When it comes to racial reconciliation, our churches have a long way to go
On the evening before the culminating march, Martin Luther King Jr. — who would soon speak from the steps where George Wallace two years before had proclaimed “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” — and other civil rights leaders were planning the next day’s activities at the home of Fred Gray, an attorney, civil rights activist and church of Christ minister. Gray had obtained the necessary court order to protect the marchers from Selma to Montgomery, and he would soon be one of several civil rights leaders to meet with Wallace about the franchise. But Gray was not the only person from churches of Christ who would be heard.
If Gray and hiscolleagues had turned a television to WKAB while making their finalpreparations, they might have seen and heard a sermon by O.B. Porterfield,minister of the Cleveland Avenuechurch in Montgomery.Porterfield castigated the demonstrators and gave unequivocal support toWallace and law enforcement officials, including those notorious forencouraging brutality. He decried the morals of some marchers and the“so-called ministers of God” participating in the protest, but failed tomention that the demonstration responded to discrimination, intimidation andviolence that blacks routinely faced
Among churches ofChrist, Porterfield’s words represented what many whites and even a few blacksbelieved about the civil rights movement. Despite claims of theological purityand uniqueness, churches of Christ were remarkably similar to the surroundingculture in their approach to race relations. Many preachers shirked theirobligation to travel to Nineveh,figuratively speaking, and rebuked those people like Gray who dared to makethat journey. Many congregations taught“spiritual equality” on Sundays but practiced inequality the rest of the week.Indeed, “spiritual equality in Christ” served as a shibboleth for many whiteswho did not want to contend with the daily injustices perpetrated againstblacks.
When racialidentities were subordinated under the guise of Christian unity, blacks andwhites interacted with surprising frequency in the segregated South, based ontheir self-perception as the “true church” vis-à-vis “the denominations.” Whileother Protestant churches formed what amounted to racially exclusivedenominations or administrative districts, churches of Christ did not becausethey understood themselves as the only authentic expression of Christianity.This perception partly explains why blacks and whites within churches ofChrist, even during the Jim Crow era, interacted with some regularity. Theseinteractions, however, were in no way an expression of racial equality or evenunity, since churches practiced and even taught racial segregation. A fewinstances demonstrate a level of association that was uncharacteristic of thatera. For example, black preacher Marshall Keeble sometimes baptized whites, eventhough riots resulted from “mixed swimming” in some parts of the country.
Such arrangementswithin churches of Christ proved most beneficial to whites because theirprivileged social status went largely unchallenged. Whites could claim to abhorracial prejudice and offer support to black churches, preachers and schools,even while maintaining segregated colleges in the South and generally ignoringthe discrimination against blacks in economics, education, politics, and socialcustoms.
The confluence ofecclesiology and race relations raises significant questions about commonconceptions of sin and salvation in churches of Christ. Many Christians havechosen to think that keeping women out of pulpits and pianos out of churchbuildings are more important than how we treat people. Replicating these “marksof the New Testament church” has taken precedence over those issues oftenlabeled “not a matter of salvation,” including our treatment of, associationswith and thoughts about people who are “different” from us. As a fellowship, wehave taught that having women preach or using a piano in worship mightjeopardize one’s eternal salvation, while racism has been relegated to therealm of custom or personal opinion, as if racial reconciliation were optional.
While some positivechanges have occurred since this era, in a collective sense, churches of Christhave failed to recognize and repent of their past racial sins. Rather thanactively and consistently pursue racial reconciliation over the past 40 years, churchesof Christ have mostly acted as if legal reforms absolved Christians of anyresponsibility in facilitating interracial dialogue, understanding andcommunity. In many places today, we have reached a standstill. Our leaders havenot developed the necessary fortitude to preach racial inclusion and make ithappen. We have chosen to ignore rather than to discuss and resolve the sourcesof distrust among blacks and whites within our fellowship. Instead of seekingand maintaining meaningful, cross-cultural relationships, we find it moreconvenient just to affirm “unity.” We have discovered that excuses — “theydon’t want to worship like we do” — are easier than working to make Christianunity a lived reality.
Pursuing racialreconciliation invites controversy. It requires sacrifices of will, control andpower. Yet sacrifices are necessary if churches of Christ are to be credible.Young people are increasingly perplexed by the racism of their parents andgrandparents. Concerns about interracial marriage, for example, that oftencharacterize older Christians, both black and white, seem irrelevant to youthswho have interacted with people of other races for all of their lives. Raciststereotypes gain little traction with students who learn in biology and anthropologyclasses that concepts of “race” have no scientific justification. Historically,churches of Christ have reflected, rather than molded, the racial mores of thesurrounding culture. Now, if churches wish to be respected and valued in the21st century, they must actively include“every nation” as the gospel has alwaysdemanded.
BARCLAY KEY, whoattends the Campus church, Gainesville, Fla., is completing his Ph.D. inhistory at the University of Florida. Key and his wife, Sonya, have a 1-year-old son, LangstonHadley.
March 1, 2006