I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That America still does not exist, although we are much closer to it now than we were when he gave his speech at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, at least in many ways. I grew up in the post-Segregated South, where the legal barrier between blacks and whites had been torn down, but a more invisible barrier still existed. This barrier existed economically and politically, but it was most obvious spiritually. Many of these barriers still exist and they are almost impossible to deconstruct unless there is heart transformation on all sides.
I have often wondered why racism was/is so prevalent in the American South, a region of the country considered to be the Bible Belt. Why, in a land full of churches, do we still have so many sinful barriers between people that manifest racially, culturally, economically, and socially? Why is there still so much anger and isolation? Is the Church capable of being a force for good and for healing apart from the occasional Saturday foray to the rescue mission downtown for an hour or two to volunteer? Is there some greater manifestation of what it means to be peacemakers, ministers of reconciliation, and ambassadors for Christ?
All of this brings me back to a central question that I have been pondering for many years: How Christian was the Segregated South, really? I do not deny the proliferation of churches and "god-talk" that existed. I do not deny that people saw themselves as Christians and I don't even deny that many were truly saved, in the biblical sense. But, how was it possible for the South to be the Bible Belt, yet so clearly dismiss what the Bible said about how people were to be treated? 1 John 3:13-18 says,
13 Do not be surprised, my brothers and sisters, if the world hates you. 14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
Maybe the reason that white Christians saw no issue with supporting a segregated South was because they did not see blacks as their brothers. If you dehumanize a person, you can get away with not loving them and with seeing injustice happen to them without being affected personally. That is what Nazi Germany did to the Jews. You always dehumanize a person or a group of people to justify treating them with inequality. To dehumanize someone, you strip them of their God-given dignity and you assign them worth based on some outward status or requirement. During segregation/Jim Crow and slavery, worth was assigned to a person based on their skin color. Elaborate theories were created to justify the inferiority of blacks and people of color all over the world. These theories caused whites to feel superior based on the color of their skin, not the content of their character. Whites were not finding their identity in who God had created them to be, but rather in a racial identity that they had constructed for themselves. This was the sin behind the sin of racism: finding their identity in something other than God. Once they found it in race, they were able to dehumanize anyone of a different race or ethnicity to justify exalting themselves and oppressing others. They then created a dehumanizing society to support these values. (Photo taken from Dr. Russell Moore's post today)
So, if the segregated South was a dehumanizing society, I have to ask how much influence real Christianity actually had on that society since the effect of Christianity is to restore us to full humanity? For all of the churches and religious work, did we miss the heart of God? And, I ask that question not to lay blame on our forefathers in the past (it is easy to point out the sins of others), but to learn from their mistakes and to investigate how we might be making the same mistakes ourselves today. We need to understand the sin behind the sin of racism and how finding your identity in anything outside of God can lead to devastation.
If I am dehumanizing others to justify treating them unjustly, I have to ask about motives. What benefit was derived by whites from enforcing segregation? There was an economic benefit, but there was primarily a societal benefit. In keeping blacks and whites separate, whites were able to protect their way of life. Much was said about the "Southern Way of Life" during that time. This was actually the primary reason for the Civil War. If you go behind the issues of slavery and even state's rights, you end up encountering a culture that was willing to shed the blood if its children to maintain its way of life and its right to live how it pleased. After the Civil War, the cult of the Lost Cause emerged that enshrined the Southern Way of Life into the psyche of the Southerner, supporting it through religion and legislation. Defeated on the battlefield but unbroken in spirit, White Southerners developed Jim Crow laws to solidify white superiority and separatism. And, this "way of life" was supported by churches all over the South, giving a Divine Mandate to how White Southerners saw themselves and how they defined who their neighbors and "brothers" were.
If defending a "way of life" was the motive for the Civil War and resulting segration, then how might we see that "way of life" manifesting today? I submit that the "way of life" was not all about racism. Racism was a defensive tactic to keep it going, but it was not the basis for it. The actual "way of life" had much more to do with promoting family and personal prosperity, safety, and security and defending life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Anything seen as a threat to that "way of life" needed to be marginalized, dehumanized, and contained. Today, I submit that that "way of life" manifests, on the one hand through individualism and personal preference/freedom, and on the other hand, through promotion of family values, moralism, and national security. These things can be good in many ways, but when the main goal becomes to create a nice life for ourselves and we see these pursuits through the lense of self advancement and preservation, things can become abusive quickly. The outcome of embracing self-centered ways of living can be seen in consumerism and materialism, sexual preferences, greed, abortion, violence, and other social ills. Whenever you make your own life and happiness more important than the lives of others, you can justify defending that choice at the expense of other people.
But, Jesus has another way for us. He tells us that we must take up our cross and follow Him. He says that if we seek to keep our life, we will lose it. He says that the first will be last and the last will be first and that the greatest among you is the one who serves. He says blessed are the poor and the meek and the peacemaker. Freely we have recevied, freely we are to give. Jesus tells us that we are to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters and that all those who call upon His name are our brothers and that our neighbor is anyone in need. He calls us to love our enemies as well as our friends. Jesus turns everything upside down and His Kingdom is clearly seen as not of this world. If we are trying to promote our own "way of life" we will end up dehumanizing someone or some group to do so. We saw it with slavery/racism/segregation. We see it now with abortion and the effects of a sexually permissive society on family/human breakdown. We also see it with the effects of consumerism/materialism on ourselves and people around the world. We are called to live for God and other people, not ourselves first. That is the Christian way. We are to lay down our "way of life" and live sacrificially for others and radically pursue people with sacrificial love. This is a hard teaching and few can accept it. But, when we don't embrace God's way of sacrificial love, all that is left is the exaltation of the self which entails the eventual dehumanization of others.
If we are ever to live in a truly racially reconciled society, it will only happen if we can first have a racially reconciled church and that will only happen when we find our identity in Christ and not in other things.