Note: This is the second part of “Christianity, Ross Barnett, and White Supremacy.”
Let’s look back at Romans 13, you know, the chapter that enslavers and the current administration have used to justify slavery and separating families at the border. What gets left out, of course, are verses 8-10 where Paul tells the Roman Christians “to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law” and that everything can be summed up by one command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Paul concludes by writing, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Biblically speaking, then, does the earthly authority or Jesus’ spiritual command hold more precedent? When a policy causes you not to love your neighbor, whether consciously or unconsciously, should it be challenged?
Well, that’s an important question to consider. Let’s look at Isaiah 10:1-3 which reads,
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. What will you do on the day of reckoning when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help?
Here, Isaiah confronts those who make “unjust laws.” Historically, America has made, and continues to make, unjust laws that disproportionately affect Blacks, Latinx, gays and lesbians, transgender individuals, and more. If, as Jesus and Paul tell us, we are to love our neighbor as ourselves because “love is the fulfillment of the law,” how do we justify laws that discriminate against individuals? How do we justify laws that continue to exacerbate generational inequities? Biblically, we can’t.
Jesus’ first sermon after spending forty days in the wilderness directly speaks to social justice and inclusion. In Nazareth, Jesus spoke in the synagogue. There, he read from Isaiah 61:1-2 where the prophet says that God anointed him “to proclaim good news to the poor,” “freedom for the prisoners,” and “to set the oppressed free.” These verses refer to the Jubilee, or “Year of Release,” that occurred every fifty years when prisoners and slaves would be freed, debts forgiven, and Gods’ mercies would become manifest.
When Jesus finished the reading, he tells them he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy for the messiah and he speaks about prophets not being accepted in their hometowns. Here, he mentions that Elijah raised Zarephath’s son back to life even though there “were many widow’s in Israel during Elijah’s time” and that Elisha cleansed Naaman, a Syrian, of leprosy, even though “there were many in Israel with leprosy.” Here, Jesus points out that he has come to save all, not just a select few. Those in the synagogue, fuming with their prejudices and seeking to maintain their power, sought to throw Jesus off a cliff, but he walked past them.
The fact that Jesus begins his ministry with this sermon is important. First, he references the “Year of Release,” when individuals receive freedom and a clean slate. Second, he points out that prophets healed Gentiles, just as he would do. He shows inclusiveness. However, the religious leaders do not see it that way. Throughout his ministry, the Jewish leaders sought to trip Jesus up and kill him all in order to maintain their economic and political power. Pastors preach about this from the pulpit on a regular basis, but what gets lost is that some of the pastors are doing the exact same thing.
The beginning of the Christian church focused on charity and social justice. They gathered money and food to help the poor and those in need in their communities and elsewhere. However, they still maintained prejudices. Peter, one of Jesus’ disciples, is a perfect example of this. In Acts 10, Peter is called to the house of Cornelius, a Roman centurion. Before the men arrive to call on him, Peter has a dream where the Lord offers him food considered unclean under Jewish law. Peter says he can’t eat the food because it is unclean, but the Lord says, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
Peter’s dream prepared him for meeting with Cornelius and those at his house. He tells them, “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile. But God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean.” Peter appears to have overcome his prejudices, ones that he has learned since childhood and that have carried over from generation to generation, and he speaks to those gathered, telling them, “I now realize that God does not show favoritism.”
Peter’s visit to Cornelius highlights the inclusivity of Jesus’ message, and it also compliments the CBN’s use of Genesis 1:27 in the statement about George Floyd. But wait, did Peter completely overcome his prejudices? Not exactly. In Galatians 2, Paul talks about the prejudices that Peter still harbored against Gentiles. Paul begins by writing about his preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles and Peter preaching to the Jews.
Peter ate with Cornelius and those gathered in his home; however, as Paul notes, “he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.” The old prejudices of the law and custom arose in Peter. He fell back into the trap of separating himself even though, as he put it earlier and Paul does in Galatians 2, God shows no favoritism.
Yet, in the American church we have historically been taught that God does show favoritism. Think back to the Puritans. A sign of one’s predestined salvation was the wealthy blessings that God bestowed upon that person. This mentality led to the belief that God favors some and diminishes others. During slavery, the rhetoric spewed from pulpits and in the fields said the same thing. “You better listen to me because you’re my slave, and God says that’s what you’re supposed to do if you want to do.”
This rhetoric continued into the twentieth century. Look at Ross Barnett earlier. Look at Henry Lyon, Jr. who told his Montgomery congregation after the 1961 attack on the Freedom Riders, “Ladies and gentlemen, for 15 years I have had the privilege of being pastor of a white Baptist church in this city. . . . If we stand 100 years from now, it will still be a white church. I am a believer in a separation of the races, and I am none the less a Christian.”
The church has hurt the conscience of America from the very beginning, and it continues to do so by couching its rhetoric behind biblical truths.
Standing outside the shell of St. Mary’s Baldwin continues by saying, “I don’t even think they’re Christians. And I know they’re not because I know . . . I was raised Christian. My daddy and my momma were very religious. And they knew that white Christians were not Christians because of the way they treated Black people. And the Christian church in this country has never, in my experience as far as I know, been Christian. . . . The record proves . . . the Christian church is bankrupt.”
What are your thoughts? Let me know either in the comments below or on Twitter at @silaslapham.
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