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People of faith are to be the conscience of a nation

An African-American theology professor recommends that Americans of faith apply “ashé,” a concept of the Uruba people in West Africa as they speak for the destitute and marginalized of their land.

Ashé refers to the power to make things happen, to change what is to what ought to be based on “moral intelligence and spiritual clarity,” the Rev. Flora Wilson Bridges told people gathered for the recent Eastern Washington Legislative Conference.

As a pastor and intellectual focused on racial and gender justice, she ties justice to spirituality as she teaches theology at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry.  That was also the theme of her recent book, Resurrection Song.

Flora Bridges

Flora Bridges

A graduate of Yale Divinity School and Vanderbilt, she is an ordained minister in the National Baptist Church and pastor at Madrona Presbyterian Church in Seattle.

As one who advocates decreasing social distance, she came to the Northwest from the Deep South.

Citing the call in Proverbs 31:8 for believers to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, to speak for the rights of all who are destitute, she said:  “As people of faith, we are called to be the conscience of a nation—to make our views known to address the crisis of the soul of the nation.”

Having recently visited Vietnam and South Africa, Flora now observes that “even in our poverty we are affluent” and that “there is something sterile, cold, even uncaring about us as a people.”

People of faith who lobby should know that they are lobbying for “the soul of the nation to be more compassionate, kind and just,” she said.  “Some have been at it for many years.  Some gains were made in the 1960s and 1970s, but now we need to relobby for those accomplishments.

“When we look at valuing families, we address the crisis of the soul of our affluent nation:  We do not always take good care of the poor.”

Flora grew up in Bainbridge, Ga., three hours south of Atlanta, where the poor had no social welfare programs.  African American housewives were required by the city to work as domestics in homes of white families, rather than to be in their own homes with their own families.  So she comes from many generations of maids who worked in white women’s kitchens and homes.

“I do not idealize poverty or suffering.  My mother was born in 1926, when white people would go to church in the morning and bring families for an afternoon picnic to watch them lynch a black person,” she said.

In the midst of affluence and consumption—with our cars, work, access to education and many things that should make life worthwhile—she finds a basic sadness.

As a pastor and professor, she sees a nihilism among young people from 17 to 22, a sense that they will not live long, so why should they do anything.  In her 25 years of ministry, she has also ministered to three generations of people on crack—a grandma, a mother and a daughter.

“Black youth are the fodder of the criminal justice system.  Prisons have become a cottage industry, a new form of slavery to provide free labor by men and women,” she said.

Some African-American youth seek to be sports figures or to be rap stars.  Some have opted out of established ways to survive in American culture.  They see the country’s “double-talk,” Flora said.

By that, she means that the country hurts people, and then liberals make up for the messes that have been created.

“God lobbies us to look at motives behind what we do,” she said.

Flora advised those who would advocate for justice not to burn out, be disappointed or embittered about what the state or nation does to create true moral values, but to look to their spiritual roots to inform them.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mohandas Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Fannie Lou Hamer demonstrated ashé, she said.

“They saw with spiritual clarity and did not lose voice as they faced amazing pressures,” she said.  “The world is better because they lived.”

“Jesus said people of faith are to be the light of the world and to be salt that does not lose its saltiness,” she said, describing the essence of ashé. 

Ashé requires that people prepare themselves, identify with and listen to those who suffer, to sacrifice themselves and to respond to God’s call, Flora explained.

As advocates for justice and valuing family—the entire earth—we need to prepare ourselves.  We need to fight evil, so we need to be informed, just as King studied and earned degrees.  We must prepare ourselves to give our lives for the good of the nation.  Mother Teresa studied for years in a convent until she was prepared to step out.  Gandhi studied in England and became an attorney.”

Identifying with those who suffered and hurt, King chose to sit where the oppressed sat, she said, following his story in particular.

“We are not effective if we are isolated in intellectual religion, in class, racial or gender sameness,” Flora said.

King could have worked in comfort.  He was from an elite family.  He could have stayed in the North, but went back to Georgia.  He was pained that 11 a.m. Sunday was the most segregated hour.

“He divested himself of privilege.  You can’t have ashé and go to a cold-hearted government dressed in privilege.  King, Romero and Gandhi all had to give up privilege to be effective.

“You do that when God calls,” she said.  “One must answer when the call comes.  You do not know when the call will come.  It comes quietly.  For example, one day Gandhi decided not to move from a moving first-class train car.  He allowed himself to be thrown off.

If we are to have ashé and define justice, we know the answer to what ails us comes from the oppressed.  We will not solve what hurts women, people of color, gays, people in prisons, native Americans—those who hurt and are disadvantaged and oppressed—without ashé. 

“We are called to develop moral intelligence, to identify with the hurt, to divest ourselves of privilege, to listen to the voices of the oppressed and answer God’s call,” she said.

“Then we can lobby the soul of the nation in spiritual crisis, ready to push the government to where it ought to be,” said Flora, believing people today can regain lost policies that make the world compassionate, if “they will sit together and march together.”

For information, email fwb@

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - © March 2005