and not addressing the injustice itself. Yes, what God has for me is for me.

Baptist heritage proclaims independence from the state to address its injustices. Baptist tradition includes congregational voting because we believe that the priesthood of believers gives us access to the Throne for radical group discernment. Baptist polity calls us to covenant living with each other and a table that values the lives of others. We now live in a moment in which our survival as a tradition is threatened not so much by televangelized prosperity religion, but by our own capitulation to the culture of individualism that supports it. Our numbers decrease because, in the capitulation to play the individualized theology game, we lose both our witness as well as members to those churches that do it better.

It is time to ask what God has for black lives on the margin, young people dripping with the sweat of frustration and law-enforcement officers paralyzed by fear. Our group discernment may lead us to a very different conclusion than the one currently on the table.

Rev. Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Applied Theology
Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, D.C.

1 “The Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. DuBois, 1903.

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