11/15/2013 10:26 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

To Redeem the Soul of the Black Church

Fifty years ago a preacher named Martin Luther King, Jr. came with others to our nation's capitol, challenging America to "live out the true meaning of its creed." The son and grandson of activist preachers, King was a child of the black church, a church born fighting for freedom. Accordingly, he and others organized the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957 not simply to dismantle segregation but with this motto: "To Redeem The Soul of America." Sadly, today the public voice of the black church can scarcely be heard challenging the mass incarceration and stigmatization of young black men -- a human rights catastrophe -- and a host of other urgent issues critical to the black community and the nation. We need to redeem the soul of the black church so that once again it may speak a clear word of justice to the nation.

This summer alone, The U.S. Supreme Court decided to gut section four of the Voting Rights Act, even in the wake of draconian efforts across several states to suppress the votes of people of color, seniors and young people. In the same month, the same court sent a seminal affirmative action case back to a lower court to decide whether the use of race is acceptable as one of many factors in college admissions decisions. And nobody was held accountable for the death of Trayvon Martin, a teen who died a victim of an intractable social stigma that has made young black men public enemy number one. Where is the public voice of the black church - the church that provided stops along the Underground Railroad, founded several black colleges and shaped the faith of a young Martin Luther King, Jr., Fannie Lou Hamer and so many others? We must rediscover our mission and reason for being.

That mission connects faith with justice, personal salvation with social transformation, addresses both personal piety and public policy for the wellbeing of the whole person and the whole community. It fights for the weak and sees the gospel as "good news to the poor." But, has the black church remained true to its mission? Or has it, as evidenced by the rise of "prosperity preaching," given in to the narrow individualism and spiritualized egocentrism that engulfs a culture that is increasingly self-absorbed?

The black church has been a gift to the whole nation and the world. In a largely Christian nation, in which virtually all of the Christian denominations and churches justified slavery in their theology and supported it in practice, African Americans put forth an alternative view of the Christian faith that insisted upon the freedom of the body as well as the soul. If racism is, as theologian James Cone has said, America's "original sin," black churches have been the conscience of the American nation and the American church. Shortly after Dr. King's death, another movement, a black theology movement, led by pastors and academic theologians like Cone, emerged, reminding the black church of its freedom fighting legacy. It shook the academy, the church and to some degree, the nation.

But today, black pastors and black theologians have little sustained dialogue. Consequently, the black church is not hearing the critical insights of its trained theologians, biblical scholars and ethicists on such complicated moral issues as growing income inequality, marriage equality and climate change. Moreover, black theology has retreated far into the enclaves of academia,having little influence in the churches and on the ground. This increasing divide means that the black church is losing its mind, that is critical insight into its historic sense of mission and black theology is losing its heart, the will and wherewithal to actually change the world. Perhaps that is why gospel music -- popular in churches and mainstream culture -- shows virtually no evidence of any social consciousness at all. At a critical time, in which some sectors of the society, such as the criminal justice system are actually worse than they were fifty years ago, there is no real movement and no movement songs.

Now, more than ever, we need a renewed conversation not just between pastors and theologians but within the community itself and among freedom loving people with the dream of fostering a far reaching activist spirituality for the twenty-first century that channels its energy toward building a more sustainable planet and a more just and peaceful world.