The movie “Mississippi Burning” was a portrayal of the civil rights struggles in the deep south during the early 1960’s. It focused on the brutal murder of three civil rights workers in Philadelphia, Mississippi. Racism was the accepted norm during those times, and hatred against different ethnic groups was a stance publicly endorsed by politicians and churches alike. Though racism existed against various ethnicities, the dominent thrust was between ‘blacks and whites.’ While Caucasians had the power in society to broadcast their venom, African-Americans usually just had the pulpits to display theirs.
The integration of the schools, teachers, neighborhoods, political offices and the work place were hot beds of racial tension and hostility. I lived through this period as a young boy and grew up only 60 miles from Philadelphia. I saw racism up close and personal as racists from both sides spewed their hatred and bitterness toward one another. It was amazing that while the adults were speaking against one another, we young ones were demonstrating a friendship and acceptance of different ethnic groups. The politicians and pulpits were not leading the way for genuine change from the heart, but as the children of that generation, we were quickly learning that color was only skin deep.
I grew up only a few short miles from where black men were hanged to death over a river bridge. Why were they strung up like animals? For looking at or speaking to white women. I’ve had white friends attacked and beat up by black gangs. Why? Because they were white. When I was a young boy, the Ku Klux Klan held meetings in open fields less than five miles from my home. I’ve personally heard so-called ministers of the gospel use racial slurs from the pulpit and get an “Amen” or snickering laugh from the congregation. I have black friends who grew up in black churches and tell the same story from the other side! Racism cuts both ways, and so does the ungodliness in our churches. It is not just a white problem or black problem, it is a sin problem…a heart problem!
I once pastored a rural church which had hostile racists among the membership. This ungodly spirit was openly exposed as I invited and welcomed black families into the church. I did this without the promise of support and without apology or delay. I spent many Sunday messages evaluating the racist attitudes of false christians and offering redemption from this spirit through the blood of Christ. I was in my mid twenties, but I remember one older lady saying, “We are not ready for this.” She, of course, was referring to church attendance and membership with black families. I responded, “The Lord is ready, and if you have a problem with it you need to get your heart right with God.”
Several years ago, I was a leader and co-planter of a church in an old store front in downtown Meridian, MS. This store front was across the street from where the KKK members were placed on trial for the 1964 murder of the three civil rights workers. From the beginning it was an ethnically mixed congregation. As we began the church plant, we faced several threats, including death threats, from some of the old racists who were still in town. It was simply a display of the ugliness of sin which dominates the heart of un-regenerated men. We could not, and would not, back down from the simple truth that all men are one in Christ Jesus! Not just one in pleasantries and hospitality, but one before God and in all things.
Why do I share all of this? Because there is a focus by many to discuss racism and diversity among the churches, but I hear very little about the real issue. That issue is SIN. We can talk about racism, dissect it, encourage people not to do it, and have them sign up to promise to integrate their pulpit once or twice a year. We can write more books, have more conferences, political and religious, but these are only conscience appeasing lateral movements. Until we tell church members, that racial prejudice is a sign that one is un-regenerated, we are only changing the tires while the car has no engine. Racists, who claim to be believers, should be purged from our church membership and denied the privilege of Christian fellowship until they repent. (I Cor.5:11-13; Jas.2:1; Titus 3:10-11)
We must deal with racism the way every social evil is dealt with. As believers, we live true to the life of Agape Love as described in the Scriptures. Actions of Christian Love are the death nails to racism in our communities. Rest assured, racists will still hide behind membership in many churches–that will not change. However, if we light the truth of God’s Love, instead of just talking about it, the presence of God will begin pushing back the spirit of racism in our communities.
Will it cost us support, finances and membership? It sure will. However, we are not called to cater to numbers, but instead to reach the lost (black and white) and see them assembled into the local expression of the body of Christ. Deal with any racist behavior in your fellowship with the principles of Restorative Church Discipline. To delay this only allows the leaven to spread. (I Cor.5:6)
Many in society will not take Christianity serious until this issue of ‘separate, but equal’ is rejected as the copout that it is. White ministers hide their racism by catering to their ‘money men’ and refusing to address the racism in their churches. (Don’t be fooled, they preach to protect their secure lifestyle and financial status.) Black ministers hide their racism by using their influence to promote and vote for black politicians who support gay marriage and the murder of the unborn. (Don’t be fooled, to support a candidate on skin color and not biblical principles is also a racist decision.)
Look how beautiful it is when we live, teach and stand for freedom from racism in our churches. Here is a photo from our vacation bible school. African-Americans, Chinese, Caucasian, Latino and interracially mixed children singing and enjoying learning about Jesus! Even the teachers were racially diverse and demonstrating the oneness of Christian truth and unity with actions…not just a bunch of shallow words. The children followed the lead of their teachers and had a great time together, never focussing on the difference, but celebrating the diversity. Oh, how beautiful it is when biblical unity is expressed with the simplicity of faith and love.
Years ago, Mississippi was certainly burning. Burning with racial hatred, strife and cruelty. My home state was the focus of the nation as the blot of hatred and ethnic supremacy was broadcast over national news outlets. And in many communities, it is still burning. However, in some places, Mississippi is not burning any more!
In the Crucified, yet Risen Lamb,