Power For What?
The Implications of the Exodus Narrative for
Congregation-Based Community Organizing
The proclamation that "Early Sunday morning Jesus got up with all Power!" can be heard in the majority of mainstream, African-American congregations Sunday after Sunday. Parishioners hear this as an affirmation that their need for power to break through oppression and transform their lives, individually and collectively, has been met and accomplished through Jesus Christ. All power! But power for what? How can that glorious proclamation impact our present reality? It is our contention that the emotional shouts of affirmation can and must be transformed into the impetus and imperative to be engaged in congregation-based community organizing. For it is through direct action strategies that the root causes of the oppression can be addressed. Power for what? Power for social change!
The first chapter of theologian Walter Brueggemann’s Hope Within History provides a Biblical paradigm for this social change. Brueggemann suggests that three elements of Israel’s faith transformation can be discerned from the Exodus narrative (Exodus 1-15). First, there is the "critique of ideology" where the enslaved Israelites identify and expose the ruthless behavior of the Egyptians who oppressed them with forced labor. Secondly, a "public processing of pain" occurs when the Israelites "groaned under their slavery, and cried out" (Exodus 2:23). Finally, the public outcry and processing of pain leads to "the release of a new social imagination." In the Exodus narrative, the Israelites took their freedom and created a new social reality.
Similarly, African-Americans hear sermon after sermon which include a critique of the dominant ideology. We know that we are oppressed, and we understand the Systemic sources of that oppression. Our preachers excellently critique the dominant ideology, but how often do they get to the "public processing of the pain?" The critique is diverted into catharsis rather than being nurtured and developed into power for action. But it was the public processing of the pain that made the Civil Rights Movement possible despite the regimented segregation that was always present in the South. The public processing of the pain made people conscious of their power and what they could do with it. They learned, also, that they must do it together, so that the release of new social imaginations like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s "I Have a Dream" could be realized.
The popularity of Negro Spirituals like "Oh, Freedom" and "Go Down, Moses" during the Civil Rights Movement point to how grounded the African-American experience is in the Exodus narrative. It is easy for us to connect the liberation of the Israelites to our own salvation and deliverance. It is our contention that the ever-present Crucifixion-Resurrection "He Got Up" narrative can provide Christian congregations the same impetus for social action that exists in the Exodus narrative for the Israelites. For this to occur, we must transform our "Early Sunday morning, He got up!" messages into a call for our people to get up . . . out of their comfortable pews and into the public arena.
When one gets up and into the public arena, the abilities of what Walter Wink calls "The Powers That Be" can not be underestimated. Neither the Egyptians, nor any established power, wants its oppressed people to assemble, "for as long as persons experience their pain privately and in isolation, no social power is generated." But the pervasiveness of "The Powers That Be" can even be seen in such accepted gatherings as the assembling of the saints for Worship Service. We need to take charge of that "He Got Up with All Power" preaching moment and not allow it to become a time to advocate socially adjustive and adaptive strategies. No more "When We All Get To Heaven" sermons are needed. Enough of those feel good, saved-so-saved messages that are so loved by "The Powers That Be" because it keeps us too spiritual to get in their face. We can not allow our critique to be silenced. We must provide opportunities for the processing of our pain to lead to the release of new social imaginations . . . to new, just social realities.
Power for what? Power to confront and transform the Systems, not simply survive them - power to move them toward greater equality, justice, community, and freedom for all.
This article is the collaborative work of Rev. Dr. Charles S. Brown and Dr. Jana R. Adams. Dr. Brown is the Pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Dayton, Ohio and is active in the Direct Action and Research Training Center’s (DART) Network of 19 congregation-based community organizations. He is also a Professor of Ethics at Payne and United Theological Seminaries and State President of the Ohio Baptist General Convention. Dr. Adams is the Training Coordinator for the DART Network. She is a member and former Christian Educator at Bethel Baptist Church.
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Autumn, 2001by Social Policy, P.O.
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