The sermon within the African American, Christian tradition is the product of both the prophet and the audience. The prophet is part of a larger, distinctive community which fails to be fettered by time and space. Rather, it is a community of continuity where the verbal symbols, methods, mythologies, and metaphors collapse sacred space and sacred time into the contemporary needs of the community.
The prophet employs the shared community symbols as a means of deconstructing the dominant regime and motivating the oppressed community to action through the promise of hope. Furthermore, the climactic manifestation of the success of the sermon’s being attributed equally to the prophet and to the audience is the climax of the sermon itself where the preacher relies on audience participation, understanding, and response to proclaim his message.
Due to the nature of the prophetic community, specifically as it is on the periphery of the dominant culture, we must ask several questions about the dominant, white Christian tradition in America. If Brueggemann’s categories are correct, and if the prophet most readily rises up in an oppressed community, then we must ask ourselves whether it is possible for those within the dominant paradigm ever to produce a prophet.
In the end, this may be one of the most important questions the American, white church can ask herself. Has she sided so much with the Royal Consciousness that she has forgotten that she, like her Savior, ought to be identifying with and participating in the narrative of the oppressed and those on the periphery? If this analysis of King’s prophetic ministry teaches us anything, it is that which Howard Thurman noted before King arrived on the scene:
Too often the price exacted by society for security and respectability is that the Christian movement in its formal expression must be on the side of the strong against the weak. This is a matter of tremendous significance, for it reveals to what extent a religion that was born of a people acquainted with persecution and suffering has become the cornerstone of a civilization and of nations whose very position in modern life too often has been secured by a ruthless use of power applied to defenseless peoples.
Thurman’s words reveal the need the white church tradition in America has for a prophet. Yet our analysis here may demonstrate, to our detriment, that we shall not receive one—or at least one that “looks like us.” If God’s prophet comes from the edges of society, then our place at the center is ill-suited. I suspect this is not by accident. Therefore, for those looking for a prophetic voice, it may be that the only legitimate place to look is amongst the forgotten and broken who have failed to buy into our mythology of consumerism, violence, and maybe even reason, and who still believe and desire the speaking God to subvert our self-fashioned paradigms of power and provide an alternative reality of hope in and longing for this-worldly justice. This is where King dwelt; this is where we must look for a Prophetic Imagination.