This past weekend, I had the privilege and pleasure of meeting Obery Hendricks, Jr. He used the name Osayande Obery Hendricks in some of his earlier writings.
In a footnote to his 1995 essay “Guerrilla Exegesis”, he explained then that Osayande is a name from Benin meaning “the earth belongs to God.” He further explains that he chose the name to honor his very probable West African heritage.
He also chose the name because it aligns with the ancient Hebrew concept of “malkuth shamayim” (the sole sovereignty of the heavens”, i.e., of God) which indicts and resists all human systems of domination and exploitation no matter the “good” reason for those systems.
Foundational to all of Osayande’s work is a prophetic call to community, to “beloved community.” Drawing deeply from his African intellectual and spiritual heritage, he calls all to community which recognizes seeks the well-being of all, to community that understands and nurtures the equal agency of all humanity. He calls all to ubuntu.
I was struck by this man in a way that few people have ever impressed me. It was clear to me from the moment I entered his presence that he sought each moment to practice, to fully embody, what he preached.
The power of his words did not reside in his speech, but in his being. In Christianity, one often hears the admonishing to pray without ceasing. In meeting Osayande, I understood most clearly what it means to pray without ceasing. It is a way of being, a habit and discipline of living.
It has nothing to do with words and everything to do with ones posture toward God and thus ones posture toward other human beings.
Osayande was in town as the principle speaker for this year’s Barbara Holmes Lecture at the Memphis Theological Seminary. He spoke about the politics of Jesus (the title of one of his books).
For him, what is called the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father) succinctly captures the politics of Jesus. He noted that the prayer begins and ends with the sole sovereignty of the heavens. He further noted that the prayer calls humanity to communion with, and community in, God.
It does not seek the prosperity of the one to the exclusion or expense of all others. It seeks the welfare of the individual and the community together and declares that neither one can be well or whole apart from the other.
It understands this relationship as being the kingdom of God. This is a radical notion too often glossed over in the narratives of progress and civilization that value the accumulation of wealth and the good of the one as a prelude to the good of the many.
For Obery, the Lord’s Prayer says if you are going to be faithful to the moral and ethical mandates of the kingdom of God and of God’s justice, you must be concerned in this world with the total quality of all lives and manifest God’s mercy in the living of individual and communal lives.
Indeed, if we are going to follow God, if we are gonna love the Lord, we must be revolutionary and must call out and root out injustice as we press on into the promised land.
Now, these are not original thoughts. Osayande acknowledges that his thought draws from a rich heritage including Amiri Baraka and Martin Luther King, Jr.
His teaching strongly echoes Desmond Tutu’s ubuntu theology. Yet, what such teachings are demanding and perhaps terrifying. Assuming the spirit is willing, the flesh will surely be weak. The siren song of capitalism is sweet and soothing.
While we acknowledge that it is a siren song that kills the soul, we easily convince ourselves that our soul is not really dead and that if we will play along with that siren song long enough we will emerge in a better place with our souls intact.
But, if the siren song of wealth accumulation and bling is so sweet and so life-giving, how then do we understand African nations after more than 50 years of independence? How do we explain the state of Black bodies and Black being in the United States and in other parts of the diaspora?
As we come to the end of Black History Month 2015 in the United States, we should be more strongly persuaded than ever of the need to create, bring about, the kingdom of God. It is much less a place and much more a way of being.
It is a kingdom well known and articulated in ubuntu thought. The Panthers and other Black Power organisations possessed such a vision. In fact, this was the reason such movements were (and are) vilified.
It was because of such an egalitarian, life giving, ubuntu vision that Lumumba and Martin and Malcolm were assassinated. Still, the vision rises. Still, the vision resists and persists. Still the vision declares, “O Death, where is your sting? O Place of the Dead, where is your victory?”
Can these bones live? The truly sovereign one knows and says Yes! The truly sovereign one says come unto me, live in me and be my voice and speak to these bones. And the sovereign word gives life and declares “osayande, the earth belongs to God!”
I am thankful for the ministry of Osayande Obery Hendricks who by his witness stirred in me a weary and very beaten down desire, an ember, to be a disciplined instrument of the sole sovereign speaking good news to the oppressed and release to the captive.