PROPHETIC ANSWERS IN A DIVISIVE TIME
©Wendell Griffen, 2017
2017 T.B. Maston Foundation Award Banquet
Executive Coordinator – Cooperative Baptist Fellowship
Friday, October 6, 2017
Dallas Baptist University
David Morgan (Chair, T.B. Maston Foundation Board)
Current and former Maston Trustees
Suzii Paynter, the 2017 Maston Foundation honoree
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is a special pleasure to attend this banquet and join others who acknowledge the dedication, discipline, and fiercely amiable courage of Reverend Suzii Paynter. I have not known Suzii as long as many of you. However, I find myself unable to think of any other living soul who has given me more personal joy in being Baptist.
Suzii, congratulations on this well-earned recognition! Beyond that, thank you for accepting and doing the important and often difficult work of leading Cooperative Baptists at what I have come to term “a divisive time.” Thank you for leading us with dignity and courage. Thank you for being an advocate, and for being a prophetic soul for and to our faith group with its uneven history – at best – of recognizing and heeding prophetic leadership.
I will speak tonight from the subject Prophetic Answers in a Divisive Time. You do not need me to persuade you that we live in a divisive time. After all, we are Baptist people. Our history – and perhaps our habit (if not our heritage) – is defined by divisiveness.
At the risk of inviting your disappointment, if not your disagreement, I do not believe we are living in a time that is more divisive than past eras. Humans have always managed to quarrel, dishonor, and try to oppress one another. Every age has its candidates and competitors for imperial supremacy. In every age, people have tried to steal and kill their way to dominance. In every age, new ideas have been met with doubts, derision, and attempts to persecute the people holding them. In every age, those who are strong have used their strength to oppress others who are vulnerable.
In every age, immigrant people have been targeted for exploitation and persecution. In every age, religion has been used as an agent for hating people we should love, and claiming that doing so is proof of fidelity to God.
We are not the first people to live in a time of intense racial and religious discord. Has there ever been a time when humans did not argue, break fellowship, and even wage war among themselves about notions of religion and beliefs about ethnic and ancestral identity? I think not.
I could mention other examples to illustrate that divisiveness is not new in this society or elsewhere for that matter. That reality is clear from secular and sacred history. Ours is not the first era to witness divisiveness.
We are the first, however, to witness so much divisiveness in real time on a constant basis. We are the first humans to live when it is possible to know within minutes about tragedies that happen around the world. And that makes us the first humans to be able to live knowing about tragedies affecting countless others yet behave as if we do not care or cannot find the means to do anything about them.
How shall you and I, as followers of Jesus, provide answers to so many people concerning so much suffering? Where do we find strength to face the suffering, let alone encourage those who suffer? How do we deal with our own sense of inadequacy, the painful lessons of past times of crisis, cruelty, timidity, and even mendacity that cause so many people to distrust God, disavow faith in God, and distance themselves from opportunities to become community with other persons for the glory of God?
Let me offer a couple of suggestions. They are not original. They are insights from Howard Thurman, the African-American mystic and pastor who inspired Samuel DeWitt Proctor and Martin Luther King, Jr., and from Allan Aubrey Boesak, the South African theologian who labored alongside Desmond Tutu and others to confront racism, materialism, and militarism in South Africa.
Writing in n The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman made the following observation.
We keep a troubled vigil at the bedside of the world. We cannot accept its sickness as unto death but we cannot grasp the meaning and the hope of a cure that will make life all about us hale and well. The contemplation of the destruction of the world at our hands confronts even our little lives and their little part with a guilt too vast to assuage and too overwhelming to manage. Thus we clutch the moment of intimacy in worship when we become momentarily a part of a larger whole, a fleeting strength, which we pit against all the darkness and the dread of other times.
I think we who are often called on to speak up for the unheard, show up for the overlooked, and cry out for those whose cries have been disregarded must take care that we hold onto a sense that we are what Thurman termed “part of a larger whole.” No matter what powers and problems we face, whether they stem from forces inside us or forces around us, we must always remember that we are not alone.
We are part of a larger whole. God is doing something big, no matter how little we think of ourselves or how little others think of us. God is up to something. Through Jesus, we have reason to believe we’re supposed to be involved with it.
Whenever your prophetic strength seems inadequate to the oppressive realities that seem to cause so much divisiveness and suffering, remember we are part of a larger whole. You and I are only a part of what God is doing. God is doing more about whatever troubles us than we know. God’s Spirit is working in ways we do not know. God’s grace is moving on people in ways we do not know. God’s mercies are operating in places we do not know.
We are little parts of God’s BIG WORK! Do not be disappointed if the work seems bigger than we are. It is not bigger than God! It is not bigger than God’s grace. It is not bigger than God’s purposes.
I move quickly to add a stirring word from Allan Boesak. His latest book is titled Pharaohs on Both Sides of the Blood-Red Waters and sub-titled “Prophetic Critique on Empire: Resistance, Justice, and the Power of the Hopeful Sizwe.”At Chapter 2, Boesak calls for prophetic people to not be afraid to speak a different language concerning what he and Pope Francis have termed “the globalization of indifference.” Boesak joins Pope Francis in calling on prophetic people “to not be afraid” to speak a different language about human suffering, in these words.
We are in no position to offer comfort, compassion and justice to a suffering, bleeding humanity overwhelmed by a petrifying indifference, if we do not believe that there is good news they should hear. And we cannot speak a language of hope and resilience, of resistance and redemption, if we do not unlearn the language of imperial compliance: of domination and subjugation, of carelessness and indifference, of diplomatic evasion.
We are no longer in a position to deny that the pope is right: something is wrong, and it is more wrong today than ten or twenty years ago. The time has come for us not to be afraid to say it. I am not talking about simply mentioning, enumerating, or bemoaning the wrongs we see. To not be afraid to say it has everything to do with how we say it. Do we say it with truth, with courage, with compassion, and with faithfulness to those who suffer? The wrongs we see are not just happening; they are caused to happen, and they are happening to the vast majority of God’s children who are vulnerable, targeted and excluded from human consideration. They are not happening randomly, they are deeply systemic, deliberately built into systems of oppression, domination, and dehumanization. And we must not be afraid to say it.
We must not only break the silence. We must speak a different language. Our language must be a courageous, liberating, transformative, healing, inclusive language … We should learn to resist the temptation to see the global realities through the eyes of the powerful and privileged, but rather through the eyes of the suffering, the weak and the vulnerable, the dehumanized and the demonized, the outcasts and the excluded…
We must be much more alert in our awareness … that our global reality is an imperial reality… 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.” 
I agree with Allan Boesak that prophetic people must stop being afraid to speak the language of anger, courage, and audacious hope. This is the language of Matthew 23 that dares to condemn the idolatry of empire. This is the language of Jesus, John the Baptist, and the other Hebrew prophets. This is the language of Martin Luther King, Jr., Clarence Jordan, Jeremiah Wright, and Marian Wright Edelman.
This is the language of the gospel. This is the language that must be heard and heeded by people who sincerely seek answers from prophetic people in our divisive time.
When we are not afraid to speak this language, we will be vilified and persecuted. When we are not afraid to speak this language, those who define religious effectiveness by attendance, buildings, and cash will leave us.
But then we will speak like Jesus. We will sound like Jesus. We will be heard as Jesus was heard. And the redeeming results of our witness will endure long after our words and our voices have passed from memory.
 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.