Racism

Every church has a history, and the churches of Christ are no different.  Anyone who has even passing acquaintance with this wing of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement has heard of many of the names of the great leaders of the past, including the father/son Campbell duo, Barton Stone, Walter Scott, Moses Lard, David Lipscomb…the list could go on for quite a few lines.  In the 20th century, there were other famous personalities that were part of a definitive period of doctrinal debate and fellowship lines drawn in the sand.  Names like N.B. Hardeman, B.C. Goodpasture, Fanning Yater Tant, Roy Cogdill and Foy Wallace come to mind.  While these men wound up on different ideological sides of the institutional schism that would forever split the churches of Christ after World War II, through their voluminous writings, their voices still ring with fervor and more often than not, some variation on the theme of righteous indignation and/or condemnation for all who differed with them.

I recently came across a reprint of an article in the Bible Banner by Foy E. Wallace, Jr., dated March, 1941, in which the great warrior for the non-institutional faction poured out his venom on the horrible, soul-damning mixing of the races.

“The manner in which the brethren in some quarters are going in for the negro meetings leads one to wonder whether they are trying to make white folks out of the negroes or negroes out of the white folks. The trend of the general mix-up seems to be toward the latter. Reliable reports have come to me of white women, members of the church, becoming so animated over a certain colored preacher as to go up to him after a sermon and shake hands with him holding his hand in both of theirs. That kind of thing will turn the head of most white preachers, and sometimes affect their conduct, and anybody ought to know that it will make fools out of the negroes. For any woman in the church to so far forget her dignity, and lower herself so, just because a negro has learned enough about the gospel to preach it to his race, is pitiable indeed. Her husband should take her in charge unless he has gone crazy, too. In that case somebody ought to take both of them in charge.”

He went on later in the article to relate an incident experienced by the great N.B. Hardeman:

“When N. B. Hardeman held the valley-wide meeting at Harlingen, Texas, some misguided brethren brought a group of negroes up to the front to be introduced to and shake hands with him. Brother Hardeman told them publicly that he could see all of the colored brethren he cared to see on the outside after services, and that he could say everything to them that he wanted to say without the formality of shaking hands. I think he was right. He told of a prominent brother in the church who went wild over the negroes and showed them such social courtesies that one day one of the negroes asked him if he might marry his daughter. That gave the brother a jolt and he changed his attitude!”

In another memorable illustration, Wallace drew from his own experience at a gospel meeting:

“In one of my own meetings a young negro preacher was engaged by the church as a janitor. He made it a point to stand out in the vestibule of the church-building to shake hands with the white people. When I insisted that it be discontinued some of the white brethren were offended. Such as this proves that the white brethren are ruining the negroes and defeating the very work that they should be sent to do, that is, preach the gospel to the negroes, their own people.”

Now before you go off on the “It was a different time” speech, I’ve already thought of that.  And there is still no excuse for any of that sort of thought in any Christian, of any tribe or splinter group.  But I’m pretty sure that some of it is still there.

I am shocked at the apparent disgust that these preachers held for even shaking hands with a black man.  Were they so worried that the black would rub off?  Did they see dark skin pigment as a kind of inverse leprosy that required one not to touch?

I remember standing at the doorway of a church building one evening while two elderly white gentlemen were talking about the old days, and liberally using the “N” word.  I was shocked.  I was disgusted.  But I held my peace, to my own shame.  Both of those men are dead now, and I never rebuked their racism.

But I will not hold my peace any longer.

Wallace was wrong.  Hardeman was wrong.  Every person who listened to their racist diatribes and agreed with them was wrong.

Why would I say that?  It’s that pesky little old book called the Bible.

Maybe Wallace and Hardeman and every other racist church member had read the account in Acts where Peter was having his moment of doubt about delivering the gospel message to the Gentile.  In Acts 10, Peter’s vision culminates with the pronouncement from on-high: “15 And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.”  (emphasis dlr)  Peter was perplexed by the vision, but the meaning finally dawned even on an uneducated Jewish fisherman.  “And he said to them, “28 You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit anyone of another nation, but God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” When Cornelius relates his story of answered prayer, Peter says, “34 So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, 35  but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (emphasis dlr)

Yes, they had read it.  And they had read into it, too.  They had read “separate but equal.”  But that is not what God had said.

In Galatians 3, Paul—whose Jewish pedigree and training were second to none, who should have known that associating with another race was wrong if indeed it was wrong—wrote,

“23  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.  24  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  27  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.  28  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  29  And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”     

If we indeed believe the words of the Bible, we must not be so selective in our readings as to allow institutionalized racism to continue in our churches.  The bile that Wallace spewed was truly disgusting.  The attitude of Hardeman in not shaking hands with an African-American was loathsome to the point of contemptible.  That Wallace would hide behind the Jim Crow laws in another part of the same article was despicable, and placed him on the wrong side of Peter’s declaration in Acts 5.29, “We ought to obey God rather than men.”

There is no way around it: racism is sin.  But as I think about it, while it may have been danced around in a discussion of James 2, I’m not sure I can recall if I have ever heard it specifically called such from a pulpit.  I do not know if Wallace or Hardeman ever repented of their overt racism.  I can only hope they did.  I know their influence likely had far reaching and very negative impacts on the African-Americans who were by choice, by faith and by the acceptance of a color-blind God their brothers and sisters.

In the tiny congregation where I maintain my membership, I have seen good and Godly African-American brothers come to be a part of our family—come to be accepted, loved, respected and honored as any brother should be.  One of those men was paralyzed, but not in his heart and mind.  One wanted more than anything to preach the Gospel and serve his God in the best way he knew how.  Both of those men died well before their times.  I cried many tears when they passed away.  I would love to hear their strong voices again, shake their hands, and worship together with those gentle souls with no regard for color or disability.  We were brothers.  I loved them.  I miss them.  And I look forward to a time when we shall all be together again, though not in imperfect bodies in this fallen and decaying world.

I hate the thought of racism anywhere.  But in the church, it must not, it cannot be tolerated.  There is no “separate but equal” in the body of Christ.  There is only equal and precious.  Let there be no whispered epithets.  Let there be no “us” and “them.”  In God’s eyes, we are one.

Jesus said to his disciples, “You are the light of the world.”  Physics tells us that visible, “pure” white light is actually composed of all the colors of the spectrum.  Without all of them shining together, the world could never look quite right.  As I see it more and more every day, this tired old world needs pure, bright, unified light, maybe more than ever.  Maybe we should really listen to Jesus, take our place in that great spectrum of light and shine on.   

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: