Christianity, Ross Barnett, and White Supremacy
About halfway through Take this Hammer, James Baldwin stands outside of a burned-out St. Mary’s Cathedral in San Francisco in 1963. Baldwin’s guide tells him about the fire that burned the building, and he tells Baldwin that as a result of the fire “the Catholic Church was able to raise fifteen million dollars to build another cathedral” in only nine months. Baldwin laughs and replies, “Some people know how to make it.” This moment leads Baldwin, a former preacher in his younger years, to comment on Christianity’s and organized religion’s failures in regard to suturing the wounds of America’s sinful past.
Baldwin begins his critique by comparing organized religion’s role on issues of race to Ross Barnett, Mississippi’s governor and Baptist Sunday School teacher, who once said, “The Good Lord was the original segregationist. He put the Black man in Africa. . . . He made us white because he wanted us white, and He intended that we should stay that way.” During halftime of an Ole Miss football game against the University of Kentucky, the night before the Ole Miss riot in reaction to James Meredith’s integration of the school, Barnett gave a sixteen-word speech: “I love Mississippi! I love her people! Our customs. I love and I respect our heritage.”
Many Christians today would probably wince at such a comparison, yet Baldwin’s comparison hits home even today. Consider the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) which arose as part of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) earlier this year, seeking “to keep both evangelism and the authority of the scriptures relevant within the SBC.” Two of the CBN’s five main points call for “Christian individuals and churches to influence the culture by engaging in the public policy process and demonstrating their patriotism” and for rejecting “various unbiblical ideologies . . . such as Critical Race Theory, intersectionality, and social justice.”
In response to the murder of George Floyd and the protests that arose in the weeks and months following, the CBN’s seven paragraph statement offers a cursory mention of Floyd’s murder before moving into the vitriolic language, labeling protestors as “rioters . . . engaging in domestic terrorism,” even calling them “not normal criminals” who “are rioting to advance a political point.” Biblically, the only verse they reference is Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” This scripture, within the context of CBN’s overall statement, simply says, “all lives matter.”
The SBC, on the other hand, focused on the systemic racism that not only affected Floyd but affect millions of other individuals in America today. They begin by stating that “incidents like these connect to a long history of unequal justice in our country, going back to the grievous Jim Crow and slavery eras.” While the SBC arose when Southern Baptists split with Northern Baptists over slavery in 1845, their statement linking Floyd’s murder and the protests to the historical legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and oppression that still exist today recognizes the role that social justice, Critical Race theory, and intersectionality have in relation to Biblical teaching. Along with their statement, the SBC’s president, J.D. Greear, said, “Southern Baptists, we need to say it clearly as a gospel issue: Black lives matter.”
Christianity has been weaponized throughout the ages, and its weaponization undergirds white supremacy. For all of the talk of God creating everyone equal, what do the actions of a lot of Christian churches show? Historically, what do they show? Lillian Smith begins her 1945 essay “The White Christian and His Conscience” with an indictment on the weaponization of Christianity to buttress white supremacy: “Ever since the first white Christian enslaved the first black man, the conscience of American has been hurting.”
Preachers and enslavers used the Bible to justify slavery. James Thornwell used Ephesians 6:5, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ,” to justify slavery. Enslaver Peter Tanner used Luke 12:47, “That servant who knows his master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what his master wants will be beaten with many blows.” Others used Romans 13, where Paul tells his reader to adhere to authority because “the authorities that exists have been established by God.”
This practice still exists to uphold white supremacy and to maintain power. We need only recall that in June of 2018 then Attorney General Jeff Sessions and later White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders used Romans 13 to justify the administration’s policy of separating immigrant children from their families at the border. Sanders told reporters, “It is very biblical to enforce the law.” This is similar language that the CBN uses when they call upon authorities to squash the “riots” and say that Christians should demonstrate their patriotism.
The CBN’s spokesperson, First Baptist Church Bossier City’s pastor Brad Jurkovich, said that the SBC is headed down “a road that is twisting what God’s Word is saying about things like human sexuality, biblical racial reconciliation and socialistic justice.” Essentially, then, Jurkovich says that Christians should not be involved in political and social issues. Doesn’t this go against the CBN’s calls for just such actions? What public policy should Christians engage with and promote? Do those public policies include everyone equally? If not, then isn’t that nonbiblical?
In the Winter 1944–1945 issue of South Today, Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling published preachers’ responses to a questionnaire they sent out asking ministers questions about race, segregation, and humanity. Harold Ehrensperger, editor of The Motive in Nashville, TN, wrote, “We are living in a social order which is founded on economic standards. This pernicious judgement of values reaches into every aspect of our living, including the church. The leadership of the church is recognized as successful depending on the size of the church which it serves, and the amount of money it raises. We are the victims of an economic system and of a social order which exalts these standards.” The protests and calls for racial equity and reconciliation challenge the way things were, thus challenging the economic systems that lay at the foundations of white evangelicalism. The fear of losing that position becomes, in many ways, masked behind the Bible and “biblical” teaching. Ehrensperger and others saw this in 1945, and it still exists. The CBN’s statement, Jeff Sessions’ statement, Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ statement are but only three of current examples of this fact.
Rev. Wilfred E. Roach of Grace Church, Episcopal in Radford, VA, wrote, “The true Christian family can never disinherit anyone, the tenant farmer, the industrial worker, the Negro, the mentally weak, or the Jew. All should be given opportunities to develop and grow in the image of God.” By denying systemic racism and the tools used to dissect and change it, the CBN and others disinherit those suffering under systems and policies that create inequity. Roach continued,
Ignorance is one of the greatest sins of the church as we find its life today. Many of our ministers are one hundred years behind the times. They know nothing of the economic and social battles that are taking place in the world today. They are preaching a personalized sort of righteousness which is ethical ignorance and decay. In this sort of ethics, which is not Christianity, they naturally live with prejudice and greed of their members because after all these sins are the sins that have built their churches and pay their salaries.
By ignoring the blood-stained soul of America’s conscience, the burned earth of Jim Crow, and the shut doors of mass incarceration, Christians fall back on Genesis 1:27 that God created everyone in his image. While I believe this, I also believe that this is a copout and deflection away from the issues that affect God’s creations. The greed and prejudice behind such statements uphold white supremacy, twisting the Bible to fit one’s position.
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 widows 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.”
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.”