“White Christians Need to Act More Christian Than White” Jim Wallis

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The events of Charlottesville are heavy on my mind.  Yours too, I’m sure.

The question Marvin Gaye asked in 1971 is being asked today: “What’s Going On.”

The events did not happen in a vacuum.

There is a cultural, political, and a spiritual context.

Let’s talk spiritual.

American Christianity has a troubled relationship with race.  In the days of American slavery,  abolitionists and their opponents were inspired in their positions by their Christian faith.  As President Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God…”  

How can two polar opposite views be based on reading the same book?  Doesn’t the Bible speak with a clear, unequivocal, singular voice?  Maybe not.

Many have found in the pages of the Bible

-comfort in and encouragement for their racist views.

-justification for slavery, for segregation, for feeling superior, for atrocious treatment of African-Americans and other minorities.

Christian slave-owners in the United States had plenty of go-to Bible verses.

“When a slave owner hits a male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies immediately, the owner should be punished.  But if the slave gets up after a day or two, the slave owner shouldn’t be punished because the slave is the owner’s property” (Exodus 22:20-21).  Really?  I honestly don’t know what to say about that.  That just doesn’t sound like Jesus.

“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor” (Exodus 20:17).  Yep, #10 on the top 10 list of commands.  Do people really want to put a monument on public ground with this command?  A command that puts slaves and women, for that matter, on the same level as an “ox, or donkey”?  I’m afraid some do.

“Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all respect, not only for those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh” (1 Peter 2:18). Peter’s words were used by Christian slave owners ( and I use that phrase with reservation) to “control their Christian slaves” and keep them from protesting their brutal treatment.

The apostle Paul even returned a runaway slave (Onesimus) to his master (Philemon).  Slavery must be ok!  Look what Paul did.  Why didn’t Paul help Onesimus gain his freedom?  If Paul did not help an escaped slave, then we shouldn’t either!

Then there was the “Curse of Ham” in Genesis 9.  Genesis 9 has all the elements of an HBO special: nudity, sex, incest, dysfunctional families (Sounds like Game of Thrones!).  Genesis 9 describes how Noah cursed the descendants of his son Ham with slavery.  Over the centuries, Ham became widely portrayed as black.  Blackness and slavery and the idea of racial hierarchy became inextricably linked.  Many historians agree that by the 19th century the belief that African-Americans were descendants of Ham was a primary justification for slavery among Southern Christians.

Southern Baptists, the denomination in which I grew up, used a tucked away verse in Genesis to justify owning slaves.  It’s Genesis 4:15, which talks about the “mark of Cain.”  The Genesis story says God placed a “mark” on Cain for murdering his brother and lying about it.  Baptists in the South interpreted that “mark” to be dark skin.  Some Baptist pastors taught that there were separate heavens – one for blacks, one for whites.

In the early 1900s, William Archer, an Englishman, traveled by train and horse-back  through the South. He described the South as “sincerely religious.”  Yet, he also sarcastically observed, most southern Christians “would scarce be at ease in heaven unless they enter it, like a southern railway station, through a gate marked ‘for whites.’”

Ancient history?  Not at all.

Fundamentalist Bob Jones University continued its racist ways until 1971 when the IRS stepped in and threatened to remove its tax exempt status unless it integrated.  It was not until the year 2000 that BJU began to allow interracial dating.

And Southern Baptist?  It was not until 1995 that the denomination issued an official apology for its endorsement and  practice of slavery, segregation and white supremacism.

Biblically-based assaults on blacks have for sure decreased over the years but have not disappeared.

Mark Noll, in his book, “God and Race in American Politics:  A Short History,” said, “The Civil War solved the religion and slavery problem, but it did not solve the religion and race problem.”  

Do we still have a religion and race problem?  Consider:

1.   Barna Group released survey results regarding evangelical attitudes about racism in America.   For the study Barna interviewed some 2000 adults about racial tension in the U.S.  They found that evangelicals were almost twice as likely as the general population to agree strongly that “racism is mostly a problem of the past, not the present.”    Evangelicals were almost more than twice as likely to “strongly disagree” that people of color are socially disadvantaged because of race.

Brooke Hempell, VP of Research at Barna, put it this way:  “More than any other segment of the population, white evangelical Christians demonstrate a blindness to the struggle of their African-American brothers and sisters.  This is a dangerous reality for the modern church.  Jesus and His disciples actively sought to affirm and restore the marginalized and obliterate divisions between groups of people.”

Where are we in the survey?  Are we blind? Are we following the way of Jesus?

2.  How do we determine our ethics? Our values?  It’s a harsh fact that every person who values the Bible has to face:  the pro-slavery side in the days of the Civil War, the segregationists during the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights battles of the 60s and 70s, and some of those who marched in Charlottesville, have more going for them in the way of Bible verses.

“The Civil War was also fundamentally a religious battle over how to interpret the Bible…” Mark Noll.

We’re still fighting that battle.  Have you met anyone whose philosophy of Bible reading is “Open it. Read it. Believe it. Do it”?  I have.  I was one.  But I didn’t know what to do with these slavery texts and many others!  Maybe there’s a further standard than the Bible.  Maybe ethics go Beyond the Bible to Jesus?

As abolitionist Gerrit Smith put it, “the religion taught by Jesus is not a letter but a life.”

Where do we get our sense of right and wrong?
On what do we base our ethics?
On what do we base our view and treatment of different races?

3.  Is it possible that the pervasive racism we see today was fomented by a church that was wrong. 

A church which took too long to recognize it was wrong.

And when it finally recognized  it was wrong took too long to confess it.

And in the confession of it, has not taken the necessary steps to

correct it,

condemn it,

make amends for it,

in order to eliminate it and prevent it from happening again?

Did the church help create the spiritual context for what we’re seeing?

Let’s work to create a new world: one of respect rather than rudeness, kindness not meanness, love not hate.

4.  How does Jesus counter the hate shown in Charlottesville?

 

 

 

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