“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb…….they are before the throne of God”. Revelation 7:9
and he who sits on the throne
will shelter them with his presence.
‘Never again will they hunger;
never again will they thirst.
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes” Revelation 7:15-17
“How could whites confess and live the Christian faith and also impose three-and-a-half centuries of slavery and segregation upon black people? Self-interest and power corrupted their understanding of the Christian gospel.” James Cone in The Cross and the Lynching Tree
In these quotations we see the horror that can occur when we don’t live the theology we proclaim. I see race as the crucible of the white church and I am seeking a path to begin again. That path must be a redemptive one.
I live in a Mississippi college town well known for its authors, musicians, beautiful old homes, quaint square, and its food. The mainline Protestant churches are represented about 2 blocks from the iconic Square Books. You can take a walking tour from the bookstore and easily find the first stop at the historic building of the First Presbyterian Church. The Episcopal Church is cozily ensconced across the street and is in the middle of an expansion. The United Methodist Church is located behind First Presbyterian and sports a beautiful family life center. First Baptist Church is located a block further down the street and likely has the biggest congregation. All of these churches are predominately white in congregation and style.
I was baptized in the Catholic Church, confirmed and married the first time in the Episcopal Church, baptized again in the Baptist Church, taught Sunday School and youth groups as a member of the United Methodist Church, and am currently an elder in the Presbyterian Church. This kind of eclecticism has its roots in my family.
My mother had a fairly rebellious attitude toward religion. She frequently got in trouble by reading books off the Pope’s banned list and loved to tell the story of draping a cloth over her cleavage while taking communion before the Prom. She was pretty, popular, had a beautiful voice so she was often in performances. In high school she was starring in something and her twin sister got in trouble with the nuns and was sent somewhere for detention. Mother went on strike until her sister was released. I have inherited from her much of my questioning nature and reluctance to take orders from anyone.
My father was active in the Baptist Church from infancy. When they were married my parents continued to attend their separate churches until I was seven and they joined the Episcopal church where they were active members until their deaths. My father taught Sunday School for youth and adults all his life. He loved history and theology and the church. I inherited those passions from him.
I tell this story because I want to confirm my own love and understanding of organized religion and the role it plays, especially in the South. I will be a member of my church for all of my life, too. I feel that gives me the right and the responsibility to chastise it at this point in our history. In previous posts I have acknowledged all that I have had to learn about the history of Black people in our country, and the story of racism in my own family in order to arrive at the deep disappointment I feel in the church and in myself today. In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he described this feeling. “For godly grief is a natural response to the suffering of others.”
The white church has a long history of being complicit in racism. (Tisby, 2019) There should be no doubt that white Christians have failed to walk their talk. The opening quotes from Revelation and James Cone show dramatic imagery that portrays the vast chasm between faith and actions.
The book of Revelation is a complex, controversial book in the Bible. It is full of powerful imagery consistent with the Christian theme of the time: Jesus will come again and soon! My purpose here is not to debate anyone’s interpretation of Revelation, but to use the imagery to explain its power to catch the theological imagination of people. Regardless of where one falls on the spectrum of Biblical authority, it is clear in the scriptures that Christians believe deeply in a God of justice, love and mercy. At least we say we do.
The second quotation comes from James Cone in his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone is well known for his understanding of Black theology and its relationship to Black Power and liberation. The image created by the Cross juxtaposed to the Lynching Tree is a condemnation of white supremacy. If we say we believe the words in the scripture but we perform the acts described by the Lynching Tree, it takes a lot of mental and emotional gymnastics to reconcile that with our faith. White supremacy on the surface today seems to be associated with Nazi symbols, Klu Klux Klan, and particular people who tout their superiority on the internet. But white supremacy goes much deeper than those symbols which are easy to reject or dismiss. It describes a belief that white people are superior and because of that they deserve the power they have in any situation. That belief has infused the church since colony days just as it has our country. And it is still alive today.
The recent election proved once again that we are a very divided country across a wide variety of social and political issues. That said, race was a major factor in this election. Black Americans can rightfully claim they made the most significant difference in these results. The election took place with racism permeating events. COVID infection and police malpractice impacted Blacks at disproportionate levels. Once again historical events have collided and revealed the continual struggle for Black Americans to gain their full citizenship rights in our country.
I heard a Black woman interviewed on television explain why, for forty years, she has never voted. Until this week. She said something like this: “I have always thought that this country did not accept me. But after the social protests of the last year, I have started to believe that this IS my country. I should start participating, learning the system, and voting.” For the first time in forty years, this woman has some hope about America. Does that sound familiar? Dramatic displays of violence against Blacks, shock throughout the nations, mobilization of protests, and hope “springs eternal”. I imagine that her hopes are even deeper and wider today. There have been other moments like this in the history of our country. The Emancipation Proclamation, Reconstruction after the Civil War, and the Civil Rights movement of the 60’s were all times of great hope for Blacks in this country. None of these moments led to the kind of acceptance or the legal rights they promised. Another moment has arrived when Black Americans are hopeful and anxious for promises to be realized.
Perhaps that is how Martin Luther King felt in 1963, standing at the Lincoln Memorial and looking out on 250,000 people during the March on Washington. He described his dreams for his children on “the red hills of Georgia.” This was a prophetic speech from a well of deep faith by a gifted Baptist preacher. This moment was the high point of the movement and King’s influence on nonviolent protest. The speech and the movement itself were fueled by King’s deep belief in the beloved community, a community not unlike what is described in the scriptures above.
Perhaps it was how Clarence Jordan felt as he journeyed back to his home state of Georgia after earning a PHD in Greek New Testament from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. It was 1942 and instead of entering church leadership as King would do in 1954, Jordan and his wife bought property with Martin and Mabel England, near Americus, Georgia and started Koinonia Farm. The farm was to be a “lived theology” where Blacks and whites would abide in community, interdependent and sharing their resources. Jordan did not march or protest, he created a place where the beloved community could live.
King and Jordan fit the definition of prophets who represent marginalized people and call for their inclusion in the larger community. King chose nonviolent protests and community organizing. Jordan chose to build an alternative community as a powerful example of that inclusion. Both felt called by God to walk their path in the face of sometimes violent opposition.
King believed, at least at the beginning of the nonviolent protests, that the end would be redemption, reconciliation, and the creation of the “beloved community.” But by the late 60’s “the vision of the beloved community lies in ruins”. (Marsh, 2005) Although there had been legal progress for sure, the barriers now seemed more related to the values, attitudes, and beliefs of whites which proved much harder to change. (Marsh, 2005)
Jordan ran into those same white values, attitudes, and beliefs in the community around Koinonia Farm in Sumter County, Georgia. From 1942-1949 Jordan and England built the Koinonia Farm from the hard scrabble of South Georgia and developed an interracial enterprise buying and selling farm products in the area. The farm was organized by a covenant that required sharing in everything. Blacks and whites ate together and worked together equally. The reaction to this simple parable straight from Jesus’s example was hate and violence.
Perhaps a way forward for the white church may be found in the story of these two ministries. I will continue to search in that direction and share what I learn in future posts.