In Front Lines, Fusion speaks to activists leading the charge in all kinds of ways.
Rev. Howard-John Wesley knew he’d struck a nerve when one of his congregants called their kid down from the choir to leave, right in the middle of the sermon.
It was a few weeks out from Easter. Wesley had called the congregation to consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and how it’s portrayed in the media, part of his series called “Enemy of the State.” Its purpose: to reclaim Jesus Christ as an insurrectionist and political dissident.
Wesley was taken aback at first, but he pressed on. This, he reminded himself, was his calling.
“I’m not trying to be offensive, but I have an assignment to be a prophet. To be one who speaks truth,” Wesley said. “To be one who says, ‘Are you thinking about this?’ And it’s not going to be popular with everyone.”
As pastor of Alfred Street Baptist church in Alexandria, Virginia, a historic African-American church known for its civic work, Wesley commands quite a platform. The church has about 7,000 members, donated $1 million to the Smithsonian African-American Museum last year, and has hosted the Obamas on Easter Sunday.
Now, this-fourth generation Baptist preacher wants to use the church to “call kings to accountability.” Fusion spoke with Pastor Wesley about what that means, and if religion can be trusted to save a nation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why do you think this message of Christ as a dissident resonated with you in 2017, more than it might have in 2012 or 2015?
I think in America right now we can see that we are the new Rome. We are the largest empire on the face of the Earth, and empires cannot maintain themselves without violence and destruction and war. As Christians, we are called to question even our own policies and the politics of the nation we live in. The direction this nation is headed in is absolutely counter to what I believe is the ethic and ministry of Jesus Christ and his followers.
Is it your Christian responsibility to dismantle things like capitalism, war, and capital punishment?
I think it’s my Christian responsibility to address it. Christ was not crucified because he said “Pray for your neighbors and love people.” He never would have been crucified for that. Christ was crucified because he challenged the political, the economic, and the justice issues of his day. And if we’re not doing that as Christians today, we’re not following the real message of Jesus Christ.
Let’s at least ask the questions. How do we feel about drone bombings when innocents are being killed? The same day this president was inaugurated he launched a drone attack in Yemen where little children were killed. And this happened under President Obama as well, so this isn’t an anti-Trump, pro-Obama stance. This is: America engages in drone bombings, where innocent civilians are killed, how do you as a Christian feel about that?
Studies show that there are less young people who identify as being religious than in generations before them. I’m curious why you believe that is.
I’m grateful that our church has not followed that trend. We’ve grown from 2,500 to 7,000 in the last eight years, and 70% of that growth has been under 40. So, we are breaking that trend. And part of the reason I think we are is because our church seems to be very relevant, with the economic, justice, and social issues that [younger people] deal with.
The Civil Rights Movement was birthed out of the church. The movement for equality for blacks has always been rooted in church. But the church and the prosperity [gospel] movement that began in the late ‘80s and ‘90s became so focused on material gain.
Some people credit the prosperity gospel with Trump’s popularity among evangelicals.
I think the prosperity gospel was an absolute perversion and distortion of the true gospel of Jesus Christ. To suggest that God wants you to be wealthy, to suggest that is the end-all of salvation: It created this individualism that said my relationship with God is just with me and about me.
I’m not an anti-capitalist. I’m not a socialist. But capitalism demands poverty. It almost, of necessity, creates a workforce that is underpaid. And I don’t think Christians should be endorsing an economic system that is absolutely contrary to who Jesus cared most about, which are the poor.
Should the role of the church change in this particular moment, and how should it?
I don’t know if I would say the role of the church should change. I wish the church would have stayed authentic to its mission and calling from the beginning. The church has a responsibility to make certain its members are becoming more engaged in the issues of their day.
Even if it’s just voicing or just having a dissenting voice in the conversation at the cubicle at work. But that can’t happen if the issues that are in the world are not brought to the pulpit. It has to be a place of engagement and empowerment, as opposed to [people] escaping the world when they get in the church.
What’s at stake here?
I think my faithfulness to God is at stake. I think the energy and integrity of the church is at stake. We cannot continue to fade into the shadows and be afraid to speak prophetically and boldly against what we feel is not in alignment with the true message and ministry of Jesus Christ.
If the church is not a beacon of light and truth, where will we go? We won’t find it on Fox, we won’t see it on CNN. Where are we going to go to be empowered, to encounter God, and to go out and change our community? We’re at stake.
And finally, the salvation of our nation is at stake. If there is no prophetic voice, if there is no church calling kings and leaders to accountability, we have no hope for our nation. There is no moral conscience.