Many tributes to Martin Luther King Jr. fail to recognize that he was a Baptist pastor, a minister formed by and committed to the traditions of the African American church.
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, are not recognized or acknowledged by many commentators.
King loved Amos, the 8th century shepherd from Tekoa in Judah, who left his home to speak 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.
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, King valued the separation of church and state, believing 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.
As the presidency of Donald J. Trump ends and the presidency of Joseph R. Biden begins, it has never been more important that the faith community accept its 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 with very able ministerial manipulators of the media have told lies and supported lies told by the state.
Many churches and pastors have been complicit in the lie that the 2020 presidential election was rigged.
This is a lie, rooted in racism, 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, then the system is, by definition, flawed.”
We live in a time in which a presidential “patriotic education” commission releases 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 lie is 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. Day 2021 fades into history and as Inauguration Day 2021 dawns, we all would do well to recommit ourselves to a tradition of truth-telling.
This will ensure that not only the church, but also 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.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Piedmont Post, a community newspaper in Piedmont, California. It was submitted for consideration by the author and is used with permission.
Senior pastor of Lakeshore Avenue Baptist Church in Oakland, California, since 1989, and a board member of BJC (Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty).