Unfortunately the Church has in many ways propped up racism and discrimination through passivity and apathy. But Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated that a caring and engaged church can make a difference.
This last Sunday May 15th, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, Thomas Kidd posted this article: What Christians Can Learn from the Racially Charged Murder of Jesse Washington. This article is deeply enlightening. In this article he talks about how widespread lynchings were in post civil war America, especially the South.
For instance, Kidd observes, “more than 3,000 lynchings happened in America between 1889 and 1918. The majority of the victims, like Jesse Washington, were African-Americans, and the majority of lynchings happened in the Southern states.” That is a frightening statistic. And it is a shameful statistic for the Church. Kidd fires his article like a shot across the bow of the Church, a reminder of the darkness of our hearts.
The Power of Language
Language is power and it shapes culture. No matter how loudly we speak out against racism, the loose tongue and loose internal thought life toward others, especially of differing cultures and colors, really shapes us into twisted specters far short of who God really created us to be.
As you verbally denigrate people groups and individuals, you begin
to do so psychologically too.
Just for a moment, consider that Jesse Washington, the victim of the Waco lynching was innocent. And he most likely was. He was only 17 years old. I have a 17 year old. How would I look on as my 17 year old was falsely accused, partially dismembered, and slowly burned to death. I think this is “unconstitutional.” I remember something about “cruel and unusual punishment” in it. What torment did he go through? I am not sure how a parent ever gets over something like that.
When Language Meets Anxiety
For those of you who follow this blog, you know I talk about emotional functioning and intelligence a lot. Lynchings or what happened in Nazi Germany are examples of quite predictable emotional group processes—when groups suffer and then adopt both a scapegoat and a language to support it.
Most people’s suffering becomes the necessary justification
for doling out their own version of injustice.
To put this simply, when social groups and societies allow themselves to talk of other people, races, ethnic groups, and opposite sexes by linguistic slur’s, there is a social and mental devaluation that takes place. It promotes a baseline contempt upon which injustice is built.
Baseline Contempt + Acute Anxiety (crisis) = Injustice/Violence
If you allow yourself to use the slurs for Jews, women, minority groups, races etc. (I am not going to list them here because I detest them so) then it erodes your own moral inhibition to use them. It is like profanity in general. The more you allow yourself to indulge in it, the more it becomes part of your involuntary speech. As you verbally denigrate people groups and people, you habitually begin to do so psychologically too, and vis-a-versa.
Groups plagued by baseline chronic anxiety are deeply susceptible to committing injustice of their own. Most people’s’ suffering of injustice becomes the necessary justification for doling out their own version of injustice. The identification of a scapegoat focuses that anxiety in a dangerous way which sets up for a disaster like Hitler’s Germany and lynchings like Jesse Washington. Chronic social anxiety keeps the system filled nearly to the brim needing only a small crisis to make it overflow its banks. When you have an unsolved brutal murder like that which Jesse Washington was accused for, it just begs for justice, and often leads to accusation and scapegoating.
When people live and function without a healthy fear of their own immoral tendencies, judgment comes quick. Anxiety and anger mounts, and we want blood so badly that we are unwilling to look at what is real, right and true. What could have saved Jesse Washington’s life? Only a robust Gospel culture could have withstood that kind of evil. The US’s rush to war after the September 11th attacks provides a similar example. Saddam Hussein, for all his injustices, had nothing to do with what happened, yet somehow became the focal point of a nation’s un-channeled anxieties.
What Can The Church do?
So what can the Church do to heal the affects of racism? It may or may not seem obvious, but it really is about returning to exactly what Jesus taught. But this requires deep self-examination.
A failure to lead into the right way is negative leadership into the wrong way.
1. Take Responsibility and Own the Sin — The United states is dominantly a Christian nation, no matter how you want to rationalize it. Don’t think so… ask a citizen of a Muslim nation. Thus here, when we talk about “the Church” we are not referring to a state Church, etc, but really all of them. Christians mostly founded this nation, influenced its policies, and dominated its social spheres. And yet all the atrocities of racism in America grew in that petri dish, segregation, the KKK, and so on happened here, both the good and the bad.
A failure to lead into the right way is a negative leadership into the wrong way. The Church of every stripe here is guilty, either by perpetration, or by standing idly by in apathy. Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated that a caring and engaged church can make a difference.
In the Bible, the only thing that God tends to hate more than injustice is the apathy that watches it happen and does not care enough to rescue the innocent. For instance, Presbyterian Theologian from the late 19th Century Robert L. Dabney tried to make theological arguments as to why holding slaves was justifiable. But before you look down your nose on Dabney, consider the things we are idly letting pass by us.
The bigger problem than was that theologians could write theology like that, and not be heavily called into question. What are our glaring tolerations of injustice? Owning the sin is more than the active sin of holding slaves, or participating in discrimination, but also the passive sin of indifference.
2. Desegregate Sunday Morning — Unfortunately Sunday is one of the most segregated days of the week for worship. Some of this is inevitable because people naturally congregate with those they are most comfortable with. We are always most comfortable with those who are culturally, linguistically, and ethnically closest to us.
It is only in the context of a flaccid Gospel that fundamentalism, fanaticism,
hypocrisy, racism, and every other injustice can flourish.
The laziness toward integration with the ranks of most Christian groups, fuels the fire. People naturally fear what they do not understand. And when we do not spend time with people of other cultures, we naturally develop anxiety. This often leads to misunderstanding, which in times of crisis can fuel reaction and violence
3. Become A People of Calm Prayer — Please don’t misunderstand me here. Most people today think the answer to injustice is activism. It usually is not, at least not the best way. It certainly plays a role, but it has to be oriented correctly. Remember Hitler was an activist. The KKK are activists. All hate groups are activists. Even those with good causes can slip into being motivated by judgmentalness and hate, eventually perpetrating injustice of their own. Think of the ethnic wars where men began by protecting their wives and children to eventually slaughter someone else’s. There are activists with good causes of course, but the tide can turn quickly. Most people who joined Hitler never set out to kill six million Jews. But that is the consequences of their support for him. Often the next round of social injustice only requires for the minority activist to suddenly gain unchecked power like the back and forth killing sprees of Protestants and Catholics in the English Civil Wars.
Activism is not the answer, but instead becoming a calm people of prayer. Activism is most often driven by anxiety, negative emotion. And behind all negative emotion is judgmentalness, and behind judgmentalness is self-righteousness. Once you have assumed that your are better than Jews, or Blacks, or men, or women, or Mexicans, or racists, or terrorists, you are slipping toward a discrimination and terror of your own.
Calming the soul of its self-righteous anger toward the injustices of the world through prayer is the path. It allows us to ponder our own micro injustices first. It does not mean we do not tirelessly fight against injustices like racism. But It prepares us to do so by the power of redemptive love and not anger or seething hatred.
4. Return to the True and Potent Good News — There is no true cure to racism, discrimination, and injustice other than the Gospel itself. The Gospel means good news. The good news is God triumphing over the powers of injustice and indifference in the world. Likewise he has called us to take part in that triumph. There will be a day where Mrs. Washington and Rebecca will never again weep for their children, a day when God wipes away every tear.(2)
The Gospel deals with the interior of man. And no man can deal with the darkness of his interior other than himself, because nobody but he and God can see into it.(3)
The power of the Gospel is that it denies the falsely assumed moral goodness of every man. It does not deny our created value and goodness. Every human being is precious to God, even the racist! All have sinned and have fallen short of the Glory of God.(4) God still hates racism, as well as adultery, immorality, violence, and all injustice committed with body or mind.
It is not that the Church is fanatical or fundamentalist but that her Gospel all to often fails to be as radically loving and redemptive as it should.
The person who does not have a healthy fear of their own immorality will always be susceptible to mistreating others, either by racism, or any other kind of “ism.” For instance many Americans passed judgment on the Nazis while idly tolerating segregation well after the atrocities of the Third Reich. Only the Gospel puts every human on level ground, regardless of race, color, sex, or economic standing, because God “made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth.”(5)
So What is Wrong with the Church?
That is a good question? I think the answer is simple. The Gospel we have preached in the US has been all too watered down. It is not that the Church is fanatical or fundamentalist but that her Gospel all to often fails to be as radically loving and redemptive as it should. It is only in the context of a flaccid Gospel that fundamentalism, fanaticism, hypocrisy, racism, and every other injustice can flourish.
Where a high opinion of moral rightness flourishes, there will be superiority, racism, and judgmentalness. The recently infamous Westboro Baptists are a case in point. Their problem is not that their Gospel is too strong, but that it is impotent. People who are judgmental fail to see that they are just as morally flawed as everyone else. Their God is so small, so unholy, so morally like them, that they can’t meet his moral demands. That is why their God is not the God of the Bible. The teaching of Jesus is the high watermark of moral perfection, but it is a perfection none of us can obtain. For that reason, grace alone, not mere obedience, is the path of Christian salvation.
When man stands confronted before the white hot perfection of God, he stands dumbfounded, silent, with one response—to plead forgiveness. It will not be to discriminate against other races, or picket the LGBT community. Only when we embrace a God that potent will we root out the micro-racism and micro-discrimintion floating within our hearts of darkness.
(1) James 1:26 “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”
(2) Matt. 2:18; Jer. 31:15; Rev. 7:17 & 21:4
(3) Jer. 17:9
(4) Rom. 3:23
(5) Acts 17:26