In Dallas, a somber Sunday
DALLAS — A young mother on her way into worship…
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We write this letter not as Democrats or Republicans or as partisans of any political philosophy, but as Christians who are partisans of the kingdom of God described in the biblical text.
We write because of the racial tensions that now engulf our nation—racism against blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other ethnic minorities.
But what has triggered our concern at this particular time is the tension that surrounds black/white relations—an extension of America’s original sin, the sin of slavery.
The question begs for an answer: how will we who claim the name Christian respond?
The choice before us is clear. We can allow the racism that abounds in America’s popular culture to set the agenda for the church. Or we can allow the biblical vision of the kingdom of God to determine what we believe, how we feel, and how we act.
The biblical text is clear: racism is a sin. It violates Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as ourselves.
But here we have another choice. We can read the biblical text through the lens of American culture or we can read the culture through the lens of the biblical text.
Put another way, we can acknowledge that racism is a sin and behave accordingly, or we can act as if racism is only a minor problem or, even worse, participate in the racism that scars such large segments of this nation.
Half a century ago, Churches of Christ faced a similar crossroads with respect to race and we did not respond well.
Between 1955, when black Americans launched the Freedom Movement, and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death in 1968, the leading publications serving white Churches of Christ simply ignored what was clearly the greatest moral crisis that had faced this nation since slavery and the Civil War. The Gospel Advocate and The Firm Foundation were as silent as the tomb.
What led both those papers to finally break their silence was the death of the great African American preacher, Marshall Keeble, on April 20, 1968, just sixteen days after Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated.
The Advocate spoke first with a back-handed slap at King. Keeble, the paper said, “never led a march or demonstration . . . [and] was never connected with a riot.” Then the Advocate trivialized the sin of racism by calling it just one more example of the generic problem of prejudice—rich against poor, educated against uneducated, young against old, etc., that had existed throughout “the history of the world.”
The Firm Foundation quickly followed suit, writing that Keeble “never led a riot; he never burned out a block of buildings; he never marched on Washington. But he marched toward heaven from the day he obeyed the gospel.”
Then that paper made an astounding claim: “There has been an infinitesimally small amount of racial prejudice in the Church of Christ.”
In the meantime, a Bible professor at Abilene Christian College named Carl Spain saw things differently. In 1960, Spain delivered a prophetic oration at the Abilene Christian Bible Lectures that indicted Churches of Christ and Church of Christ-related colleges over their complicity in racial discrimination.
The Supreme Court had ruled in 1954 that segregation in America’s public schools was unconstitutional.
Spain took that argument in an entirely different direction. He claimed that segregation on the basis of the color of one’s skin was unbiblical and fundamentally anti-Christian.
But by 1960, six long years after the Court’s ruling, Abilene Christian College—along with every other Church of Christ-related college in the South remained segregated.
Not only that, but many white congregations of Churches of Christ refused to allow blacks to worship with whites.
Spain recalled that in his hometown in the South,
A few law-abiding, humble-hearted Negroes wanted to attend a service of the church of Christ. They had listened to me preach on the radio. . . . I made the mistake of telling them that they would be more than welcome. And they trusted me. They came in . . . and took the seats that were as far back as they could get and still be inside. I shall never forget the agony on their faces when white Christians made it very plain to them that they were out of place and glared at them like a Jew would have looked upon a “Samaritan dog.” The Negroes left the assembly of the saints.
And by 1960, many Churches of Christ still refused to admit blacks to their worship or as members in their congregations.
So Spain felt compelled to speak.
“God forbid,” he thundered, “that churches of Christ, and schools operated by Christians, shall be the last stronghold of refuge for socially sick people who have Nazi illusions about the Master Race. Political naturalism, in the cloak of the Christian priesthood, must not be the ethical code in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.”
Both as a nation and as a church, we have come a long way since Carl Spain delivered that address in 1960. And yet in other ways we have not come far at all.
Once again the nation finds itself in racial turmoil based, in turn, on persistent segregation patterns. And Churches of Christ reflect the same patterns of segregation that prevail in the larger culture.
So the question cries out for an answer: How will we respond?
The choice is the same one that faced Churches of Christ over half a century ago. We can acknowledge that racism is a sin and behave accordingly, or we can act as if racism is only a minor problem or, even worse, participate in the racism that characterizes such large segments of this nation, regardless of political affiliation.
Those who criticize political correctness are right in at least one sense, for while political correctness encourages “correct” behavior, it masks the hatred and bigotry that continue to lurk in the hearts of many Americans, including many Christians.
Nothing exposed that hatred more than the election in 2008—and again in 2012—of a black man to the Presidency of the United States.
During President Obama’s first year in office there was a 400 percent increase in death threats, compared to those received by George W. Bush. These actions of the deranged were followed by elected public officials who, via social media, depicted President Obama as a chimpanzee and called him the “n” word while others questioned his citizenship and religion.
But racial bigotry is only half of our problem. The other half is widespread misunderstanding on the part of many white Americans—including many white Christians—of the unique set of challenges that faces American citizens if the color of their skin happens to be black.
Nothing has reflected that reality more clearly than the popular response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Today most white Americans—including most white Christians—celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Freedom Movement that he led. But many fail to see that Black Lives Matter is only the most recent incarnation of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
If King were here today, he would stand in complete solidarity with Black Lives Matter in their desire to talk about the ways in which black lives are deprived of basic human rights and dignity. Those who doubt that truth only reveal the extent to which so much of white culture in this country has trivialized the legacy of Dr. King.
Black Lives Matter seeks to communicate one simple truth—that black lives matter, TOO. It goes without saying that white lives matter. Everyone understands that and agrees with it. The message the black community wants to communicate is that black lives matter, TOO! But many whites—including whites in large segments of American Evangelicalism and many whites in Churches of Christ—trivialize the Black Lives Matter movement with the slogan, “All lives matter.”
Here’s an analogy that may help us understand this issue a little better. Let’s suppose that a black family’s house is on fire, but when the fire fighters arrive to save their house, white neighbors protest the concentration of attention on just one house because, “All houses matter!”
Inner city black communities have been on fire, metaphorically speaking at least, for a very long time. In city after city, whites deserted these neighborhoods, leaving communities with a tax base entirely inadequate to support a variety of services, including the public schools. Plagued with poverty, crime, and failing schools, children grow up with essentially no hope.
Black brothers and sisters are crying out to our white brothers and sisters, “we matter, too!”
Many black people in the United States have had the experience—not just once but on multiple occasions—of minding our business behind the wheel of a car when suddenly a patrol car with flashing red lights pulls the driver over. Why?
Blacks are crying out to our white brothers and sisters, “we matter, too!”
Of course we value the lives of the black and white men and women who protect and serve our cities and neighborhoods. Law enforcement institutions have persons of strong character in an honorable and difficult work. However, when police kill black men, women and children on America’s streets without a trial, without a jury, and without a court-rendered verdict, black people plead with our white brothers and sisters, “we matter, too!”
The problem is that so many whites refuse to hear this cry and continue to trivialize the message that black brothers and sisters so desperately want whites to hear.
After President Obama has attempted time and again to help the nation understand the real issues that face black Americans on a daily basis, a leading politician accused him of using “the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color.”
It is a tragedy when politicians of any political party accuse those who point out these problems of seeking to “divide us by race and color.” The very opposite is true. We can only solve problems by naming them.
It is even more tragic when the church marches to the siren song of racial discrimination. But the terrible truth is this—that the church in America—the church at large—has done that for a very long time.
In 1845 the great black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, wrote,
Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked. To be the friend of the one, is of necessity to be the enemy of the other. I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed, I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christianity. I look upon it as the climax of all misnomers, the boldest of all frauds, and the grossest of all libels.
And when Martin Luther King, Jr. discovered that the church at large throughout the South was a bastion of resistance to freedom and equality for blacks, he wrote,
I have traveled the length and breadth of Alabama, Mississippi and all the other southern states. On sweltering summer days and crisp autumn mornings I have looked at her beautiful churches with their lofty spires pointing heavenward. I have beheld the impressive outlay of her massive religious education buildings. Over and over again I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God?”
And in the 1950s and 1960s when colleges related to the Churches of Christ refused to admit black students simply because of the color of their skin, R. N. Hogan, a well-known preacher among black Churches of Christ and editor of the most widely read publication among black churches, The Christian Echo, picked up that same refrain. Those who ran those schools, Hogan demanded, should “stop calling themselves Christians, stop calling their schools Christian schools, and stop calling their churches, churches of Christ.”
And to the extent that members of Churches of Christ today join with their secular counterparts—and in many instances, their evangelical counterparts—and trivialize the cry of their black brothers and sisters who insist that “black lives matter,” we can hear the voice of Carl Spain pleading from the grave that “political naturalism, in the cloak of the Christian priesthood, must not be the ethical code in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.”
Today there are movements closely connected with Churches of Christ where thoughtful and honest dialogue occurs, like the Racial Unity Leadership Summits (RULS) and Advancing the National Conversation on Race (connected to this year’s Christian Scholars’ Conference). These and other regional grassroots meetings need to multiply, where black and white Christians sit together to talk toward understanding so that a common voice for systemic change can emerge.
We have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. As the distinguished Civil Rights Attorney, Fred Gray, continues to warn, “Racism is still a major problem in our country and it is not going away by itself.”
Above all other loyalties, we are Christians, citizens in the kingdom of God, and as Christians we can—and must—do better.
Joel Anderson Little Rock, AR
Lynn Anderson San Antonio, TX
W. David Baird Malibu, CA
Richard Barclay Atlanta, GA
Sara Barton Malibu, CA
Pat Bills Dallas, TX
Susan Blassingame Lubbock, TX
Tanya Brice Columbia, SC
Jason Bybee Huntsville, AL
Lee C. Camp Nashville, TN
Ron Clark Portland, OR
Jerry Collins Nashville, TN
Sandra Collins Nashville, TN
Jimmy Cone Little Rock, AR
Joey Cope Abilene, TX
Mike Cope Abilene, TX
Wes Crawford Tyler, TX
Edward Cribbs Southfield, MI
Chris Dowdy Dallas, TX
Dwain Evans Houston, TX
Ben Fike Jackson, MS
David Fleer Rochester, MI
Doug Foster Abilene, TX
Eric Gentry Memphis, TN
Richard Goode Nashville, TN
John Grant Lebanon, TN
Josh Graves Nashville, TN
Fate Hagood III Carson, CA
Mark Hamilton Abilene, TX
Bennie Harris Atlanta, GA
Amy Bost Henegar New York, NY
Phyllis Hildreth Nashville, TN
Jan Hughes Franklin, TN
Richard T. Hughes Franklin, TN
Christopher R. Hutson Abilene, TX
Patrick Johnson Lebanon, TN
David Jordan Memphis, TN
Alfred Jumper Los Angeles, CA
Samjung Kang-Hamilton Abilene, TX
D’Esta Love Malibu, CA
Stuart Love Malibu, CA
Jason Locke Fresno, CA
Jimmy McCarty Tacoma, WA
Don McLaughlin Atlanta, GA
Annette McRay Nashville, TN
Rob McRay Nashville, TN
Robert A. Martin Rochester, MI
Catherine Meeks Atlanta, GA
Don Millican Tulsa, OK
Royce Money Abilene, TX
Lawrence Murray Oklahoma City, OK
Jerry Neill Athens, GA
Thomas H. Olbricht Nashua, NH
Barry Packer Dallas, TX
Collin Packer Allen, TX
Sean Palmer Temple, TX
Sandra Parham Nashville, TN
Kathy Pulley Springfield, MO
Robert M. Randolph Boston, MA
Lawrence W. Rodgers Baltimore, MD
Daniel A. Rodriguez Malibu, CA
Josh Ross Memphis, TN
Jack Scott Pasadena, CA
Gary Selby Johnson City, TN
Eddie Sharp Austin, TX
Amy McLaughlin Sheasby Abilene, TX
Rubel Shelly Nashville, TN
Greg Sterling New Haven, CT
Melvin R. Storm Rochester, MI
Jonathan Storment Abilene, TX
William Lofton Turner Nashville, TN
David Wallace Knoxville, TN
Jamey Walters Rochester, MI
Naomi Walters Rochester, MI
Robby Wells Gresham, OR
Eric Wilson Malibu, CA
John O. York Nashville, TN
Speaking Up on the Issue of Race in America – Letter from Harold Shank and Robert Solomon
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• In Dallas, a somber Sunday
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• ‘This is not a race issue, it is a humanity issue,’ minister says
• On Christian journalists and #blacklivesmatter
• On Ferguson, faith and the fight for equality
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