Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock Delivers 2023 Nathaniel Colver Lecture

The Georgia senator addressed the mass incarceration crisis and the responsibilities of faith communities to enact change.

In a rousing speech at the University of Chicago this spring, Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock of Georgia addressed the American mass incarceration crisis, its ties to white supremacist ideology, and the responsibilities of faith communities to be leaders in reform efforts. He spoke as part of the historical Nathaniel Colver Lectureship, presented in partnership with the Divinity School and the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology at Virginia Union University, with support from the Marty Center and the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice.

"I submit that there is no more significant scandal belying the moral credibility of the American churches than their conspicuous silence as this human catastrophe has unfolded now for more than four decades," he told an audience of more than 250 people at the David Rubenstein Forum on April 29.

Senator Warnock's speech served as the re-inauguration of the Colver Lectureship, which began in 1915 to recognize "persons of eminent scholarship or other special qualification, on religious, biblical or moral, sociological, or other vital subjects." The lectureship is rooted in the legacy of Nathaniel Colver, a 19th century Northern Baptist pastor, reformer, educator, and avowed abolitionist. Colver also served as the first professor at the theological school of the Baptist Theological Union (BTU), an independent educational endowment that supports the Divinity School.

Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock
Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock

READ MORE: A History of the Nathaniel Colver Lectureship and Publication Fund

"There's a vast difference between offering pastoral care and spiritual guidance to the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, and challenging, in an organized way, the public policies, laws, and policing practices that lead to the disproportionate incarceration of people of color in the first place. That is the work of justice."

"Jesus had a record. Not surprising, given his start. Of course he had a record. Look at the neighborhood he was born in. Born in a barrio called Bethlehem, smuggled as an undocumented immigrant into Egypt, raised in a ghetto called Nazareth. But he came saying, 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, to open the eyes of the blind, to preach liberty to those in captivity.' "

– from the 2023 Colver Lecture "Let My People Go: The Scandal of Mass Incarceration in the Land of the Free" by Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock

A graduate of Morehouse College and an ordained minister, Senator Warnock has served as Senior Pastor at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta – which Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once led – for more than 16 years. He joined the U.S. Senate in January 2021 after winning a special runoff election in Georgia. Larry Greenfield, President of the Board of Trustees of the Baptist Theological Union, explained that the senator's background made him ideal to deliver the 2023 Colver Lecture.

Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock
Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock

"Given the original terms of the Nathaniel Colver Lectureship, the extraordinary witness of Colver himself as minister, educator, and social reformer in the cause of abolition, and the compelling importance of racial justice today, Senator Reverend Warnock was the obvious choice for re-inaugurating the Colver Lectureship, based on his own public and religious standing, expertise, personal experience and deep commitments," he said.

Prior to Senator Warnock’s speech, James T. Robinson, Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School; Rev. Dr. Reginald W. Williams, Jr., Pastor of First Baptist Church of University Park; and Dr. Marshall E. Hatch, Pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church, provided introductory remarks. Rev. Susan Johnson, the former minister of Hyde Park Union Church, offered concluding remarks for the event. 

Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock
Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock

"With a named lecture, one hopes that the lecturer honors a particular past, in such a way that it directs the audience toward a glimpsed and provocative future," said Johnson, who is also part of the BTU. "Senator Warnock has met and exceeded that hope this evening."

READ MORE: Full transcript of the 2023 Nathaniel Colver Lecture (PDF)

story by Lauren Pond, Digital Media Manager, Martin Marty Center | Photos by Lloyd Degrane