By Chelsea Ebin
A response to a public talk with Obery Hendricks Jr on November 17, 2011.
Dr. Obrey M. Hendricks, Jr. has a message and, as the Jesus of the Gospel of Thomas, says: “Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!” He wants Christians—and perhaps even those who are not Christian—to shake themselves out of a long, deep, apathetic slumber and begin to walk in the footsteps of Jesus rather than simply give lip service to their beliefs. At a talk about his new book, The Universe Bends Towards Justice, at First Corinthians Baptist Church in Harlem last Thursday, Dr. Hendricks emphatically said, “Jesus said, ‘Follow me.’ He did not say ‘Praise me,’ or ‘Worship me.’”
Dr. Hendricks is an impassioned and forceful speaker, but his powerful message may be hard for “church-going” believers to stomach, and those without faith may find his admonitions to follow the path of Jesus equally difficult to swallow. Nonetheless, both groups would be well served to choke down any initial resistance to his criticisms. Dr. Hendricks calls to task not only the Religious Right, but also the Church as an institutional body. In Hendricks’ eyes, both have failed to act in accordance with the true meaning of Jesus’ Gospel and our current system of gross economic inequality is a product of that failure.
On the far Right, theology has been perverted to support class inequality rather than fight against it; the movement has “hijacked” theology and politically instrumentalized it for its own aims. By my estimation, the Religious Right is a problematic political movement and the policies it supports have, at best, done little to mitigate economic inequality, and, at worst, have fostered an ethos of self-serving individualism, harmed the nation’s poorest, and contributed to the growth of income disparity.
Dr. Hendricks shares my critique of the Religious Right, and the Right more broadly, and even more forcefully argues that their policies not only harm this generation, but will harm future generations. He characterized ‘no tax’ pledges as “a sin” and critiqued the Right for not talking about the needs of the poor or the middle class and, even more damningly, for never serving the collective needs of these groups. The Right, according to Hendricks, has made it a sign of godliness to support ideologies such as capitalism and patriotism, perverting both the meanings of religion and of politics.
But the Church is hardly less culpable. While at times acting as a powerful source for social justice, particularly during the civil rights movement, it has ultimately depoliticized Jesus’ Gospel, stressing a transcendental salvation over temporal social justice. Dr. Hendricks spoke powerfully about the immense strength of his father, Obrey Hendricks, Sr., as he “suffered in silence under the weight of his iron-clad social immobility.” But as Dr. Hendricks explained, Jim Crow was not the only thing responsible for the conditions of his father’s immobility: racism, classism, capitalism, and the Church were, and still are I would argue, all complicit in creating the conditions of inequality under which Dr. Hendricks’ father labored.
The Church lied to Dr. Hendricks’ father week after week: it told him that if he served the Church, the Church would save him. In other words, neither he, nor anyone else, needed to fight for justice in this life because they would find it behind the gates of heaven. But if justice delayed is justice denied than the same holds true for salvation. And the Church did not save Hendricks Sr. from the systemic racism and classism that he faced every day of his life. It did nothing to change the “desire of the wealthy and privileged to remain wealthy and privileged” at the expense of those who were not.
According to Dr. Hendricks, the ailments of the Right and the Church can be corrected by a return to the Gospel of Jesus. But what exactly would such a Gospel look like? And, perhaps evens more critically, can we put Hendrick’s Gospel of Jesus in conversation with our secular political world and the Left? To put an even finer point on the question: why should people outside of the Church listen to a word Hendricks is saying?
Before attending Dr. Hendricks’ talk, I was skeptical about what bearing his thoughts on Christian social justice would have on the broader discourse about inequality the #OWS protests have ushered in. On my way to the talk, I stepped out of a building in lower Manhattan and into a crush of #OWS protesters marching alongside scores of NYPD officers, outfitted in riot-gear. Below the drone of helicopters, I was not convinced that the problems of the 99% could, or more specifically should, be addressed from a biblical standpoint.
But, as Hendricks and his interlocutors expressed last Thursday, the Gospel of Jesus is one of radically emancipatory social justice. More than anything, Jesus spoke of the poor and of humanity’s collective obligation to serve those who are less fortunate. The Reverend Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, explained Jesus’ Gospel as demanding that every person take action to protect the poor from harm within society and work at lessening, if not altogether eliminating, economic difference. Furthermore, Jesus commands his followers not only to love their neighbors, but to treat the needs of their neighbors as their own. Regardless of where one stands, it is difficult to survey such a gospel and not come to the conclusion that Jesus espoused a philosophy of radical egalitarianism, communitarianism, social justice, and direct action.
I am not saying that those on the Left should adopt the Gospel of Jesus or introduce biblical teachings into their politics. As an ardent supporter of the Establishment Clause, I do not think they should. But I am going to argue that Dr. Hendricks’ message should be taken to heart, that it applies as much to those marching under the banner of #OWS as to those sitting in a church. As I hear him, Dr. Hendricks is calling for three things: 1) a reclamation of political and religious language from the Right, 2) the creation of a radically more equitable and just ethos of social and economic responsibility, and 3) for people to stop talking and begin acting. Dr. Hendricks has sounded the clarion call. It is up to us to respond.
Chelsea Ebin is a doctoral candidate in politics at The New School for Social Research and is director of programming at IRCPL.