If you are in the ministry or are a Christian in a church and you live in a community of any kind, at some point, there is going to be a tragedy or a conflict that rocks your community. Or, a natural disaster. Or, a conflict or riots or something that perhaps takes you off guard and angers people or throws people into confusion. Fear can take over. Violence can erupt. People might act irrationally. They might do things that they would not normally do - or do not normally do. They might do destructive things - even self-destructive things. Fear of the unknown, loss, frustration, long-standing oppression in a community - all of these things can bubble up in a moment of provocation or disaster and expose the problems that were always there, but were perhaps lying under the surface. As Christians, we should understand this. As pastors who hopefully have some training in counseling and have some understanding of human nature and the role of sin, we should not be surprised when anger and fear explode into violence at times.
I pastor and have lived for 15 years in a city that saw a massive riot in May of 1961. Montgomery, Alabama was known as the "City of Churches." There were churches everywhere and the vast majority of the population claimed to be Christian. Montgomery was also the first capital of the Confederacy, a center of slavery in the South, and had recently sparked the modern day Civil Rights movement with the Bus Boycott in 1955-56. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy pastored here. Rosa Parks did not move from her seat here. Johnnie Carr, Fred Gray, and Solomon Seay lived here. John Lewis grew up down the road in Troy. A movement that would set people free began in my city and it changed America and changed the world.
The white community was not happy about the racial change that was happening. They mostly opposed it, actually, and they sometimes opposed it violently. And, all along the way were white Christians and pastors and churches who dominated the culture and structure of the city who missed the moment of opportunity to say something, do something, and bring the gospel into a moment of crisis - often because they were waiting for things to settle down or they thought a law had been broken or they feared what might happen if they did do something. But, often, the major reason for the paralysis of gospel witness was that they were happy with the status quo, they disapproved of the protests of those calling for change, and they wanted things to just go back to the way things were - they wanted to protect their own "way of life." Fear took the place of faith, in many cases.
The massive riot in May, 1961 occurred when the Freedom Riders arrived in Montgomery. The Freedom Riders were riding on interstate busses through the South and sought to desegregate the bus system in accordance with the Boynton v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling of 1960. They acted within Federal Law, but they were turning over the apple cart of Southern custom and convention. When they arrived in Alabama, their bus was firebombed in Anniston and they were beaten. They were beaten again in Birmingham. The police and state and local governments worked in conjunction with terrorists, the Ku Klux Klan, to intimidate and oppress the black and white Freedom Riders. When they arrived in Montgomery, the police protection disappeared and hundreds of white people came out of the alleys and streets surround the Greyhound bus station downtown and beat and attacked the Freedom Riders without mercy. The Freedom Riders ran into the streets to escape the mob. The attacks went on down city streets and other blacks were attacked physically just for being black.
The next day, the black community called a mass meeting at First Baptist Church on Ripley Street downtown. It was the black First Baptist Church in Montgomery. Dr. King came as did other Civil Rights leaders like Diane Nash from Nashville and Fred Shuttlesworth from Birmingham. 1500 people filled the church, pastored by Ralph Abernathy. But, 3000 white people surrounded the church in a mob. They overturned a car and set it on fire. They threw Molotov cocktails on the roof of the church trying to set it on fire. They threw rocks and bottles through the windows of the church and they laid siege to the church for hours. They yelled, chanted, waved Confederate flags, and threatened to burn the church down with 1500 men, women, and children inside. U.S. Marshals came out and formed a line in front of the church to protect it, but the mob rushed the Marshals and tried to break through the line to get in. People in the mob had guns and were preparing to use them. To my knowledge, this is the only time in the history of America that a church full of worshipers has been under siege.
This was in a city of churches in the Bible Belt South in 1961 where white Southern Baptists had huge influence. Hershel Hobbs' brother-in-law was Henry Lyon, the pastor of the largest church in town, Highland Avenue Baptist. He was a recent president of the state Baptist convention in Alabama and was also an arch racist, believing that God had called him to promote the virtues of segregation. He also had a radio show where he stoked the flames of anger against those who sought to destroy the Southern "way of life" through integration. America was still considered a "godly" nation, there was still prayer in schools, abortion was illegal, and there was no such thing as gay marriage. Most people called themselves Christian. And, this was in the South. In the heyday of Baptist power and influence. And, this happened. This evil thing. This riot. This violence. This anger. Hell unleashed full of fury.
Eventually, under threat of Federal troops being sent from Fort Benning, the segregationist Governor Patterson finally ordered that the crowd be dispersed. The riot had been going on for hours that day and night and if you include the day before, it had occurred over the whole weekend. It was international news. Reporters were beaten and their cameras were destroyed. An official in the Kennedy Administration was beaten and left unconscious. It was chaos. Eventually, order was restored and the Freedom Riders went on to Jackson, MS where they were promptly arrested by Governor Barnett's orders and spent the next few months in Parchman State Prison.
Here is my point: How should white Christians have responded to these events? How should white pastors have responsed to the riots in Montgomery in 1961? The way that most did respond was to denounce the Freedom Riders and say that they should not have come into the city causing trouble. They should not have ridden on busses together, those black and white people who didn't understand that they were not supposed to sit next to each other on a seat. Their actions caused the trouble. They should have waited. Gone slow. Not upset the establishment. Many also denounced the violence because that wasn't the way to handle things in a Christian society, of course, but the violence was also understood in part because of the instigation of the Freedom Riders. It was THEIR fault. Governor Patterson said after the events that the violence was a result of "outside agitators coming into Alabama to violate our laws and customs ..." Many Christians and pastors agreed with him.
We look back at those events now and we do not understand how white Southern Christians did not respond more proactively. But, the reason for their lack of response or for them agreeing with the violence is because they wanted to protect their own way of life. They trusted the government and police to do the right thing. They were not vigilant to promote justice. It would have weakened their own societal position and it was easier to believe that the full fault rested with those who made the white perpetrators of violence angry. The same responses can happen today from all sides of issues. People are responsible for their actions. Violence is NEVER the answer and it doesn't matter if someone makes you angry or not - YOU are responsible for how you respond. Dr. King would have said that. He did say things like that. There is never a good reason for mob violence and it is ALWAYS counterproductive. We have that message to proclaim. We have peace to announce.
Even with things in turmoil, white Christians and pastors in Montgomery had enough information to act. They could have gone downtown and stood between the attackers and the protestors. The white Christian leaders of the community could have asked to meet with the leaders of the Freedom Riders. They could have cared for them medically after they were beaten. They could have brought people from their churches down Ripley Street to join in prayer and call for peace in their city. How different would America be today - how different would the witness of the church in America be today - if white Christians would have stood to protect black Christians in that church surrounded by the mob that night? They might not have had all of the facts and they might not have known what the results would be, but the events occurring RIGHT THEN called for a Christian response of love, peace, and suffering with those who were suffering. What if Southern Baptist churches all over the South had not waited but had taken on the suffering of the Black community and had listened and sought justice instead of standing by while oppression occurred - or worse, helped to facilitate the oppression? I think that the Cultural Revolution of the 1960's would not have happened the way that it did.
Here is the takeaway for me: In many cases, we only have a moment to act. We are not the judge or jury. We are not the police force. We are not the state. We do not wield the sword. We do not know all of the facts. But, when chaos and violence is erupting we are still the church and no matter the cause, we still have a message and we still have love. We are to be salt and light - we are to preserve, season, and illuminate. Our lamps are ALWAYS to be full of oil. We are to be constant in season and out of season. We are to be ready to give a defense for the hope that we have in Christ. We are to understand the times. We are to love sacrificially and not seek to save our own lives. We are to point to another way, even when it doesn't make sense. When conflict or riots break out in your city, what CAN you do? You don't have to make a judgment. You might not have all of the information. You don't have to solve the problem. You don't have to arrest anyone. But, you are called to be a peacemaker. You ARE called to listen and to protect the weak and both proclaim and demonstrate the gospel in all circumstances. What if the conflict that might happen in your city is the moment that God has placed you there for so you can tell a better story and be a witness to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful? What if you hesitate and the moment is gone?
We know what to do. We know what is true. We have the Scriptures, the message of the Cross, Christ Himself, the Holy Spirit, Christian history and tradition - we have a vision of the Kingdom of God and God's Will. We have the ways that God has shaped us and formed us. And, we have a place of leadership in our communities and an opportunity to act that no one else has. When violence is erupting, when despair is settling in, when disaster is falling, all of the facts of a situation are not necessary. We can see what is right before us and we can apply the gospel to what we see. We can throw outselves into the conflict and tell a better story - a gospel story.
In 1966, the minister's conference of the Montgomery Baptist Association met and explored how they failed their congregations and their city. Wayne Flynt tells the story in his book, Alabama Baptists. They recognized that they missed the moment. This was 5 years AFTER the events of 1961. 10 years AFTER the bus boycott. One year AFTER Bloody Sunday and the Selma-to-Montgomery March. The crucial events were over. The ministers recognized a series of failures in their leadership, including a lack of dialogue with black leaders, allowing non-Christians to infiltrate the churches and influence them wrongly, and a too-close allegiance with a racist Southern culture. Southern Baptists would apologize/repent/repudiate in 1968 and again in 1995 for their role in slavery, segregation, and the promotion of racism. That was good, but it was too late. We missed our moment.
It is good to be prudent and wait for the facts of an issue to unfold. That is wisdom. The Proverbs commend such a perspective. But, when we know the good that we could do - should do - and we do NOT do it, that is sin (James 4:17). If we do not engage with the problems in front of us - the problems erupting in our communities - because we are waiting for all of the facts to come in, we must ask how those facts that we are waiting for will affect the response that we ARE responsible for - to love sacrificially, to promote peace, to foster communication, to lay our lives down for others. Facts unfold in their own time. We have no control over that. But, we do have the ability to speak a word of calm, to demonstrate sacrificial love, to call for peace, to pray - in the moment of violence and despair BEFORE the facts all come out. It is called Christian ministry.
There was plenty that has happened in Ferguson, MO over the past 6 days that can be responded to in a Christian way even without all of the facts about what happened in that police car and on that street and whether or not it was justified. In a sense, the Christian response is largely irrelevant to the facts because the anger that erupted was real and came from a real place in people's hearts. The Michael Brown situation was just the spark. And, the Christian action goes in all directions. The violence and looting was wrong. It should be opposed. It is not Shalom. What could have been done to stop it? What could have been done to provide a different way? I am not casting blame on Christian leaders in Ferguson for not stopping it. I am thinking about how I should respond if it happened in my own city. What would I be called to do to be a peacemaker? Once the police came out and handled the riots in a way that provoked more unrest, what could have been done to bring calm and peace? What could have been done differently? Thankfully, many of those steps began to be ennacted on Thursday and peace prevailed.
If conflict/disaster comes to your town, what CAN you do in the moment to point to the hope that you have in Christ? How can you listen and love those who are angry and who are reacting badly and with violence? How can you promote Shalom? How can you be a peacemaker and intermediary between opposing forces? How can you rush in to feed the hungry and care for those in need, just as so many Baptists do so well when a natural disaster hits?
If we recognize the moment, then we will implant the gospel in broken, fertile soil. I pray that we do not miss what we CAN do while we wait for the facts to come in. We are not of the world and the facts regarding what we should do are largely irrelevant when the city is burning down around us.
How can we be people of peace in the midst of the storm?
For more on this, check my book: When Heaven and Earth Collide.
UPDATE: This morning I read an article in Baptist Press saying that what I am talking about here is happening in Ferguson, MO. I am not at all surprised. God puts His people everywhere. This is great! Don't wait for information. Act on what you already know and are already told to do in Scripture. Love one another! Read the whole article HERE.