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Sen. Raphael Warnock’s deleted Easter tweet reflects religious and political chasms about Christianity

Then-candidate Raphael G. Warnock attends a St. James Missionary Baptist drive-in service in Columbus, Ga., on Dec. 13. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post) (The Washington Post)

U.S. Sen. Raphael G. Warnock, as pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, gave a sermon Sunday for Easter. But it was a tweet from the Georgia Democrat’s account that day that has triggered far more discussion about theology and politics and what it means to be Christian.

The now-deleted tweet from Warnock’s account came early Sunday and said: “The meaning of Easter is more transcendent than the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Whether you are Christian or not, through a commitment to helping others we are able to save ourselves.”

To the many thousands who saw the tweet, it meant very different things.

For many conservative Christians, the tweet challenged the core belief of their faith: Jesus’ literal resurrection is the way to salvation. To many progressive and moderate Christians, Warnock seemed to be suggesting closeness to God is more about their actions, what they do to relieve suffering and create justice. The seeking of social justice is emphasized in particular in the Black church.

Ed Stetzer, who leads programs about evangelism and missions at the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, falls in the former camp and said he was glad the tweet was deleted.

'It does not reflect biblical Christianity or the teaching of the gospels,” he said, citing First Corinthians 15:14: “The verse makes it clear, ‘And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.’ Christianity is certainly more than Jesus’ resurrection, but that historical, bodily resurrection is the bedrock reality that makes Christianity Christian.”

The tweet also drew criticism notably by conservative political figures, including commentator and podcaster Allie Stuckey:

And Donald Trump lawyer Jenna Ellis, who baselessly claimed he won the 2020 election:

The tweet from the account of Warnock, a progressive Christian who received two master’s degrees and a PhD from the liberal Union Theological Seminary, was taken down later Sunday. A member of his office said “the tweet was posted by staff and was not approved” but would not say more about whether it reflected Warnock’s beliefs, who wrote it or why it was removed.

‘The Black Church’ explores the ‘most important institution’ in African American history

While Warnock is known as a passionate preacher who doesn’t shy from controversy, the removal of the tweet, some observers said Monday, showed the daily political and religious minefield Black leaders must navigate.

Nichole Phillips, director of the Black Church Studies Program at Emory University, said the controversy over the tweet echoed an incident in the late 2000s, when Barack Obama was called to distance himself from his onetime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. While different theologically in other ways, Wright’s theology, like Warnock’s, is rooted in Black liberation theology, which sees life through the lens of racial oppression, and the idea that anything that doesn’t liberate isn’t consistent with Jesus.

Obama came out in 2008 against the pastor after Wright’s comments not only harshly criticized the United States’ treatment of Blacks but also spotlighted Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Black nationalist group Nation of Islam who has made anti-Semitic remarks.

“I think he has to be careful about his wording,” Phillips said of Warnock. “He opens himself up to attack. I think it shows not much has changed.”

But Phillips and other experts on the Baptist faith and the Black church noted the wide range of Christian beliefs about the resurrection, the core biblical event marked on Easter. Some may see it as literal, others do not. Some may see belief in it as mandatory to be a Christian; others do not.

“The reality is that not all Christian traditions have the same interpretation and understanding of Christ’s sacrifice or resurrection,” she said. “All Christian traditions don’t necessarily celebrate or recognize Jesus’ sacrifice or martyrdom as a precursor to their own rebirth.”

While Phillips said her perspective may not be “the mainstream” for Christians, divergent beliefs are common. On her second read of the tweet, she said, she felt it wasn’t as much offering theology just for Christians, but was making a point for all Americans.

It was saying: " ‘The week and weekend is bigger than that. Without negating the relevance of Christianity and the resurrection,’ " she said. The tweet is saying, " ‘Whether or not you’re Christian, serve others. In serving others, you’ll experience a type of salvation.’ ”

Raphael Warnock’s campaign for the moral high ground

The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union — which Warnock attended — said criticism of him was part of an ongoing political smear campaign.

“For months prior to his election, critics took Sen. Warnock’s sermons out of context and framed them as outside the mainstream. But in reality, his beliefs lie squarely within the Black prophetic tradition embodied most prominently by Dr. Martin Luther King,” Jones wrote in a statement to The Post. “Sen. Warnock’s Easter tweet highlights the central tenet of the Christian faith — caring for the ‘least of these’ of God’s creation. The resurrection of Jesus Christ shows that God’s love for us is stronger than death. Christians must avoid the temptation of narrowly defining the meaning of salvation, which stops us from advancing the goal of universal love.”

Doug Weaver, a professor of Baptist studies at Baylor University, noted that while most Baptists in the United States are theologically and politically conservative, there are many moderate and liberal Baptists as well. Among Black Baptists, he said, even those who are antiabortion and more socially conservative would still be likely to identify with liberation theology and the need to highlight justice, Weaver said.

“He’s on the left, sure, but he’s part of the social gospel part of the Black church,” he said. “The Black church puts a lot of focus on personal salvation but equally on oppression now; how are you working now against oppression?”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the first name of Nichole Phillips, director of the Black Church Studies Program at Emory University.