There was a song by gospel group the Williams Brothers that came out when I was a child. I still remember the video — four black men in bright pastel blazers and pants (it was the 80’s, after all), wielding brooms as props. The song was called “Sweep Around,” and it invoked an old adage often heard in the South where I grew up: “Sweep around your own front door before you try to sweep around mine.”
Call it an African-American exegesis/retelling of Matthew 7:5. In other words, don’t tell me about my mess when you’ve yet to handle yours. All have sinned and fallen short — you included, sister/brother accuser.
As a gospel group, the Williams Brothers were speaking to a gospel audience, i.e. other Christians. Their song was a confession of the Christian penchant for noticing the proverbial splinters in our friend’s eye, seemingly oblivious to (at least to those unwilling to acknowledge) the log in our own. The Williams Brothers were indicting the church, not those out in the “world,” probably because it is often the beloved community that takes it upon itself to be the moral compass for everyone around it.
We reflect on the election which has just taken place as we look ahead to the election that will take place in a year. We’re aghast at the revelation by hacktivist group Anonymous that many of our elected officials are members of the Ku Klux Klan. We’re troubled by the newly-elected governor of Kentucky’s promise to defund Planned Parenthood, placing in peril under-insured and low-income women’s access to comprehensive health care. An ordinance that would have protected gay and transgender people from discrimination was struck down in Houston, and the justice lovers among us weep. We are all the more inclined to lean in and listen the current field of candidates for President. What are their intentions for the Oval Office? Whose platform won’t further shove people into the margins? Whose answer to immigration reform drips of xenophobia, and how can we keep her or him out of Washington? Who will stop the en masse corralling of people of color and the poor into American prisons? Who will readily affirm all lives by in fact declaring that black lives — lives that are often valued the least — matter?
Christians wrestle with how to be prophetic right now. We commit ourselves to speaking truth to power. To care for the widows and orphans, society’s most vulnerable, that is Scripture’s charge to us after all. And we extend that charge to the undocumented migrant languishing in a detention center, the transgender person in danger of transphobic violence, and all the marginalized in every place. We want very much to be a prophetic voice, a voice that, like Amos, calls for justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. And because we want that, we gird our loins to combat what we see playing out in the culture.
If only we would do something about that pesky log in our own eye.
In a denomination that is 58% female, only 36% of active clergy are female. Moreover, clergywomen are more likely to be called to temporary ministerial relationships, while installed positions as senior pastors tend to be reserved for male clergy. This is the case even nearly sixty years after women were first ordained in our predecessor denomination. Even less likely to be considered for leadership in our churches are LGBT persons and people of color, many of whom share stories of being interviewed by PNCs often as the “token” candidate. Our denomination isn’t without a number of offerings and resources to help our congregations live into the vision of the beloved (and inclusive) community. But clearly, there is a disconnect that runs deep, and, perhaps at the local level, isn’t sufficiently examined. Biases are still prevalent in our churches.
If we intend to call the country out on its pervasive white supremacy, it shouldn’t escape us that our denomination is actually whiter than the country itself. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 77.4% of the population was white in 2014. By comparison, the PC(USA) hovers around 90% white. What might that suggest for the preference of whiteness in our denomination compared to the rest of the nation?
Nevertheless, we should speak truth to power. We should challenge a candidate who would claim to be among our ranks, yet espouses views and creates a platform bereft of any understanding of Reformed theology. We needn’t wait until we’ve rid ourselves of our own issues. We shouldn’t fail to call out the specks that are blinding us to the humanity of others, that obscure from view the very real pain hegemony inflicts upon the marginalized. But if our church is going to speak prophetically and with any integrity to these things, we must be equally willing to sweep around our own front door. Clearing out the log in our own eye must be just as urgent, if for no other reason that improving our own sight. To fail to do so would mean our witness has no teeth, and we are no different from the plank-eyed hypocrites who drew the ire of the Jesus we claim to follow.
T. Denise Anderson is an ordained Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church (USA), and currently serves as Pastor of Unity Presbyterian Church, Temple Hills, MD. She holds degrees from Virginia Commonwealth University and Howard University School of Divinity. Her blog, SOULa Scriptura, can be found here.