Even if that arrested CNN reporter hadn't been a member of his church, even if President Donald Trump hadn't promised that "when the looting starts, the shooting starts," the man who occupies the same pulpit held by Martin Luther King Jr. was obliged to address what was happening to his city.
‘Don’t allow undisciplined provocateurs of hate who engage in looting or who Tweet about shooting to hijack the high moral message. Stay on high moral ground and we will win,” the Rev. Raphael Warnock said from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta on Sunday.
The morning sermon for a congregation still sheltering in place followed a relatively quiet night, made so by a blanket of police and National Guard troops – and a Friday night of rage that had seen looting and police cars set alight across the city.
There is also the fact that Warnock is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate seat held by Republican Kelly Loeffler. If the unwarranted killings of African Americans in Minneapolis, Minn., Louisville, Ky., and Brunswick, Ga., are to join COVID-19 as a dominant topic in the campaign, Warnock’s voice is likely to be among those that set the tone.
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the day in the Christian tradition that the Holy Spirit inhabited the disciples of a crucified Jesus. So the close of Warnock's sermon, which you can listen to here, had a transformational tone:
"We are living again in the last days. The old world is breathing its last breath – hear me now. It is desperate because it is dying.
"You can hear its death rattle in those who express their fear of what might happen if everybody actually showed up to vote. You can hear its death rattle in the backlash of those who long for a mythological world and an imaginary America that never really was.
"Our remembrances of the past are always more simple than the complexity of the past. There is a world that some long for that is passing away and in its last breath. There are some…who want to sow the seeds of division because they had no vision. They cannot lead us, so they seek to divide us.
"…There's something more powerful than spiritual wickedness in high places, so don't be distracted. Don't allow undisciplined provocateurs of hate who engage in looting or who Tweet about shooting to hijack the high moral message. Stay on high moral ground and we will win. Love yourself and we will win."
On Mother’s Day, Warnock had made a quiet, unpublicized trip to the Georgia coast to meet with the family of Ahmaud Arbery, the 25-year-old black man who had been shot and killed as he jogged through a neighborhood. A white father and son have been arrested in the case, along with the man who recorded the incident on his cell phone.
On this Sunday, Warnock focused on George Floyd, who died on Memorial Day in Minneapolis:
"It was ungodly. Pure evil. Murder on film and in the middle of the day. For preachers who darken somebody's pulpit every weekend and be silent while this is happening – it is not only to be on the wrong side of history, it is not only to be on the wrong side of the issue, I submit it is to be on the wrong side of God.
"George Floyd deserved better than that…
"To put your dusty knee on the neck of another man who is already handcuffed and on the ground for nearly nine minutes with your hand in your pocket is to arrogate to yourself the things that belong to God. It is sickness."
Some churches have struggled to present their Sunday services online. Ebenezer has not. Warnock's sermon was interspersed with video from the weekend. The pastor and senatorial cabinet did not call out the name of Omar Jimenez, the CNN reporter arrested as he broadcast a live report from Minneapolis. But he showed the video. Said Warnock:
"There's a virus in the air and it's killing people. COVID-1619. In this land, we've been trying to beat back this virus since 1619, when the record says some 50-odd slaves arrived on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia…
"Some thought that the virus had been defeated. That we had cultivated herd immunity in the days after the bloody conflict of the Civil War. Indeed, it seemed to go into remission during Reconstruction.
"But in a few years, it mutated in to Jim Crow segregation and came back with a vengeance…Some thought the nation had been sufficiently vaccinated by the civil rights movement. But it mutated again…into mass incarceration in the age of color-blindness."
And here’s how he spoke of Jimenez:
"…In this most recent mutation of the virus, if you're black, it doesn't care where you went to school. It doesn't care how much money you earn. It doesn't care if you're in church every Sunday.
"It doesn't care if you're a CNN reporter just trying to do your job. The skin you're wearing is more important than any badge that you're wearing.
"So you might find yourself, elegant young man, handcuffed while reporting live on CNN. As if to signal boldly that no matter who you think you are, we're going to remind you of who you are."