Anchor Sunday School Class
by Bob Marsh
AMAZING GRACE FOR EVERY RACE VS REAL RACISM
There are events in life that will never be forgotten. They will forever be embedded in one’s memory bank. No way will I ever forget that Sunday morning in South Alabama, 1970s, standing before hundreds of good, decent, church-going Baptist, comfortable with “the way things were.” There was a potentially explosive exception to this tranquil Sunday morning. I was presenting to the congregation for membership a lovely husband and wife. Of course I had done this many times over the years of my ministry, but there was one radical difference between this presentation and the hundreds of others: THIS WAS AN AFRICAN AMERICAN COUPLE! As far as I could determine, this would be a first among our Alabama Baptist Churches.
This “historic” event had been anticipated. There had been special called deacon’s meetings, small group gatherings, and hours of one- on- one conversations preparing for this moment. Letters had been sent to Baptist Bureaucrats, missionaries, and other “Christian leaders” seeking their affirmation in tearing down the walls of segregation in our church. I did receive words of encouragement from the missionaries.
As I stood with the lovely couple, presenting them to the church for membership, one of our young men came and stood beside them, testifying by his courageous presence that I was not alone in requesting membership for a “Black couple.” I then asked what I had always asked in such occasions: “if you rejoice in their coming and welcome them into the life of our church family, let your welcome be known by a hearty AMEN!” To my great joy the church building virtually shook with a thunderous AMEN!!!! Now, nearly 45 years later it would be extremely difficult for one to fully grasp the magnitude of what took place that Sunday morning. We had lived with the true meaning of racism, and were weary of its poisonous impact on our communities. We had seen the vicious manifestations of racism, and had finally confessed that to follow Jesus meant to “be shed of” its destructive and blinding grasp.
Wait a minute. This was a church that like most Southern churches had a “No Blacks” policy, and that policy was sacrosanct, rooted deeply in “our Southern traditions,” as well as in spurious interpretations of Old Testament scriptures such as THE CURSE OF HAM. This was a church that had withdrawn financial support to the denomination’s mission fund because Martin Luther King, Jr had been allowed to speak in chapel to a denominational seminary. This church was not unlike hundreds of others that bristled at the thought of AMAZING GRACE FOR EVERY RACE. “We will lionize our missionaries sent to Africa, but do not bring their converts into our WHITES ONLY churches.” However, on this lovely South Alabama Sunday morning, a radical transformation was manifested. The gospel of JESUS CHRIST had overpowered the clutches OF JIM CROW! WHAT HAPPENED??
Well, an oversimplified version would be: THE PEOPLE OF GOD FACED THE POISON OF RACISM AND BEGAN A NEW JOURNEY OF “AMAZING GRACE FOR EVERY RACE.” It was an arduous journey! There were many bumps in the road! It is a journey not yet completed! But every journey has a beginning, and the journey of being a COMMUNITY OF FAITH, A NEW TESTAMENT COMMUNITY, had begun.
Flashbacks swished across my mind that morning. A few Sunday mornings ago when a nervous usher handed me a note just before I went to the pulpit to preach, “There is a Black man and woman who just came in. What shall we do?” I quickly replied: WELCOME THEM AS YOU WOULD ANYONE ELSE!” Poor usher! A good man like thousands of other “good men” in Southern churches who just did not know “what to do.” There was a time when I certainly did not know, but the journey from pragmatic silence and denominational aspirations to preaching a sermon on AMAZING GRACE FOR EVERY RACE had occurred. I painfully remembered boasting to a Black pastor in town that “I was going to stand against the KKK and the sickening racism polluting our city” for “I had nothing to lose…I am free to do what is right.” I held in my hands two letters of offers to teach, and misinterpreted these as “setting me free.” With tears in his eyes he kindly but stingingly rebuked me: “You are not free, sir, until you do what is right.. even if you have everything to lose.” “There was no looking back now. For the integrity of the GOSPEL, for the justification of the CHURCH’S EXISTENCE, we had to take Jesus seriously or give up the pretense of being A NEW TESTAMENT CHURCH. WE HAD SEEN RACISM. WE HAD BEEN INFECTED WITH RACISM. WE KNEW WELL HOW DEADLY AND DESTRUCTIVE IT WAS. WE WANTED TO BE DONE WITH RACISM, SO WE BEGAN THE JOURNEY OF LETTING THE TRUTH “THAT IS IN JESUS” SET US FREE.
Please, let us not lose the virulent meaning of racism by making it a pejorative term we unleash when we want to taint someone, to depreciate someone with whom we disagree. If that dreaded term is thrown at someone, make dead certain we understand the gravity of it. If we accuse someone of being “Klan like,” make certain we know what we are insinuating, and not just hurling a philippic at a political enemy.
Other than the terms CONSERVATIVE AND PROGRESSIVE (LIBERAL), the term RACIST has been bantered and bloviated all over the political landscape. In our protean and partisan political discourses, where rancid rhetoric trumps reasonable and honest dialogue, the term has an ALICE THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS characteristic when HUMPTY DUMPTY says in a rather scornful tone: “A word means what I want it to mean, nothing more, and nothing less.” Humpty, unfortunately, spoke for the mentality of much of our political narrative. If RACISM is a relative term, based on tropes that morph into vapid meaningless talking points, then we should have the courage to admit “it is sound and fury, signifying nothing.” It “means what I want it to mean.” Please, let us refuse to weaken the historic meaning of RACISM by reducing it to just another verbal blow upon our political opponents. Those of us who have seen RACISM in action know that it means more than some irritating “offensive statement.” As CHILDREN OF GOD, we seek THE BELOVED COMMUNITY, where discriminating and oppressing PEOPLE WHO DO NOT LOOK LIKE US, are “like a dirty old coat that is thrown on the floor and never put on again.”.
However, facing the facts of racial insensitivity (I struggle for a euphemism for ignorance) was painful, disturbing, and potentially explosive. A pastor could lose his pulpit if he messed around in social issues such as justice for all people, freedom from oppression for the oppressed. The act of finally acknowledging that THE GOSPEL IS THE POWER OF GOD, OFFERING JUSTICE AND PEACE FOR ALL, that IN CHRIST, we are ONE, helped many of us as SONS OF THE SOUTH to focus more on living AS A CHILD OF GOD. I along with many other pastors began to understand how complicated and emotionally charged the subject of race can be, and yet how clearly the Word of God declares that AMAZING GRACE IS FOR EVERY RACE. We struggled to embrace that within the COMMUNITY OF FAITH, there is no place for racism, injustice, and oppression. These conclusions are firmly and categorically founded on what it means to be CHILD OF GOD (JOHN 1:12; EPHESIANS 5:8-21).
1. How you and I treat other people matters to God. II Chronicles 19:7, “the Lord our God does not tolerate perverted justice…” Many “good Church folk” in those days loved to declare ownership of THE SERMON ON THE MOUNT, Matthew 5, but slow to put it into shoe leather by treating all people the way God in Christ treats us. Ephesians 4:29-32 cries out for us to be kind and compassionate to one another.
2. God’s people have been called to the task of reconciliation. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God,” Matthew 5:9. We struggled, but finally came to see that the ministry of RECONCILIATION must be at the forefront of every Church, every CHILD OF GOD. Romans 5:10, II Corinthians 5:19, Ephesians 2:16ff.
3. Racism declares “my race is superior to your race, and you are inferior.” Biblically and theologically there are only two races: redeemed and unredeemed, those who are now the PEOPLE OF GOD and those who remain in darkness (I Peter 2:9ff). The community of faith is spoken of as “a chosen race,” a “holy nation,” bonded together in “one Body, one Spirit, One faith, one Baptism, one Hope, and one GOD AND FATHER OF US ALL.” Ephesians 4:1-6. IN CHRIST “you are all children of God…there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for YOU ALL ONE IN CHRIST”? (Galatians 3:26—29) The letter of EPHESIANS speaks clearly to the fact that in Christ “there is ONE BODY.”
4. THEREFORE, we must strive as a CHILD OF GOD to demonstrate that we are truly Children of God, and Jesus made it absolutely clear that “by this will you be known as a Child of God…that you LOVE ONE ANOTHER.” John 13:34-35. This may sound like an insipid bumper sticker, but it goes to the heart of what it truly means to be a member of the One Body, the COMMUNITY OF FAITH, and an IN CHRIST “new creation.” Galatians 5:6; 5:13; 5:22, etc, etc, etc.
With these axioms to guide, the Church of Jesus Christ GOES INTO THE WORLD to demonstrate what it means to be THE PEOPLE OF GOD, GOD’S POSSESSION, and THE COMMUNITY OF FAITH. And if true to her calling, the Church’s song will be “THEY WILL KNOW WE ARE CHRISTIANS BY OUR LOVE!”
Yes, 44 years ago in that South Alabama Church, a declaration was made by one family of believers that RACISM is evil, that how we overcome it depends on our focus. Among other facets of spiritual truths, we will focus on why we exist as THE CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD:
WE’VE A STORY TO TELL TO THE NATIONS
THAT SHALL TURN THEIR HEARTS TO THE RIGHT,
A STORY OF TRUTH AND MERCY,
A STORY OF PEACE AND LIGHT.
FOR THE DARKNESS SHALL TURN TO DAWNING
AND THE DAWNING TO NOONDAY BRIGHT,
AND GOD’S GREAT KINGDOM SHALL COME ON EARTH,
THE KINGDOM OF LOVE AND LIGHT.
Yes, Christ the Redeemer is Heaven’s answer to the evil of RACISM. Some of us had to struggle, and maybe still struggle, to finally see that at the foot of the cross we all stand in need of God’s grace. HIS GRACE IS FOR EVERY RACE! AMEN!