The Black Body: Prophets Against Empire

beautiful-black-womanAnd I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for twelve hundred and sixty days, clothed in sackcloth.” 4 These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5 And if anyone wants to harm them, fire flows out of their mouth and devours their enemies; so if anyone wants to harm them, he must be killed in this way. 6 These have the power to shut up the sky, so that rain will not fall during the days of their prophesying; and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood, and to strike the earth with every plague, as often as they desire.

7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, and overcome them and kill them. 8 And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9 Those from the peoples and tribes and tongues and nations will look at their dead bodies for three and a half days, and will not permit their dead bodies to be laid in a tomb. 10 And those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and celebrate; and they will send gifts to one another, because these two prophets tormented those who dwell on the earth. – Revelation 11.3 – 10, NASB

The task of those who take up the mantle to speak prophetically against systems of injustice in this world is an arduous one. When you dare to fight against empire, empire most often fights back. When you become emboldened through the power of the Holy Spirit to speak against oppression, oppressors do not sit idly by – they crack down harder, hoping with every ounce of their being to either make you irrelevant, silence you, or obliterate you altogether. And they often do so in front of the world, using the oppression and death of the outspoken as an example of what can happen when one dares to challenge injustice.

Such is what happened to the two prophets, or witnesses, in the book of Revelation. While it can be argued that these two were persecuted because of their beliefs, we must take our analysis distorted by Tim Lahaye and Jerry B Jenkins a little further and also consider how these two men spoke out against an oppressive, sadistic system which caused deep hunger, poverty, and war while also challenging the people of the empire who committed idolatry, murder, and theft. With every word they spoke, they agitated a system that was bent on destruction and angered a people who would have preferred to wallow in misery than receive the mercies of God. For three and a half years, the two prophets – empowered by the Holy Spirit – rattled this evil system until they were overpowered and killed.

And the bodies of the prophets laid in the street for three and a half days. Unmoved. Untouched. And the people who they prophesied against refused them a proper burial because the prophets forced them to face their sins. For three and a half days, the people mocked and taunted the dead prophets. And the empire was complicit in the mockery because at last, the outspoken voices who reminded it of its wickedness and oppression were silent. Three and a half days. 84 hours. 302,400 seconds of rotting in the hot sun as an example to anyone else who would dare to challenge structural sin and oppression.

Embodying blackness, Mike Brown dared to challenge an empire who wanted to forget about its history of oppression and sin.* As a young, black man in a country which so desperately longed to be post-racial, or rather, a country who wanted to forget about blackness, Mike and so many like him who are profiled and killed on a daily basis, was a constant reminder of the America’s sin. Like the prophets of old, he drew attention to the nation’s history of injustice and exploitation. Like the prophets, his presence agitated folks who did not want to face the truth about the way in which they had been complicit in the sin of empire. And so, they killed him and left him in the street for 4 ½ hours, his decaying body serving as an example to every other black person of what happens when you dare to live the truth.

As with Mike, the same has held true of so many other black men, women, and children in our nation who  are either battered and bruised (Rodney King, Dajerria Becton, James Blake) or violently killed (Emmett Till, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Eric Garner, John Crawford, Ezell Ford, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott Freddie Gray, Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Ethel Lee Lance, Susie Jackson, Daniel L. Simmons, and Depayne Middleton Doctor, Sandra Bland, Kindra Darnell Chapman and unfortunately so many others). The only factor that united all of these was their blackness which continually reminded those in power of our nation’s dark history. Our mere, enduring existence as black people is a prophetic voice against the ways in which we have been exploited and marginalized for profit. And when empire has had all it can take – as in the case of the two witnesses in Revelation – it retaliates. Brutally. The death of so many black prophets have spilled on the ground, remaining, rotting, voiceless and alone because we dared to wake up and walk out into the world, challenging white supremacy with every single breath we take. Our blackness – whether we bear the right name, look a certain way, or have Ph.D behind our name – is a continual prophetic witness against empire and capitalism.

This is a hard truth to bear! However, the more that we come to understand that our blackness is under siege because of the shame that those who are complicit in our oppression harbor, the more we can stop beating up on each other. At last, we could put respectability politics to rest. And perhaps, we could even stop talking about black on black violence. Because the truth of the matter is, we could be as saintly as Mother Theresa, or as far gone as Judas Iscariot and it will not matter because as long as we embody blackness, our bodies will speak out against injustice.

In order to move forward, empire must enter into the sacred process of repentance, confession, and healing. It must recognize the ways in which the ideology of white supremacy has corrupted the hearts of so many people in this nation and has also disregarded the image of God present in every person. This is where the deepest work must take place!

And the emphasis on undoing white supremacist ideology cannot be overstated. For far too long, empire has put the onus on black people to improve and move beyond our position as if we were culpable for our own chains. But we are not! We did not do this to ourselves but rather it is this nation who in the words of James Baldwin has ‘robbed black people of their liberty and who have profited by this theft every hour they have lived.’ No matter the heights black people climb, until our nation shakes loose the shackles of the wretched ideology that has governed the people for centuries, not only is change impossible but so is the liberation of black people. Our bodies will continue to live in protest.

*Last weekend, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a conference that was being hosted at my church, Identity, Theology, and Place: Re-inhabiting the Mississippi Watershed. During the first plenary session on Saturday morning, activist and theologian Ched Meyers made mention of the passage in Revelation and connected it to the murder and desecration of Mike Brown’s body which inspired this post.

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