Loeffler and other senators claimed that Warnock insulted service members when he said “nobody can serve God and the military” — paying less attention to the rest of his statement that “You cannot serve God and mammon at the same time,” Matthew 6:24’s admonition that the faithful cannot serve two masters. Republicans tried to call him out for describing Washington politicians as “gangsters and thugs” for voting, in Warnock’s view, in favor of the rich and against the poor — a sentiment hardly unique on either side of the aisle.
During the course of the campaign, Rep.-elect Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) has said Warnock “does not represent what real Americans believe.” Fox News host Tucker Carlson has called Warnock a “fake minister, with a tax exemption.” A Loeffler ad called Warnock “a radical’s radical.” It said he “celebrated anti-American hatred” by defending the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — but didn’t mention Warnock’s explanation, which situated Wright within the “truth-telling tradition of the Black church.”
To be sure, these attacks reflect the win-at-all-costs nature of the race — one of next week’s two Georgia Senate runoffs, which will determine control of the Senate in the next Congress. But the ease with which these attacks are deployed reflects an ignorance about the progressive Black church tradition: Preachers such as Warnock may strike the comfortable as offensive, but their critiques aren’t unpatriotic screeds. Rather, they proclaim a deep love for, and thus a deep disappointment in, a country that too often fails to affirm the self-evident truth in our nation’s creed, that all people are created equal and endowed by God “with certain unalienable Rights.”
The mischaracterization isn’t new. Wright, President Barack Obama’s former pastor, was pilloried during the 2008 presidential election for his 2003 sermon, “Confusing God and government” despite decades as a respected clergyman and having served honorably in the Marine Corps. Wright was accused of preaching “anti-white and anti-American rhetoric” for saying “God damn America” in a sermon that addressed a list of this nation’s sins, including Native American genocide, slavery and unjust wars. Go back a bit further in history and Martin Luther King Jr. — himself once a pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church — was accused of being “the most notorious liar in the country” by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
The attacks misconstrue African American progressive and prophetic religious protest. Informed by the evangelical strand of the social gospel, this tradition places an overwhelming moral emphasis on society’s most vulnerable and oppressed. It demands that Christians bear witness and ameliorate the suffering of others, as set forth in the parable in Matthew 25 where Jesus likens our treatment of God with how we treat those without food and shelter, or those who are sick and imprisoned: “Truly I tell you,” Jesus says of those who enter God’s kingdom, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Indeed, in his December debate with Loeffler, Warnock said: “I’m a Matthew 25 Christian.”
Bearing witness in this way involves uncomfortable truth-telling directed toward those in power. In 2008 at the National Press Club, Wright explained that his aim was to hold his government accountable, not to tear it down: “God doesn’t bless everything. God condemns some things … God damns some practices and there’s no excuse for the things that the government, not the American people, have done. That doesn't make me not like America or unpatriotic.” Similarly, in his 1967 address, “Beyond Vietnam,” King called the U.S. government “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” He didn’t mean America could do no right. But it is necessary to acknowledge where America is wrong toward ultimately transforming “the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”
Such a spiritual orientation demands moral courage and candor from clergy. Some call it speaking truth to power and others call it parrhesia — candid, fearless speech that challenges the status quo. Historians and literary scholars alike refer to this rhetorical tradition in America as a jeremiad, based on the laments of the biblical Hebrew prophet Jeremiah against unjust practices in ancient Israel, for it’s the Hebrew prophets who provide the moral vocabulary and vivid imagery for preachers such as Warnock who are a part of this tradition.
The Bible is replete with the scathing indictments of those who wept over oppression. Recall Jeremiah: “Woe to him who builds his palace by unrighteousness, his upper rooms by injustice, making his own people work for nothing, not paying them for their labor” (Jeremiah 22:13); and Amos, decrying those who “trample on the heads of the poor as on the dust of the ground and deny justice to the oppressed” (Amos 2:7). The biblical prophets enunciated their divine call to be voices of the voiceless and defenders of the defenseless. They did not try to soothe or assuage listeners with euphemistic phrases. Their rhetoric was often blunt, unyielding and contentious.
This is the beauty and burden of this tradition. Those informed by it — including abolitionists David Walker and Sojourner Truth, and contemporary voices such as the Rev. Otis Moss III of Chicago and the Rev. Leslie D. Callahan of Philadelphia — hold that clergy cannot convey faithfully the spirit of God’s concern for the most vulnerable without being honest about the ways our society, including public policy, is complicit in their suffering. To answer God’s call is not merely to comfort the afflicted. It is also to afflict the comfortable. To not do so would be derelict of Christian duty for those who embrace this progressive and prophetic spiritual stance.
That some may find this form of Christian witness troubling makes sense, considering that many preachers in America specialize in positive affirmations and promises of personal and national prosperity. It can be easier to find comfort in the conciliatory tones and feel-good phrases that can be found in their churches on Sunday mornings. Some see those who appease and affirm the cultural markers of power as more hopeful than clergy who channel the seeming doom and gloom of the jeremiad. But in the prophetic tradition, hope comes from our ability to confront the worst of ourselves as a nation, progressing toward our better selves, not from sentimentality or naive optimism.
When Warnock inveighs against politicians who “pick the pockets of the poor” to “line the pockets of the ultrarich,” that doesn’t make him anti-capitalist. He’s making the charge that certain policies and policymakers willfully ignore the concerns of the most defenseless among us and insisting that our nation can do better. Saying “nobody can serve God and the military” at the same time isn’t a shot at the faith of our troops. It’s a reminder to the faithful of the teaching in Zechariah 4:6 that true victory, according to God, comes “Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit” — that ultimate hope is grounded in love and justice, not weapons of warfare.
These appeals to love and justice have animated progressive Christians to fight to protect rights and expand opportunities for the socially marginalized. This has been true during every epoch of this nation: Abolishing slavery, women securing the vote, defending labor rights and dismantling segregation are just a few examples. In this tradition, clergy must call out the folly of power, industrial efficiency or wealth predicated on the unjust treatment of any segment of society. Whether the ill is human trafficking or the warehousing of the vulnerable by lucrative privatized prisons, “dishonest money dwindles away” (Proverbs 13:11).
It shouldn’t surprise that Black churches, born as institutional responses to Black oppression, have produced some of this nation’s most powerful voices, who have helped emancipate American democracy. At an 1852 Independence Day commemoration, Frederick Douglass addressed the gathering and asked: “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” He answered his own question by saying that to the enslaved, “your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity.” That Douglass gave speeches throughout the United States and Europe castigating what he called slaveholding Christianity made him a target for White indignation and claims of anti-Americanism. Yet today he is universally lauded as a patriot.
It may be convenient for Warnock’s adversaries to attack him for lacking an uncritical embrace of American exceptionalism and unqualified veneration of her customs. It may be useful to try to tarnish a pretty clear political asset in the South: being a minister. But when Warnock’s opponents claim he’s un-American, they’re not just presenting an uninformed view of his preaching, they’re negating the true gift of Warnock’s tradition: loving America enough to be honest about its flaws while calling for America to aspire to its highest, most noble ideals.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that a Loeffler ad said Warnock “celebrated anti-American hatred” by saying Wright is part of the “truth-telling tradition of the Black church.” The ad did say Warnock “celebrated anti-American hatred” but omitted Warnock’s full quote.