Moral Accountability, Prophetic Responsibility, and Selma by Kelly Brown Douglas

Rev.-Dr.-Kelly-Brown-Douglas - Version 2I have been struck in this new year by the reactions to the recently released movie Selma. There has been a palpable recognition by those of who have seen it, that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” Many have wondered if they are watching about events some 50 years ago, or events some five months ago in Ferguson. The question is why do we remain trapped in this same cycle of sin, where we are alienated from the god who is freedom and thus alienated from our own humanity.

While the answer to this question is complex, one of the reasons we remain trapped in this cycle of sin is because of the way we deny the past and dismiss the future. I have no doubt that until we hold ourselves morally accountable to our past and dare to take prophetic responsibility for our future, then our present realities will continue to be defined by the worst of who we are and not the best of who god calls us to be.

Moral accountability is about claiming the past that is god’s in our lives and then holding ourselves accountable to that divine past in our very present living. Moral accountability is, therefore, not about ignoring our past but rather about sitting with it, even when it is difficult and uncomfortable to do so; to listen to and even be critiqued by it in order to discern the movement of god in it. For, it is the past that is god’s that we are to claim and be accountable to in our very present. The past that is god’s is marked by freedom—freedom from any kind of “yoke of slavery” that prevents people from living into the fullness of whomever it is that god has called them into life to be. The god that calls us into life is a god that calls into freedom.

This is what the past that is god’s as witnessed to in the Judeo-Christian tradition through the Exodus and the Crucifixion-Resurrection events, makes clear to us. And, this is the past that we are morally accountable to in our very present. God’s past is a past of freedom, a freedom from all of the “principalities and powers” of our world that would prevent us from living fully into the life that is god’s gracious and loving gift to each of us. To live fully into the present that is ours to live is for us to maintain a moral accountability to the past that is our god’s by freeing ourselves from any prejudices, biases, stereotypes, fears, attitudes, practices and/or circumstances that prevent us or others from living fully into the very people that god has given us life to be.

The Apostle Paul puts it this way in his letter to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Enslaved African American’s testified to their own moral accountability when they sang, “Oh freedom, oh freedom over me, and before I be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.”

To live fully in the present also requires a prophetic responsibility to the future. Prophetic responsibility means that we are to live in our present not according to the way things are, but according to the way things are going to be. Put simply, our present living should reflect nothing less than a glimpse of the future that is god’s. This means our principles, our values, our standards of right and wrong, of decency and honor, of justice and peace—essentially the ways in which we conduct our lives—should reach beyond the standards and ways of our nation and our world and instead reach upward to the standards of god and god’s future.

These are standards that are marked by what theologian Howard Thurman might call a “sympathetic understanding.” Such an understanding allows us to see ourselves in the face of others; it is allows us to recognize that every one has a body that must be cared for, every single person has a heart that can be broken, and every human being has a soul that cries out for love. If we are to live fully into our present then we must maintain a prophetic responsibility to god’s future; and thus, in all of comings and goings, in big and small ways, be a witness on earth to god’s future where all people are respected as the sacred children of god that they are.

After watching Selma, I shook my head in dismay if not despair. For I knew that until we as a people, as a nation, hold ourselves morally accountable to the past that is Selma- which means nothing less than being prophetically responsible to the future which the freedom fighters of Selma gave their lives for- then the sin that was Selma will always be a part of our present.


Kelly Brown Douglas is the Susan D. Morgan Professor and Director of Religion at Goucher College.  Author of several books including  Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God (Forthcoming Orbis, Spring 2015).

Categories: American History, Christianity, civil rights

Tags: , , , ,

5 replies

  1. Sin is not a word that I use, but I couldn’t agree with you more that we must acknowledge our history including the great injustices in it, sit with it as you say, not rush defend anyone who contributed to injustice, and then move forward to change the present and the future.


  2. Yes, “sin” is a tough word. The Rev. Dr. King didn’t seem to mind using it freely, nonetheless. Here’s an apt excerpt from one of his essays related to your prophetic post —


    I don’t know about you, but when I look at myself hard enough I don’t feel like crying with the Pharisee,

    “Lord, I thank thee that I am not like other men,”

    but I find myself crying out,

    “Lord, be merciful unto me, a sinner.”

    We are sinners in need of God’s divine grace. When we come to our collective lives, our sin is even greater. One theologian could write a book entitled “Moral Man[kind] and Immoral Society.” In our collective lives our sin rises to even greater heights. See how we treat each other. Races trample over races; nations trample over nations. We go to war and destroy the values and the lives that God has given us. We leave the battlefields of the world painted with blood, and we end up with wars that burden us with national debts higher than mountains of gold, filling our nations with orphans and widows, sending thousands of men home psychologically deranged and physically handicapped.

    This is the tragic plight of man[kind]. As we look at all of that, we know that man[kind] isn’t made for that. We know that man[kind] is made for the stars, created for the everlasting, born for eternity. We know that man[kind] is crowned with glory and honor, and so long as he lives on the low level he will be frustrated, disillusioned, and bewildered.

    Jesus told a parable one day, the parable of the prodigal son. He talked about a boy who left home and went away into a far country, where he wasted his substance and even his character. Then a famine broke out, and this boy ended up in a hog pen.

    There are many insights to be gained from this parable. One, I think, is this:

    that man[kind] is not made for the far country of evil. Whenever he moves away from his Father’s house he finds himself facing a famine, and he finds himself frustrated and disillusioned. But the parable does not end there. That ‘s the beauty of it. We read that one day the boy came to himself and decided to rise up and go back home. We watch him as he travels up the dusty road that he had once come down. He had a little speech that he had made up: ” I am not worthy of being called thy son.” But he did not get a chance to make that speech because a loving father saw him from afar and ran out to the boy with outstretched arms, saying, “I am happy to have you back home. Come home, I still love you.”

    This is the glory of our religion:

    that when [a] man decides to rise up from his mistakes, from his sin, from his evil, there is a loving God saying,

    “Come home, I still love you.”

    Oh, I can hear a voice crying out today, saying to Western civilization:

    “You strayed away to the far country of colonialism and imperialism. You have trampled over one billion six hundred million of your colored brothers in Africa and Asia. But, O Western Civilization, if you will come to yourself, rise up, and come back home, I will take you in.”

    It seems that I can hear a voice saying to America:

    “You started out right. You wrote in your Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ But, America, you strayed away from that sublime principle. You left the house of your great heritage and strayed away into a far country of segregation and discrimination. You have trampled over sixteen million of your brothers. You have deprived them of the basic goods of life. You have taken from them their self-respect and their sense of dignity. You have treated them as if they were things rather than persons. Because of this a famine has broken out in your land. In the midst of all your material wealth, you are spiritually and morally poverty-stricken, unable to speak to the conscience of this world. America, in this famine situation, if you will come to yourself and rise up and decide to come back home, I will take you in for your are made for something high and something noble and something good.”

    To every man there openeth
    A Way, and Ways, and a Way,
    And the High Soul climbs the High Way,
    And the Low Soul gropes the Low,
    And in between, on the misty flats,
    The rest drift to and fro.
    But to every man there openeneth
    A High Way, and a Low,
    And every man decideth
    The Way his soul shall go.
    –John Oxenham


  3. Very powerful post. One of the major regrets of my life is that I did not try, in 1963, to find a way to travel to Washington, D.C., and join Dr. King. Along with Pete Seeger, Nelson Mandela, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Dr. King is one of the great, peaceful heroes of the world. I’m glad that young children still recite his great speech, and I hope those same young children will go see Selma and pay attention to what they see in that movie.


  4. Thank you for this essay.

    Even if the particular word “sin” can be problematized, the sentiment, that we have a blight on our very humanity for certain collective experiences (past and present) that will prevent us from arriving into our future in the highest capable level of beauty, I think the Movie Selma also is a good reminder of some of the particular blights in the context of the US and its not-yet post-racial society.

    In particular, I like your relationship with the divine in this consideration. For those who believe in God (gods/goddess and other names) to claim sincerity in that belief then it seems to me on a regular basis we need to assess the extent to which our life trajectory violates or honors that belief, that God.

    I also think it is possible to make a similar ethical self-examination from a non-faith or non-theo-centric position, because disruption of the harmony of the universe is clear in the path of disruption in the lives of others trying to live as human in the universe.

    Either way, we have a collective responsibility to make it right and to keep it right, starting with our own souls/selves.


  5. Reblogged this on Sacred Struggler and commented:
    Sacredness of every life, and our responsibility to it then, now and forever. A fantastic article by my favorite professor/theologian/mentor, Kelly Brown Douglas. A lady who influenced much of my personal faith.


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