Just a brief note today on Black History Month hopefully to awaken a few to the extent to which the beliefs of our forefathers, and spiritual forefathers, were far more repugnant and entrenched than we have usually realized, and far more deeply embedded in the teachings of the spiritual leadership—i.e., the churches and pulpits—than we usually hear.
When, for example, we hear vague, tempered phrases such as “their involvement in segregation,” we are left unaware of many of the details. We are often unaware that such men were not merely carried along by public opinion—which would be bad enough—but were active agents, employing the most persuasive and stark of language and arguments in leadership roles, attempting to influence and achieve even more than they did. We do not often believe that their racism often was the determining factor in their brand of religion and politics.
We don’t expect our conservative, Bible-believing, patriotic champions to preach things like this:
We do not believe that “all men are created equal,” as the Declaration of Independence declares them to be; nor that they will ever become equal in this world. . . . We think that our own race is incomparably superior to any other. . . . As to the Negro, we do not know where to place him; perhaps not at the bottom of the list, but certainly not near the top. We believe that fusion of two or more of these races would be an injury to all, and a still greater injury to posterity. We think that the race-line is providential, and that . . . any . . . great intermingling [of races] must have its origin in sin.1
These sentiments were not whispered in a corner, but came in one of the most prominent Christian publications of the day, and from a prominent Southern Baptist leader who had been president of both Mercer University and the University of Georgia, Henry Holcombe Tucker. Nor was this during the slave era itself, but almost two decades thereafter, in 1883.
Nor was this sentiment at all uncommon. This was the majority opinion among leadership and the people alike. In fact, it is suspected that this very article was published because someone had questioned whether Tucker had gotten soft on the race question. These sentiments were given to prove his bona fides.
And many like examples there are. One need only consult my recent book on slavery and the churches’ central role in the sins of it, or one of countless other books on the subject.
Yet many conservative and Christians recoil at the mention of the subject today, considering it merely a political wedge driven and exploited by leftists. Well, it is that to a great degree, but who is to blame for that phenomena? It is our reticence to embrace the issue in the right way—even sometimes in any way—that has given them both the wedge itself and the space in which to drive it. Our silence, our reactionism, and our over-defensiveness are factors that keep driving us backward and downward.
The problem is not that we are white or not black ourselves, not that we have not stopped with such overt racist beliefs, and not even that most of us have not stopped even tolerating such nonsense in our presence. The problem is that we are slow to acknowledge—even to be willing to hear—how openly repugnant and vile were the basic beliefs of our beloved forefathers regarding race, and that we are in general completely closed to the belief that the scope and degree of the degradations of the past have any bearing at all upon today.
Know for certain that with the same vigor we uphold the greatness of our forefathers—with the same intensity we feel pride and exaltation in our connection to the heritage of freedom—to that same degree, blacks also feel the sting of the degradations to which their ancestors were subjected.
To the degree we read our history (selectively as it turns out) telling us how great and free were are—largely because of what we have inherited—blacks read the rest of our history, which is every bit as true, real, and enduring, telling them “you are not created equal, you never will be, and you have no rights we are bound to respect.”
We can all agree that all people suffer, and there always will be general inequalities in life, and we can may even agree that that’s the way it must be in a free society. But that is only an abstraction from the history. What we really did was spend three and a half centuries impeding the freedom of a people because of the color of their skin, driving them mercilessly into injury because they were black, denying freedom on the grounds that a free intermingling of races would be capitulation to both Marx and Antichrist, only suddenly in 1965, upon the forced acknowledgement of their freedom and equality, to pretend those impediments never had any effect—socially, politically, economically, spiritually, or psychologically, or otherwise.
While victimization is indeed a problem (for conservatives and liberals alike), to pretend blacks should just “get over it” so easily and “stop being a victim” is the height of ignorance and arrogance at the least, and likely open dishonesty. To the extent that such behavior remains rooted in any racial hatred, especially of our brethren, the Bible says it is murderous (1 John 3:15).
We cannot simply sweep the past and all its effects under a mystical carpet. Black History Month is not a special exaltation of blacks over whites, or a special privilege blacks get that whites don’t. It is a time to educate ourselves about what we do not know—and when it comes to blacks in our history, there is tons you do not know. For too many, overcoming the obstacle that they do not know that they do not know is bad enough. For some, still far too many, we must also overcome the obstacle that while not knowing that they do not know, they nevertheless fight vigorously against that of which they are ignorant. They demonstrate that the do not want to learn—do not want even to hear.
For Christians who wish to have true progress in our churches and in our society, the stance of entrenched, defiant ignorance is no longer an option. As I have said many times now, if we do not embrace this issue and heal the divide in a biblical way, we will suffer the fate of all the liberal churches. The secularists will win, and they will take over our churches. The path to changed hearts, biblical free markets, freedom, and justice goes through learning, humility, and repentance.
That’s not an admission of “white guilt”—I shake my head. It is the mind of Christ, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6–8).
What a privilege—and not just a white one—it is that we need not take up a cross for this, but only a couple books to start. Just do it with a servant’s heart to begin with.
Joel’s The Problem of Slavery in Christian America is on sale throughout Black History Month.
- Henry Holcombe Tucker, “Are We Orthodox on the Race Question?” Christian Index, March 22, 1883; quoted in H. Shelton Smith, In His Image, But . . . : Racism in Southern Religion, 1780–1910 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972), 265. [↩]