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Dr. Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., is the guest on Union Presbyterian Seminary’s ‘Seeking Shalom’ webinar

Activist, author and educator makes an urgent case for pushing back against Christian nationalism and other forces of evil

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Obery M. Hendricks, Jr.

LOUISVILLE — On Tuesday, Columbia University’s Dr. Obery M. Hendricks, Jr. , one of the nation’s foremost commentators on religion and the political economy, warned an online crowd the nation is “at such a dangerous point” that “if we don’t push back against those who weaponize the Bible very soon, they might just get the upper hand, and we and our descendants will suffer.”

Hendricks, a social activist and adjunct professor in Columbia University’s Departments of Religion and African American and African Diaspora Studies and the author of “The Politics of Jesus” and “The Universe Bends Toward Justice,” was the featured speaker Monday and Tuesday during the 2024 African American Social Justice Preaching Series at Union Presbyterian Seminary’s Center for Social Justice and Reconciliation. The Center’s director, the Rev. Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr., hosted Tuesday evening’s online conversation, titled “Seeking Shalom: The Biblical Call for Justice and Liberation.”

“We are commanded to struggle for a just world for all God’s children,” Hendricks said. Jesus’ commandment to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves means we “want the same social, economic and political goods for our neighbors.”

“It’s the struggle for the common good, a just society, to herald God’s kingdom of justice on Earth as it is in heaven,” Hendricks said. “It’s foundational for all we do.”

Sadler said that Christians “do a great job talking about love, but we do a poor job describing what love looks like.” Rather than a “warm fuzzy,” love “is about action. It’s creating goodwill toward other people,” Sadler said. He then asked Hendricks: “Why haven’t we done a better job showing people what love looks like?”

Part of the reason is that many American Christians are more concerned with Paul’s teachings on “our individual relationship with God” than Jesus’ concern about people’s suffering and his emphasis on empowering and guiding them, according to Hendricks.

“Jesus’ teaching was much more political. Paul’s was ‘over yonder,’” Hendricks said. “Jesus taught people what to do for a better world. Paul said, ‘Only God can do this. We pray and wait for a better day if and when God brings it.’”

Teachings including the Parable of the Good Samaritan don’t “leave room for the marginalization of folks because of where they come from or who they love,” Hendricks said. “That’s something that’s really lost today” by many on the religious right, which Hendricks called “a powerful religious force that doesn’t seem to understand the gospel at all or live by the tenets of the gospel.”

“The opposition to Christ and his way is coming to define what faith looks like,” Sadler said. “We demonize the poor and say they need to get themselves together … The spirit of antichrist has redefined what Christianity is, setting Christianity against its original purpose.”

Hendricks said it’s important “to reclaim the language of good and evil. Evil is that which harms the innocent.” Forces including Christo-fascism are “more than just political disagreement,” and people of color “suffer the most under that.”

The Rev. Dr. Rodney S. Sadler Jr.

People will tell Hendricks and other faith leaders, “I’m with you until you talk about politics,” according to Sadler, “but you grounded this in the fact that our faith is inherently political.”

“The larger society suggests there is no way to critique what goes on in the political realm. This has a lingering impact on society, and it continues to keep the church from critiquing things that are wrong and antichristian,” Sadler said. “We are part of the Jesus movement, and we have something to say about those who hold offices of power.”

The fact is that other than God, Jesus talked about poor people and poverty more than any other topic, according to Hendricks. His command to love our neighbor as ourselves “gives us a standard for how we should understand the political powers that be.” Because we don’t employ that standard, many people “don’t understand what they want politicians to do. That’s why preachers should read more and study more,” Hendricks said, in order to be “more familiar with economics and politics.”

During a question-and-answer session following the conversation, Hendricks noted that especially at the end of his life, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “understood the importance of the socialist ethos of the Bible, a focus on the common good.” Social Security, Hendricks noted, is just one example of a socialist policy.

“The first thing that Jesus said [during his public ministry] was that ‘I am anointed to preach good news to the poor’” and that the system will change, Hendricks said. He was crucified three years later “because he stood up against empire.”

“We have to stand up and fight and raise consciousness in our churches,” Hendricks said. “It has to start now. If we don’t do something, we’re going to catch hell and this country will never be the same.”

Asked about the role of corporate worship in the theology of social justice, Hendricks said church leaders “have to expect people to put the hand to the plow in various ways” and must be careful to select, for example, worship music that is less apocalyptic and more liberative. Too much church music “is about ‘Leave it to Jesus,’” Hendricks said. “It says, ‘Pray to God with your lips, but not your limbs.’”

“We are called out into society, not just into the church to work out our own salvation,” Hendricks said near the end of the 90-minute webinar. “It’s about being delivered in this world — out of Caesar’s kingdom and into God’s kingdom.”

“We are grateful for your time with us,” Sadler told Hendricks. “Thank you for the work you are doing. We will keep reading your books, listening to your talks and working alongside you.”

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