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But we must speak: The calling of the Black church in this critical hour

Dr. Bernice King looks at the crypt of her parents after laying a wreath on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Branden Camp)

This is part of a series from The Washington Post exploring “The Future of the Black Church.”

On April 4, 1967, exactly one year before he was assassinated, my father, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., stood in New York City’s famed Riverside Church, and, as a part of his speech opposing the Vietnam War, said these words:

“Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.”

It is imperative to note that my father did not allude to opposing a blue government’s policy or a red government’s policy and that he was not appealing to a conservative ideology or to a liberal ideology. He spoke of the “demands of inner truth” and the “apathy of conformist thought,” forces that often battle within each of us and cause us to question whether we should stand for love and righteousness or yield to inhumanity and hate.

In this speech, titled “A Time to Break Silence,” Daddy went on to say that “some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history.”

Why America needs the Black church for its own survival

Fifty-four years later, the church, divinely called to be a city on a hill and a beacon of light when humanity is darkened by injustice and despair, finds itself in a quagmire of allegiance to political parties, debates over Jesus and justice, nationalism and colonized thinking. Therefore, when many who say they are aligned with the message and ministry of Jesus hear a call to conscience, that call goes unanswered, because their posture has been distorted by a diminished capacity to manifest the heart of Jesus. It becomes more and more difficult to speak on behalf of human beings who are violated by what my father called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism and militarism.”

But we must speak.

As it was during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, no sector of the global church seems more pressed to speak and act on behalf of those described by Howard Thurman as the “disinherited” than the Black church. Perhaps, that is because the Black church came to be because of the cruelty and anti-Christ practices of many White people who lived under the banner, yet rejected the meaning, of “Christian.” The Black church, as glorious as it may be, was birthed from great pain and purposed to prophesy promise in the midst of great struggle.

The prophet Amos compels the Black church to be a voice and a vessel for justice. He said, “But let justice run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The prophet Isaiah compels the Black church to be a voice and a vessel for justice. He said, “Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow.”

Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, compels the Black church to be a voice and a vessel for justice. He said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

It may be unpopular, even in some religious circles, to break silence in the interest of justice, but we must speak. The prophets, our Jesus and our consciences compel us to do so.

Willingness to be a voice and a vessel for justice is also compelled by a firm belief not only in eternal salvation, but also in a salvation of the soul that influences the conditions of human beings right here on earth.

The Southern Christian Leadership Conference was founded to focus on economic injustice, racial injustice and de jure segregation, all of which reflect the SCLC motto, “To save the soul of America.” This is a potent motto and a powerful work that is deeply connected to the Christian love ethic.

However, not all predominantly Black churches or Black church leaders welcomed my father’s words and work then. And not all predominantly Black churches or church leaders welcome being a voice and vessel for justice today.

We must speak.

And we must act unitedly.

In doing both, we should focus on structuring an organized entity that coordinates ongoing, collaborative engagement of partnering organizations. This was modeled during the civil rights movement by the SCLC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the NAACP and other organizations, which not only connected for marches, but also continually engaged each other in action for racial and economic justice.

TD Jakes and Sarah Jakes Roberts: The Black church has major generational challenges. Here’s what we’re doing about it.

Now, more than ever, the Black church, and all who profess to follow the way of Jesus, which is the way of love, must not only organize to speak truth to power, but also must collectively act to manifest justice and righteousness. There must be a strategic, love-centered commitment to both faith and work that is not lessened or heightened depending on which political party is in office.

We must speak truth about the inhumane treatment of immigrants at our southern border as fervently now as we did three years ago.

We must decry the continued massive funding of the United States military as millions grapple with poverty and as militarism devastates families and communities throughout the world.

We must call for the Senate and President Biden to ensure the passing of legislation to prevent voter suppression and ensure equity and fairness in voting.

We must advocate for laws and leadership that prevent police from dehumanizing and brutalizing Black and Brown people.

We must declare a radical redistribution of economic power that asserts the necessity of a livable wage.

We must look on every unjust system (and every person unrepentantly cultivating unjust systems) and demand alignment with love.

We must speak.

And we, the Black church and the church across the globe, must, along with speaking, act conjointly with compassion and courage to create a more just, humane, equitable, sustainable and peaceful world.

We must speak.

And, moving beyond our silos, we must act.

We must do so collectively, coordinately, and collaboratively, rising with a profound love for God and for people and affirming, as my father stated in ‘A Time to Break Silence,’ that “my conscience leaves me no other choice.”

The Rev. Bernice A. King, the youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, is a global thought leader, orator, peace advocate and CEO of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, which was founded by her mother.

Other pieces on the future of the Black church:

The future of the Black church includes its ability to reckon with how it has treated its queer members

The future of the Black church looks more like dancing in the streets than sitting in the pews

The future of the Black church will include its musical heritage

Churches are changing because of the coronavirus. Here are innovative shifts Black churches are making to adapt.