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Raphael Warnock and the Possibilities of Prophetic Politics

The Reverend Dr. Raphael Warnock, pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, became Georgia’s first Black citizen elected to the US Senate. His victory seemed far fetched only months ago, yet Warnock prevailed, buoying hope for a more progressive South in which all Black lives matter as much as every other life.

As his victory became more certain Tuesday night, there was speculation about how Warnock would juggle serving his congregation and leading in Congress. From all signals, he seems committed to continuing to shepherd the church best known for the pastoral presence of Daddy King and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. That a Black preacher was just elected to the US Senate may appear odd in our increasingly secular society. But there is a long history of Black pastors serving their flocks through electoral politics. I immediately think about Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first Black man to serve as US Senator. In addition to representing Mississippi in DC, Revels was an African Methodist Episcopal elder, and later served as the first president of Alcorn State University. His theological convictions and pastoral compassion made him well suited to speak on behalf of those whose backs were against the wall during the Reconstruction era and later during the nightmare of Jim Crow apartheid.

Not every Black pastor who impacted the political felt they were called to elected office. When asked to run for office, Dr. King would rebuff and share that his role was prophetic, that he was called to amplify marginalized voices and speak truth to power from a place of moral authority. However, one cannot deny that King’s legacy casts a long, positive shadow for anyone wanting to love God and people through the democratic process and in the halls of power. With his election, King’s successor at Ebenezer demonstrates the possibility of speaking truth to power from a seat of power. We do not yet know how this will play out for Rev. Warnock; nevertheless, it is not improbable that his presence in Congress will serve in much the same way King’s presence did from without. Warnock, a Baptist minister with Pentecostal roots serving America’s freedom church, is poised through education and experience to offer a moral conscience to electeds who place party and profits above people. Let us pray that he will be strong and courageous.

It should be noted that Dr. Warnock represents the more progressive wing of the Black Church, and thus it would be important to appreciate the vision he will carry with him to Washington. In his book The Divided Mind of the Black Church: Theology, Piety, and Public Witness, Warnock acknowledges how he moderates between theological, cultural, and experiential polarities in church and society. He seeks to hold together the Black Church’s complex legacy of piety and protest, soul salvation and social transformation. When I first met him years ago at a Children’s Defense Fund Haley Farms event, we swapped stories about being Bapticostals serving historic churches needing to be revitalized in order to better serve the 21st century. The encouragement I have with his election to the Senate is that his learning and burning, his preaching and prophetic witness, will stand out as an example of the present-day possibilities of the Black Church’s role in holistic ministry and cultivating the beloved community. I will pray for him and invite you to do the same.

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