I went to Ebenezer Baptist Church last night — the church of Martin Luther King Jr. and his father — for a “prayer rally” before the election, convened by the church’s current pastor, Rev. Raphael Warnock. Here is what I said:
In a time like this, prayer is not perfunctory, an add on, or a brief closing to a meeting. Rather it is an opening to what indeed has now become “spiritual warfare” as the New Testament describes.
President Abraham Lincoln once said our leaders should appeal to “our better angels.” President Donald Trump is overtly and deliberately appealing to our “worst demons,” as the front page of the Washington Post reported today in an article titled “Strategy of racial attacks spreads”:
The fierce battle for control of Congress and the nation’s governorships has turned toward blatant and overtly racial attacks rarely seen since the civil rights era of the 1960s.
The president is running in this election, even though he is not on the ballot. But Donald Trump has chosen not to run on issues — even his successes, on which we might agree or disagree. Instead he is running on race, running against “the others,” against immigrants, refugees, against black candidates for governor he calls “unqualified” and “unequipped,” and against women standing against misogyny. Our battle on Election Day is not just a “political” but a spiritual battle between our better angels and our worst demons.
If racism — the creation and perpetuation of the lie of white supremacy — was and is America’s original sin, then Donald Trump has become the chief tempter of America’s original sin of racism. Sin can be repented from, but that has clearly not happened during this campaign. Sin can also be tempted, as in the language that Donald Trump has put forward in his campaign rallies and in his closing arguments about “caravans,” criminals, and “fearful and dangerous” people of color.
When I was asked to come here to participate in this prayer rally and asked to speak on “systematic racism” I was drawn to go deeper than the usual analysis. For some reason, I was drawn to all the verses in the Bible about the one called Lucifer, the devil, Satan himself, and the rise of evil in America. It was a deep and emotional experience to read all those texts.
The devil himself, the tempter, is called many things in scripture — the accuser, the slanderer, the father of lies, just to name a few. I was very struck by those terms and their relevance to our current political discourse. We now literally see a political strategy that is mirroring those tactics — a politics of fear, lies, and hate that can and does lead to the violence that we have seen.
The “devil” is known for his propensity to temptation — even temping Christ at the outset of his ministry. Temptation is the enticement to act contrary to God’s will. Genesis 1:26 says all human beings were made in God’s “image and likeness.” That was God’s original purpose and plan — to create all his children in his image and have them together steward the rest of God’s creation. The original sin of America was to say that we are not all made in the image of God — to throw away imago dei — and create the violent falsehood of racial superiority and inferiority, so one people could have dominion over other people.
America’s original sin of racism is always at least implicit in our politics, but this president has made racism very explicit. Trump is not the cause of our sins of white supremacy, nativism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny, but has become the powerful chief tempter and manipulator of all those sins.
The sin of racism is not only original to America; it is also systemic — embedded in all or our economic, educational, criminal, judicial, and even religious institutions, and lingers in all of our systems and structures. Crucially, this structural racism is still very much present in the practices and processes of our electoral systems. We call it racial gerrymandering, deliberate and targeted voter suppression, mass incarceration to deny citizenship and votes, and immigration policies that would deny entry or franchise to as many potential future citizens from countries of color as possible. But let’s be clear, to deny the vote of one citizen is to assault the image of God, which is at the core of a deliberate strategy to prevent our changing demographics from changing our democracy.
The Bible says that the devil is completely evil and deceives people into doing evil, even when they don’t realize what they’re doing, by continuing to spread lies to evil ends. On the other hand, Jesus promises us that the “truth will set us free.” So this battle that we are in is not just political — it is spiritual. America’s original sin of racism is not only politically and economically systemic, but also spiritually systemic.
Tonight, we pray for an election that has become a referendum on white nationalism, with a president who proudly calls himself a “nationalist.” We pray for the election that has become a national referendum on America’s original sin and all its enablers. Tomorrow we will speak, we will stand, we will act, we will vote in ways that help serve and protect God’s purpose in the world, even in our imperfect politics. And every day thereafter, no matter what the outcome of this critically important election, we together will live for the new nation we are becoming — for the vision that has been globally proclaimed from this church (King preaching at Ebenezer) — the hope for “a beloved community.” That is not the threat that the father of lies would tell us it is, but is rather God’s great blessing and purpose for the world.
Let us pray. Praying is not just talking, so our prayer tonight is for listening to the Word of God, which calls us to “put on the whole armor of God”:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.