A White Church No More
YEARS ago, members of a Southern Baptist church in suburban Birmingham, Ala., who couldn’t figure out why their church was in decline asked a friend of mine for advice. The area had been majority white during the violent years of Jim Crow. While civil rights protesters were beaten and children were blown apart by bombs, church members had said nothing. That would be “political,” church members said, and they wanted to stick to “simple gospel preaching.”
As the years marched on, the area became majority black. The congregation dwindled to a small band of elderly whites who now lived elsewhere. They tried, they said, to “reach out” to the church’s African-American neighbors, but couldn’t get them to join.
A canvass of the area would have told them that the church had already sent a message to those neighbors when it had stood silent in the face of atrocity. Those neighbors now had no interest in bailing out a congregation with a ministry too cowardly to speak up for righteousness when it had seemed too costly to do so.
As of this week, the nation faces a crazier election season than many of us ever imagined, with Donald J. Trump as the all-but-certain nominee of the Republican Party. Regardless of the outcome in November, his campaign is forcing American Christians to grapple with some scary realities that will have implications for years to come.
This election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country. There are not-so-coded messages denouncing African-Americans and immigrants; concern about racial justice and national unity is ridiculed as “political correctness.” Religious minorities are scapegoated for the sins of others, with basic religious freedoms for them called into question. Many of those who have criticized Mr. Trump’s vision for America have faced threats and intimidation from the “alt-right” of white supremacists and nativists who hide behind avatars on social media.
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech did not envision that more than 50 years later “Go back to Africa” would be screamed at black protesters or that a major presidential candidate would tweet racially charged comments. Some American Christians may be tempted to ignore these issues, hoping they are just a wave of “political incorrectness” that will ebb in due time. That sort of moral silence shortchanges both our gospel and our future.
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