Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Woodmere Art Museum
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth?
I have lifted up my eyes unto the hills every morning of my retreat in the North Georgia mountains. The natural world has always been my place of contemplation and the mountains set the perfect scene. Julius Bloch was a German-born immigrant whose family came to the United States in 1893. They experienced great hardship when they settled in Philadelphia. He always identified with the working class and others who suffered. This propensity led him to paint sensitive portraits of Blacks in the Philadelphia community. This particular painting awakened my desire to explore where faith and racial justice intersect.
My faith has been nurtured within the traditional church. My mother grew up in a Catholic household and my father in a Baptist one. Neither of their mothers was happy with the union. This “mixed marriage” exposed me to very different faith cultures in my early years. While I went to Mass with my mother, my father stayed home with my sister and later took his turn at church on Sunday nights. Eventually we all joined the Episcopal church so we could worship as a family. In high school I would attend church with my family in the morning and go to the Baptist church youth program Sunday evenings. In college I was attracted to an evangelical group, but two marriages later I am solidly mainstream in the Presbyterian Church USA.
I love the Church, with a capital C. It is the only institution in our modern society that still focuses on the spiritual development of people. But I am also very disappointed in the Church today and its reluctance to part ways with the American culture of individualism, competitiveness, and even racism. I keep waiting for a new Amos, a new prophet, to appear and call us to task. Where is a new Jeremiah who will call us out for our refusal to acknowledge our privilege and use it to better the world for all people?
Martin Luther King, Jr. may have been the prophet we needed in the 1950’s. He came back to the South to become a Baptist minister at Dexter Avenue Church in Montgomery, Alabama. He said once he always thought of himself as a Baptist preacher like his father and grandfather before him. Like all of the Old Testament prophets he was reluctant and did not have activism as his personal agenda. The times came to him, the people came to him, I believe God came to him, and he responded.
Another Baptist preacher, a white one this time, came back South, too. Clarence Jordan took another approach. He did not lead a church, but formed a community, Koinonia , in South Georgia. He heard God’s call to show how faith can change the world from the inside out.
These two men, one white and one Black, reveal two paths to racial justice, redemption, and reconciliation. These paths often seem in conflict in the civil rights movement of the 1950’s. The essential energy in both movements was faith in a God of righteousness and focused on the cross, the sacrifice, the suffering of a man who came to show us “the way”. There are other valuable kinds of movements and energies, I am sure, but the Church should stand for ours and respond to the pain and suffering so prevalent around it.
This is the first installment and introduction to a series on the topic of Faith and Justice.
References for this series will include:
The Beloved Community: How faith shapes social justices, from the civil rights from the civil rights movement to today. Charles Marsh
Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: a radical democratic vision Barbara Ransby
Reading Romans Backwards: a gospel of peace in the midst of empire Scott McNight
Interrupting Silence: God’s command to speak out Walter Bruggeman
Let Justice Roll Down John Perkins