In our American society, we pay the most attention to those who have a lot of clout. We tend to flock after those who have reputable degrees, have some sort of coveted expertise, or are for other reasons highly influential. These are the people to whom we ascribe value and importance, and as such, these are the people that we most readily listen to in times of crisis and confusion. Other voices, in particular those at the margins of our society – poor, uneducated, people of color, women, etc – often go ignored or are “otherized” so that mainstream society does not feel compelled to listen to them. This is especially true when said voices are speaking out against societies’ crimes.
No one embodies the complexities of this reality more than black women. Black women – as a result of the intersecting marginal identities of racism, sexism, and often classism (and more) – are disproportionately silenced and ignored when we speak out against America’s sins. When we call out racism and police brutality, our voices are stifled by white liberals who supposedly “get it” but demand a colorblind approach to the problems that we face. When we condemn oppressive gender roles and rape culture, we are often hushed by black men who insist that we are only out to hurt the black man. And when we critique systems of white supremacy and patriarchy that are so deeply embedded in our churches, we are often labeled angry, rebellious, and too emotional. Every moment that we resist our prescribed role as societies’ mule, our words are either torn apart or dismissed altogether.
The reality is that societies around the world have a way of making sure that those at the bottom, stay at the bottom. One of the most efficient ways to do that is to ensure that no one hears the prophetic cries of change that are uttered from below. As long as those voices stay unheard, there is no urgency to change systems of oppression. Yet God, as He always does, has a way of elevating the neglected voices in our midst calling for truth and justice.
An Ancient Example
Such was the case with Amos, ascribed author of the book of Amos in the Old Testament. Written between 793 B.C and 753 B.C., God rose Amos up to address the ongoing oppression wrought at the hands of Uzziah the King of Judah and Jeroboam the King of Israel, and inflicted on the most vulnerable. People were economically exploited, women were sexually violated, others were deported only to be brutalized and killed, and the unborn were discarded. All of these egregious things were done for the benefit of the empire who grew more prosperous with every single act of atrocity.
God was beyond angry over all of this and planned to deliver swift, punitive judgment. But like many things, He didn’t do this in the dark and wanted the powers of the state to be in the know, just in case they might repent and turn from their evil ways. God needed to appoint someone to deliver His word, someone who would be willing to speak truth to power and whose stomach wouldn’t turn at the mere thought of standing against the status quo. God’s mouthpiece for the moment: Amos.
But the thing is, Amos was not a prophet. He had not been trained among the best of Judaism’s finest religious scholars and teachers. He also was not royalty, or a person in some position of authority within the empire, or even someone really famous for doing nothing, like the Kardashians. In fact, Amos represented the lowest of the low: a sheepherder. He made his living by following around dumb animals all day. But taking care of sheep didn’t give him enough income to provide for his needs, needs which most likely included feeding his growing family. To make additional income, Amos also was a dresser of sycamore trees, a tree which produced small fig-like fruit that wasn’t especially sweet but accessible to those who were poor. Like him.
In addition, Amos was fatherless. Unlike many of the other prophets, including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Joel, and Jonah, no father is ascribed to him. Amos’ father’s absence from the introduction of his story tells us that he was either missing – dead or in prison – unknown, or that his family’s social location was so low that his father could not give him more credibility than he already had.
Though not theologically trained, a person of little to no influence, and fatherless, God used Amos to bring much needed judgment to Judah and Israel. According to Amos 7, other religious leaders sold out and their once prophetic words disappeared in exchange for the comforts that cuddling up to empire brought. While some prophets may have genuinely recoiled at the deplorable state of affairs, they were too afraid to say anything that could definitely be the case with the prophet Isaiah. Note that Isaiah waited until King Uzziah of Judah died before he began his prophetic ministry. Amos represented a fresh voice that was not only attuned with the Spirit of God but whose position in life gave him the experiential authority to challenge the systems of oppression that were common place in his day. Because as a poor, fatherless, un-influential man, he was most likely on the receiving end of much of that oppression.
I wonder how many people paid attention to his words. As is the case with most prophets, I am sure not many. But again, his social location further inhibited people’s ability to listen to his words. Whatever allowances were granted to other prophets who were able to get in good with the same empires they critiqued, like Daniel and Nehemiah, were not extended to him. Instead, he prophesied alongside the roads and in the streets, declaring the word of the Lord to whomever would give him the time of day. I suspect that not many did.
A New Vanguard
Like Amos, there are many black women prophesying the word of the Lord in our nation today. In the present day, black women are lifting up our voices to prophetically speak out against racism and state sponsored violence. We are leading the charge against sexual violence and exploitation, demanding that our bodies stop becoming the object of perverted male fantasies. And we are speaking truth to power concerning queer/transgender violence, wage theft and unfair scheduling, health disparities, unjust housing practices, mass incarceration, gun crimes, and disparities in education – all the while looking absolutely fabulous, I must say. Like Amos, we bear the complexities of our intersecting marginal identities but we refuse to be silent just because society insists that those in our social location should stay in our place. Through our words and our work, we are creating our own place.
Like Amos, there are many black women who are boldly challenging the dictates of empire – an empire which claims to follow God but who clearly does not. Instead of accepting the status quo, as if it were indomitable, black women are forcefully making society face its awful, racist past. We are critiquing our nation’s sacred policies and practices, insisting that these documents were not prescribed by holy men committed to God but men committed to growing our nation’s wealth through colonization, genocide, rape, and slavery. We are calling out the American church for its role in marrying empire and who has used evangelism and mission initiatives to justify this ungodly allegiance – in the quest to save a few souls, the church has lost many! The journey of prophetic critique is uncomfortable and seemingly inconvenient. Like Amos, we are protesting in the streets, the courthouse, places of establishment, the church, and wherever there appears to be a demonic stronghold over our lives and the lives of our people. The journey is also long but black women are committed to walking the long road of truth and justice, even if necessitates walking alone.
Like Amos, our liberation is bound up in our ability to critique a society that thrives off our continued oppression while also stirring the imagination within that same society – so that our futures will be different. It is not enough to draw attention to America’s crimes without also proffering a compelling, godly vision of justice and peace. We imagine and call forth a time when people – across race, gender, and class – are able to live among each other as brothers and sisters, providing love, hospitality, and care for each other in the same way that they are loved and cared for. We imagine a future where our babies make it home at the end of the day with their pockets full of skittles and iced tea, where our sisters are not forced to surrender their sexuality nor are they treated like unruly criminals for doing seemingly asinine things, and where our brothers and fathers grow big and strong and provide strength and love to our families until God calls them home. Full of the spirit of God, we see a space where no one has to work four jobs just to make ends meet. Instead, the community meets the needs of everyone and no one is exploited for their lack or inability to provide for themselves. Laughter and joy fills our lives instead of terror and fear. Together, our beloved community – which includes men and women, black and white, rich and poor, young and old, educated and uneducated, able-bodied and disabled – reflects the love of God throughout the earth. This is shalom. This is what the fullness of God’s Kingdom looks like!
Courageous, spirit-filled black women are the new vanguard, lifting up God’s vision for justice in our midst. And we insist that this justice must be realized for all marginal identities and not just those most readily able to approximate white patriarchy. The question is: will empire listen? Will our government and places of power finally listen to the prophetic voice of truth and justice that has been crying out for nearly 400 years? Will our churches listen? Will our theology, at last, recognize and honor the voice of the suffering and move away from its bent toward triumphalism?
To date, our government and institutions, including our churches, have not listened well. But the reality is, you cannot listen to those who you cannot hear. This is why we must push for the continual elevation of the neglected voices of black women so that we may be fully and completely heard. The church can play a role in this by supporting more black women doing theology and leading our congregations. There have to be more on ramps for black women to be trained and supported in pursuit of our vocation which necessitates providing significant financial support, ongoing mentorship, and meaningful internship opportunities.
At the same time, there is already a multiplicity of trained, educated, experienced and capable black women voices out there calling forth God’s justice in every way that they can. And doing it well. Discover them. Research them. Follow them. Break out of the filter bubble that is so commonplace on social media and actively seek out perspectives that differ from your own. Plan conferences where black women are keynote speakers and not just an afterthought in order to diversify an otherwise white space. In so doing, the church will become an effective vehicle in normalizing the “otherized” while simultaneously rejecting the notion of whiteness as default.
Elevating the prophetic cries of black women is the urgent task before us. And as we elevate these voices, hear and listen, may we heed God’s Word so that we will not be destroyed: “Seek good and not evil, that you may live; And thus may the Lord God of hosts be with you (Amos 5.14, NASB).”