In the weeks leading up to the 107th Holy Convocation of the Church of God in Christ, I wrote an open letter to Bishop Charles E. Blake and to the General Board imploring them to make a visible and vocal statement concerning the situation demanding justice for Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri–only 12 miles from the site of their yearly convention in downtown St. Louis. My list of demands were as follows:
- The policing tactics of Ferguson Police Department be immediately reviewed and the police chief be immediately removed from office.
- The city of St. Louis shall pass an ordinance that all St. Louis police officers must wear cameras to record their actions and the actions of citizens.
- Missouri state legislature and Gov. Jay Nixon sign into law that the burden of proof is lowered severely for a grand jury indictment of a police officer who shoots an unarmed citizen
The list were specifically not directed at Darren Wilson, nor had any elements of race, but were aimed at using the tools within our democratic structure to effect change in the law. This is a tried and true tactic. Once the law is changed, then it gives citizens the legal leverage to prevent further injustices from occurring and when or if they do, proper legal redress can happen. This was the case with the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments as well as the Brown v. Topeka Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Municipal laws across the country didn’t change overnight as a result of these watershed moments, but organizations like the NAACP were able to challenge those laws, those injustices, in the judicial system and effectively had those local laws changed.
But, Bishop Blake, and the General Board left my letter unanswered.
As fate would have it, by this Monday morning, November 10, the wider citizenry was not talking about COGICs involvement in Ferguson, nor there lack of, but actually the declared “deliverance” of a young man during one of the services during the convention. Rather than having a conversation about Ferguson and it’s wider impact on society, many are having a conversation about foolishness.
In the immediate hours and days following the open letter, I had the opportunity to offer further reflection amongst colleagues that illuminated around half of the comments, retweets and status messages were in support of the sentiment of the letter. It seemed as though at the bare minimum majority of people, COGIC and non-COGIC felt that there should at least be a serious conversation about what should this denomination’s involvement be concerning the Ferguson situation even if that fell short of an actual demonstration through marching. The rest of comments ranged from those who felt I wasn’t qualified to call out a bishop, let alone the Presiding Bishop, to those who referred to Bishop Elijah Hankerson’s involvement in Ferguson with the “Glory Train” where “over 300 souls have given their life to the Lord Jesus” as evidence of the denomination being involved in Ferguson. In more direct conversations with respected friends and colleagues, both COGIC and non-COGIC, I discovered that fundamental Pentecostal theology is where I am most challenged.
The prevailing theology that exists throughout many COGIC churches is one that is affixed on holy living on earth for the sake of a heavenly reward later. Historically, this theology rooted in slave religion provided an eschatological escape from the existential hell that the descendants of African slaves had to endure on a daily basis. This theology isn’t new, and to be fair, it is not exclusive to the Church of God in Christ, but it is one that has been part of clergy complacency for decades. In 1961, the esteemed pastor, Rev. Gardner C. Taylor pulled out from the National Baptist Convention, breaking away from long-time serving president Rev. Joseph J. Jackson over the issue of ecclesiastical involvement in the existential hell of Jim Crow segregation in the South. Rev. Taylor walked out, along with Martin Luther King and formed the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Even quiet as it’s kept, some reports say that in the “wilderness” years following COGIC founder Bishop Charles Mason’s death in 1961, that his immediate predecessor, Bishop O.T. Jones made a statement to the effect that the Church of God in Christ should focus on prayer and the like when it came to matters of civil rights. In 1963, when King penned “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” he made the theological and social argument for clergy to be very much involved in the affairs of justice.
In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? l am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great-grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.
There was a time when the church was very powerful in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide. and gladiatorial contests.
Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Par from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often even vocal sanction of things as they are.
But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.
Unfortunately, we’re already there: the millennial generation who’s disappointment with the church has turned to outright disgust. How can a body of faith believers be so heavenly minded that they are no earthly good? How can a denomination claim to have this pneumatological power and have their entire week of services and ministry be reduced to a sound bite of a young man on the mic and ministers spouting church dogma centralized around rebuke and existential duality that flies in the face of psychological wholeness. The contemporary Church of God in Christ is no different than white clergy that King railed against in the 1960s that failed to see the need to craft a social justice theology that liberated blacks not just from the physical bounds of segregation, but also liberated their conscience.
To my knowledge, COGIC Scholars held a panel discussion (something that they do at both Auxiliaries in Ministry convention and at Holy Convocation) about Ferguson of which Rev. Leonard Lovett, Ph.D. was a participant. I was also told that a small cadre of 50 or so people did journey to Ferguson and proselytized to people and about the same number of souls were saved. If holding on to a dogmatic theological tradition that stands silently by when the same people who fill the seats week after week are being marginalized and maligned by a system that is hell-bent on their destruction as a people, as a culture and an identity is considered “holiness” and what the Lord the requires, then I want no part of that larger faith tradition.
Jesus’ death on the cross was a lynching. In a very human and real sense, it was a political death; one at the hands of judicial system and he suffered a political and legal death. It was legal not just by the courts, but also by society–because they stood by and supported it; they stood by and said nothing. Every time we stand by in silence we become accomplices in the act of injustice. The Church of God in Christ had the opportunity, and was poised to lead masses of people into a wider understanding of the role of institutional Black Church. This was their opportunity to show that they are more than just “big hats, loud suits and alligator shoes”; that it is more substance than a new praise break. Instead COGIC has become the poster-child for a millennial generation that, as King said, “will be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.”
Echoing the words of King, the Church of God in Christ was posed the question was this a safe move, and cowardice agreed; expediency asked what would be the political damage if we actually protested and the response was “too much.” The tunnel-vision eschatology that acts as the nascent conscience of the denomination only asked would such a bold political save more souls and further one’s progression toward heaven, and it answered “no, it shall not.”
For the Church of God in Christ to be so close to the site of Mike Brown’s death, to occupy the same metropolitan space in which angst is rife in the air and not say or do anything it’s as if they stood by and watched Jesus be wrongfully put to death–and said nothing.
The tragedy is in the silence.
In the righteous indignation of the One Who Was, Who is and Who Is Yet to Come,
Joshua L. Lazard, the Uppity Negro