The word of God cannot be chained 

FATHER RAYMOND J. DE SOUZA

I long desired to visit Ebenezer Baptist, for it was as a teenager reading the speeches of Martin Luther King that I first awakened to the power of the Gospel preached with conviction to bend the course of history.

America's Catholic bishops are meeting here in Atlanta this week, and primary on their agenda is how to deal with threats to religious liberty on the home front. I took advantage of the meeting to visit the Ebenezer Baptist Church on Auburn Avenue, the home church of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Religious liberty is under attack in the United States on many fronts, the most egregious being the Obama administration's rules for health insurance, which define religious institutions in impossibly narrow terms. According to the regulations promulgated, a religious institution does not qualify as religious if it does practical works of charity rather than religious education; and it is not religious if it serves the broader public. The Obama definition would mean that Mother Teresa's home for AIDS patients and the homeless a few miles from the White House is not a religious institution because the Sisters allow non-Catholics to live and die there. The same applies to the vast array of religious institutions that provide education, health care and social services without asking first for a baptismal certificate.

It's not about government funding, because the administration's rules apply to wholly private entities. Who gets to decide whether a Catholic soup kitchen is an essential part of the Church — the president's bureaucrats, or the religious believers who are doing those works of faith? The bishops are fighting back against an administration that explicitly seeks to drive religious institutions to the margins of public life.


All of which makes it more than relevant to consider the example of Martin Luther King, Atlanta's proudest boast. The Baptist preacher knew how to answer those who repeatedly told him to keep to his pulpit and out of public life. In their forceful and learned statement on religious freedom, the American bishops hold up Reverend King specifically as an example of the essential and positive contribution that religion makes to the work of justice and the pursuit of the common good.

Martin Luther King, Jr. was born just down the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where preaching was the family trade — both his father and grandfather held that pulpit. In the 1960s, King and his father were co-pastors, taking turns preaching at what the son made one of the most important pulpits in American history. It's not a remarkable church in size or style, but for anyone called to preach, visiting this place is something of a pilgrimage, a place to pray for an abundant portion of the preaching spirit.

King's recorded sermons are played in the church, and the sermon when I visited was right on point. Preaching on Matthew 25, King spoke in blunt language about those who claim to be Christians but do not feed the poor, or clothe the naked, or visit the sick.

"The Lord will say to them: 'Get out of my face!'" preached King. Remember that next time someone tries to make King into a milquetoast clergyperson urging everyone just to get along.

"The Lord will say to them: 'Get out of my face!'" preached King. Remember that next time someone tries to make King into a milquetoast clergyperson urging everyone just to get along.

A recently completed restoration project has brought King's pulpit and the whole of Ebenezer Baptist back to the 1960-68 period. The basement hall, where the congregation first worshipped, marks it centenary this year, and the sanctuary is 90 years old. The restoration is timely, for more than any other place, Ebenezer Baptist stands as a rebuke to those who would separate faith from the works of faith, and would separate religion from public life. Many tried in the 1960s. King resisted. The Obama administration has conveniently forgotten that part of the civil rights movement.

I long desired to visit Ebenezer Baptist, for it was as a teenager reading the speeches of Martin Luther King that I first awakened to the power of the Gospel preached with conviction to bend the course of history. In the ways of Providence, that thread, along with many others, were woven together such that I too would be charged with preaching that same Gospel.

I did not expect though that the issues would remain so current. Many in King's time — both in the church and the broader culture — admonished King to keep quiet, to preach the Gospel if he must, but restrict it to the humble confines of Ebenezer Baptist. But the word of God cannot be chained. Those who would do the chaining have returned. When they return home from Atlanta, the American bishops would be wise to take the spirit of King's pulpit with them.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Father Raymond J. de Souza, "The word of God cannot be chained." National Post, (Canada) June 15, 2012.

Reprinted with permission of the National Post and Fr. de Souza.

THE AUTHOR

Father Raymond J. de Souza is chaplain to Newman House, the Roman Catholic mission at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario. Father de Souza's web site is here. Father de Souza is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2012 National Post




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