Alton Pollard: There is no prophetic witness without confrontation

The dean of Howard University’s divinity school challenges church leadership to answer the theological mandate that we be in the world even as we are not of it.

Update: The Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard III is the president of Louisville Seminary.

Religious leaders must have the courage to witness to social problems while remaining faithful to our common humanity, says the Rev. Dr. Alton B. Pollard III, dean of Howard University’s School of Divinity.  "There is no prophetic witness without confrontation." As dean, Pollard says he is willing to take the heat from religious colleagues and school administrators for engaging in social and political issues, in order to stand authentically before God.

PollardBefore becoming dean at Howard in 2007, Pollard served in both religious and educational institutions. As an ordained Baptist minister, he was pastor of John Street Baptist Church in Massachusetts, New Red Mountain Baptist Church in North Carolina and AME churches in Tennessee. He also has directed the Program of Black Church Studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and held faculty appointments at St. Olaf College and Wake Forest University.

Pollard earned a B.A. in religion & philosophy and business management from Fisk University, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School and a Ph.D. from Duke University’s Department of Religion.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership while at Duke Divinity School to deliver the annual Gardner C. Taylor Lecture.

Q: Howard is known for liberation theology; what role does that play in leadership, particularly in the 21st century black church?

When we're talking about the black church community at large in the early 21st century, I think there's not much question that the church’s leadership would not have liberation theology as a first or second priority. For them, the focus on salvation remains preeminent, but that perspective is much more about the individual life in the here and now. The liberation perspective is much more about the communal life in the here and now, and therein lies a tremendous difference between the two.

So for me, when you consider ecclesial leaders who have pronounced impact in their ministries and communities via television, radio, movies and other media these days, we're hard-pressed to say that liberation is a significant motif.

But then, many of our churches don’t have a strong relationship with graduate theological education. They are more interested in a focus on the pragmatics, the how-to, the nuts and bolts. But in graduate theological education we're committed to a preparation that is critical and analytical that will enable students, whether conservative, moderate, liberal, progressive, etc., to think large when they leave here and make the applications in their specific context, rather than to have a kind of one-size-fits-all model.

Q: How do you navigate the divide between your institution’s prophetic tradition and the pragmatic world critique?

The African-American cultural context provides for recognition that there’s not a disjuncture between our scholarship and our practice. We live in the uneasy tension of needing to address both the prevailing ecclesial norms and the theological possibilities that the liberation perspective offers; that makes for some interesting programming. Interesting because liberation ideas are grounded in a tradition that is very biblically consistent and they are also grounded in the history of foremothers and forefathers. There is a willingness to engage with that [in our churches]. If you don't have exposure [to liberation theology] you can't wrestle with it, and for those students who do have the opportunity [to learn about liberation theology], and go on to become pastors, they can make a difference. It's the Martin Luther Kings and those types of persons who are still upheld as exemplars, as the icons that the rest of us aspire to but never quite reach.

Q: Do you have any examples of where you've had to navigate the conflict between the prophetic role and your role as an institutional leader?

There is no prophetic witness without the possibility of confrontation, but if there is a consistency about your witness then there's also a confidence about the long-term possibilities for human community that will come out of it. One constantly weighs the long-term projection against the short-term fallout. The immediate response can be anger, hostility or getting called on the carpet; I'm accustomed to that.

During the last election a son of our university became quite infamous in the media. The beloved Jeremiah Wright. When we brought him to the divinity school in the midst of the maelstrom there was considerable consternation that this was going to be injurious to the school. There was a lot of negative response, but hide your gifts under a bushel basket and that's where they will remain. We try to practice transparency as much as we can. We try to be authentic. Genuineness within and without, a consistency of life, no matter the tensions that are created. At the end of the day the tension that you have to reconcile most is: Can I live with myself?

Q: To what degree do you see your leadership role as a public one to the outside world versus an inside the institution role?

I see my role primarily as an internal one. There was no permanent dean at Howard University School of Divinity for five years. I came into an environment that required, and requires still, a lot of internal morale building, foundation laying, before we can go out there full-fledged to make that singular impact on the world. Once we take care of those internal matters, I fully expect that we will turn our attention to public witness. We are in Washington, D.C., in the nation's capital and, as a theological institution, we must be prepared to engage proactively in the public policy issues of the day. The theological mandate requires us to be in the world even as we are not of it.

Q: Have you received criticism for the degree to which you have taken on a public role?

Always. I can't remember when I haven't. In our personal lives, to paraphrase the language of King, we speak most vigorously about and to the country that we love. The country may respond with some venom and certainly in King's case responded with death, but no less than the Nazarene himself. Many of us can safely say that the greatest arguments we've ever had have been within our own households; we have struggled valiantly to make sure that we don't lose persons we love, even as we are at odds with them. It is scarcely any different in the social context.

God calls us to love and the old language about speaking truth to power is insufficient if you do not add “in love” to the phrase. Otherwise you depersonalize, you dehumanize, you caricature. As long as you remember that these are persons of flesh and blood like you, fallible and likely to make mistakes, then that leaves you room to dance with others in the public square. To not cut off the possibility of finding rapprochement. That's a holistic, healing and salvific thing.

In my pastoral days, in my early 20s, I informed the leadership of our Baptist church that I was going to begin putting women in prominent leadership positions, as well as inviting women to do public worship pieces from the pulpit. The largest opposition was from a woman who was the head of the deaconess board, the women's traditional leadership body in the Baptist church. She was fiercely hostile, yet when I announced several years later that I was stepping down as pastor, she came and apologized profusely for all of the venomous things she had called me, and she thanked me.

The examples are endless. Right now I am deeply committed to marriage equality; there are colleagues of mine in the church who will certainly have a very different point of view.

Q: Explain what you mean by marriage equality.

Marriage equality means that persons of the same gender have every right to legal marriage, as do those of us who are heterosexual. It distills down to the basic requirements inherent in every religious tradition around the world: to love your neighbor as yourself. This is clearly an issue that creates great consternation. For me, it is a matter not only of biblical text but also of civic responsibility. If we cannot recognize the broadening implications, again, the long-term vision of the democratic impulse, no less than the Christian, then I think we are all in trouble in the end.

Q: I can't help but notice as you talk, especially when you speak about conflict, you're full of smiles and laughter. You seem to take a lot of joy in your work.

I do, because God called me to it. When I think about where my ancestors came from and the brutality of their days, yet God still enabled them to have hope, how can I not? Because there’s no doubt we've got issues. We've got a bad economy and soaring unemployment; you can't sell your house, can't get a job. We've got all kinds of things going on, but they had chains and searing brands placed on their flesh. They were ripped from home and taken away from families and community; everything was stripped from them. Still, without the benefit of the legislative, legal and educational support that we have today, they were able to turn around and build colleges and universities, establish mortuaries and banks. Why should I, who has so much more, not be confident in the God of my ancestors?

I am extremely confident that God takes care of babies and fools; I move forward knowing I'm going to do something foolish today and trying to be consistently in the presence of the divine. The divine is very much about the collective presence of humanity. It is creation that is groaning. It is the cries of the people, the cries of those who have been victimized. Most of us are candidates for victimization -- because of our skin color, because of where we grew up, because our diction doesn't sound palatable enough or because we come from the wrong side of the ocean. Somebody's going to make fun of me because I wear glasses, or because I don't have any hair, or too much hair. We are all in one way or other candidates for victimization and the question is, do we remember what it is like to be on the receiving end? If we remember, then we will be careful to be compassionate with our sister and our brother no matter how they may receive us.