In a recent discussion with our LABC Youth Group, I talked about how many tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King fail to recognize that he was a Baptist pastor, a minister formed by, and committed to, the traditions of the African-American church. I noted that many commentators fail to recognize the connection between King’s powerful expression of the truth and the truth-telling tradition best exemplified by the prophets of a book he loved, the Bible.
Dr. King loved Amos, the 8th century shepherd from Tekoa in Judah, who left his home to speak truth, hard truth, to Israel and the surrounding nations. He loved Isaiah who spoke of God’s transformative work among an exiled people. He loved Joel who promised that the spirit of God would fall on young and old, male and female, enabling them to dream profound dreams. He loved John the Baptist who stood up to the self-serving Herod Antipas. He loved Jesus who promised that the humble would change the world.
Dr. King believed that he stood in this tradition of truth-telling. He called on the Baptist Church, the Christian community and all people of faith to stand in the same tradition. He taught that the church was not to be the lord of the state or the tool of the state but rather, “the conscience of the state.” This is a very important understanding. As a Baptist, Dr. King valued the separation of church and state; he believed in the first freedom (religion) of the First Amendment. However, he taught that while structurally separated, church and state were not disconnected from each other. At the very least, as the conscience of the state, the church is compelled to tell the state the truth. It is honor bound to live out its truth-telling tradition.
With the conclusion of the administration of Donald J. Trump and Michael R. Pence and the beginning of the administration of Joseph R. Biden and Kamala D. Harris, it has never been more important that the faith community, including churches like LABC, accept their calling to be the conscience of the state, to speak truth to power.
We live in a time in which representatives of the church have failed to tell the truth. We live in an epoch of history in which very prominent churches, very large congregations, very able ministerial manipulators of the media have told lies and supported lies told by the state. The church has been complicit in the lie that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. This is a racist lie that is a direct attack on the communities of color of Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Milwaukee, Atlanta and elsewhere that showed up, sometimes at great risk to themselves, to exercise their right to vote. It is a lie that says “If we white citizens don’t get our way the system is, by definition, flawed.”
We live in a time in which a presidential “patriotic education” commission released a report, on MLK Day itself, attacking truth telling in regard to American history. Instead of honesty about the ways in which structural racism and unchecked whiteness have shaped, and continue to shape, our nation, the report calls for the parroting of the lie of American exceptionalism. This is a lie supported by prominent and powerful Christians. It is a lie that runs counter to our call to be the conscience of the state.
As the celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Remembrance Day 2021 fades into history, as the Biden presidency begins, we all do well to recommit ourselves to a tradition of truth-telling, a tradition that will ensure that not only the church, but all the citizens and residents of these United States, serve together as the conscience of the state. It is the truth that will keep us free.