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Preaching, Politics, and Paul in Contemporary African‐American Christianity

Abstract and Keywords

This article explores the homiletic and political nature of African-American biblical interpretation by investigating the use of the apostle Paul's letters in contemporary African-American sermons. In order to accomplish this, methodological insights from postcolonial studies will prove beneficial, and therefore, a synopsis of postcolonial studies and of its connections to African-American preaching is in order.

Keywords: Africa, America, Christianity, sermons, Bible, biblical interpretation, Paul, postcolonial studies


African‐American Christian preachers have considered the Bible a sourcebook for preaching and politics, since African‐American sermons have had to motivate a people on their long pilgrimage from social marginalization to social liberation. From the pulpit African‐American preachers have inspired personal piety and political protest that have led to significant social revolutions, such as the abolition of slavery and the Civil Rights Movement. In African‐American Christianity the interpretation of scripture has been the locus of both preaching and politics (Wimbush 2000: 1–43).

This chapter explores the homiletic and political nature of African‐American biblical interpretation by investigating the use of the apostle Paul's letters in contemporary African‐American sermons. In order to accomplish this, methodological (p. 558) insights from postcolonial studies will prove beneficial, and therefore, a synopsis of postcolonial studies and of its connections to African‐American preaching is in order.

Postcolonial Studies and African‐American Preaching

Both postcolonial studies and African‐American Christian preaching emphasize the impact of culture and the reality of social oppression (Segovia 2005: 23–78; LaRue 2000: 20–5). What, then, are the hermeneutical consequences of a critical dialogue between postcolonial studies and African‐American preaching, especially as it pertains to the contemporary homiletic appropriation of Pauline texts? To pursue this question more fully, some frameworks must be established and some methodological issues addressed.

Postcolonial studies is a diverse and expanding set of interpretive practices and theories that place the colonialism and neo‐colonialism of Europe and the United States at the centre of interpretive conversations. Broadly defined, it is a field that engages ‘the overlapping issues of race, empire, diaspora, and ethnicity’ (Sugirtharajah 1998: 15). More specifically, postcolonial studies is concerned with colonialism—‘the organized deployment of racialized and gendered constructs for practices of acquiring and maintaining political control over other social groups, settling their lands with new residents, and/or exploiting that land and its peoples through military and administrative occupiers’ (Taylor 2004: 42). Closely associated with colonialism is ‘imperialism’, which consists of a ‘more coherent organizational form’ by which colonizers present themselves as missionaries to the world (Deane 1995: 354). Postcolonial studies also examines the attempt of former colonizers to re‐inscribe their colonial influence (‘neo‐colonialism’ or ‘neo‐imperialism’), as well as the political and cultural possibilities that emerge when formerly colonized people resist and transcend colonialism's oppressive effects (‘decolonization’).

Thus, postcolonial studies invites interpreters to acknowledge more readily the current manifestations of imperialism that abound in many cultures. A keen interest in contemporary issues of liberation and oppression is also a hallmark of African‐American biblical interpretation and preaching. When African‐American preachers and parishioners come to the Bible, they ‘are really interested in the question ‘Does God save?’ rather than the question ‘Did God save long ago?’ (Cannon 2002: 50). Many African Americans seek salvation not simply from their personal sins but also from the systematic sins of imperialism and racism (p. 559) that continue to bring destruction and death to African‐American communities. Thus, in addition to calling for personal piety, African‐American preaching has also ignited contemporary political resistance to imperial and racist onslaughts.

The enduring effects of imperialism and neo‐imperialism are inescapable hermeneutical realities for politically engaged African‐American interpreters of scripture (Segovia 2000). The European and North American empires of the fifteenth to the twenty‐first centuries were founded upon (and became sinfully wealthy from) the colonial ravaging of Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas that characterized the transatlantic slave trade (Higgins 1990; West 1999). Furthermore, while the outright physical brutality of the United States' ‘slavocracy’ abated in the mid‐nineteenth century, the twentieth and twenty‐first centuries unleashed political, economic, and ideological hostility—even brutality—against African Americans. The United States' slavery empire may have crumbled during the American Civil War in the 1860s, but the contemporary empire of white privilege has struck back with considerable force (Thandeka 1999; Dyson 2003; Harvey, Case, and Gorsline 2004).

While concern about contemporary imperialism is well within the scope of postcolonial studies, it is the coupling of that concern with strong homiletic interests that potentially can point postcolonial theological interpretation in some new and valuable directions. Postcolonial interpretation stresses the value of ‘real’ readers. Unfortunately, some postcolonial scholarship gives the impression that it is only concerned about ‘real’ readers who possess extensive university training.

After reading widely in recent postcolonial scholarship, two questions have occurred to me: (1) in what ways is this field still in colonial captivity to certain types of ‘academic’ language that reveal its close connections to socio‐economic privilege? And (2) why are some postcolonial practitioners unwilling to produce scholarly resources that would be serviceable to ‘non‐academic’ people caught up in actual struggle (Smith 1997: 130–1)? If it is to engage and empower ‘real’ readers, the language employed by postcolonial scholarship itself needs to be decolonized, so as to reflect a greater interest in the activities of astute ‘imperial‐resisters’ who do not have extensive academic training.

R. S. Sugirtharajah has exhorted postcolonial practitioners to move beyond their ‘high‐caste moorings’ to a greater concern for the ‘vernacular’ and folk idioms within various communities (Sugirtharajah 2004: 34–8). Indeed, it might be such investigation and use of folk practices and idioms among colonized people that will rescue postcolonial scholarship from the indictment of being just one more highfalutin academic enterprise that talks the liberation talk without walking the liberation walk.

In African‐American culture, Christian preaching provides access entre to the vernacular of the people, especially as those people aspire to self‐determination amid imperial oppression; and because of their shared emphasis on contemporary resistance to oppression, postcolonial studies and African‐American Christian preaching can be stimulating conversation partners. The conversation ought to encourage more postcolonial practitioners to really empower real readers.

(p. 560) Preaching and Paul

Having explained the reasons for my coupling of postcolonial studies and African‐American Christian preaching, I now explore another interpretive tension: preaching and Paul. In a recent book I examined the centrality of preaching to Paul's ministry (Braxton 2004). Paul's letters (e.g. Rom 10:5–17 and 1 Cor 15:3–4) testify to the crucial role of preaching in his work, while scholars have argued that the orality of Paul's preaching reverberates throughout the letters themselves (Thompson 2001: 27; Webb 2004: 86–90). In this chapter, however, I want to trace the impact of Paul's letters upon contemporary preaching.

Biblical texts have overwhelmingly exerted their influence upon African‐American Christian communities through the oral form of African‐American preaching. Many Africans have always retained the traditional belief in the spoken and sung word as great repositories of truth and sacred wisdom; because of this cultural background the colonizers' systematic efforts to impose illiteracy upon African Americans did not prevent them from encoding their colonial resistance in a variety of oral forms, such as sermons, spirituals, work‐songs, field‐hollers, myths, folk‐tales, and proverbs (Hurston 1981; Holmes 2002: 68–75). Given such a cultural and historical background, it should not be surprising that the most compelling African‐American biblical interpretation is often more likely to be encountered in churches than read in scholarly commentaries. This statement is neither an endorsement of anti‐intellectualism nor a devaluing of the remarkable scholarship produced by the small but growing guild of African‐American biblical scholars (Blount 2007; Page 2010). Rather, it is an honest assessment of the enduring religious and political value of preaching in African‐American Christian communities.

Contemporary African‐American Preachers and Paul

African Americans have had a love–hate relationship with Paul. In the authentic letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon) Paul does not denounce Greco‐Roman slavery, and offers ambiguous counsel about how enslaved Christians should act (Braxton 2000: 177–234). In the deutero‐Pauline letters (i.e. those whose Pauline authorship is disputed by some authorities: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus) he endorses conservative cultural norms which accept slaveholding as an indispensable pillar of Greco‐Roman culture. At best, Paul's counsel in the deutero‐Pauline (p. 561) letters inserts a modicum of ‘Christian morality’ into that slave culture but in no way overturns that culture in the name of radical social freedom.

Consequently, European and North American colonizers appealed generously to the Pauline legacy (and especially to the deutero‐Pauline letters) to sanction their brutal treatment of millions of Africans (Martin 1991: 206–31; Venable‐Ridley 1997: 212–33; Braxton 2000: 235–64). On the other hand, Allen Callahan has demonstrated that African Americans have found meaningful testimonies to emancipation in Paul's letters; according to Callahan, they have considered Paul an ‘ambivalent witness to freedom’ (Callahan 1998: 235–62).

In this chapter I begin where Callahan concludes his essay. Callahan succinctly reviews the complex history of African‐American readings of Paul from the eighteenth century to 1997—the latest scholarship cited being his own 1997 commentary on Philemon (Callahan 1997). From the late 1990s to the present, how have African‐American preachers been employing Paul's letters? Are they using them as tools of postcolonial struggle; as inducements to personal and communal piety; as unintentional instruments of neo‐colonialism; or as some hybrid of these?

The African American Pulpit: The Historical Significance of a Journal

Callahan's synopsis of African‐American engagements with Paul concludes essentially in 1997. The winter of that year also marked an important moment in African‐American theological studies, as the first issue of The African American Pulpit (TAAP) was published. From its inception this journal has chronicled the genius of African‐American preaching, and it is now ‘the only African American‐owned and operated, nondenominational homiletics [and ministry‐focused] journal in North America (TAAP 2004, vol. 7, no. 2, p. 3).

As an agent of the African‐American church and academy, TAAP records and enhances the African‐American homiletic tradition by presenting sermons and essays by contemporary and historic African‐American preachers and scholars. Gardner Taylor, a distinguished preacher in the United States, has summarized ably the significance of this theological journal: ‘The African American Pulpit provides the definitive, magisterial, historical record of that preaching which has grown out of the peculiar spiritual experience of fashioning a home for the soul in a strange land’ (TAAP 2002, vol. 5, no. 2, back cover). African‐American preaching is, in many regards, an imaginative biblical and theological response to the violent geographic and cultural exile created by historical and contemporary European (p. 562) and North American imperialism, and this journal chronicles the intonations and vibrations of (black) people trying to sing the Lord's song in a strange (white) land.

Contemporary Homiletic Appropriations of Paul: The Method

To assess how contemporary African‐American preachers employ Paul's letters, I canvassed all the volumes of TAAP during its first ten years (Winter 1997–Fall 2007) to locate sermons preached on the authentic letters of Paul. Cumulatively, TAAP published over 500 sermons during those ten years. (This figure excludes submissions with alternative designations such as ‘articles’, ‘vignettes’, or ‘lectures’). Of these, forty‐two listed authentic Pauline passages as their primary or ancillary texts. I excluded sermons based on deutero‐Pauline texts, which accounted for less than 5% of all the sermons published in TAAP during this ten‐year span. Thus, less than 10 per cent of the sermons it published in this period were from authentic Pauline texts. Of these, thirty‐four were preached by African‐American men and eight by African‐American women.

The reasons why preachers select some biblical texts for proclamation while neglecting others are complex and involve the concerns and biases of preachers and congregations, as well as the impact of current events. Thus, one cannot reduce that complexity to simple statistical analysis. Nevertheless, the statistics might indicate that on the whole African‐American preachers are significantly less enamoured of Pauline texts than of other parts of the Christian canon. This is certainly the case with African‐American women preachers, which is understandable given the role Paul's letters have played in the oppression of women (Williams 2004: 44–72).

It is intriguing to consider the distribution of the forty‐two sermons across the seven Pauline letters. There were eleven sermons from Romans; four sermons from 1 Corinthians; thirteen sermons from 2 Corinthians; four sermons from Galatians; and ten sermons from Philippians. The apparent popularity of 2 Corinthians is understandable given its theological reflections on weakness and suffering (e.g. 2 Cor. 4–5, 12); reconciliation (2 Cor. 5); and spiritual warfare (2 Cor. 10)—themes that resonate deeply with African‐American Christians. Of the eleven sermons from Romans, six sermons concentrate on Romans 8, where Paul speaks of hope and divine providence—again central theological motifs among African‐American Christians. Paul's ambivalence on slavery can account for the absence of sermons on Philemon. However, the absence of sermons on 1 Thessalonians is surprising, (p. 563) since that letter emphasizes the sustaining power of relationships amid tribulation. The contemporary resonance with Pauline themes such as providence has deep historical roots. In his history of the earliest African‐American churches, Henry Mitchell suggests that African slaves in the North American colonies would have easily appropriated certain aspects of Paul's theology, such as providence, since providence was a central motif in the African Traditional Religion they brought with them. Thus, while African slaves in the North American colonies might have rejected Paul's ‘politics’ concerning slavery, they found Paul to be a theological ally in other areas (Mitchell 2004: 16–19).

Contemporary Homiletic Appropriations of Paul: The Evidence

I will now examine three of these forty‐two sermons to assess the postcolonial lessons they can teach or that need to be taught. While the classification of sermon types and goals is notoriously difficult, many of the sermons focused on one of three broad areas of concern: pastoral (encouraging and challenging listeners toward individual and communal spiritual maturity); social justice (commenting on or offering critiques of particular social dilemmas and inequities); and prosperity (exhorting individuals primarily to maximize their experiences and possessions, often with special emphasis on financial well‐being). I have selected one sermon based on a Pauline text from each of these types.

For all three sermons, my investigations were based solely on the published manuscripts. A sermon manuscript is never a sermon but merely the written transcript of an embodied performance. African‐American preachers and parishioners have known for centuries that the conveyance of deep truth is an emotive and cognitive enterprise involving performance aspects, such as gestures and tonality. My analyses of these sermons emphasize the contextual nature of the biblical interpretation in these sermons—the preacher's use of the contemporary cultural environment to engage scripture for theological purposes. Had space permitted, I also could have investigated more fully the textual nature of their interpretations—the preacher's attention to specific aspects of the biblical text in the shaping of the sermon's content. For each sermon, I offer a description summarizing its content, and an analysis which critically assesses how the sermon might contribute to or be strengthened by postcolonial approaches.

(p. 564) 1. A Pastoral Sermon from a Pauline Text

Ella Pearson Mitchell: ‘Rejoice Always’ (Phil. 4:4–8)

The African American Pulpit, vol. 1, no. 2, pp. 25–31. At the time of this sermon's publication, the late Ella Pearson Mitchell was a visiting professor in the Doctor of Ministry program in homiletics at United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio. She was a respected elder in African‐American Christianity, having mentored several generations of clergy and scholars. For all the sermons discussed, the pagination in TAAP will be in parentheses.


This sermon examines Paul's imperative to rejoice in the midst of the dispute between two female leaders in the Philippian church, Euodia and Syntyche. Just as Paul's theology of joy does not ignore the conflicts in that ancient community, so this sermon avoids a superficial contemporary treatment of joy. It emphasizes that Paul's imperative to rejoice comes immediately after a dispute involving women.

In the attempt to raise feminist concerns, Mitchell might have easily become sidetracked into a conventional critique of an authoritarian male apostle telling bickering females to settle down. Instead, through the creative use of folk wisdom and narrative, she artfully places female experience at the centre of the sermon, demonstrating the range of virtues and vices that women can display on their journey to a truly joyful existence. An example from the sermon's introduction is instructive. Rather than beginning by chronicling historical details about Paul and the Philippians, the sermon starts with a contemporary narrative from African‐American female experience:

Not long ago, my sister shared with me a quaint saying. It went like this: ‘Be sure to listen to people who sing while they work because mean people don't know no songs’. One could play it the other way and say that when people have no song or exhibit no sweetness as they work for the Lord and for the Kingdom, they tend to be mean, uptight, tense, and not easy to get along with. Maybe the same problem was part of the reason why Paul wrote the folks at Philippi, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.’ (p. 25)

With the fifth word of the sermon—‘sister’—Mitchell begins a sophisticated contextual interpretation of Philippians' exhortation to ancient and contemporary ‘sisters’ whose power‐struggles affect their communities. Women's experience is the rhetorical engine propelling this sermon. Mitchell uses folk wisdom from her sister (p. 25); the recounting of Euodia and Syntyche's dispute in Philippi (pp. 25–6); the story about a mean woman in a church who eventually had to smile (p. 27); and the story of her serving communion with her husband (p. 29). Finally, at the climax of the sermon, she valorizes indigenous heroes—her two grandmothers who were ex‐slaves (pp. 29–30) and a mother who expresses uncontainable joy at the (p. 565) commencement ceremonies of a son who was the first in that family to graduate from college (pp. 30–1).

Additionally, the sermon's emphasis on the importance of tone in communal transformation is striking: ‘But Paul is saying that we need to change the character of our communication if we want to have a better experience in Christ. We can't help people—male or female—change if by the very sound of our voices we have already declared ourselves to be their enemies’ (p. 28).

Clearly, this pastoral sermon seeks to promote a more joyful, harmonious existence among the congregation. Yet it lacks many of the overt features associated with postcolonial analysis, such as a discussion of systematic oppression or imperial realities. The fingerprints of the Roman Empire are obviously on Philippians. Not only is Paul imprisoned by Roman authorities as he writes this letter (Phil 1: 12–18), but also he explicitly invokes the name of the emperor (Phil 4: 23). While Mitchell's sermon does not account overtly for such features of systematic oppression, her sermon still offers lessons to postcolonial practitioners.


Two salient features of this sermon might facilitate postcolonial practice. First, it demonstrates the liberating potential of African‐American folk wisdom. By folk wisdom I mean pragmatic knowledge emanating from ‘the very blood and bones of an African American reality’ that seeks personal and communal wholeness (Hopkins 1993: 2). This sermon begins with folk wisdom (‘Be sure to listen to people who sing while they work because mean people don't know no songs’, p. 25). Later, the sermon recasts the ancient fight between Euodia and Syntyche in contemporary folk cadence (‘They done fell out over something, and now they ain't speaking to each other’, p. 26).

In this pastoral sermon, Mitchell is aware of the hostility among many African‐American women and between African‐American women and men. While the sources of this hostility are legion, much of it is deeply rooted in European and North American slavery and imperialism. That imperialism—with its skin‐colour caste system and sexual violence—engendered deep divisions in the African‐American community. This previous racialized and sexualized violence of the imperialists is replicated, unfortunately, in many present African‐American communities. Mitchell's sermon seeks to heal the lingering scourge of hostility by appealing to indigenous resources.

Some postcolonial practitioners have called for greater attention to be paid to indigenous resources. For instance, Mark Taylor affirms the ‘anticolonialialist struggle’ found in many ‘spiritual communities’. He specifically cites ‘the movements and resistance of African Americans and women in North America and elsewhere, who generated, respectively, black and feminist liberation theologies’ (Taylor 2004: 48, 50). Many African‐American churches are highly effective (p. 566) ‘anticolonialist’ spiritual communities. Thus, a fuller consideration of African‐American churches as sites of postcolonial struggle will necessitate a more sympathetic and systematic investigation of African‐American Christian preaching.

Second, this sermon's emphasis on the centrality of ‘tone’ in struggles for human transformation warrants serious consideration by postcolonial practitioners (‘by the very sound of our voices we have already declared ourselves to be their enemies’, p. 28). Often ‘tone’ in literature or ‘tonality’ in music involves a consideration of the mood or feeling created by the ‘voice’ or ‘pitch’ of the author or musician.

In the ‘homiletical musicality’ (Crawford 1995: 16) of African‐American preaching, the tone of the written words of scripture and the ‘tonality’ of musical elements such as pitch and rhythm merge to address emotive and cognitive needs. In this regard, African‐American preaching reflects its connection to various African cultures. Many African languages are ‘tonal.’ As such, words that are semantically identical assume different meanings based on the tone used in communicating. While the communication of tone or tonality is often considered an oral/aural matter, tone in preaching can be conveyed in a multiplicity of ways such as gestures, word‐choice, and style of dress. Many African‐American Christian congregations have a keen appreciation for ‘tone’ or ‘tonality’ in communication. Regardless of a preacher's scholarly attainments or lack thereof, some congregations will ‘tune in’ or ‘tune out’ preachers based on how preachers say what they say. In other words, a preacher's words might convey ‘liberation’ conceptually but ‘colonial captivity’ tonally.

Postcolonial practitioners—especially some in university contexts—might need to consider more fully how an improper tone can undermine declared objectives. The tone of some postcolonial scholarship is ‘colonial.’ Driven seemingly by imperial scholarly myths of ‘discovering new territory’ in an ‘expansion of intellectual frontiers,’ some postcolonial scholarship is riddled with obscure language and is apparently preoccupied with novelty for the sake of novelty. The assumption that scholars must constantly ‘produce new knowledge’ is a major pillar of the western academic enterprise (or empire).

Since many colonized people in the first and two‐thirds worlds are connected to cultures where orality is highly valued, many of the world's oppressed citizens are ‘tone savvy’. Therefore, when certain oppressed people regard scholars and their scholarship as irrelevant to emancipatory struggle, this dismissal might not be anti‐intellectualism. Rather, it might be a savvy evaluation that the tone in scholars' work reflects scholarship about not struggle with those colonized people.

By paying more attention to the vernacular language of sermons, postcolonial practitioners can further cultivate their ability to communicate with persons whose everyday language involves what the homiletician Teresa Fry Brown calls ‘sisterspeak’—‘informal, no‐pretense, at‐home, dangling‐participles, double‐negative, tell‐it‐like‐it‐is, intense‐body‐language speech’ (Brown 1997: 81). Thus, postcolonial studies can avoid the troubling irony of presenting practical political aims in impractical language.

(p. 567) 2. A Social Justice Sermon from a Pauline Text

J. Alfred Smith, Sr.: ‘An American Scandal: The Crisis of the Crucified’ (1 Cor 2:1–2)

The African American Pulpit, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 63–6. J. Alfred Smith, Sr. is the Senior Pastor Emeritus of the Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, California. At the time of this sermon's publication, he was a TAAP Advisory Board Member. He, too, is a respected elder in African‐American Christianity.


This sermon explores the meaning of a theology of the cross in the context of a late twentieth‐century African‐American urban community. More specifically, Smith juxtaposes the cross and the US welfare reforms in the 1990s. The sermon begins with a striking poem:

  • Three men fashioning a cross by which the fourth must die,
  • and yet none asked of the other, and why and why,
  • our living we must earn,
  • what happens to the other man is none of our concern.
  • (p. 63)

The message implicit in this poem becomes explicit throughout the sermon: Regardless of their often confessed solidarity with poor people, who are the culture's crucified, many upper‐middle‐class Christians construct ‘crosses’ upon which the poor are executed. Smith elaborates further: ‘Those times when a middle‐class church dares preach about the cross are times of homiletical malfeasance and theological malpractice. This travesty occurs when poor people and powerless people are encouraged to carry their demeaning cross without resentment and rebellion but resignation, as did Jesus Christ: “And he never said a mumbling word” ’ (p. 63).

Two interpretive moves in the sermon's introduction deserve comment. First, by linking the cross to matters of socio‐economic class (‘our living we must earn’; ‘a middle‐class church’; ‘poor people and powerless people’), the introduction shuns an apolitical atonement theology, where Jesus's blood cleanses the ‘souls’ of individuals, while the collective ‘dirty laundry’ of a comfortable elite remains unwashed. For Smith, as for Paul, ‘to know nothing except Jesus Christ crucified’ (1 Cor. 2:2) is to know and say something about political realities, such as domination based upon social class. When churches preach apolitically about the cross, they participate in further crucifixions. Smith distances himself from that harmful history of apolitical interpretations of Jesus's crucifixion (Terrell 1998).

(p. 568) Second, the introduction deftly uses an African‐American folk resource—the words from a spiritual—to criticize upper‐middle‐class North American indifference about contemporary crucifixions of poor persons who depend on social welfare for survival. The spiritual ‘He Never Said a Mumbling Word’ narrates Jesus's heroism during the crucifixion. While this spiritual is aware of Jesus's words from the cross recorded in the Gospels, its declaration that Jesus ‘never said a mumbling word’ testifies to the willingness with which Jesus met his fate. Yet according to Smith, it is one thing for Jesus not to say a word during the crucifixion, but it is another thing when contemporary preaching enjoins further silence upon the poor who carry crosses and suffer economic executions. To the contrary, instead of commanding silence, churches should speak defiantly. Smith extends his indictment to include the theological academy:

The cross is sparsely preached as an expression of God's identification and solidarity with an oppressed underclass in need of redemption from the curse and stigma of welfare…Can courageous preachers of Calvary and the cream of the theological academy who speculate on the meaning of the atonement cooperate in putting human faces on that self‐righteous cult of politicians and corporate leaders who enjoy tax loopholes, corporate welfare, and stock‐market prosperity while insisting that the poor be grateful for workfare jobs that pay less than what is needed for safe housing, proper dental and medical care, as well as a few dollars for modest savings? Put a human face on welfare reform so that it does not become welfare deformation. (p. 64)

Clearly, the cross, for this African‐American preacher, is not a legitimization of passive suffering. Rather, it is an exhortation for the church to ‘be a caring and sensitive participant in responding to the cares of the crucified’ (p. 65).


This sermon demonstrates the importance of intra‐communal critique—a crucial postcolonial practice needed in so many communities. It commends this practice in at least two ways.

First, the introductory poem identifies why crucifixions continue and how they might be stopped. Crucifixions continue, especially among the poor, because of a widespread unwillingness among economically comfortable ‘cross‐makers’ to ask challenging questions about political policies and to stop participating in practices that keep these policies intact. The following lines in the poem note and criticize this unwillingness: ‘and yet none asked of the other | and why and why | our living we must earn | what happens to the other man is none of our concern’ (p. 63). Crucifixions might be stopped, or at least dramatically lessened, if upper‐middle‐class North American Christians would demonstrate greater solidarity with poor persons by asking questions that might expose hidden oppression and by fostering needed public dialogue.

(p. 569) As a relatively brief speech act, even a sophisticated sermon is limited in the degree to which it can examine a topic. Nevertheless, Smith employs a theology of the cross to question aspects of welfare reform, a pressing social issue at the time. While urgent debate about welfare reform has subsided in the United States, many other imperial practices and policies place poor persons in harm's way. By failing to ask critical questions about imperial practices and policies, churches are complicit with imperial ‘cross‐makers’. As the poem also intimates, when groups raise critical questions on behalf of marginalized communities, they can jeopardize their own security. Until such risks are taken, the imperial spirit will remain unchecked. Imperialism thrives by promoting hostility or apathy between different classes of people, thereby causing people to ignore the related experiences of oppression that could unite them in resistance.

Second, this sermon uses the indigenous resource of an African‐American spiritual to engage in intra‐communal critique. The unwillingness of African‐American communities to provide robust critiques of their failings is another pernicious legacy of white privilege. Ideologically, white privilege has thrived on the oppressive dualism of ‘superior–inferior’, where the latter term describes African‐American people and cultural practices. Thus, African Americans have expended considerable energy fending off this cultural colonization, with its caricatures of African‐American life.

Yet in the legitimate struggles against external forces, many African‐American communities have failed to direct similar energy toward internal critiques of their dilemmas and complicity with their oppressors. It was thought that for African‐Americans to express publicly their failings or discontent about dysfunction within their own communities was to give the colonizers additional ammunition. Thus, the drive for healthy, intra‐communal critique has been abandoned often in the name of ‘closing the ranks’ to promote racial solidarity. This sermon, however, demonstrates the effectiveness of an appeal to an indigenous African‐American cultural resource (the spirituals) in order to provide a critique of that culture (the need for African‐Americans to protest about the oppression of the poor).

3. A ‘Prosperity’ Sermon from a Pauline Text

Jamal‐Harrison Bryant, ‘There's a Harvest Inside of Me’ (2 Cor. 9:6–15)

The African American Pulpit, vol. 8, no. 3, pp. 63–8. Jamal‐Harrison Bryant is the Pastor of Empowerment Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a well known religious leader in the United States and is a frequent guest speaker (p. 570) on national broadcasts. His ministry epitomizes an intriguing trend toward prosperity preaching among some younger African‐American clergy. While traditional themes of personal piety and social justice are not absent in their sermons, some younger African‐American clergy accentuate the material and financial dimensions of God's ‘blessings’. Prosperity preaching is not new in African‐American religion, but younger clergy like Bryant have refined dimensions of it by combining charismatic preaching styles, technological savvy, and considerable intellectual training.


Immediately, it is clear that this sermon will address financial matters. Its opening lines declare: ‘I want to argue that how you treat your money is a reflection of how you treat yourself. This may sound a bit philosophical in nature, but your money is connected to your self‐esteem’ (p. 63). The sermon then moves from this ‘philosophical’ statement to a theological assertion that financial practices are an effective indicator of a believer's love—or lack thereof—for God. By establishing the connection between financial giving and God, the sermon's introduction prepares its listeners for an engagement with 2 Corinthians 9, where Paul underscores the theological implications of the financial collection for impoverished believers in Jerusalem.

The sermon, however, does not engage 2 Corinthians 9 in any great detail but instead presents a series of principles loosely based on the sowing‐and‐reaping metaphor in 2 Corinthians 9. The body of the sermon presents a principle based on verse 6 (‘how you reap is how you sow’, p. 65). It then recommends a practice based on verse 7 (‘give cheerfully’, p. 65). Finally, it examines the produce (the ‘harvest’, defined vaguely in financial, psychological, and theological terms, pp. 64–8).

Additionally, the sermon explores several other sub‐principles: (1) ‘You will always reap more than you sow’ (p. 65, emphasis in the original); (2) ‘You always reap what you sow’ (p. 65, emphasis in the original); (3) ‘The harvest is connected to the soil’ (p. 65); (4) ‘The climate has to be right…in order for a harvest to take place’ (p. 66); (5) There is a ‘principle of time’—the notion that with God's help believers can reap their harvest in the same season they sow (p. 67); (6) There is a ‘principle of identity’—the notion that a seed undergoes transformation on the way to a harvest (p. 67); (7) There is a necessity to ‘trust the ‘gardener’, who is God (p. 67).

The sermon's basic three‐part structure (principle, practice, and produce) is clear and reflects the time‐honoured homiletic use of alliteration. Yet the barrage of sub‐principles proceeds at a fevered pace, with no sustained attention given to any of them. Thus, it was challenging to process the principles even after multiple readings of the sermon. While I wonder to what degree congregants were able to process this rapid‐fire information, scholars studying trends in church and society have commented on the changing modes of perception among younger people who are (p. 571) progressively immersed in multimedia, electronic cultures (Sample 2005). Thus, Bryant's congregation, consisting of many young people, might have connected well with the sermon's sporadic logic.

In its original context this sermon's message of personal fulfillment might have been important for many people, despite its cursory engagement with 2 Corinthians 9. Nevertheless, a sermon coupling financial matters with rapid‐fire, superficial argumentation might create, at least for certain people, issues concerning its tone and the character of the preacher as tone and character are mediated by the sermon. Such issues are similar to those confronted by Paul in 2 Corinthians. The Corinthians had raised concerns about Paul's character, especially as it pertained to his financial practices.

It is interesting to deliberate on some possible emotional responses to this sermon among people not theologically inclined toward prosperity themes, as this sermon defines those themes. Such persons might perceive a certain ‘slickness’ in the sermon's homiletic tone, likening features of the sermon to a finely rehearsed marketing presentation. For instance, the sermon uses the ‘buzzwords’ of prosperity preaching, such as ‘season’ and ‘harvest’, and creates an escalating mood of imminent expectation. It is filled with language and images declaring that blessings are on the horizon. This raises a question: is the rapid and repeated declaration of a soon‐coming ‘harvest’, apart from a careful explanation of the nature of the harvest, theologically problematic, especially if the message is proclaimed to economically disadvantaged people?

Paul writes 2 Corinthians 8–9, and indeed the letter as a whole, to address charges of his insincerity and impure motives with regard to the Corinthians' finances. Paul attempts to dispel their doubts by patient argumentation and a continual reminder of the communal implications of their financial generosity (e.g. 2 Cor. 9:8, 12). In contrast, this sermon's hasty argumentation and underdeveloped communal orientation might potentially raise suspicions about its own motives. Thus, in spite of Bryant's considerable homiletic genius, the lack of a more solid exegetical and theological foundation exposes aspects of the sermon to criticism.


This sermon could be strengthened by postcolonial considerations. It lacks any significant appreciation for systematic realities or social injustices that hinder the ‘harvest’ from coming to fruition in many individuals and communities. I offer three interrelated examples.

First, without accounting for the interlocking oppression created by forces such as racial, gender, or class discrimination, the sermon's depiction of God comes close to a divine sanctioning of the economic and spiritual lack in people lives. It declares: ‘Any harvest that is God‐ordained cannot be withheld…Look, if you (p. 572) don't have it, maybe God knew you couldn't hold it’ (pp. 64–5). This part of the sermon raises such questions as: what about persons who have ‘sowed’ faithfully their time, talents, and meagre resources and still their ‘harvests’ have not come, because of systematic issues such as a lack of health insurance or a lifetime of working in minimum‐wage jobs? Did not European and North American imperialists use a similar logic to deny many freedoms to African‐American slaves (‘Look, if you don't have freedom, maybe God knew you couldn't hold it)?

A greater awareness of postcolonial themes might sensitize African‐American preachers to the role of ‘sacralization’ in the history of African‐American oppression, that is, ‘the transposing of an ideological concept into a tenet of religious faith (or a theological justification) in order to serve the vested interest of a particular…group’ (Felder 1991: 128–9). European and North American imperialists used God to justify their oppression of Africans and African Americans; contemporary African‐American preachers need to be careful, lest they use God to spiritualize systematic issues that foster poverty, thereby disempowering people already suffering under economic imperialism.

Second, postcolonial concerns might have led this sermon into a more careful examination of the moral and communal implications of certain theological terms. For instance, like much prosperity preaching it speaks often about the ‘harvest’, but fails to define the harvest clearly. The sermon declares: ‘Tell yourself your harvest is coming. Everything you touch is about to blow up. (The term ‘blow up’ is a contemporary African‐American, hip‐hop idiom meaning ‘to make it really big’ or ‘to become a social celebrity’). Everywhere my foot treads is already given to me. Everyone connected to me is about to walk in the harvest' (p. 66). Postcolonial considerations might prompt other poignant questions: does this kind of language convey the message of Jesus or a neo‐colonial ‘myth of Midas’, luring people into a lust for possessions and a new servitude to economic consumption? Are some affluent African Americans reaping ‘harvests’ that might appear God‐ordained, while in reality these harvests are simply the flowering of the seeds of greed and North American individualism (Andrews 2002: 50–88)? Have some African Americans succumbed to an economic materialism similar to the ideology supporting past and present European and North American imperialism?

Finally, Paul's exhortations in 2 Corinthians about money are rooted in a communitarian ethic. The Corinthians are urged to give so that persons in financial hardship in Jerusalem might be assisted. In many contemporary prosperity sermons, such as this one, benevolent giving is removed from a communitarian context and instead becomes a matter of securing an individual's destiny. Has benevolent religious giving among some African‐American Christians morphed into a ‘sanctified lottery’, where people ‘sow financial seeds’—the equivalent of ‘buying a ticket’—with the hope of securing God's ‘favor and financial blessings’—the equivalent of ‘hitting the jackpot’? It would be unfortunate if contemporary prosperity sermons turned Paul's financial message to the Corinthians on its head. (p. 573) Instead of exhorting people with economic means to give in order to assist the poor, such sermons might be inviting the poor to give generously—in church offerings and through the purchase of sermon DVDs and CDs at high‐profile religious conferences—as the poor unintentionally widen the chasm between themselves and the affluent.


The interchange between postcolonial studies and African‐American preaching holds significant promise. This dialogue can move postcolonial studies increasingly into the specifics of lived religion and away from scholarly abstractions, while it also can motivate African‐American preachers and congregations to display more proudly the postcolonial techniques they have used for centuries in the quest for a liberated existence in the African diaspora. Finally, it can provide a vivid reminder that the parasitic spirit of empire can settle easily upon any culture or cultural practice for its host body.

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