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Anthea Butler Martin Luther King Jr.'s legacy lives on in Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock and Black liberation theology

Conservatives have attacked that part of the Black church tradition that goes beyond piety, gospel music and impassioned preaching. They failed this time.
Image: Raphael Warnock
The Rev. Raphael Warnock stands in the sanctuary of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Jan. 11, 2018.Jeff Martin / AP file

The Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta — where Martin Luther King Jr. was once pastor, following in the footsteps of his maternal grandfather and his father — endured many of the same slurs that Dr. King endured while championing civil rights during his special election general and runoff campaigns in Georgia. Ultimately, he was successful, defeating the appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler to become the first Black senator from Georgia and the first Black Democratic senator from a Southern state in history.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would no doubt be very proud of his pastoral successor and soon-to-be senator from Georgia, who stayed true to the Black liberation theology preached in churches like Ebenezer Baptist for generations, despite white conservative attacks on him and those beliefs — which have been successful before.

Loeffler unleashed a series of attacks against Warnock and his religious beliefs in debates and in ads both before and after November, even though she had been in attendance — and sitting on the dais with Warnock — at Ebenezer Baptist Church as a guest for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day services in 2020. Loeffler's attacks against Warnock specifically included attacking Black liberation theology by calling Warnock a socialist and a radical for preaching about it, prompting Warnock to say in their debate that "she's lied not only on me, but on Jesus!"

Her attacks on the Black church gained the most pushback of all her anti-Warnock efforts, and pastors in Georgia even penned an open letter calling on her to "cease her false attacks against Reverend Warnock's social justice, theological and Faith Tradition." Calling his beliefs "an authentic prophetic message in the tradition of Martin Luther King," the letter was a reminder that the Black church — and the theologies underpinning it — are often at odds with the popular (or, at least, white) version of the Black church as solely being a place of deep piety, gospel music and impassioned preaching.

Warnock stayed true to the Black liberation theology preached in churches like Ebenezer Baptist for generations, despite white conservative attacks on him and those beliefs.

But conservative attacks on the Black church and its theological traditions of social justice have been successfully weaponized in political campaigns before: In fact, one line of attack Loeffler used against Warnock was his relationship with and references to the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor emeritus of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, where Barack and Michelle Obama used to worship before the presidency.

The mere mention of Wright was supposed to be a huge dog whistle to conservatives, since Wright's "God damn America" sermon was used — or, rather, misused, misinterpreted, taken out of context and abused — as an attack against Barack Obama during his presidential run in 2008. The sermon — a jeremiad rightly condemning the America government's vicious treatment of Native Americans, African Americans and Japanese Americans — was unjustifiably vilified by conservatives and white liberals, and the criticism (and Obama's response to it) destroyed the relationship between Obama and his former pastor irrevocably.

Both Barack and Michelle Obama took Wright to task in their recent books, which speaks to the deep wounds that the truth of Wright's words and the attacks based on those words left in their wake. But by not acknowledging how conservatives used the Black church and its tradition of prophetic lament as a weapon, Obama inadvertently put himself on the same side of the Loeffler campaign in its attacks on Warnock, even though he was campaigning for Warnock.

With Warnock's win, though, America's Black churches and Ebenezer Baptist, in particular, stand in the middle of an important inflection point in the nation's history and psyche. And so, in light of the storming of the U.S. Capitol by a predominantly white male mob, many of whom claimed the justification of God through their predominantly white churches and faiths, it is worth asking an important question: Why is the Black church the dominant cultural religious group that often leads the challenge against racism and injustice in America?

Because it had to be.

The Black church tradition of critiquing America's faults and shortcomings made and still makes many people uncomfortable.

America still has still not reckoned with slavery, Jim Crow, poverty, police violence, prisons and, most recently, the MAGA-turned-insurrectionist movement; Black churches serve as a refuge from America's ills and injustices like those. Pastors, parishioners and church members have all had to protect one another from the racism of white Christians, politicians and others during the times of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, when Black pastors often took leadership roles. Violence, an American pastime, was and still is used to silence truth through dissent: church burnings, murders and character assassinations — as Wright faced — are all used to silence the voices calling America and its racial and social injustices to account.

Indeed, the Black church tradition of critiquing America's faults and shortcomings made and still makes many people uncomfortable. When Martin Luther King Jr. declared in his "I Have a Dream" speech — from which white Americans love to quote but which they rarely read or remember in full — that America has "given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked 'insufficient funds,'" he was speaking directly about the racism that belied the founders' documents and claims that "all men were created equal."

The message of prophetic Black churches like Warnock and King's, calling America to account for the failure to deliver democracy to African Americans, is an important corrective to the role of white evangelical churches in supporting hegemonic politicians who continue to use racist tactics and brandish racist screeds in the hope of retaining votes and power. In this time of racial division and domestic terrorism, more attention will — and should — be paid to the Black church tradition. It has not only weathered these storms in America; it also continues to be a vital place to hear the truth about where America is, where we should be and where we can, perhaps, finally go.