Mars Hill Forum #150: The New Nation of Islam
John C. Rankin
On the evening of September 25, 2011, I enjoyed a public conversation in Detroit with the Leader of the New Nation of Islam (www.thenewnationofislam.com) in Detroit, a/k/a Mars Hill Forum #150. The chosen topic, following an earlier radio conversation we had, was this: Black Identity, the Bible and the Nation of Islam: In Pursuit of Freedom and Justice.
This man calls himself the Son of Man, born in 1950 as the son of a Mississippi sharecropper. The conversation was most pleasant, but the topic at hand was hardly touched after my opening comments. Instead it revolved around biblical verses he brought up. In the process, as we touched on Psalm 110, and Jesus quoting it in Matthew 22:44, he claimed that Jesus was not the Son of David, but that he was.
I thought perhaps that the Son of Man reference was his attempt to stand in the tradition of Ezekiel, and not the Messianic claim it turns out to be. So this was an eye opener. But it is also a claim I do not take seriously, and because I honor him as an image bearer of God for whom Christ died, and despite the biblical error of his claim, my demeanor was one of graciousness with a smile. Okay, let’s look at the Bible. As well, since I do not accept his claim to be the Son of Man, I will call him Lonni, an acronym for the Leader of the New Nation of Islam. I need to use this acronym because he only goes by a title I cannot use. He is not the Son of Man according to the Bible. If he were to give me his birth name, I would use that. But he is intent on using the title of Son of Man, and as a disciple of Jesus, who is the true Son of Man, I will not call Lonni by that title.
Now Lonni is not schooled in biblical exegesis or any cognate disciplines of grasping the inspired text on its own terms. Rather, Lonni quotes many unrelated verses in service to his understanding. Most simply:
- Lonni believes that the descendants of Abraham described in Genesis 15, those who were to be mistreated for 400 years, does not refer to the Israelites. Rather, it refers to the four centuries of African-American slavery in the Colonies and the United States.
- Lonni believes that Elijah Muhammad (born in 1897 as Elijah Robert Poole), the founder of the Nation of Islam in 1929, was the “Elijah” to come as prophesied in Malachi 4:5, preparing the way for the “Son of Man.”
- Lonni claims to be that “Son of Man,” as well as the “Son of David.”
Thus, briefly here, let me identify some simple biblical realities that cannot be disputed from within the Bible itself. So if Lonni claims to be biblical, he must be able to show how what I define here is unbiblical.
- In Genesis 15:13, Yahweh says to Abraham that his descendants “will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years.” Lonni claims that this is fulfilled in the four hundred years of African American slavery. Now, there is great depth in the Negro spirituals and their proper identification with the plight of the Hebrew slaves. But this is a different matter from biblical history. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is replete with references to the exodus of the Israelites after being enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. It is the central historical point of reference for Hebrew identity in the Bible and ever since. The rest of Genesis 15 is specific in this regard. Accordingly, Exodus 1 gives the introductory detail for what the balance of the Pentateuch confirms, as the enslaved children of Joseph gained freedom. Stephen quotes the four hundred years in Acts 7:6 relative to the enslavement of the Israelites, the Jews, as the children of Abraham.
- Malachi 4:5 is referring to the spirit of Elijah as fulfilled in John the Baptist, detailed in Matthew 11:14, 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13; and Luke 1:17. In the passages from Matthew 17 and Mark 9, Jesus not only confirms John the Baptist as the “Elijah,” but also refers to himself as the Son of Man.
- The Son of Man language in used 78 times in the four gospels, all in the context of Jesus referring to himself. Now Lonni does not agree that Jesus refers to himself in the third person, so he says that Jesus is not claiming himself to be the Son of Man. Yet, even in Matthew 16:13-17, Jesus links the language of the Son of Man with Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Son of the living God. In John 9:35-37, Jesus explicitly identifies himself as the Son of Man to the healed blind man. Yet here too, Jesus always aims for people to confess him as the Son of Man and Son of God, by their own initiative. This is consistent with John 5:31 where Jesus does not testify about himself, but allows the testimonies or witnesses of others to confirm who he is – such witnesses as John the Baptist (v. 33), his own works (v. 36), God the Father (v. 39), the Scriptures (v. 39) and Moses (v. 46); and as consistent with the Law of Moses referenced by Jesus (Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15; Matthew 18:16), that requires multiple witness to establish the truth of any given matter.
Here we come to an important crux. Lonni stated, in the first person, that he is the Son of Man, and that all humanity will eventually submit to him. His lack of confidence in this claim was transparently evident. True authority does not need to announce itself. So when we looked at Matthew 22:42-45 together, Lonni could not grasp this power of Jesus referring to himself in the third person. To look at the 17 references to the Son of David in the gospels, it is clear that Jesus was regarded as the Son of David by believers. Quite definitive too is Matthew 1:1, as I pointed out to Lonni, where the gospel starts: “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.”
So Lonni is invited to show that my understanding of the exodus community of the Israelites, and of Jesus as the Son of Man and Son of David, is not biblical. In the meantime, I have deep empathy for Black American who suffered the failure of the Emancipation Proclamation’s promise of true equality. The Jim Crow laws ravaged the South in the later 19th and early to mid 20th centuries. But the 1929 jump to Islam by Elijah Muhammad, and the claim that Muslims are “the best of peoples, evolved for mankind” (Surah 3:110), a claim of superiority, will not answer the heart’s cry for genuine equality. We all have that in the sight of the one true Creator – regardless of nationality, race or color. Those of us who are biblically committed Christians need to show such equality in every measure to those who have suffered the hell of slavery and Jim Crow laws. And though Lonni is in deep error in his claims, he deserves and will always receive my profound respect for a shared humanity, and in the prayer that he comes to see who Jesus really is, to believe in him, to know him, and to be transformed by him.