Through Scripture, understanding that my speech is a form of prayer

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” — Galatians 3:28

“Pray without ceasing.” —1 Thessalonians 5:17

During the past several weeks, the above Scriptures have been foremost in my thoughts. Perhaps the situations surrounding the many troubling events that have occurred in our nation during the past year have finally boiled down to how I understand and thus apply the above Scriptures in my own life.

Earl Chappell

Galatians 3:28 may have direct application as to how I deal with all sorts of situations within the church. Then 1 Thessalonians 5:17 seems to have direct application as to how I approach my life and its outward reach. I approach all Scripture as a layperson with many years of experience in the church as a Bible teacher, deacon and other functions.

When Paul wrote about the position of persons within the body of Christ, he addressed the fact that all have the same standing without respect to ethnicity, human bondage and gender. As he said, “For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

If this is true, why do Christians see fit to continue to draw distinctions where none should be drawn? Paul has implied that all who are in Christ are equally capable of being drawn into his or her own perceived personal calling to serve Christ and Christ’s church.

There is no doubt in my mind that a coupling of God’s word, our life experiences and the influence of the Holy Spirit have a direct impact on the life of a believer. As I have continued to grow in my understanding of God’s word, my views of the world, the church and others have changed. When I have doubts about certain applications of the Bible on certain experiences within the church and in life, I reflect on Galatians 3:28.

If this verse is indeed true, no believer can be excluded from serving in any capacity within the church of Christ Jesus. Furthermore, to continue Paul’s inspired thoughts on the matter, all human beings who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ are one. (Jesus expanded the relationship between human beings when he taught about loving our neighbors.)

“If this verse is indeed true, no believer can be excluded from serving in any capacity within the church of Christ Jesus.”

Perhaps it may be as distressing to you as it is to me to see professing Christians demonstrate hatred toward their fellow Christian brothers and sisters. It is one thing to have disagreements within the church body; it is entirely another matter to have expressed hatred.

This is the point where I interject Paul’s words regarding prayer. He states in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.” For me, this has been a real challenge. What does this look like in application?

Some have reflected on the words recently spoken on the U.S. Senate floor by Sen. Raphael Warnock when he referred to voting as “a kind of prayer.” His words expanded my own developing understanding of this verse. This single verse has the power to exercise control over my whole approach to life. It controls my attitudes, my speech, my behaviors, my thoughts.

“Through prayer, I can resolve the issues that seem to plague humankind today.”

What do I get when I put both verses together? Through prayer, I can resolve the issues that seem to plague humankind today. I am free to love my neighbor as myself. I am free to love my enemies. I am free to accept the unacceptable. I am free to accept those whom God has called to serve God in any capacity, regardless of outward appearance or status in life.

Who am I to judge those whom God has called to minister in God’s name? God has clearly told me about those whom I should avoid in 2 Timothy 3:2-5.

The political rhetoric of today, especially that espoused by some professing “Christians,” is very troubling as it relates to the two verses above. When Christians demonstrate peacefully to petition their local, state and national authorities, they are acting appropriately. By and large, their signs and banners are respectful and speak to the point. Unfortunately, most demonstrations have a mixture of Christians and non-Christians. Woe to those Christians who act like non-Christians.

However, usually respectful attitudes prevail in the peaceful demonstrations. The Black Lives Matter protests, the women’s protests, and other similar protests have been largely nonviolent. Unfortunately, violent elements seem to make their way into the fringe of some of these protests. It has become obvious from viewing many hours of these protests from the comfort of my easy chair that law enforcement finds it much easier to arrest and bring sometimes lethal force on the peaceful protesters rather than concentrate on the violent or potentially violent tangential elements.

I find it rather surprising to hear my fellow Christians in full-throated support of the “stolen presidency” allegation by Donald Trump. It seems the desire for political power has replaced God’s power. As a result, I am guessing that many in the disruptive crowd that stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 were professing Christians. The Bible does not condone such activity.

Sen. Ron Johnson has expressed that he was not afraid of the many friends and fellow “patriots” in that mob that day, yet he did not remove himself from his hiding place to confront them and stop their insurrection. One has to wonder about the words that come out of a mouth of such a person.

“I now look at speech as a form of prayer.”

My musing about these things may intersect with your thoughts as you reflect on these verses and circumstances. Volumes can be written on these and similar matters. However, exhaustive discourse is not my desire. Thoughtful reflection with the possibility of change in attitudes and direction under the lordship of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit is the goal.

Even though I miss the mark often, I now look at speech as a form of prayer. It is easy to lash out at someone with abrasive, rash, abusive, belligerent, irrational and sometimes vulgar speech; it is much harder to speak with solid conviction, which is well-thought-out, honest and temperate.

I leave you, the reader, with one question that may assist you as you reflect on what has been placed on my heart during these stressful days: In which situations would you find Jesus?

Earl Chappell lives in Virginia Beach, Va., and has been a member of First Baptist Church of Norfolk since 1977.

A vote is ‘a kind of prayer,’ Warnock says in first Senate speech

A vote is “a kind of prayer,” Baptist pastor Raphael Warnock said in his first speech on the Senate floor as a newly elected legislator.

The March 17 speech was a blistering call to protect voting rights and a critique of Republicans in his home state of Georgia who are promoting new legislation to limit access to the ballot — efforts sparked by Warnock’s own victory as a Democrat in a January runoff election in a state previously considered reliably Republican.

“As a man of faith,” he added, “I believe that democracy is the political enactment of a spiritual idea — the sacred worth of all human beings, the notion that we all have within us a spark of the divine and a right to participate in the shaping of our destiny.”

He paraphrased 20th century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr to affirm: “Humanity’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but humanity’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

Souls to the Polls

Warnock’s Atlanta congregation, Ebenezer Baptist Church, is one of many Black congregations that traditionally participates in a get-out-the-vote effort called “Souls to the Polls,” he noted.

Congressman John Lewis

“I was honored on a few occasions to stand with our hero and my parishioner, John Lewis. … On more than one occasion, we boarded buses together after Sunday church services as part of our Souls to the Polls program, encouraging the Ebenezer church family and communities of faith to participate in the democratic process.”

But that effort to highlight citizenship as a spiritual duty now is under attack from Republicans in Georgia and beyond, Warnock charged. “Now, just a few months after Congressman Lewis’s death, there are those in the Georgia Legislature, some who even dare to praise his name, that are now trying to get rid of Sunday Souls to the Polls, making it a crime for people who pray together to get on a bus together in order to vote together. I think that’s wrong.”

He added: “Matter of fact, I think that a vote is a kind of prayer for the kind of world we desire for ourselves and for our children. And our prayers are stronger when we pray together.”

Warnock noted that both he and Sen. John Ossoff, who is Jewish, were elected from Georgia with record voter turnout.

“But then, what happened? Some politicians did not approve of the choice made by the majority of voters in a hard-fought election in which each side got the chance to make its case to the voters,” Warnock said. “And rather than adjusting their agenda, rather than changing their message, they are busy trying to change the rules. We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era. This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”

“We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era.”

‘Voter suppression’

Since the January run-off election, 250 “voter suppression” bills have been introduced in state legislatures across the country, he said. And all use “the big lie of voter fraud as a pretext for voter suppression, the same big lie that led to a violent insurrection on this very Capitol — the day after my election.

“Within 24 hours, we elected Georgia’s first African American and Jewish senator, and, hours later, the Capitol was assaulted. We see in just a few precious hours the tension very much alive in the soul of America. And the question before all of us at every moment is: What will we do to push us in the right direction?”

In Georgia, new legislation not only would make it harder to vote, it would criminalize sharing food or water with people standing in line to vote — a kind of election-day ministry often embraced by churches.

Raphael Warnock

Despite previous efforts to suppress the vote, Georgians in November and January could not be deterred, Warnock said. “Georgia citizens and citizens across our country braved the heat and the cold and the rain, some standing in line for five hours, six hours, 10 hours, just to exercise their constitutional right to vote — young people, old people, sick people, working people, already underpaid, forced to lose wages, to pay a kind of poll tax while standing in line to vote.

“And how did some politicians respond? Well, they are trying to make it a crime to give people water and a snack as they wait in lines that are obviously being made longer by their draconian actions. Think about that. Think about that. They are the ones making the lines longer, through these draconian actions. And then they want to make it a crime to bring grandma some water while she’s waiting in a line that they’re making longer.”

This, he charged, is “democracy in reverse.”

A sign of hope

There is hope, though, Warnock said, citing his own improbable election as evidence. “In a word, I am Georgia, a living example and embodiment of its history and its hope, of its pain and promise, the brutality and possibility.”

At the time of his birth, Warnock said, Georgia’s two senators were Richard B. Russell and Herman E. Talmadge, “both arch-segregationists and unabashed adversaries of the Civil Rights Movement.” Yet today, Warnock — a Black man — holds the seat formerly held by Talmadge.

“History vindicated the movement that sought to bring us closer to our ideals, to lengthen and strengthen the cords of our democracy.”

“History vindicated the movement that sought to bring us closer to our ideals, to lengthen and strengthen the cords of our democracy,” he said.

Looking ahead to 2022

In the January runoff, Warnock defeated Republican Kelly Loeffler to serve out the rest of an open term, meaning he will appear on the ballot again in 2022 — much sooner than the normal six-year cycle for senators.

report released March 9 by the Georgia Republican Party outlined a set of recommendations for reforming the state’s election processes. Those recommendation include ending no-excuse absentee ballots, barring third-party groups and state and local officials from sending absentee ballot request forms to voters and stopping automatic voter registration.

“The 2020 election revealed dramatic weaknesses in Georgia’s system for conducting elections, and as a result, public confidence in the integrity of that system has been shattered,” the report claims. “Public confidence cannot be restored by pretending that these weaknesses do not exist. A problem must first be recognized before it can be solved.”

The complaints about election integrity in Georgia largely follow the now-debunked claims of voter fraud alleged by former President Donald Trump, who also lost Georgia in the 2020 presidential election — a fact he has yet to acknowledge.


Related articles:

‘All Souls to the Polls’ engages churches to make voting fun and accessible

Voting rights and the people who died for them: Jonathan Daniels et al. | Opinion by Bill Leonard

It’s still rare for a Baptist minister to serve in Congress

It’s still rare for a Baptist minister to serve in Congress

Raphael Warnock’s election to the United States Senate has been hailed as historic for several reasons — being the first Black senator from Georgia at the top of the list — but he also will become one of the few clergy members serving in Congress.

“Only about 2% of members of the U.S. House of Representatives are ordained ministers,” according to research cited by The Conversation in a recent analysis. “Their numbers are scarce despite the fact that members of the clergy often possess speaking skills, have an impulse to serve and boast strong ties to their communities — all qualities that are useful in politics. Furthermore, Americans are among the most religious people in the Western world.”

Raphael Warnock

Warnock, a Democrat whose victory was certified by the Georgia Secretary of State today, will become one of only two ministers in the current Senate. The other is Republican Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma.

Two senators, both Baptists

Both Warnock and Lankford are Baptists, but they represent polar opposites in modern Baptist theology and politics.

Warnock serves the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — the pulpit once held by Martin Luther King Jr. He represents the progressive side of Baptists and of Protestant Christianity, steeped in the Black church tradition of liberation theology and the marriage of social justice and biblical theology.

In Georgia, he has been a vocal advocate for Medicaid expansion, support for the Affordable Care Act and opposition to the death penalty.

James Lankford

Lankford is a Southern Baptist from one of the most conservative of Southern Baptist states. He attends Quail Springs Baptist Church in Oklahoma City and previously worked 13 years coordinating student ministries and evangelism work for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and was director of youth programming at Falls Creek Baptist Conference Center in Davis, Okla., a mega-camp associated with conservative evangelical ideology.

Falls Creek, for example, maintains a historically firm dress code for summer youth campers, requiring girls to wear “modest one-piece swimsuits” and prohibiting boys from wearing “tight fitting swimming suits.” Girls and boys are not allowed to swim at the same time, and all swimmers must cover themselves while in transit to and from the pool.

Lankford earned a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a Southern Baptist Convention school in Fort Worth, Texas. Warnock earned a master of divinity, master of philosophy, and doctor of philosophy degrees from Union Theological Seminary, a school affiliated with Columbia University.

Warnock helped lead the defense against President Donald Trump’s baseless accusations of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Lankford helped spread Trump’s accusations. After initially signing on to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s efforts to challenge the Electoral College votes in a joint session of Congress, Lankford backed down after the Jan. 6 attack on the Congress and the Capitol by riotous Trump supporters. He subsequently wrote a letter of apology to some of his Black constituents, claiming he had no idea questioning the outcome of the election would be perceived as harmful to the votes of Black citizens.

Baptists in politics

Everyone knows Jimmy Carter is a Baptist layman and Sunday School teacher, making him one of the most famous Baptist politicians of the 20th century. But he, like Harry Truman — also a Baptist — is a layman, not an ordained minister. Same for Bill Clinton, who even sang in the choir in his Baptist church in Little Rock while serving as governor.

Mike Huckabee

Another Arkansas Baptist minister, however, did make the leap from pulpit to politics — Mike Huckabee. Before his election as lieutenant governor and then governor of Arkansas, Huckabee as a pastor twice was elected president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. He went on to run unsuccessfully twice for the Republican nomination for U.S. president. But it was his daughter, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who finally made it to the White House as one of Trump’s press secretaries.

Other Baptist ministers have served in Congress, but such has been rare. They include Ron Lewis, a Kentucky pastor and Republican member of the House of Representatives between 1994 and 2009 and a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; William Herbert Gray III, seven-term Democratic representative from Pennsylvania; Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a 13-term Democratic Congressman from Harlem, N.Y., and pastor of the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem; and John Hall Buchanan Jr., a 1957 graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastor of churches in Tennessee, Alabama and Virginia before being elected to the U.S. House from Alabama, serving from 1965 to 1981.

Ordained clergy in Congress

The Pew Research Center has explored the question of how many ordained clergy members have served in Congress throughout all time, and they cannot find an authoritative answer. However, the center reports that “all the ordained clergy who have served in Congress over the past 225 years have been Christians, and almost all of them have been Protestants.”

Frederick Muhlenberg, the first speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania.

Frederick Muhlenberg, the first speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania. He was one of at least nine ministers to serve in the Continental Congress. Pew reports the others were Benjamin Contee of Maryland, Abiel Foster of New Hampshire, James Manning of Rhode Island, Joseph Montgomery of Pennsylvania, Jesse Root of Connecticut, Paine Wingate of New Hampshire, John Witherspoon of New Jersey and John Joachim Zubly of Georgia.

Further, Pew found, the first African American to serve in Congress was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. The year was 1870 — less than five years after the end of the Civil War — when Hiram Rhodes Revels was elected by the Mississippi Legislature to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate as a Republican. Pew adds this note: “Democrats in Congress tried to block Revels from taking office, arguing, among other things, that Revels had not been a U.S. citizen until the 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868. Revels’ own party rallied around him, however, and he was finally sworn in on Feb. 25, 1870. He served until his term expired in 1871.”

Two Catholic priests also have served as members of Congress, but that has been forbidden by the Vatican since 1983. The most notable of the two was Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest from Massachusetts, who served as a Democratic member of the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1981 but was forced not to seek re-election by the Vatican prohibition.

Pew reports that no Jewish rabbi ever has served in Congress.

Religious makeup of the current Congress

The Pew Research Center also has analyzed data provided by the Congressional Research Service on the makeup of the 117th U.S. Congress. That data was compiled before the runoff election in Georgia and before President-elect Joe Biden tapped a few members of Congress to serve in his administration.

Both senators and representatives claim to be much more religious than Americans as a whole.

The research shows that both senators and representatives claim to be much more religious than America as a whole. While about one-fourth of Americans claim no religious affiliation, only one member of Congress claims no affiliation. That is Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona.

While two-thirds of the American public identifies as Christian, 88% of the Congress claims identity as Christian. Pew reports that Congress “is both more heavily Protestant (55% vs. 43%) and more heavily Catholic (30% vs. 20%) than the U.S. adult population overall.”

One area where those elected to Congress are catching up to national trends on religion is this: There has been a multi-year increase in those who identify only as Protestants or as Christians without denominational label.

Pew found that Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Methodists and Jews remain overrepresented in Congress compared with their share in the general population and that Pentecostals, nondenominational Protestants and Baptists remain underrepresented. Baptists account for 12% of the current Congress but 15% of the total U.S. population.

Overall, there are five fewer Baptists in Congress this term than in the last term. However, Baptists still make up the largest bloc of Protestants serving in Congress today.


Related articles:

Understanding Black theology, white fragility | Greg Garrett

Why conservatives can’t get Jeremiah Wright out of their heads | Corrie Shull

In Georgia, demonizing Black Liberation Theology yet again | Steve Harmon

As Georgia goes to the polls: Win or lose, we’ll keep preaching the truth

I’ll never forget that moment. It was the late spring of 2008, and I was sitting in the pulpit of Covenant United Church of Christ in South Holland, Ill., where I had the privilege of serving for nearly eight years under the leadership of Ozzie E. Smith Jr., the founding pastor of the congregation. He was preaching the morning message — I cannot honestly recall the title or text — but in that moment, Rev. Ozzie began reflecting on his long-standing relationship with Jeremiah Wright Jr., and the influence Wright had on him as a father figure in the ministry. Rev. Ozzie was overcome with emotion, and he hollered out with a cry of grief. Immediately — as if on instinct — I began crying with him.

Paul Robeson Ford

Paul Robeson Ford

The spring of 2008 marked the beginning of the most historic presidential primary season this nation has seen, as then-Sen. Barack Hussein Obama battled his Senate counterpart (and former first lady) Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination. After more than 35 years serving as senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, Pastor Wright finally bid adieu to the church he had built from less than a hundred members to well over 6,000, with countless ministry initiatives that had impacted the city of Chicago, but also the nation and the world.

I was in the sanctuary of Trinity for several of the services in the last week of February that marked Wright’s departure from Trinity, as Otis Moss III — a prince of the pulpit himself — prepared to take over following a carefully designed and lengthy transition period. It was just days later that ABC’s Good Morning America began to run snippets of Wright’s most controversial sermon excerpts, wondering aloud if “the reverend could become a liability?” Other news media outlets quickly followed, fabricating a narrative that Wright was an anti-American, anti-Semitic Black boogeyman who hated white people and peddled in outlandish conspiracy theories.

As Frank A. Thomas has outlined in painstaking detail, the sermon snippets were taken completely out of context, and few in the media encouraged anyone watching to view the sermons in their entirety, or to consider the man’s track record as a minister and community activist. Millions of Americans were introduced to Wright as an angry Black caricature of a man they never had met before and did not know.

“Millions of Americans were introduced to Wright as an angry Black caricature of a man they never had met before and did not know.”

But hundreds of thousands of us knew Pastor Wright and his ministry well. I knew Wright as the vessel whom God had used to call me into the ministry as a junior in high school. I knew Wright as the man who had been my mentor and pastor since I arrived in Chicago in the fall of 2002 to begin formal training for ministry at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

He preached my ordination and installation as associate pastor at Covenant. I once scheduled a meeting with him to seek his perspective on issues of life and ministry that I was struggling to reconcile. I expected 30 minutes at most from a man who was so highly in demand. He gave me four hours of his undivided attention and counsel. Whenever I was in the wrong, he challenged me; whenever I was in the right, he supported me; whenever I was missing in action, he called me out by name from the pulpit, if necessary. This was the man who was being tarred and feathered by a media-fabricated controversy for the sole purpose of driving up ratings and creating headlines to make this historical presidential primary interesting.

This was the man whose plight brought me to tears that late spring morning.

All this history has come flooding back to the forefront of my mind as the fiercely fought battle between Raphael Warnock and Kelly Loeffler has led to a reprise of the same attack on a Black clergyman’s sermons, and by extension on the Black church as an institution.

Jonathon Walton has explained in clear and concise terms how we should best interpret these attacks that “misconstrue African American progressive and prophetic religious protest.” That is a generous understatement. Whether it be in 2008 or 2020, these attacks have sought to further marginalize leaders of the very community that built this country for free, while being subjected to untold inhumanities and brutalities because of the application of the Anglo-Saxon myth, and the white supremacist ideology that undergirded it. The half has never been told.

“As I have watched the news media coverage of the Georgia Senate race, I quickly realized this contest should have come with a trigger warning for people like me: You are about to relive your trauma.”

The cry of grief from Rev. Ozzie, and the tears I shed in response to that cry were rooted in a deep outrage and exasperation at the racist oppression that our people have suffered for more than 400 years. And as I have watched the news media coverage of the Georgia Senate race, I quickly realized this contest should have come with a trigger warning for people like me: You are about to relive your trauma.

I do not know Warnock like I know Pastor Wright, but I know the grief that those close to him and his ministry have endured during this time. It is unjust.

Whatever the outcome of Tuesday’s Senate election, as one duly ordained minister who has spent my entire pastoral career serving the Black church, it is important for me to state in no uncertain terms: Win or lose, we are going to keep preaching the truth without fear or favor. 

Clergymen and women like me understand that we have a prophetic obligation to bring the politics of Jesus to bear on the nation in which we live and minister and the communities in which we serve. This is not an obligation we take lightly. As Dr. King lamented while explaining his public stand against the Vietnam War — alienating a host of friends and financial supporters of the Civil Rights Movement — “The calling to speak is often a vocation of agony; but we must speak.”

I experience this agony every time I mount the pulpit to utter words I know some people do not want to hear, will not be able to receive and are likely to reject. I have even been accused of “fomenting revolution from the pulpit.” The prophetic obligation was especially heavy upon all of us last year, as the unfinished work of racial justice exploded into the streets of American cities. We do not preach this way because we want to; we preach this way because we must, lest our God finds us unfaithful and unwilling to complete the task and be a “prophet to the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5).

As long as I have breath in my body, I will continue to preach in the spirit of the Prophet Jeremiah, the Pastor Jeremiah, and clergymen like King and Warnock. Win or lose an election, the Black church must stay true to who it is and who it has been for our people. As Kevin Cosby has put it, we are one of the five institutions that “sustain Black life,” and with the fragility of Black life on constant display, we cannot, and must not, waver in our commitment to speak and to speak boldly.

They’ll have to bury me before they silence me.

Paul Robeson Ford serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church (Highland Avenue) in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was born and raised in New York City and grew up at the Riverside Church under the leadership of James A. Forbes Jr. He received a master of divinity degree from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, where he is now a candidate for the Ph.D. in theology.

A response to critiques of Rev. Warnock, Black theology, and the Black Church tradition

When family members of the Charleston Nine forgave the white supremacist who murdered their loved ones after Bible study in their church, white Christians marveled at their witness to Christian faith, holding them up as models to be followed. Although a controversial move, at its heart it was a commitment to obey the direct commandments of Jesus, those teachings found in the Gospel narratives.

Although demonized by Raphael Warnock’s Senate opponent, this is the Black Church tradition in which Warnock was raised and in which he is now a leading pastor. It is an American tradition born from enslaved Christians reading the Bible in light of the experience of enslavement.

Jennifer McBride

Through this lens, they and their descendants came to see that the dominant theme in the Bible is deliverance, in Warnock’s words, “from the slavery of sin and the sin of slavery.” Trusting Jesus as the great liberator, pastors in this tradition proclaim that Jesus’ commands are trustworthy and realistic for both our personal and political lives.

Warnock’s politics are shaped by a lifetime of Christian discernment about what straightforward obedience to Jesus demands. What kind of political action does Jesus call us to through his commands to make peace, do justice, love enemies, welcome strangers, forgive debt, release captives, be merciful and repent from social practices that counter the reign of God?

Such serious attention to Jesus Christ characterizes the faith tradition that Warnock inherited from his ancestors, from his predecessor at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King Jr., and from his doctoral advisor, James Cone. It is a faith tradition that is, in Jeremiah Wright’s words, “unashamedly Black and unapologetically Christian.” It is a tradition of wisdom and action born from a particular people whose faith has a universal aim — the flourishing of every human being.

Kris Norris

Kristopher Norris

The unapologetically Christian claim that the gospel should inform everything Christians do in their personal and public lives drives Warnock’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. It is this unapologetically Christian claim that we hope might bend the ear and capture the attention of white Christians who fill churches across Georgia. We have an opportunity to elect one of the most biblically informed, communally engaged and politically thoughtful leaders of our time. We have an opportunity to learn from, and live into, a model of Christian politics that aims not to dominate with an exclusively Christian agenda but to serve the needs of all our neighbors — and in that work, glorify God.

But, of course, we know the difficulty. The vast majority of American Christians have now so tightly aligned our faith to partisan loyalty that it is hard to untangle them. Indeed, for many it is almost impossible to imagine a different way of being a faithful Christian.

This is what Warnock’s political opponents are counting on. As Maya King claimed in Politico, “Georgia’s Senate candidate Raphael Warnock has made his faith a defining element of his candidacy. The GOP aims to make it his fatal flaw.”

“They carry on a long history of disparaging the theology of the Black Church in America.”

To this end, Kelly Loeffler has attacked Warnock as “radical” and an “extremist,” and conservative media outlets have criticized his theological mentors. In doing so they carry on a long history of disparaging the theology of the Black Church in America, a church that taught Warnock, in his words, that “the gospel is inescapably political. It requires you to take sides, especially where issues of justice and human dignity are concerned.”

In this tradition, personal spiritual formation and collective social change are linked. Both are integral to the core of the gospel message — to love your neighbor as you love yourself. If we are honest, then, perhaps the scariest thing about Warnock’s politics for white Christians like us is that they may lead to what Jesus promises: Personal and social transformation.

For this reason, the attack articles are correct in one way. Warnock is “radical” in the original and best sense of the word, that is, proceeding from the root or origin. His radicality is rooted in the identity and mission of Jesus, the one who invites us into God’s redemptive work of building a new world. 

 Jennifer M. McBride serves as associate dean and assistant professor of theology and ethics at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. She is author of Radical Discipleship: A Liturgical Politics of the Gospel, The Church for the World: A Theology of Public Witness, and co-editor of Bonhoeffer and King: Their Legacies and Import for Christian Social Thought. She lives in Atlanta, where she is a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. Kristopher Norris is the visiting distinguished professor of public theology at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Witnessing Whiteness: Confronting White Supremacy in America’s Churches. As an ordained Baptist minister, he has written two previous books on the relationship of Christianity and politics, Kingdom Politics and Pilgrim Practices.


Related articles:

Understanding Black theology, white fragility | Greg Garrett

Why conservatives can’t get Jeremiah Wright out of their heads | Corrie Shull

In Georgia, demonizing Black Liberation Theology yet again | Steve Harmon

‘The Critique’ versus ‘The Heroic Narrative’ defines the debate in America today | Alan Bean

Is attacking a candidate’s sermon different than attacking a candidate’s speeches?

Attacking a political candidate for something said in a speech is different than attacking a candidate for something preached in a sermon, according to Amanda Tyler, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

Amanda Tyler

Tyler and BJC Director of Education Charles Watson Jr. discussed this and other issues during a Facebook Live forum Wednesday, Dec. 2. Specifically, they discussed political attack ads that use snippets of sermons by Georgia U.S. Senate candidate Raphael Warnock, who is also a Baptist minister.

Warnock is pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where both Martin Luther King Sr. and Martin Luther King Jr. served. As a Democrat, he is challenging incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Over the past few weeks, Loeffler, conservative media, and some of Loeffler’s fellow Republicans including Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, have posted snippets of sermons by Warnock to attack him as allegedly unpatriotic, anti-military or unchristian. One line under attack came from remarks Warnock gave at a 2016 event cosponsored by BJC, which also included remarks by Tyler’s predecessor, Brent Walker.

Watson, a Georgia native, noted that BJC isn’t endorsing any candidate, but instead focusing on the religious issues in the campaign.

“We’re just talking about the race and how it’s going and the rhetoric that is around it,” Watson added. “We want to have a conversation today about how far is too far? And also, what does it mean when religious sermons are used in political ads?”

While it’s not surprising to see political candidates “take snippets of anything from somebody else and try to slice it or break it off to be a negative,” he finds its particularly troubling when someone takes “a snippet of a sermon and says, ‘Hey, this is something that we want to hold against you.’”

Since Christians believe the Holy Spirit inspires a pastor while preaching, “there is something different about giving a sermon than giving a speech.”

Tyler, who noted she had worked on political campaigns before coming to BJC, agreed that while candidates expect opponents to look at past comments, treating sermons this way is problematic. Since Christians believe the Holy Spirit inspires a pastor while preaching, “there is something different about giving a sermon than giving a speech,” she said.

“When you think about sermons in particular, it’s different to me than a speech that you might give to a one-time audience or a paper that you wrote,” she explained. “The idea of pastoring a church is, you know, you’re called to that position. So, for a long period of time you develop a relationship with the people in the church. You are leading the church in a certain spiritual direction. And so, to take even one sermon — let alone one line from one sermon — out of that larger relationship in context of a pastor and their church, it can be very misleading.

“And to fail to think about that context, I think, can lead us in a direction that really threatens religious freedom,” she added, “and threatens even that concept of a religious test. That concept of imposing in some way a religious test for public office, to say that some religious view that you hold would somehow disqualify you for public office — as some people have actually said when it comes to Rev. Warnock and his ability to be United States senator.”

“We fight for religious freedom for all people, not just the Baptist pastors who are running for office.”

Tyler stressed that BJC will defend anyone from these types of religious test arguments since the treatment of a clergy member running for political office is “core to what religious freedom means, and that’s what we at BJC are devoted to. … We fight for religious freedom for all people, not just the Baptist pastors who are running for office.”

Tyler also noted a double standard in the treatment of Warnock compared to another recent political moment. Some Republicans argued people shouldn’t attack the religious faith of Amy Coney Barrett during her confirmation hearings for the U.S. Supreme Court. Tyler agreed that Barrett’s faith was “irrelevant” in assessing her as a justice just as “the fact that Rev. Warnock is a Baptist minister does not make him a better or worse candidate for the U.S. Senate.”

Charles Watson Jr.

Watson added that this means the question isn’t what Warnock or Barrett believe but whether they will govern according to the Constitution instead of their personal beliefs.

“People can have their different thoughts on issues, and your religion can inform your thoughts on issues,” he explained. “But are you going to uphold the Constitution? Or are you going to put your God above everybody else in the United States? And that is the question.”

In Georgia, there’s also a racial element at play, Watson noted.

“We have an African American Baptist minister in Atlanta, Ga., at Ebenezer Baptist Church. And you’re taking snippets of sermons from this person to use against him politically. I think some of it crosses the line as far as how they’re doing and the dog whistles behind it,” he said. “That’s the deeper issue.”

“The attacks that are going on Dr. Warnock now about his religious statements are some of the same attacks that were on Martin Luther King, Jr. We’re saying the same words. We’re calling somebody a radical, calling somebody a communist, calling somebody anti-American. Now, 60 years after Dr. King’s death, it’s hard to find somebody who will speak ill of Dr. King,” Watson said.

Watson and Tyler connected this treatment of King and Warnock to Christian nationalism, the inaccurate idea that the U.S. was founded as a Christian nation and so to be a real American is to be a Christian. Thus, Watson explained, preachers like King and Warnock are not “bashing Christianity” but attacking “the white power structure” of Christian nationalism.

Related articles:

Why conservatives can’t get Jeremiah Wright out of their heads | Corrie Shull

In Georgia, demonizing Black Liberation Theology yet again | Steve Harmon

The cross: oppression or liberation? | Nora Lozano

‘The Critique’ versus ‘The Heroic Narrative’ defines the debate in America today | Alan Bean



Understanding Black theology, white fragility 

Back in 2011, Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta (and currently in a runoff for one of Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats), preached a sermon drawn from the Gospel of Matthew about whether a person could serve two masters: “America, nobody can serve God and the military. You can’t serve God and money. You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time. America, choose ye this day who you will serve.”

It was, I must say, a fairly traditional reading of the Scripture: Jesus taught that anything we put in front of God, anything we revere more than God, becomes God to us, whether that’s money or country or work or security. The Scripture says this; the 2000-year discourse of the church says this; our own honest understanding of the call of Christ says this. Fox News itself reported that Warnock’s message was “call(ing) on churchgoers, and America as a whole, to turn away from the pursuit of power and wealth in favor of a life of service.”

So I was surprised — and then not so surprised — to discover the growing thunder of Republican criticism of Warnock and his understanding of faith in late 2020. Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.) tweeted that this sermon was “radical, anti-American” and “disqualifying.” Other Republicans, according to Politico were “taking to the airwaves and social media to frame the pastor as a radical and tool of the ‘extremist’ left.” A group of veterans in Georgia called the sermon (more particularly the line “nobody can serve God and the military”) shameful, and called on Warnock to drop out of the race.

“We would not be having this same conversation about a white preacher calling America to account for its sins.”

On the one hand, I know this has become a partisan issue where Warnock’s theological conclusion is being willfully misconstrued as an attack on military service. But on the other, I know we would not be having this same conversation about a white preacher calling America to account for its sins. I know that because thousands of white pastors offer similar messages every week. I know that because I heard that message over and over during the first 18 years of my life.

The only two differences are these: Warnock and many of these white preachers are condemning different kinds of American moral failings.

And Warnock, on the stump and from the pulpit, is calling on white Americans to repent of the sins of racism and inequality, and many white people do not want to hear these words from any Black man, even a Black man of God.

It’s not just Jeremiah Wright who has re-emerged into our national political conversation since his 2008 repudiation by Barack Obama (a sad decision that abdicated the real moral engagement and teaching the candidate could have offered on this topic by abandoning his relationship with Wright). It’s Martin Luther King Jr., who previously occupied the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist and constantly called America and the church to account.

“One representative letter simply described King as ‘the most dangerous man in America.’”

In archival research at the LBJ Presidential Library for my last book, I discovered a flood of letters, telegrams and telephone messages sent to the president enjoining him not to listen to MLK’s message or lean into any of the criticisms he offered. One representative letter simply described King as “the most dangerous man in America.”

But it’s also any number of other preachers and theologians of color who challenge white people by holding up a mirror to their nation, their faith and their God. Back in the spring, my graduate seminar at Baylor read Black and Liberation theologians. They understood logically how the life experiences and cultural location of these theologians accounted for their understandings of God, of grace, of justice. But one of my smartest and most compassionate students nonetheless recoiled from James H. Cone’s teachings, feeling judged and convicted by them. “He seems so angry,” this student said.

So now here we are, once again arguing about whether Black theology or Liberation theology is somehow un-American because it is critical of our nation.

So now here we are, listening to an old sermon from King’s successor about putting God first, and white people are feeling fragile and threatened, and good white Christians are working to keep this vision of God’s justice from disturbing the moral fabric of their universes.

It feels like white Christians and politicians have to do this every so often as they prepare to sail into the West: to defend themselves, the white Church, the idols they’ve made into Gods.

To say, as many have said to me, “I’m not personally racist, so I’m not part of the problem.”

Or to say, “I don’t even know any Black people, so how can I be racist?”

American history is jam-packed with preachers who brought difficult messages to American believers, often saying that the world, the culture or their communities were broken, and that if changes weren’t made, it would mean the end of things. We have an entire genre of sermon, the jeremiad, preached in America by cultivated Puritan Mathers and by unschooled farm boys, by novelists and essayists.

We expect — in cultural and political and religious discourse — for our leaders to lament our missteps and call us to live up to our core beliefs.

It’s only when the people condemning our failures and calling for our transformation don’t look like us that we feel threatened and convicted in our skin.

The Book of Common Prayer reminds us that there are those whose salvation is known only to God, and despite my reservations about some people, I don’t get to make that determination.

But I can say this: People can tell me they’re not racist. Or that they’re not part of the problem. But when they’re confronted by someone preaching the gospel who doesn’t look like them, and they don’t like how that message makes them feel, I do begin to wonder.

Is it the mirror that needs repair? Or is it us?

Greg Garrett is professor of English at Baylor University, theologian in residence at the American Cathedral in Paris, and author of two dozen books, among them the new A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation.


Related articles:

Why conservatives can’t get Jeremiah Wright out of their heads

In Georgia, demonizing Black Liberation Theology yet again | Steve Harmon

‘The Critique’ versus ‘The Heroic Narrative’ defines the debate in America today | Alan Bean

Why conservatives can’t get Jeremiah Wright out of their heads

The spectacle seemed to dominate every news station, barber shop, beauty shop and church fellowship hall across the nation. For months on end, an excerpt of a sermon offered in the sacred confines of the Black church had taken center stage in the unfolding drama surrounding the potential election of Barack Obama, who would become the first Black president of the United States of America.

The sermon was preached at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago by Jeremiah Wright — a scholar, luminary and sage — who had long enjoyed popularity within Black churches and liberal seminaries across the nation. For decades, Wright thundered prophetically from his pulpit in Chicago, challenging governmental policies, encouraging an appreciation of African heritage and merging the prophetic and priestly functions seamlessly in front of thousands of parishioners that at various times included personalities such as Barack and Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Common.

Corrie Shull

However, in 2008, just as Wright was settling into retirement, a routine sermonic riff from almost a decade earlier was being parsed and interpreted by the American public and news media pundits, many of whom were unfamiliar with Wright, Trinity United Church of Christ or the rich tradition of rhetorical devices and liberationist hermeneutics that have characterized Black preaching since Black sacred speech was first uttered on American shores.

This was a recipe for disaster. Wright’s words were taken out of context, right-wing media seized the opportunity to misrepresent his long and fruitful ministry, and ultimately, Barack Obama was forced to denounce the words and sentiments of his longtime pastor to preserve his chances of becoming president. It was a painful episode for all involved and for everyone who loves the Black church tradition.

And one would think that with the election of Obama that would have been the end of the infamous clip and the subsequent fallout. But, alas, here we are, 12 years after Obama’s first run for president, and Jeremiah Wright’s words are being used again to paint another Black political candidate as a radical anti-American leftist.

“Of all the critiques the opposition could have levied against Warnock … his opponent reached back to his support of Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 presidential campaign.”

Raphael Warnock serves as senior pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta with an earned Ph.D. from Union Theological Seminary and is currently the Democratic candidate surging ahead in a run-off election for U.S. Senate against Kelly Loeffler, the Republican candidate. The winner of this race could decide the balance of power in the United States Senate; therefore, millions of dollars and national attention is directed to Georgia for this run-off election. What is of extreme interest is that of all the critiques the opposition could have levied against Warnock culled from his numerous sermons given over two decades as a pastor or from his 2013 book The Divided Mind of the Black Church or his numerous published articles and essays, Warnock’s opponent reached back to his support of Jeremiah Wright during the 2008 presidential campaign debacle.

One of many Loeffler tweets repeating similar claims against Warnock.

In an attempt to frustrate Warnock’s campaign, Loeffler tweeted: “Reverend Warnock has a long history of anti-Israel extremism. He defended Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Semitic comments. He embraced the anti-Zionist BLM organization. And he thinks Israel is an ‘oppressive regime’ for fighting back against terrorism.”

What Loeffler identifies is the liberationist lens of the Black prophetic tradition that refuses to bow uncritically to American colonialism and oppression — a lens that has been used by Warnock, Wright and many others who have found the strength to stand against the destructive forces of the American empire.

Loeffler’s critique suggests there is no room in American politics for those who critique America from the perspective of the marginalized. Beyond that, the use of Warnock’s acknowledgment of understanding Wright’s socio-political analysis demonstrates a misunderstanding of the broad tapestry of Americans who authentically love this country and desire to see it rise to the heights of its loftiest ideals.

The intervening years between now and when Wright’s words first came to the nation’s attention reveal that Wright was indeed right in that “America’s chickens were coming home to roost.” The repeated murders of Black people at the hands of police, the continued struggle for Black economic parity, the exaggerated expressions of “American exceptionalism” that have given birth to the Tea Party and Trumpism since Wright’s sermon went viral — all point to the validity and truthfulness of the socio-political analysis he packed within his pulpit proclamation.

The question is, why are Republicans still obsessed with using Wright as a boogeyman to scare fragile white Conservatives?

I would posit that Wright is more than a lightning rod used to raise the ire of white conservatives who lack the intellectual depth and patriotism to sincerely critique the nation they claim to love. It is more than that.

Conservatives can’t get Jeremiah Wright’s words out of their heads because his words accomplished what the words of the prophet are meant to do. The prophet, in the strictest biblical meaning, aims to afflict the consciences of obstinate, morally stagnant and ethically apathetic groups of people. It is never the prophet’s task to be a custodian of the status quo; therefore, those who are committed to the status quo and benefit from it are generally incensed by the prophet’s pronouncements even though they find themselves ultimately unable to shake what has been heard. According to Walter Brueggemann, world-renowned biblical scholar, the task of prophetic ministry is “to nurture, nourish and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.”

Wright’s words spoke to the American reality in such a stark manner that even those who unilaterally rejected his analysis cannot “unhear” it, and that is why it continues to reemerge in the American political drama.

Conservatives have yet to truly interrogate Wright’s statement in a way that would enable them to move beyond ethnic identity politics into a deeper understanding of what it means to embrace the complexity of the American experiment. Until conservatives authentically and sincerely explore the perspectives of those who have been marginalized and brutalized by the American empire, they will never be able to get Jeremiah Wright out of their heads.

Corrie Shull serves as pastor of Burnett Avenue Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky. He is an author, professor, school board member and father. He holds degrees from Fisk University, Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School.


Related articles:

In Georgia, demonizing Black Liberation Theology yet again | Steve Harmon

The cross: oppression or liberation? | Nora Lozano

‘The Critique’ versus ‘The Heroic Narrative’ defines the debate in America today | Alan Bean

In Georgia, demonizing Black Liberation Theology yet again

I am a Baptist theologian, and “professor of historical theology” is my specific job title. It is therefore of no little interest to me that a political controversy moving into the national spotlight involves a candidate who is a fellow Baptist theologian and his ties to one of the most important movements of recent theological history.

Raphael Warnock

Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta who earned a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Union Theological Seminary in New York City, is the Democratic candidate for the Georgia U.S. Senate seat currently held by incumbent appointee Kelly Loeffler. Loeffler is Warnock’s Republican opponent in a January runoff election after Warnock received the most votes in the multi-candidate special election in November that included Warnock, Loeffler, Republican challenger Doug Collins and others.

With this race and the other Georgia U.S. Senate runoff election between Republican David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff now receiving the full national attention of both major parties, attacks on candidates have predictably intensified, especially against Warnock.

Theology as focus of political attacks

Kelly Loeffler

Theology is at the center of these attacks. Loeffler’s campaign has launched a guilt-by-association effort to tie Warnock to persons, events and movements that supposedly out him as a “dangerous” “leftist” “Marxist” “radical” (all terms applied to Warnock in Loeffler’s tweets).

One attack calls attention to the fact that Warnock was youth minister at New York City’s Abyssinian Baptist Church as a seminary student when the church hosted Fidel Castro for an evening speaking event while Castro was in town to speak at the United Nations in 1995. Warnock has responded that he was not involved in planning the event and did not meet Castro.

Abyssinian Baptist Church is the congregation that was instrumental in the conversion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to committed Christian discipleship during a year of study at Union Theological Seminary, 1930-31, when Adam Clayton Powell Sr. was pastor. The church has a well-established tradition of giving people whose voices were not welcomed by others the freedom to speak at Abyssinian, and that applied to Castro, whatever one may think of what his voice represented. (Speaking at Abyssinian Baptist does not equal endorsement by Abyssinian Baptist or its ministerial staff.)

Critique of Israel

Another line of attack highlights a portion of a 2018 sermon by Warnock that included a statement critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The charge against Warnock is anti-Semitism. But this critique of Israel is widely shared by Christian ethicists and by Palestinian Christians who experience this treatment by Israel. It is no more anti-Semitic than were the prophet Amos’s denunciations of the injustices committed by ancient Judah and Israel.

Speaking of Amos: Much is being made of Warnock’s support for Jeremiah Wright after video of one of his post-9/11 sermons became an issue for then-candidate Barack Obama during his 2008 campaign (the Obama family had been members of Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago). On Fox News that year, Warnock said, ““We celebrate Rev. Wright in the same way that we celebrate the truth-telling tradition of the Black church, which when preachers tell the truth, very often it makes people uncomfortable.”

While Wright’s rhetoric had been shocking to people accustomed to uncritical American patriotism, it was very much a contemporary updating of the rhetoric of Amos, applied to the United States.

About James Cone

James Cone

The most unsparing attack on Warnock is based on a superficial reading of selected statements by Warnock’s doctoral mentor James H. Cone, the “father of Black Liberation Theology” who died in 2018. Cone’s classic 1970 book, Black Liberation Theology, provided both the name and theological framework for one of the most significant theological movements of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Black Liberation Theology is in continuity with and extends the earlier work of Howard Thurman and Martin Luther King Jr. While Cone coined the term “liberation theology” in connection with its African American expression, it belongs to a larger complex of theological movements that now embrace the label, including Latin American Liberation Theology, Feminist Theology, “Womanist” Theology done from the particular perspective of Black women, and a wide variety of socially located theologies in Asia and Africa.

These diverse theologies of liberation share in common three emphases evident not only in the work of Cone but also in its appropriation by Wright and Warnock: (1) God’s solidarity with the victims of oppression and desire for their liberation; (2) the responsibility of the church to join God in God’s mission of solidarity and liberation; and (3) the task of theology as critical reflection on the faith and practice of Christian community, inquiring whether or not its faith and practice has facilitated this mission of solidarity and liberation.

While I cannot speak for my students, I imagine that many of them would regard Black Liberation Theology as very much within the theological mainstream as a result of their coursework.

Wright contributed an epilogue chapter to the second edition of James H. Evans’s We Have Been Believers: An African American Systematic Theology, a required text in our introductory Christian theology courses. Next semester my students will read Warnock’s book The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness in my Baptist and Free Church Theology course. If I had a dollar for every paper my students have chosen to write on the theology of James Cone over the years, I’d have at least enough money to treat a full class of students to coffee and pastries during our mid-period break.

A superficial reading

It’s evident to me that Warnock’s attackers who try to make some of Cone’s more incendiary statements stick to Warnock have done only a very superficial and selective reading of Cone. When Cone writes about “Satanic whiteness,” he is denouncing the notion of white normativity, which stems from that which is rightly called demonic. When Cone advocates “the destruction of everything white,” he is urging Black theology to take as its task the purging of this idolatrous notion of white normativity from the theology of Black people of faith. When Cone contends that God is Black, he is affirming God’s solidarity with the oppressed rather than the oppressor. And when Cone insists that those who want to join God in God’s solidarity with blackness must lose their white identity, he is calling whites to abandon this notion of white normativity and relinquish attachment to its privileges.

But Cone cannot be said to be “anti-white.” His Black Liberation Theology is liberative in and of itself for those who are white and therefore are participants in one way or another in the structures of racial oppression, for liberation theology is concerned not only with the liberation of the oppressed but also of the oppressor. The oppressor, too, is oppressed by social and spiritual forces that ensnare the oppressor in systems of oppression. A conversion that leads to the oppressor sharing in God’s liberation of the oppressed is liberation for the oppressor.

I think Cone is right about these things. But anyone whose eyebrows are raised by the out-of-context words from Cone that will likely become even more widely known between now and January should read Cone himself rather than his critics’ characterizations or my explanations. For readers of Baptist News Global who have never read Cone, I recommend his 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, as an entrée to his thought. In my opinion, it’s the single most significant book ever written by an American theologian.

Black Liberation Theology is once again being demonized for political purposes. But if its demonization can be seized as a teachable moment that leads American Christians to learn more about it, Black Liberation Theology may yet be the very thing that liberates white American Christianity from its bondage.

Steven R. Harmon serves as professor of historical theology at Gardner-Webb University School of Divinity in Boiling Springs, N.C. He is author of Baptist Identity and the Ecumenical Future and co-editor with Amy L. Chilton of Sources of Light: Resources for Baptist Churches Practicing Theology.