Wednesday, April 18, 2018

ONE YEAR LATER


                                                            ONE YEAR LATER
Justice Is a Verb!
©Wendell Griffen, 2018
April 18, 2018

            One year ago I and other members of New Millennium Church took part in a peaceful and reverent Good Friday prayer vigil outside the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion to express our moral and religious opposition to capital punishment and our solidarity with Jesus of Galilee, the leader of our faith who was put to death by crucifixion at the order of Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor of Palestine.  We remembered that Jesus was a subject of capital punishment.   

On the following Monday (April 17, 2017), the Arkansas Supreme Court permanently banned me from all civil and criminal cases involving capital punishment, the death penalty, or the method of execution in Arkansas.  So last October, I filed a civil rights lawsuit against each member of the Arkansas Supreme Court in federal court. 

In that lawsuit, I challenged the permanent ban issued by the justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court as a violation of my First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, and freedom to exercise my religion, and my Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law (because I was not given notice nor a hearing before it was imposed).  I also challenged the permanent ban as a violation of my Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law (because it is more severe than punishment imposed to white judges who committed notorious and illegal conduct such as accepting a bribe, drunken and reckless driving, and demanding and accepting sexual favors from defendants in exchange for issuing lenient sentences).  And I challenged the permanent ban because it resulted from conspiracy by the justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court and others to deprive me of the powers of my elected office based on animosity against me because I am African-American.   

On April 12, 2018, the federal court ruled that my lawsuit asserts factually plausible claims that the justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court violated my rights to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom to exercise my religion, due process of law, and equal protection under the law.  The federal court also ruled that my lawsuit asserts a factually plausible claim that the permanent ban issued by the justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court resulted from an illegal civil conspiracy to deprive me of my right to equal protection under the law.  Now my lawyers will uncover and expose the facts that bear out my legal claims, facts that the justices of the Arkansas Supreme Court and others are desperate to hide. 

I am as committed to the rule of law today as I was a year ago, if not more so.  I am as committed to holding and expressing my moral and religious opposition to the death penalty as I was a year ago, if not more so.  That is why I joined other members of New Millennium Church last night (April 17, 2018) in attending another peaceful and reverent vigil and demonstration outside the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion.  Again, I lay on a cot in silent prayer.  Again, I had my Bible.  Again, I wore a button calling for an end to the death penalty. 

Arkansas law makes death by lethal injection one of two alternative punishments for capital murder (the other alternative is life imprisonment without parole).  I followed that law before Good Friday, 2017, and I will follow it whenever my authority to preside over capital cases is restored. I took an oath to follow the law, including laws that I consider objectionable on moral and religious grounds. 

My obligation to follow the law does not compel me to agree with every law.  The First Amendment to the US Constitution  protects my freedom to hold and express moral and religious opposition to the death penalty, including freedom to peacefully and lawfully question the morality of state-sanctioned premeditated and deliberate killing of people who have been convicted for the premeditated and deliberate killing of other persons. 

If a person who has been convicted of premeditated murder is deliberately and premeditatedly killed, we should condemn that killing as murder.  Murder is wrong, even when the state hires people to do it.  Anger and bloodlust are not excuses for the state to commit premeditated murder of people who have committed premeditated murder for an understandable reason.  Two wrongs don’t make anything right.  

That was true a year ago.  

It is true a year later.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

DISHONORING DR. KING’S MINISTRY AND MEMORY THRU EULOGY



Justice Is A Verb!
©Wendell Griffen, 2018


As people across the world commemorate the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. today, the feature editorial in today's issue of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper chose to eulogize Dr. King rather than criticize injustice as he did. The editorial can be found at the link posted ‎above. It focuses on Dr. King's prophetic Letter From Birmingham City Jail response to white moderate religionists in Birmingham who criticized Dr. King's presence and direct nonviolent civil disobedience challenges to racial segregation in Birmingham, Alabama.  The editorial author chose to use the 50th anniversary of Dr. King's assassination to applaud Dr. King's eloquence and clarity in that letter penned from a jail cell. 

Some observers will consider the editorial a fitting, if not flattering commentary. However, that is neither fair nor fitting to Dr. King's memory and ministry. Martin Luther King, Jr. did not die on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee because he penned the eloquent Letter From Birmingham City Jail in 1963. He was slain because he insisted and persisted in confronting the United States about its flagrant hypocrisy about and damning dedication to injustice. The Democrat-Gazette editorial dodged that subject, as if King's greatest contribution to humanity was being an eloquent scrivener.  Dr. King's death should not be dismissed by flowery words about his eloquence, erudition, and rhetorical competence.  

Fifty years after Dr. King was murdered, the giant evils of racism, militarism, and capitalist materialism he challenged with increasing alarm and anger during his last years should not be disregarded and discounted by resorting to eulogy. Respect for Dr. King's life and the way he died deserves much more than pleasant words about his skill as a communicator.

Fifty years after April 4, 1968, black, brown, red, and poor white people are routinely being slain by law enforcement agents in the US.  

Immigrants are being mistreated.

Women and girls are being assaulted and subjected to other unfairness.

Voting rights are being undermined.

The air, water, and soil are being poisoned.

US war-making continues 50 years after the assassination of the prophet who courageously insisted that war-making is a human rights issue.

Fifty years after Dr. King was murdered in Memphis, workers are still being exploited in Memphis, Tennessee, Little Rock, Arkansas, Dallas, Texas, and elsewhere across the US.

Fifty years after Dr. King was slain, religionists of all stripes are still more interested in civic ceremonies than social justice.

Fifty ‎years after Dr. King's voice was silenced, we should not be deceived when people eulogize Dr. King after they spent the last half century working against social justice.  We should not accept shallow sentimentality as a substitute for societal repentance and a fierce insistence on doing justice.

Dr. King's memory and ministry deserve much more than sentimental eulogies from us.  Justice is a verb, not a platitude.

Wendell Griffen
Author, The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope
‎Written from Memphis, TN

Hope Fiercely! Love Boldly!

Friday, March 30, 2018

GOOD FRIDAY, EASTER, AND THE “RE-ASSASSINATION” OF DR. KING



©Wendell Griffen, 2018
Justice Is a Verb!
March 30, 2018

            Good Friday marks the crucifixion/assassination/lynching of Jesus, the Jewish prophet whose ministry of healing and preaching presented the people and powers of 1st Century Palestine with a radical alternative to imperial religion, commerce, government, and culture.  We do not experience Easter correctly by ignoring, discounting, or deliberately mis-stating this.  This year Good Friday and Easter occur within days of April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee.  The coincidence is more than ironic. 

Good Friday reminds us that religion, commerce, government, and culture are constantly tempted and threatened by notions of empire, including the myth of sanctified violence.  South African theologian Allan Boesak makes this point in his latest book, Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood Red Waters, in the following words.

Empires not only create realities of dominations and subjugation; they also create myths:  of invincibility, endless power, infinite duration, great beneficence, and divine incarnation.  Crucial to all these is what Walter Wink called the “myth of redemptive violence.”  Instead of acknowledging the violence it uses because it is needed for continued domination, subjugation, and exploitation, the empire “enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war makes peace, that might makes right.”  Consequently violence is not only necessary; it is the only thing that “works.” [1]

The sanctioned violence that killed Jesus resulted in the recent slaying of Stephon Clark, an unarmed black father, brother, and grandson, by two Sacramento, California police officers.  Stephon Clark was shot 20 times in the backyard of his grandmother’s home, where he lived until he was slain.  He was given no medical attention for several minutes after he was gunned down.  After being shot 20 times, Stephon Clark was handcuffed, but denied medical attention or assistance.  Stephon Clark was mutilated so much from the gunshot wounds and two autopsy procedures that his family was forced to hold a closed casket funeral service.   

If we do not connect Stephon Clark with Good Friday it is because we are somehow unable or unwilling to detect the similarity between the slaying of Jesus and the slaying of Stephon Clark, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Jr., Amadou Diallo, Rekia Boyd, Tamir Rice, Eugene Ellison, and so many other black, brown, and poor white unarmed persons by the armed and militarized agents of political, commercial, religious, and cultural empire.  If we do not connect the assassination of Dr. King with Good Friday, we are not likely to connect the slaughter of Stephon Clark and so many others with Good Friday.  Like Jesus and Dr. King, people like Stephon Clark have been slain after being hounded, spied on, and threatened by armed and militarized agents of political, commercial, cultural, and religious empire. 

Finally, it is important that we realize how Dr. King’s memory, ministry, and message are “re-assassinated” by self-serving political, religious, commercial, and cultural agents of empire. When people gather on April 4 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death, politicians, captains of greed, religious pretenders, and cultural hijackers of all varieties who have spent their careers distancing themselves from or opposing Dr. King’s work of social justice will clamor to be seen, heard, quoted, and considered as disciples of his prophetic devotion to the Beloved Community.

In Arkansas, Governor Asa Hutchinson is scheduled to be the “keynote” speaker for a mid-day gathering at the State Capitol on April 4.  Governor Hutchinson’s official bio states that he is a graduate from the University Of Arkansas School Of Law.  It does not disclose that he graduated from Bob Jones University in South Carolina in 1972, four years after Dr. King was slain. On Easter (April 17, 1960), Bob Jones, Sr. delivered a radio sermon titled, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” which served as the University racial position paper through the ’60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.  Bob Jones University did not enroll Africans or African-Americans until 1971, three years after Dr. King’s death and one year before Governor Hutchinson received his undergraduate degree.  In 1976, the Internal Revenue Service revoked the tax exemption for Bob Jones University, retroactively to 1970, because the institution practiced racial discrimination.  Governor Hutchinson enrolled in and attended a racially-segregated college four years after passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act for which Dr. King labored and countless people suffered and died. 

As Administrator of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, Governor Hutchinson led DEA actions that contributed to mass incarceration of persons of color and low-income white persons for non-violent drug offenses, a problem described by Professor Michelle Alexander as “the new Jim Crow.”  And Governor Hutchinson’s “keynote” speaker role on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination is more odious because of his past advocacy with the National Rifle Association.  Recall, that Dr. King and his mother were murdered by persons who shot them to death.  Recall that the NRA has led opposition to regulate firearms and has resisted governmental attempts to study the health impact of firearms in the U.S. 

Given this history, Governor Hutchinson’s “keynote” address will amount to “re-assassination” of Dr. King’s memory when the governor pimps Dr. King’s moral authority on the steps of the Arkansas State Capitol on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination. 

Remember Jesus, Dr. King, and Stephon Clark, and other victims of state-sanctioned violence on Good Friday.  Remember the names and faces of the racists, militarists, and materialists who have spent the last half-century pimping Dr. King’s name and memory while fighting the causes for which he lived and died.  Then remember the part of the Sermon on the Mount that is rarely quoted, but which speaks with unflinching accuracy on Good Friday, Easter, and any other time.

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles? ...You will know them by their fruits.  (Matthew 7:15-16, New Revised Standard Version). 



[1] Allan Aubrey Boesak, Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood-Red Waters:  Prophetic Critique on Empire-Resistance, Justice, and the Power of the Hopeful Sizwe—A Transatlantic Conversation (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017), pp. 81-82.  

Thursday, February 22, 2018

REFLECTIONS ON THE LIFE AND MINISTRY OF REV. BILLY GRAHAM


REFLECTIONS ON THE LIFE AND MINISTRY OF REV. BILLY GRAHAM
©Wendell Griffen, 2018
Justice Is A Verb!

The Reverend Billy Graham moved from life in God among us to life in God beyond us on yesterday at the full age of 99 years.  Known and revered across the world as a congenial preacher of the gospel of Jesus, Reverend Graham’s passing has received the accolades and recollections appropriate for someone who worked so long and was acclaimed by so many.  Having been received by US presidents from both major political parties across the years, it is understandable that Rev. Graham is remembered in news accounts as pastor to presidents.  We should also, however, acknowledge that Rev. Graham was patriarch to his biological family.  As that family engages in the necessary efforts required to honor his life, ministry, and paternal influence, we should include them in our prayers.

Much has been written and said about Rev. Graham’s influence as a religious leader.  More will be said and written in the future about his influence on the evangelical Christian movement.  I have read tributes to Rev. Graham from faithful people I know who embraced the gospel of Jesus during one of his evangelistic crusades.  These people are sincere.  Their reflections are moving. 

Rev. Graham should also be remembered for refusing to accommodate racially segregated seating during his evangelistic crusades at a time when Jim Crow segregation was followed due to custom and the force of law.  That fact is noteworthy because it was a drastic departure from the practice of most white religionists in the US South.  Billy Graham Crusades included Ethel Waters singing along with his preaching when few US white congregations would allow black people to worship with them, let alone be featured as soloists.  We should not treat that fact lightly in our reflections about Rev. Graham’s ministry.

During his later ministry, Rev. Graham expressed regret that he had not devoted more attention to social justice in his preaching.  As one Catholic observer pointed out, “Billy Graham was asked once why he preached only personal salvation and not peace and justice. He said that as people become converted, they would be peacemakers and justice-seekers. He was pressed further. How come he’d been converted, and wasn’t more upfront about these things, then? From that day, to his credit, Graham included more of the dimensions of the Good News in his preaching. Following Jesus, we’re called to make visible the Good News, and that means both putting it into words and showing by our lives what it means in terms of justice and love.” http://www.catholicsocialteaching.org.uk/themes/peace/reflection/ten-reasons-justice-essential-gospels/.  
If we are to think and speak accurately and honestly about Rev. Graham’s ministry, we must acknowledge that Rev. Graham’s pastoral ministry to presidents and his worldwide fame as an evangelist did not include much, if anything, about justice and peace.  This is not because Rev. Graham was not urged to include social justice in his public ministry.  Indeed, Rev. Graham was prodded to proclaim the gospel of Jesus as more than a religion of personal salvation during a visit from Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor when Dr. Proctor served as special assistant to Sargent Shriver in the federal Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO).  Dr. Proctor succeeded Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church, was personal friend and mentor to Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and was a pastoral neighbor and collaborator with Rev. Gardner C. Taylor, who served as pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, NY for many years.  Dr. Proctor was also president of North Carolina A & T College when Rev. Jesse Jackson was an undergraduate (and football quarterback), and was president of Virginia Union University when Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. was a seminary student at that school. 
In his book titled My Moral Odyssey (Judson Press, 1989) - which has a foreword written by Bill Moyers - Dr. Proctor recounted something he experienced while serving in the Johnson Administration as President Johnson was trying to garner support for the War on Poverty.   
Once President Lyndon Johnson asked me to visit a widely acclaimed evangelist to solicit his moral support for the war on poverty.  I did, and what a shock!  He lived like royalty and told me that he did not get involved in such things.  He only “preached the gospel.” When I reminded him of what the gospel said in Matthew 25 about feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty, visiting prisoners, and taking in strangers, he took refuge in some inane, insipid theological irrelevancies.  Without knowing it, he dismissed Jesus as a “liberal.”  (pp. 134-35, emphasis by Dr. Proctor)
            Dr. Proctor wrote more expansively about this encounter in The Substance of Things Hoped For:  A Memoir of African-American Faith (Putnam, 1995) as follows:
One day Bill Moyers called from the White House and asked me to leave fast, go to the airport, and fly to Charlotte, North Carolina, with Billy Graham.  We were helping a lot of poor mountain people near where he lived, and we wanted his support. 
All through the flight down we talked church, religion, and social change.  When we reached his mountaintop home, we had a delicious lunch and more conversation.  It all settled down to a stalemate:  Dr. Graham felt that his business was to preach the gospel and change the hearts of individuals.  Changed persons would then change society.
I countered with the teachings of Jesus in Chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel, in which he admonished that at the day of judgment we would all be separated into sheep and goats.  One got to be a sheep by feeding the hungry, giving water to the thirsty and clothing to the naked, visiting those in prison, and taking in the stranger.  The sheep entered into the Master’s joy.  Goats did not do such things and were consigned to a burning hell.
Reverend Graham smiled and said that I was making Jesus into a “liberal.”  It was odd, though, that while he officially avoided political involvement, he often boasted of advising several presidents. (p. 123)
                As a follower and preacher in the religion of Jesus, I join the rest of the world in acknowledging the long and wide preaching ministry of Rev. Billy Graham.  I join the rest of the world in praying for his family in this time of bereavement.  No one should deny that he influenced many people in ways that were personally profound. 

            Yet, as we reflect on Rev. Graham’s ministry in the world and the reception he enjoyed among presidents and other powerful figures in the US and elsewhere, it is fair to point out that Rev. Graham was not involved in the March on Washington in 1963.  Rev. Graham did not openly endorse the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed segregation based on race, sex, religion, and national origin.  Rev. Graham did not support the war on poverty.  He did not oppose the war in Southeast Asia. 

When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called for an end to US military involvement in Southeast Asia, Rev. Graham’s strong voice was strangely silent.  As indigenous people in India and Africa were struggling to throw off oppressive colonizers from Europe, Rev. Graham’s powerful voice was strangely silent.  When Africans were being slaughtered and Nelson Mandela was jailed for decades in South Africa, Rev. Graham’s voice was strangely silent.  When Palestinians were being thrown off their ancestral lands by Zionist Jewish settlers and the United Nations was adopting resolutions declaring Jewish settlements illegal, Rev. Graham was silent.

Rev. Graham was silent when the Reagan administration engaged in illegal gun-running by allowing drug cartels to smuggle cocaine into the US and accelerate mass incarceration through the hypocrisy of a war on drugs. He was silent about racial profiling, mass incarceration, violence against women and girls, and people who are LGBTQ.  One searches in vain to find Rev. Graham relating the struggles of working people to the gospel of Jesus, despite the fact that Jesus hailed from a working class family.   

            That strange silence about social justice, more than anything else, may be the most lasting effect of Rev. Graham’s long and wide ministry, for all its otherwise laudable contributions.  Whatever else one may say or think to commend Rev. Graham’s ministry, the recent words of George Will in the Washington Post are indisputably true.  Rev. Graham was “no theologian… Neither was he a prophet.”  https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/billy-graham-was-no-prophet-thats-why-america-loved-him/2018/02/21/398ce31a-1722-11e8-92c9-376b4fe57ff7_story.html?utm_term=.4ed7e3d10740.  

For if anything is obvious from the US presidential election of 2016, four out of five people who self-identify as “evangelical Christians” voted for Donald Trump, described in one BBC news article as “a thrice married casino-building businessman.”  As I wrote in The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope (Judson Press, 2017): “On November 8, 2016, 81 percent of the people who profess to be evangelical followers of Jesus in the United States refused to proclaim by their votes that God cares about people who are hungry, thirsty, homeless, frail, imprisoned, and unwelcomed”  (p. 141). 

            Perhaps their pastors are imitating Rev. Graham, whose understanding of the gospel of Jesus somehow did not move him to challenge US presidents, other powerful people, and the multitudes who attended his evangelistic events to see God in our hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, and immigrant brothers and sisters.  Perhaps that is why people are rejecting the term “evangelical” in their religious identity as followers of Jesus.  This is not comfortable or pleasant to contemplate as we reflect on Rev. Graham’s life and ministry, whether now or at any other time.  Most people prefer to not contemplate it at all, but instead limit their reflections about Rev. Graham to eulogies and platitudes. 

That discomfort and preference, however, does not change the truth we know.  Despite all that Rev. Graham did to proclaim the love of God, the evangelical movement that celebrates his legacy and that he represented is widely – and sadly – identified with and supportive of policies and practices that are racist, sexist, patriarchal, militaristic, imperialistic, homophobic, economically dismissive or oppressive towards workers, poor and otherwise vulnerable and frail people and the creation, and xenophobic.   In that regard, the evangelical movement now lionizes Billy Graham while it pays lip service, at best, to Jesus. 

As we remember Rev. Graham’s ministry to the world, his pastoral relationships with several US presidents, and the enduring effect of his ministry on people who call themselves evangelical Christians, one wonders how different and better the last fifty years might have been if Rev. Billy Graham had joined his voice with that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bill Moyers, Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., Rev. Gardner Taylor, and Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor.  One wonders as we ponder Rev. Graham’s influence on the people who occupy pulpits, pews, and voting booths.  And one wonders as we think of the issues and people Dr. Samuel Proctor urged Rev. Graham to advocate for and include in his preaching during the day they spent together over fifty years ago.

We may never know.  We who are followers of Jesus can only strive to embrace and embody a prophetic faith that is much deeper and wider than personal salvation, however much that was valued by Rev. Graham and is emphasized by his evangelical followers.  The religion of Jesus is not only about God saving individual souls.  It is about God saving the world.  Rev. Graham had many opportunities to make that plain to multitudes and by his personal ministry to the powerful and privileged.  Sadly, he refused to do so.

 We should not follow that example.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

FOLLOWING JESUS BY LOVING LGBTQ PEOPLE, NOT RELIGIOUS EMPIRE





FOLLOWING JESUS BY LOVING LGBTQ PEOPLE, NOT RELIGIOUS EMPIRE
A Pastoral Response to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Decision to Discriminate in Hiring Decisions Involving Married LGBTQ Followers of Jesus
Justice Is A Verb!
©Wendell Griffen, 2018

I sent the following email message on February 10, 2018 to more than seventy persons in response to a decision by the Governing Board of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to discriminate against married LGBTQ followers of Jesus in hiring persons for missions field personnel and supervisory positions.  Because I serve as pastor of New Millennium Church, a congregation affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) since it was organized in the spring of 2009, I am publishing the email message on my social media platforms.   

Colleagues,

After engaging in an almost two-year process, yesterday the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship adopted a policy that bans married persons who are LGBTQ from being employed as missions ‎field personnel or in supervisory positions. This policy is unjust. It reinforces bigotry towards LGBTQ people. It violates the Great Commandment of Jesus that we love our neighbors as ourselves. As pastor of New Millennium, I denounce the announced policy as unworthy of our support.

I will request that New Millennium meet to discuss the CBF decision. Pat Griffen and I were involved in the CBF co-sponsored Conference on Sexuality and Covenant in 2011 that convened in Decatur, Georgia. Our congregation co-sponsored and hosted a conference in April 2016 titled "Embracing Diversity and Inclusion of LGBTQ Persons in the Black Church." We are in active fellowship with the Church Within A Church Movement, a voluntary association of followers of Jesus committed to LGBTQ equality and inclusion, and Pat Griffen and I were presenters during the 2017 CWACM gathering in Washington, DC.  We are the only Arkansas church in the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB). Our Holy Saturday seder observances intentionally include and reference solidarity with persons who are LGBTQ.  

Plainly, CBF and New Millennium Church disagree about  LGBTQ equality and inclusion. The Illumination Project process and the CBF decision on yesterday proves that CBF does not choose to be, plan to be, or desire to be walk with LGBTQ people and with us concerning this love and justice imperative‎. New Millennium Church now must decide whether to keep faith with our affirmation to welcome all persons in God's love, or walk away from our open and unapolgetic solidarity with Jesus and LGBTQ persons for equality and inclusion.

I will not support continued funding or involvement in CBF initiatives. CBF has chosen love of its purses above love of God's LGBTQ people. I am unwilling to follow that path as pastor of New Millennium Church. If our congregation is to keep faith with the love and justice imperatives in the gospel of Jesus, we should not be seduced by claims about following Jesus to carry out the Great Commandments and Great Commission by a body that consciously and proudly celebrates a decision to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status.

I am sending this message to our congregation, to persons with whom we have fellowship relationships in CBF, to leaders in the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, to local and national leaders in the Church Within A Church Movement, AWAB, and other faith leaders with whom I have been in dialogue and fellowship about LGBTQ equality and inclusion. I do this to make my pastoral position clear. Some people will disagree with or disapprove of my position. No one should be unsure about it.

Please share this message with anyone in our sphere of ministry I may have omitted. I will reprint it on my personal blog and social media platforms, and ask that it be posted to the church website and social media platforms.

‎Sincerely,

Wendell Griffen
Author, The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope
Pastor, New Millenium Church

Monday, January 15, 2018

A CLOSE LOOK AT GOD, FAITH AND PROSPERITY

A CLOSE LOOK AT GOD, FAITH AND PROSPERITY
©Wendell Griffen, 2018
New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
January 14, 2018
Second Sunday after Epiphany (Year B)
Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday

Luke 16:10-15, 19-31
10 ‘Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth,* who will entrust to you the true riches? 12And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.’*
14 The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him. 15So he said to them, ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.
19 ‘There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table; even the dogs would come and lick his sores. 22The poor man died and was carried away by the angels to be with Abraham.* The rich man also died and was buried. 23In Hades, where he was being tormented, he looked up and saw Abraham far away with Lazarus by his side.* 24He called out, “Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in agony in these flames.” 25But Abraham said, “Child, remember that during your lifetime you received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in agony. 26Besides all this, between you and us a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who might want to pass from here to you cannot do so, and no one can cross from there to us.” 27He said, “Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house— 28for I have five brothers—that he may warn them, so that they will not also come into this place of torment.” 29Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the prophets; they should listen to them.” 30He said, “No, father Abraham; but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.” 31He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” ’

        We worship God today on the Sunday before the US national holiday to honor the life, faith, and fellowship of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Followers of Jesus have long viewed Sunday as our worship day because the New Testament Gospel accounts about Jesus report that his resurrection happened on that day of the week. 

Next to Easter (Resurrection) Sunday, the Sunday before the King Holiday may be the Sunday cherished most by followers of Jesus who believe in social justice.  This is because Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., unlike other persons for whom a US holiday is named, is remembered for his devotion to social justice.   Dr. King never sought nor held any public office.  He did not serve in the military.  Dr. King was not financially wealthy based on the standards of his day.  Yet, his fierce and nonviolent advocacy for social justice has left a more lasting and profound impact on life in the US and the rest of the world than did the careers of the presidents and generals of his era, or even since then for that matter. 

We do Dr. King a disservice, however, if we ignore or forget that he always labored, agitated, demonstrated, spoke, and protested based on his identity with and ministry in the religion of Jesus.  In that sense, Dr. King not only rose above the politicians of his time and ours.  He rose above the religious leaders of his time and hours in the US and across the world.  Rev. Billy Graham was welcomed by and held evangelical rallies in cities across the US, and he was hosted in the White House by several presidents.  But Rev. Graham’s ministry is seldom – if ever – remembered for having challenged the conscience of people in the US and around the world concerning the evils of inequality, war, racism, greed, and the suffering people experience because of those realities.   

Followers of Jesus also do Dr. King a disservice if we do not view the conditions, situations, and experiences of our time as he did, through the lens of the love and justice ethics of the Hebrew Bible and the life and teachings of Jesus preserved in the New Testament.  We should take avoid the common mistake of remembering Dr. King as “a civil rights leader.”  Dr. King was a prophet from God and disciple of Jesus. 

Dr. King was a preacher.  He served with his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia.  And, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. became co-founder and the chief theologian for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.  In all these roles Dr. King functioned as a prophet in the tradition of Jesus.  If we do not remember Jesus and his ministry when we honor Dr. King, we not only do a dis-service to Dr. King’s life and ministry; we do a dis-service to the love and justice ethics of God that Jesus lived, taught, and for which Jesus (and Dr. King) ultimately died.  

The lesson Jesus taught in Chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel is strikingly relevant concerning our thinking about God, faith, and prosperity in 2018 as we reflect on the life and ministry of Dr. King.  Many people are familiar with the saying that “no one can serve two masters.”  I suspect that few people, however, associate that saying with the lesson Jesus issued and that Dr. King often mentioned about God, faith, justice, and prosperity.  In proclaiming the lesson about the rich man and the pauper named Lazarus, Jesus was expounding on the fundamental moral, ethical, theological, and social view that knowing and loving God involves becoming one in fellowship and peace with our neighbors, including persons whose situations are different from our own.  In doing so, Jesus issued a scathing condemnation about the idolatry of wealth under the guise of prosperity.

Jesus set up the lesson about the rich man and Lazarus with the following statement:  “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much…No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and wealth.”  We then read these words.  The Pharisees, who were lovers of money, heard all this, and they ridiculed him.  So he said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for that which is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:10, 13-15)  We find the lesson about the rich man and Lazarus after reading that the Pharisees – described by Luke as “lovers of money” – ridiculed Jesus for saying “you cannot serve God and wealth” (mammon in KJV). 

Nothing in the lesson about the rich man and Lazarus suggests that the rich man did not believe in God.  Neither the rich man nor Lazarus is identified as religious in this lesson.  What the lesson emphasizes is that the rich man idolized wealth with complete disregard for Lazarus and his miserable plight.  That point is highlighted when the lesson mentions how the dogs showed compassion toward Lazarus licking his sores while Lazarus was unable to even depend on table scraps from the rich man. 

Lazarus was conspicuous in poverty and misery; the rich man was conspicuous in luxury and comfort.  The rich man only noticed and named Lazarus in the afterlife, when his situation was defined by agonizing misery while Lazarus was at peace and comfortable.  Then, the rich man who refused to offer table scraps to relieve Lazarus from the agony of starvation when they were neighbors wanted Lazarus to provide a drop of water to relieve the agony of his thirst. 

The rich man idolized wealth during his lifetime.  He enjoyed the comforts of wealth.  Nowhere does the lesson suggest that the rich man paid any regard for Lazarus and the clear inequality of their situations.  In this regard, Jesus used the rich man in this lesson to condemn the Pharisees, religious folks who “were lovers of money.”  This is the way Jesus expounded on his teaching that “you cannot serve God and mammon.”   The lesson about the rich man and Lazarus was how Jesus tried, in the way of Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, to “make it plain” that idolatry of wealth is “an abomination in the sight of God.”[1]

What Jesus made plain is that the Pharisees, like the rich man in this lesson, justified themselves “in the sight of others; but God knows your hearts; for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).  That point is profoundly made in the teaching about the rich man and Lazarus.  While the formerly sick and starving Lazarus is envisioned in the afterlife feasting in blissful fellowship with Abraham, patriarch of the Hebrew faith and people, the man who idolized wealth is envisioned in everlasting and agonizing separation from God and from the faithful community. 

The figure of speech “Abraham’s bosom” in the lesson indicates that Lazarus had a place of safety and security in the afterlife.  This figure of speech is drawn from the ancient banquet custom of was reclining on couches during a meal so that head of one person would reach the chest of the next person.  To engage in conversation with that person, one would lean his head back against the person’s breast.  It was a sign of high honor to be seated next to a celebrated guest at a banquet, and to be seated next to the host was a sign of the highest honor. 

So, in proclaiming this lesson, Jesus dramatically not only showed the great moral, ethical, and social distance between the rich man and Lazarus.  Jesus declared that the rich man was eternally out of fellowship with the entire community of the faithful. 

This lesson was a powerful condemnation of the Pharisees, religious folks who loved wealth, as being hypocrites.  Remember what Jesus said:  Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.  Jesus termed religion that loves wealth dishonest (Luke 16:10) and “an abomination in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15).  And Jesus used the lesson about the rich man and Lazarus to drive that point home!

More than any other person in recent memory, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. exposed the abominable (meaning morally detestable and despicable) dishonesty (hypocrisy) and idolatry to wealth of religion and culture in the United States.  Unlike the current president of the United States, Dr. King did not see or speak about poor and unprivileged people in vulgar terms.  Unlike the self-professed “religious conservatives” who have been the chief supporters and defenders of the current president of the United States, Dr. King spoke up for poor people, sick people, oppressed people, and people who suffered from the effects of wars.  We do Dr. King’s life and ministry a tremendous injustice by allowing his memory to be defined by anything less than the love and justice imperatives found in the religion of Jesus that he preached and lived. 

When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King preached and lived, we will do much more than engage in annual daylong acts of service.  We will join voices and forces to denounce, condemn, and resist the idolatrous religion of empire and greed that traffics in fear, hypocrisy, and violence.  We will denounce, condemn, and resist policies, politicians, and other powerful actors that marginalize and threaten people across the world like Lazarus, people who live in conspicuous misery while others celebrate conspicuous consumption. 

When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King preached and lived, we will denounce President Trump and every other person who thinks and speaks about any child of God as being from a “shithole” country.  We will not only cringe about people who, like the rich man, live with callous disregard, outright disdain, and hellish hypocrisy towards our neighbors who suffer, we will confront and challenge them. 

When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King preached and lived, we will confront and challenge our imperial lust for wealth while refusing to share with people in Haiti, El Salvador, across Africa, and elsewhere in the world.  And we will prophetically challenge President Trump and anyone else with the truth that idolatry to wealth inspired the white supremacy and racism responsible for so much of the poverty, disease, and other suffering in Haiti, El Salvador, Africa, and other black and brown areas of the world. 

Idolatry of wealth motivated white European versions of President Trump to plunder, rape, and commit violence in black and brown societies across the world.
 
Idolatry of wealth drove white colonizers and imperialists to steal land from and kill indigenous black, brown, and red people in Africa, India, and throughout the Western Hemisphere.    

Idolatry of wealth inspired white religionists to disregard the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus in order to justify trying to exterminate indigenous people.

Idolatry of wealth inspired white religionists who, like the Pharisees who ridiculed Jesus, were lovers of money rather than God, called the entire hellish slavery empire organized and operated in this society righteous. 

Idolatry of wealth inspired white religionists to sanction slavery and manifest destiny, sanction discrimination against immigrants, and support laws and policies that legalized discrimination, bigotry, and abuse of people like Lazarus.

Idolatry of wealth inspired those white religionists to call resistance to slavery and anti-discrimination and anti-poverty advocacy evil.   

When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King preached and lived, we will remind President Trump and anyone else what the Psalmist declared long ago at Psalm 24:1:  The earth is the LORD’s and all that there is in it, the world, and those who live in it…  We will remind President Trump and anyone else who idolizes wealth that God became incarnate as a colonized child in a poor family.  We will remind President Trump and anyone else who idolizes wealth that when the child Jesus was threatened by a maniacal ruler named Herod an angel directed Joseph to take Jesus and Mary to Egypt, a nation in Africa.    

When we follow the love and justice imperatives in the religion of Jesus that Dr. King lived and preached, we will declare that President Trump’s spirit resembles that of the rich man Jesus spoke about.  We will proclaim that the idolatry of wealth that President Trump has worshiped across his personal, professional, and political career is enabled, supported, defended, and even championed by people who call themselves “evangelical Christian conservatives.”

Then we will, in the spirit of Jesus and Dr. King, position ourselves with the Lazarus people of our society and world.  We will do this because we refuse to turn our backs on the love and justice imperatives in the Great Commandment that we love God wholeheartedly, intentionally, and courageously, and that we love our neighbors – including our neighbors who suffer from the effects of poverty, abuse of power, income inequality, sickness, violence, racism, nationalism, imperialism, sexism, and other wickedness because of human idolatry of wealth. 

Finally, we will warn President Trump and the current version of the Pharisees who idolize wealth how idolatry to wealth works to separate them from what is real prosperity.  Biblical prosperity is never self-centered; it is always communitarian.  A prosperous person, community, and society is one that protects, provides, supports, and nourishes people like Lazarus, not one that belittles, marginalizes, and oppresses people like Lazarus. 

By refusing to protect, provide, support, and nourish Lazarus during his lifetime, the rich man came to a dreadful and tormented end.  Jesus prophetically warned anyone who shares the idolatry of wealth illustrated by the rich man in this lesson that God does not condone and will subject to severe judgment the idolatry of wealth that President Trump and his self-proclaimed religious conservative sycophants represent.

Why?  “No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other.”
 
Why?  “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much.”

Why?  “You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Jesus said it.  Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived, preached, and died in obedience to those love and justice imperatives.  Let us honor Jesus and his prophet, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by proclaiming those love and justice imperatives with steadfast courage and fierce hope.  This is how we can challenge and condemn the idolatry of wealth demonstrated by the current version of Pharisees and President Donald Trump, their “rich man.”  

Amen.



[1] Rev. Dr. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. is Pastor-Emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church, Oakland, California, Emeritus Professor of Homiletics, American Baptist Seminary of the West, and a former President of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.