Is The Black Church 'Divided'?

The fusion between faith and politics was always central to the fire of the civil rights movement. But the current leader of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s original home - the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta - feels that some of that heat has died down. Host Michel Martin asks the Rev. Raphael Warnock why he feels the black church is split. This segment originally aired Jan. 10, 2014, on Tell Me More.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

This is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today is the day this nation celebrates the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday. We decided to observe the day by revisiting some powerful conversations that connect with the mission of Dr. King's life. Later, we'll talk about blacks in the tech world, and ask why the old gaps persist in this new world.

But first, we want to talk about another important part of Dr. King's life and work, which was connecting private faith with public action. Anybody who knows even a little bit of history about the black church in America will be familiar with how faith provided both a foundation and a challenge to the civil rights generation - a foundation in that it was the soil in which they took root, but also a challenge in that they felt their faith called them to do many hard things. What you might not know is that a new generation of faith leaders are still asking hard questions of themselves and their fellow pastors and congregations.

One of them is the Rev. Rafael Warnock who's senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta where Dr. King once served. In a recent conversation with Reverand Warnock, I spoke to him about his new book titled "The Divided Mind of the Black Church." And I asked him to explain that division.

THE REV. RAPHAEL WARNOCK: I'm dealing with what I see as the central tension in black religion. And really not just black faith, really - really American Christianity. And that is the very thing you talked about as you set this up - the tension between the private and the public. Should we emphasize spirituality as having to do with one's own personal relationship with God, or is there something more that has to do with our relationship with one another, the nature of building a just and compassionate world? And Martin Luther King Jr., the pastor - or co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church - embodies that balance I think better than anyone. And I'm calling for that in this new book, "The Divided Mind of the Black Church."

MARTIN: You say that there's actually a tension or division between the black church and black theology. Could you talk a little bit more about what black theology is?

WARNOCK: Yes. Black theology is an academic discourse that came to life in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, really after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. There were a group of pastors and a couple of trained theologians who began to think about the history of the black church in America, the fact that the black church was born fighting for freedom. The black church was always very clear that God intends for us to be free, completely free in body and soul. And so black theology emerged thinking about that in a critical and systematic way.

MARTIN: And sometimes that theology calls upon faith leaders to indict people, to call out political leadership in others in ways that other people might find uncomfortable. And one of the examples of this I think would be the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who was a figure who was always important in his home turf, but who came to kind of national prominence during the campaign of then Senator Barack Obama in his first campaign, you know, for the White House with rhetoric that came to light in a - kind of a broader context because of his ties to then Senator Obama. And I'm thinking about, say, for example, a passage like this. Here it is from one of his sermons.

(SOUNDBITE OF SERMON)

THE REV. JEREMIAH WRIGHT: The government gives them the drugs, builds bigger prisons, passes a three-strike law and then wants us to sing "God Bless America." No, no, no. Not God bless America - God damn America. That's in the Bible for killing innocent people. God damn America for treating us citizens as less than human.

MARTIN: People remember this as a very, you know, painful episode for then Senator Obama. You're saying that if you're really familiar with black theology, you shouldn't be surprised by this. But how do you expect people to hear something like this? Or do you want them to hear something like this? What do you want them to...

WARNOCK: Well...

MARTIN: ...Hear in this?

WARNOCK: Yeah. The problem is that just a few seconds of a very brilliant and creative and thoughtful sermon, actually, was lifted out of its original context. The sermon was preached a few years before Senator Barack Obama ran for president, and the sermon really was about the relationship between God and government. And Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who's a very insightful preacher and theologue, was simply arguing that morning with the kind of vigor and passion that is not at all strange to people who sit in the pews of black churches every day or every Sunday. He was saying that we ought not worship the government. That Christians, that people of faith - even when they are patriots, that the best way to be a patriot is to ask your government hard and tough questions. And so it really, in a real sense, as I argue in the book, was a teachable moment in the sense that it helped us to see what is the prophetic tradition of the black church.

MARTIN: Do you feel that that kind of challenge to authority has been quiet these recent years in part because there is an African-American president in the White House and many people of color, including African-American preachers like yourself, feel that it would be, you know, disloyal, unhelpful to criticize this president or this leadership in such a pointed fashion now?

WARNOCK: Oh, Michel, I think that there is a deafening and shameful silence on the part not only the black church, but of the community of faith in general in America. And that's been the case for a very long time. As we are debating issues that have to do with the soul of America - wealth inequality, minimum wage. As we deal with the fact that 25 percent of the world's prisoners are housed in the United States of America. And so in the book, I call the black church because it has been the conscience of America to rediscover its liberationist roots and speak truth to power, no matter who's in the White House.

MARTIN: But there are other ways that, though - in which African-American pastors have been very prominent in the recent era - some. I mean, we're obviously talking about kind of a big group of people with lots of different points of view. But a number of African-American pastors have become prominent in the fight against LGBT rights, for example, opposing same-sex marriage, you know, on the one hand. And also, another group of pastors who've become prominent around the so-called prosperity gospel - do you have an indictment of them - and who feel very strongly in encouraging people to seek material success? What's wrong with that?

WARNOCK: This is why we need a conversation between our pastors and the best of our theologians, specifically those in the black theology movement. The black church was born fighting for freedom. At our best, we've never fought against anybody's freedom. And so in this conversation about marriage equality, about the concerns raised by our gay and lesbian sisters and brothers, part of what the black church needs to be reminded of is the fact that those who supported slavery, those who argued vociferously for slavery, had every bit as much scripture, if not more, on their side of the argument as those who argued against slavery. So we really need an honest conversation about the nature of Christian faith. And I argue that at its best, the Christian faith is about freedom. It's about justice. It's about liberation. It certainly is about the formation of individual spirituality. But that spirituality ought to send one into the world fighting for something other than one's own personal prosperity. I think that...

MARTIN: But...

WARNOCK: ...Prosperity gospel preaching is really a distortion of the gospel.

MARTIN: But why don't African-Americans have the right to political difference – theological difference in the same way that white Christians do? I mean, are you of the mind that African-Americans...

WARNOCK: Oh, I'm not arguing that they don't...

MARTIN: ...Should have all the same perspective on this? I mean, the African-Americans who...

WARNOCK: No, I'm not arguing that at all. For me to say that you're wrong is not to say that you don't have a right to an opinion. I'm saying your opinion is wrong, which is what theologians do, which is what - pastors argue for what is the meaning of the faith every Sunday morning. And so there have always been differences. But it's a very serious fallacy. We live in a moment in America in which authentic spirituality - which for me shows up as deep concern for the neighbor, particularly the most marginalized members of the human community - authentic spirituality is such a rare thing in America today that when it shows up, we do not even recognize it as such. That's what Martin Luther King Jr. represented at his best. That's with the black church represents at its best. And that's what I'm calling for in “The Divided Mind of the Black Church.”

MARTIN: Is that in part what motivates this book now? I mean, that's always the question one asks is, why now? Why is this the moment for you work? 'Cause clearly these are not new thoughts of yours. You've been thinking about these issues for a very long time. And you've been preaching for a very long time. Is there something in particular...

WARNOCK: Be nice.

MARTIN: No, well that's true.

WARNOCK: Not that long now. Yeah.

MARTIN: But, I mean, is there something going on right now that made you feel that now was the time for you to stand up and revive your vision of the gospel and that of others in this tradition?

WARNOCK: Sure. Well, you know, Dr. King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was organized in 1957 to redeem the soul of America. I think that in this moment, we must redeem the soul of the black church, that church which was born fighting for freedom. When I say the black church, I don't mean that in any racial exclusive sense really. I'm talking about the antislavery church - the church born fighting for freedom. And so while there are moments of activism that come out of our churches, I'm not convinced that all that we see the struggle for justice as central to what it actually means to be Christian in the world.

MARTIN: Why the black church per se, though? I mean, is this solely a black issue? Or is that just the group of people with whom you're most familiar and that that's kind of where you base your life?

WARNOCK: No. The concern is about this planet that we all share and this nation that we all love. I just happen to think that the black church, given its unique history, has a unique voice on these issues. I mean, there's a reason why Martin Luther King Jr. emerged from the black church. There's a reason why the struggle has emerged in the way that it has. And so I'm just calling the church, which is my home, to be true to its liberating heritage. I think it's been a gift to America, and I think that with the burgeoning black middle class in the decades since the civil rights movement, it has too often given in to the kind of narcissism and mindless consumeristic impulses of America without asking the hard questions about the distribution of wealth, about the broadening chasm between the haves and have-nots. All of us ought to be asking those questions. But I do think that those who emerged from that church born fighting for freedom come with peculiar gifts, gifts that even those who are sitting in the pews increasingly do not understand because of our lack of historical memory.

MARTIN: That was the Reverend Raphael Warnock. He's senior pastor of the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church, which is in Atlanta, Georgia. His new book is called "The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness." And he was kind enough to join us from member station WCLK, which is in Atlanta. Reverend Raphael Warnock, thank you so much for speaking with us.

WARNOCK: My pleasure. Thank you so much.

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