Last year I attended one day of a revival on Sand Mountain, here in Alabama, to hear the president of the Southern Baptist Convention preach. I grew up on Sand Mountain so the culture I grew up in is very similar to the culture I was attending church in that day. I grew up in a place where racism was normal. Sand Mountain has always had a reputation for being a generally racist place. Frankly, the stereotype is well beyond the reality, but racism is nonetheless real. And that’s why my eyes got wet that day when 350 white folks in rural Alabama stood and clapped for Dr. Fred Luter, the first African American president of the SBC. A denomination which began to protect the interests of white slaveholders now celebrates its black president. We have come a long way as Southern Baptists.
And there I sat, a young man who used to be a boy who thought the “n-word” was a way to seem edgy or get an easy laugh. There I sat as a young man who had been transformed by the Gospel of Christ. I sat there as a pastor of a church that sits starkly in a multi-racial community with a commitment to reach all people whom God has placed in our proximity. And I was reminded, as I clapped and cried with 350 other Alabamians, of the way the Spirit–through the Gospel–unites the hearts of those who are different in the flesh.
This summer the Paula Deen debacle has brought race back to the forefront of the minds of many. Her attitude and use of epithets–whether current or former–has served as a catalyst for a fresh wave of discussion on race in America. She has certainly done that for me and John, our intern, who is a bright philosophy major/rapper/seminarian who is always ready for a deep discussion. We have talked about race relations, the Gospel, and the church with frequency. (I am also greatly indebted to John for help with this blog.)
Through these conversations and my observations over the years, I have come to believe that most white, Southern Christians–a common group to stereotype as racist–are not actually racists. Don’t get me wrong. There are still people of all stripes who aren’t wrestling at all. Racists exist, and those who refuse to repent of racism are repudiating the Gospel with their lives. However, I have noticed that most are repentant people who are doing their best to wrestle with racist attitudes from their past and the Gospel ideal of racial harmony. However, genuine Gospel change does not happen overnight. That change only comes by regeneration and the timely work of the Spirit in sanctification.
Note the words of the former persecutor Paul:
“Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” 1 Corinthians 6:9-11
We can add racists to the list, can’t we? “Such were some of you,” the Apostle says. These Corinthians have seen just how wicked their sin is and have found refuge in the atonement of Jesus Christ. However, we know that the Corinthians were not instantly healed of all their sins. Christians are those who live lives of consistent repentance. Just like a repentant homosexual may struggle with same-sex attraction the rest of their life, and just like a repentant alcoholic may struggle with wanting to take a drink for the rest of their life, so might the repentant racist struggle to overcome feelings of superiority and prejudice. In a deposition, when asked whether or not he has every used a certain racial slur, he might even say, “Of course.”
The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates aptly questioned why we are surprised by the confession of Deen: “What do we expect in a country where many find it entirely appropriate to wear the battle-flag of the republic of slavery?” Indeed, I find it unwise and inappropriate to don the stars and bars. However, this week we will celebrate the 4th of July. Blacks and whites and racists and non-racists alike will grill out and celebrate America underneath Ol’ Glory, perhaps even clothed in images of the Stars and Stripes. Is the American flag not also the flag of a former republic of slavery? What then is the difference? The Union stood for change and lived to change while the Confederacy died clinging to the right to enslave blacks. The flag that once flew over a nation of slaveholders now flies over the White House of an African American president. We have come a long way as a nation.
I pray we can live in a society where we give the same opportunity to individuals that we have given to our country. Let’s not tolerate racism, but also let us not crucify those who are in the process of repentance and change. Someone already volunteered to be crucified on their behalf.
In light of our history of slavery and freedom, in light of Dr. King and Mrs. Deen, in light of Stars and Bars and Stars and Stripes, let us not lose sight of what matters most. Let us look to the bright Morning Star by whose stripes we are healed. And as repentant racists feel the impulsive, sinful attitude, “What good can come from the hood?” rise in their chests, let them remember the Nazarene. After all, didn’t someone once ask, “What good can come from Nazareth?” And as repentance and tears and shock and surprise rise up in us as the Gospel transforms our hearts to rejoice in the advancement of our black brothers and sisters, as we stand and clap and rejoice at the movement of our society and ourselves, let us never lose sight of the day when we will all rejoice in an olive-skinned Galilean as He returns for His multi-colored bride.