I was embarrassed by what I was seeing on my TV screen.
I was watching and listening to Minister Louis Farrakhan preach on a local public access channel. He seemed to quote more Scripture than usual. This was not surprising, because he's been doing more and more of this lately, trying to broaden his appeal.
But what disturbed me this night was the African-American Christian pastors sitting on the platform behind Mr. Farrakhan. As he "corrected" their theology and straightened them out as to who Jesus really was and what the Bible really said about Jesus, they clapped their hands and nodded their heads in agreement with him. It was like watching a father discipline his wayward sons.
Although Minister Farrakhan may be one of the best preachers in the country, I disagree strongly with his theology. I became angry and frustrated, but mostly saddened by the scene of these Christian pastors and their inability or unwillingness to challenge Farrakhan's faulty theology.
Serious questions come to mind. Why are so many pastors who have preached the resurrected Christ all of their spiritual lives now nodding in agreement with a "minister" who demotes God's Son to the level of a prophet? Why are leaders whose entire ministries have revolved around the proclamation of the Lordship of Christ now embarrassed to mention his name in the presence of Farrakhan and his followers?
Has Farrakhan's bandwagon grown so powerful that we are afraid of getting crushed if we stand in its path? That is, are we afraid that we will alienate a segment of the black community if we boldly disagree with his slippery theology and where he is going with it? Are we merely insecure about what it is that we really believe, or do we feel intimidated by this man's charisma and presence?
Whatever the case, it is time to confront our complicity.
We've all heard stories of the early Christians who were thrown to the lions for refusing to renounce Jesus. To this day, we admire their faith and courage and have wondered deep down in our hearts if we would show that same conviction. In our day and age, we have never had to face this kind of challenge to our faith. Has this ease made us weak Christian leaders who are willing to tuck Jesus away in a foggy mist of "Allah/God" talk so as not to offend our Muslim brothers?
Many of us can quote from memory these Scriptures, "For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ; for it is the power of God for salvation...." (Romans 1:16a, NRSV).
"For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline. Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel, relying on the power of God...." (2 Timothy 1:7-8, NRSV).
In these passages, the apostle Paul addresses the issue of spiritual "wimpism." In the midst of a cultural, social, and religious climate that was at best hostile to the Christian message, Paul challenged the community of faith to boldly proclaim the life-transforming gospel and not to be timid about bearing witness to their Lord.
Today, urban churches in general and black churches in particular face a formidable challenge from Islam. Sociologists C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, in their important book, The Black Church in the African-American Experience, conclude the following:
"It is already clear that in Islam the historic black church denominations will be faced with a far more serious and more powerful competition for the souls of black folk than the white churches ever were. When is the question, not whether."
The most visible expression of Islam within the African-American communities is Louis Farrakhan's reconstructed Nation of Islam. If there were any doubt about the potency of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam, it was wiped away on October 16, 1995. On that momentous day Louis Farrakhan brought together nearly a million African-American men for "a day of atonement and reconciliation."
Farrakhan and his Nation of Islam have exploited a leadership vacuum in the black community and in some cases are outshining the church. In light of this sorry state of affairs, what must black churches and black Christians do in order to regain our communities?
First, we must take seriously our loyalty to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Paul was not ashamed of the gospel. Unfortunately, too many of our church leaders demonstrate a spirit of timidity and cowardice when it comes to bearing witness for Christ in the public sphere.
Every Muslim speaker who addressed the Million Man March last October explicitly expressed loyalty to Allah, Muhammad, and to minister Farrakhan. Conversely, perhaps in their desire not to offend their Muslim hosts, the black church "leadership" decided to talk about God in the generic. The name of Jesus was conspicuously absent from their rhetoric.
It brought to mind Simon Peter who, under the pressure of mob rule, would not let himself be identified with this Jesus.
Do we really believe that the gospel is the power of God for salvation? If we do, then we are obligated to boldly bear witness to that gospel-especially within the public sphere. Maybe God did redeem the march by making some good things happen. But this was in spite of the Christian leaders who spoke from the platform.
Are we as black Christians affected by a new radicalism, where it is more important to be identified with blackness than Christianity, where racial loyalty is more important than seeking and telling the truth? Is it cool to say "Allah" or "Mohammad" because they are supposedly identified with blackness, while God and Jesus-because of their allegedly white identification-are becoming politically incorrect in black society?
As Christian leaders, we cannot afford to buy into this heresy. The end result is obvious: losing our people to Islam. If Christian ministers don't stand in the gap, who will?
Second, too many of us place more value upon the experiential and expressive dimensions of Christian life than upon the doctrinal aspects of faith.
We must do a better job of blending both head and heart in our Christian experience. Both ministers and laypersons must demonstrate a better grasp of basic Christian belief. This means engaging in theological reflection.
Theological reflection is necessary because it helps us make clear our oftentimes unclear Christian convictions about God, ourselves, and the world.
One reason that Farrakhan is able to so successfully disarm and confuse black Christian clergy is our theological and biblical illiteracy. If we are going to have dialog, then we must be more prepared. We can no longer let Farrakhan go unchallenged when he, in our presence, lowers Jesus, the foundation of our faith, to the status of Mohammad. This is no small thing. As Paul says, without Jesus and the Resurrection, there would be no Christian faith.
Third, if our Christian commitment and beliefs do not make an actual difference in our personal and corporate lives, then others cannot possibly take our faith seriously.
To be sure, the most damaging argument that has been employed against Christianity by the Nation of Islam is that Christians have failed miserably in the actual practice of our faith. If we cannot demonstrate to the urban underclass in particular a gospel that can communicate to them in their totality-if our gospel cannot deal with the issues of violent crime and police brutality-if our gospel cannot deal with the moral and spiritual disintegration of our communities typified by drugs, AIDS, unwed juvenile parenthood, and the spirit of hopelessness and despair in our communities-then this gospel is irrelevant and powerless and deserves to be replaced by something like Islam.
This is not to suggest that Christians are not doing anything. In fact, Christians are doing some tremendous work, especially in our inner cities. But as the apostle Paul says, if we are to demonstrate the power of our gospel then we must "do so even more."
For the black community, this new Islam challenge is real. For years we have enjoyed the luxury of our people either choosing our Christianity or going without. This meant that Christian leaders enjoyed the privilege of having the most influence in the community. This is no longer the case. But hopefully this new challenge will help us to sharpen our weapons, strap on our battle gear, and defend the faith like never before.
Mr. Potter is a theologian and professor at Belhaven College in Jackson, Miss. This article originally appeared in Urban Family magazine.