By Bob Allen
The current pastor of the spiritual home of Martin Luther King Jr. challenged a movement called the New Baptist Covenant to move beyond comfort zones of race and theology toward a “covenant community” characterized by “creative and redemptive agitation” necessary for substantive change.
Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Atlanta’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, closed the opening worship session of the Jan. 14-15 New Baptist Covenant Summit in Atlanta with a sermon using the analogy of an oyster, irritated by a grain of sand, ending in the production of a precious pearl.
“There are no pearls without agitation, without irritation, without aggravation,” Warnock said. “As we gather these couple of days, my prayer is that God grant us the courage to get under each other’s skin, to have honest dialogue, holy irritation, to push and be pushed until the Pearl of Great Price that’s genuine transformative community — not tokenism but real community — emerges among us.”
Warnock said there is nothing religious people enjoy more than their comfort zone, but reminded his audience that “Jesus comes to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”
“God’s plan is bigger than our clan, bigger than our nation, bigger than our tradition, bigger than our church,” he said. “The things that matter so much to us mean very little to God.”
Warnock described the New Baptist Covenant, an initiative by former President Jimmy Carter started in 2007 to find common ground for Baptists in the United States divided by race, theology and geography, as a “harbinger of hope” that “bears witness to God’s Kingdom and view of love and justice that portends the realization of what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.”
Among many problems facing the nation, Warnock said, racism is still “America’s original sin and its most intractable social evil.”
“Dr. King used to say that 11 a.m. Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, and the degree to which that is still true suggests that despite our anthems, our preachments, our creeds, I have a sneaking suspicion that our sociology is far more important than our theology,” he said.
“Our sociology is far more instructive and far more determinative about what we actually do than our theology. When we gather on Sunday, we ought to at least ask ourselves, particularly if the gathering is utterly homogeneous, we ought to ask ourselves, ‘What brought us here, sociology or theology?’”
One test of whether the church is a “comfort zone” or a “covenant of community,” Warnock said, is “Do we have the courage and do we love one another to get under each other’s skin?”
“That is not an easy question,” he said, “because addressing the issue of race is about far more than standing together on a Sunday morning, or even a Wednesday afternoon, and singing Kum Ba Yah” but also asking hard questions that penetrate beneath the surface.
“Race still matters in America,” Warnock said. “It doesn’t just matter when black folk raise the question.”
Warnock said that truth is no more evident than in America’s criminal justice system.
“When we consider the meaning of our commitment and our covenant to one another, surely we must ask ourselves what does that witness look like and sound like — what ought we to be doing right now — in an American moment when the racial contradictions in our criminal justice system are deeper and wider in their impact than they were before the civil rights movement?” he said.
Warnock said during Dr. King’s lifetime and ministry, no one could have imagined a “burgeoning and bulging prison industrial complex that continues unabated regardless of actual crime rates, across Republican and Democratic administrations, over the last 30 years.”
“America has a greater percentage of its black population in prison than in South Africa at the height of apartheid,” he said. “We warehouse more people than anybody, including the regimes whose human rights records we love to hate. We’ve got North Korea beat. The land of the free has become the incarceration capital of the world. What does it mean for Baptists to come together in that context?”
Warnock said that is the reason young people are wearing T-shirts with the last words of an African-American man who died in police custody repeating the phrase, “I can’t breathe.”
“Wall Street bankers come to destroy the wealth of millions of American families, almost caused our entire economy to sink into the abyss, and not one banker went to prison,” he said. “Eric Garner was accused of selling a few loose cigarettes on a street corner, and had his life choked out of him. God is not pleased.”
“If we do not stand with him, our Christian witness has no real credibility, no matter how harmonious our anthems,” Warnock said.