Paul R. Lehman, Racist in heaven?March 22, 2010 at 4:45 pm | Posted in American Racism | 7 Comments
Tags: Racism and the church
A newspaper article, “Can a Racist go to Heaven?” written by Alan Day, senior Pastor of the First Baptist Church of Edmond, recently appeared in the local paper. The article was eye-catching for its honesty and straight-forwardness in discussing the complicity of the church in general and the Southern Baptist in particular in supporting, maintaining, and promoting injustices towards African Americans. Pastor Day took a trip down memory lane in recounting elements of American social and church history that underscored his point that the church did not value African Americans.
In a number of places in the article Day mentioned significant points such as a reference to the Ku Klux Klan in the early 20th Century having “approximately forty thousand ministers” whose Grand Dragons were Protestants from the states of Pennsylvania, Texas, North Dakota, and Colorado. He also underscored the frequently made fact “that the most segregated hour of the week was 11A.M. on Sunday. Bringing in a personal experience from his youthful days, the Pastor related an incident when good Christian members of his home church armed themselves with guns in an effort to prevent African Americans from worshiping with them.
In addition, Day touches on some questions of Christianity, race, and science and their influence in promoting and maintaining injustices against African Americans. With a reference to Christianity he states, “True Christianity teaches that there is only one world created by the one true God.” He continues regarding race that “It [The Bible] teaches that there is only one race—the human race (Acts 17:26).” Concerning science he mentioned Charles Darwin and how some pseudo-science helped to encourage racism in America.
Day showed great courage and sincerity in making the statement that “Racism blights humanity. It is a scandal in the church. It dehumanizes people and dishonors Jesus Christ.” He then posed the question which is also the article’s title,” Can a racist go to heaven?” He admitted that only God can answer that question. He then changed the question to “Can a person believe in Jesus and still embrace racial prejudice?” Again, he left the answer to the reader, but added, “If I were God, I might let persons with prejudice in their hearts go to heaven. I suppose they could ride the Glory-bound Transportation System to Beulah Land. But they would have to sit in the back of the bus!”
Pastor Day should be applauded for his efforts in bringing forth the issue of injustice by the Southern Baptist Church towards African Americans. In 1989, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized to America for not having supported a single piece of Civil Rights legislation since its separation from the Baptist Church in 1850. Since that time the good Christians must have felt comfortable with their unchristian attitude towards ethnic Americans of color. Evidently, the apology was not enough to correct the decades of bigotry in the church, because some of that attitude still exists in the last three sentences of Pastor Day’s article where he, probably unintentionally, employs dark humor to end his comments.
What Pastor Day did not touch on concerns me more than anything he said. For example, he mentions that all people belong to one race, the human race. If that is the case, then racism should not exist. The people who practice this so-called racism should be identified in truth as bigots. If they are, in fact, bigots, then they cannot be racist because racism is a fallacy. The question should be changed to “Can bigots go to heaven?” As a layman I do not purport to speak on the existence or non-existence of heaven. What I can say is that my learning and experiences regarding Christianity offered me three religious challenges if I was to identify myself as Christian. Those three challenges are to not judge anyone if I do not want to be judged; to treat others as I want to be treated, and to love my fellowman. No restrictions, qualifications, or conditions were placed on whom I should direct these challenges—my fellowman is inclusive of all human beings.
For a bigot to meet and accomplish these challenges would be unlikely. So, common sense dictates the answer. Bigotry and common sense cannot share the same house. Understandably, Pastor Day elected not to deal with that part of the question in that it involves some elements with which he may not be familiar. For example, using the word race and its derivatives, only serves to underscore the myth of legitimacy of those words. So, by referring to someone as racist, that person is being rewarded for his false belief in races. Scientists back in 1941 agreed that the words ethnic and ethnicity should replace the word race because they did not carry a supposed undertone of superiority and inferiority; and race was a scientific term, not a social one.
Pastor Day should be encouraged for his efforts as far as they went. However, before the article ends, no mention is made of any ways the status quo can be changed; that is, what Day and others in the Baptist and other churches, for that matter, are doing to change the negative attitude of some so-called Christians regarding African Americans and other ethnic Americans. Day does make reference to the hypocritical practice of some churches supporting missions in other countries, but not inviting or caring for ethnic Americans across town or even down the street. However, talk without action has no value. Carrying a Bible and going to church does not make one a Christian any more than carrying a guitar and going to concerts makes one a musician.
What can be done? If Pastor Day is serious is doing something about the issue in addition to speaking about it, a number of practical things can be initiated. For example, members of the clergy can meet together and invite some knowledgeable person to help them better understand this phenomenon of race in America. Too many people think they already know about race in America, but only know it from a particular perspective. In order to teach and preach truth, a person must be armed with current and appropriate information.
A clergy with an understanding of race and ethnicity in America can have a tremendous positive impact on their congregations by offering sermons that speak to the humanity of all people, by organizing adult and children study groups. These groups should be led by informed leaders who examine the facts of ethnicity and Christianity in an effort to make the group members both better citizens and Christians. The clergy can even meet with ethnically diverse colleagues with the intent of exchanging visits of pastors as well as members. Many positive things are possible when a challenge is met with an open mind.
These comments were not written to in any way discredit or create a negative attitude towards Pastor Day. They were offered to help in a constructive way to try and clear a path for positive actions by the clergy and the church. Finally, the answer to question asked by Pastor Day should not be left in the air. What can the church do to reduce the number of bigots? If any doubt exist that bigotry is a sin then it is part of the church’s responsibility to try and help change the bigots and their chances of getting to heaven.