Race and religion: the elixir of separation.
Race--it is America's rawest nerve and most enduring dilemma. From Birth to death, race is with us, defining, dividing, distorting. --Sig Gissler, Summer 1994
I add the following comment to Gissler's observation: From birth to death, race is one of the most personal of human experiences.
As a black male, I live race. I am acutely aware that my race constitutes a master status. In the eyes of whites and other non-blacks, my skin color, my most visible characteristic, is the most important piece of data about me. This condition is inescapable.
No scholar has definitively theorized about race, at least not to my satisfaction. Fancy language cannot explain it. And the voguish genetic and anthropological reports of late--arguing that humankind is one big family--have not generated useful clarity and better race relations.
Race produces racism, and racism naturally enables discrimination, from the most benign to the most horrific. Paradoxically, race is so familiar to us as groups and as individuals that we assume we understand it.
The truth, I believe, is that race actually confounds our understanding precisely because, besides being ever present, it is subconsciously lived by the victim and by the perpetrator, making it a seamless shroud of complex and often conflicting sentiments and behaviors. Furthermore, it is so familiar that many of us fail to realize that just as it harms the perpetrator and the victim alike, it indicts us in the same way, joining us, black and white, at the hip. In the United States, race is destiny, a reality that explains, in part, why when race comes up in conversation, even very smart people begin to, among other reactions, smirk, roll their eyes, sigh, or excuse themselves from the room.
While most of us view ourselves as being decent, honorable, and ethical, the acknowledgment of race shames us and reminds us that for all of our laws and claims of believing in equality, we are creatures of exclusionism, which leads me directly into the relation between race and religion in America, the theme of this issue of CrossCurrents. The effects of race, our "rawest nerve," are most insidious when they emanate from the pulpit, from the pews, and from interpretations of passages in the Bible. Indeed, the uneasy and often volatile mix of race and religion constitutes a spiritual darkness that, ironically, strengthens the ignorance, the intolerance, and the aggression that have divided and morally diminished Americans since the first African slaves touched our shores, carrying their unique religions and Weltanschauungen.
Like race, the religious faith an individual practices is one of the most personal and most powerful of human experiences. The lessons we learn, the philosophies we adopt, and the styles of worship we internalize in the sanctuaries of our choice, or by family tradition, tend to anchor our lives permanently.
My personal journey
Each time I am in a situation involving discussions of race and religion, I find myself tiring of academic treatises. I always gravitate to the lessons I learned in the presence of my grandfather, Robert Albert Bentley, a Pentecostal minister who died in 1995 at age 92. He initiated my personal journey through the maze of religious faith, and he sparked my awareness of the role that race plays in religion. Born in Tampa, Florida, my grandfather dropped out of school in the 6th grade and went to work for the railroad. Years later, he became a fruit picker. I discuss my grandfather, with whom I lived for ten years in Crescent City, Florida, during the first fourteen years of my childhood, because this self-taught black preacher--who rarely had his Bible out of reach--was a wise man who read everything about religion that he could get his hands on.
In his special way, he apprehended the meaning of the intersection of race and religion. He did not have a complex theory. I began to pay attention to my grandfather's theology when I was about twelve years old. I liked the trappings of his calling: the black suits, the starched white shirts, the black ties, the deeply polished Stacy Adams, the wide-brimmed hats, the Hoyt's Cologne he wore, and, of course, that zipper-protected, leather-bound Bible. I would stand away from him to watch the dynamics of deference and adoration parishioners showered on him. His modesty was a marvel. How, I used to wonder, could a man afforded so much respect remain so modest, so simple?
While other black ministers of my childhood, and there were many, never publicly spoke of God in terms of race and ethnicity, my grandfather often reminded those willing to listen that if life on earth reflects the true nature for God, then "race means a lot to God. It sure means a whole lot to Negroes."
I heard him speak those words for the first time during the summer of 1960, when I was fourteen years old. My Uncle Charlie was a handyman, and one of his jobs was caring for the yard of the white Baptist church. Often, when I needed money, I would help my uncle. One morning, as I trimmed hedges at the church, I noticed that a side door was ajar. I was about to pull the door open and walk inside when Uncle Charlie grabbed my shoulder.
His words, "Don't ever go in there," were chilling.
Of course, I asked why. (From here on, I will reconstruct conversations as best I can from memory.)
This time Uncle Charlie's voice was fearful: "That's a white church."
When telling my grandfather that night what had happened, I did not know what to expect. Smiling, he reaffirmed Uncle Charlie's warning that blacks never entered white churches, and he added a poignant detail: "Maybe that's the way God wants it."
"Is our God the same as their God?" I asked.
"I used to think so. I'm not so sure anymore."
"Negroes suffer too much."
"Does God like Negroes?"
"Let me think about it some, boy," he mumbled.
A few days later, I again asked my grandfather if God liked Negroes.
"Not as much as he likes white people," he said.
Not as much as he likes white people. I repeated those eight words time and again. I repeat them to this day. Not as much as he likes white people.
From that day on, until a few months before his death, my grandfather and I had raw and honest talks about his theology, his family and social values, and his view of God. All of it became and remains an integral part of my life. Even during the early 1970s, when I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Paul Tillich, and the other great theologians, I routinely found deeper truths in my grandfather's unadorned reflections.
"The most segregated hour of Christian America"
During the late 1950s and early 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement had developed its marching legs, my grandfather closely followed events surrounding the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as King and tens of thousands of other advocates struggled to dismantle the de jure and de facto institutions of Jim Crow. He said that King was right when he attacked white Christians for defaulting on their responsibilities to help eradicate segregation, especially in their churches.
Over iced tea in our backyard, my grandfather gave me the history of the Southern Baptist Church and other denominations that rationalized slavery and other brutalities against blacks.
He used a corner of his and my grandmother's bedroom as his office, where he worked at a desk made of five 90-pound citrus field boxes and half a sheet of plywood. One morning when I was home from college, I spotted on the desk a dog-eared, purple-inked copy of a document written by King titled "Paul's Letter to American Christians." My grandfather had underlined and annotated this passage:
"There is another thing that disturbs me to no end about the American church. You have a white church and you have a Negro church. You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing 'All Hail the Power of Jesus' Name' and 'Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind,' you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America. They tell me that there is more integration in the entertaining world and other secular agencies than there is in the Christian church. How appalling that is. "I understand that there are Christians among you who try to justify segregation on the basis of the Bible. They argue that the Negro is inferior by nature because of Noah's curse upon the children of Ham. Oh my friends, this is blasphemy. This is against everything that the Christian religion stands for."
My grandfather said that the courts and other official pressures could remove political/social Jim Crow or, at the very least, lessen its debilitating effects. But "Jim Crow in the pews," as he referred to it, was the racism of the "heart and soul" and could not be removed without a profound spiritual conversion.
"White folks have to want to change to change," he said.
The past is the future
I look around the United States today and see much of the same race--related segregation that I saw as a child. Yes, groups such as the young people in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America are trying to bring blacks and other non-whites to the pews of their sanctuaries. They are experiencing negligible success.
Many megachurches nationwide are boasting of racially mixed congregations. Indeed, many sanctuaries are rainbow coalitions to a larger or a lesser degree. I have visited several megachurches in Florida, Texas, and Alabama as a journalist. What I found was this: Parishioners worship together for a few hours, but after benediction, they go their separate ways, returning to their racially segregated communities until the next Sunday, when they once again clap together, sing along together, and sway together to the music of an integrated choir.
At each church, I asked myself: Has anything fundamentally changed after all these decades? Matters have not changed as much as my grandfather would have wanted. (By the way, he died having never set foot in a white church.) Worshipping together for an hour or two each Sunday is not a prescription for genuine understanding and racial transformation, not in the church, not in society at large.
Racism prevents enlightenment, my grandfather used to say in his simple manner. The church's raison d'etre is to enlighten, and when it does not enlighten, it serves the forces of racial estrangement. What, then, is the church's purpose? When it separates people along the color line and makes no serious attempts to bring people together to serve one another, the church is guilty of aggravating America's rawest nerve.
The writers for this issue of CrossCurrents deal with race and religion in ways that are understandable to them. Each is a unique perspective, as it should be regarding an experience so powerfully individual and personal.
One of my hopes is that readers gain a greater awareness of the nexus between race and religion in contemporary life and, perhaps, vow to remain in the room and earnestly engage the next time the paradoxically familiar subject of race is being discussed.
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|Author:||Maxwell, William W.|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2007|
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