I’ll be honest. I really wasn’t looking forward to moving back to the South. My family and I had moved to Colorado for me to go to seminary, and during the 4 years or so that we were there, we fell in love with it. Not just the geography and climate, which are both astounding and invigorating, but also the culture. Compared to the South, where both my wife and I grew up, Colorado has a refreshing “come as you are” kind of laid-back vibe that put me at ease. It’s the kind of place where blue jeans count as business casual. I loved it.
But it wasn’t just the pleasantries of Colorado that drew me in. A very real part of me was perfectly happy to be out of the South. While in Colorado, I experienced firsthand the kind of derision towards my homeland that we Southerners always hear about. “Everyone else in the country thinks you are backwards rednecks,” we’re told. And in Colorado, it was true. People who weren’t from the South, spoke about the South usually with a tone that ranged anywhere from uncomfortable jest to outright condescension. Whether it was about race, or politics, or poverty, or church practice, or even hairstyles, the South was the runt of the litter of American culture. And I’ll admit, at times it made me ashamed of my heritage. The best stereotypes are based on some truth, and some (not all) of the things my non-Southern friends would say about the region I grew up in resonated with my experience as well. I was happy to be out. The problems of the South could stay in the South, and I was fine to be away from them.
So, when this past week, a group of young men decided to hang a noose around a civil rights statue on my campus, I found myself experiencing all of those same emotions all over again. How can this kind of thing still happen here? Are we really just a bunch of backwards rednecks? What kind of people could actually do something like that, and why do I have to live in the same town as them? I know, my inner dialogue isn’t very flattering, but that’s honestly what was going through my head.
Now, to be fair, similar thoughts were going through the heads and out of the mouths of most of the people in my town. Most people wondered aloud how such a thing could still happen in our time. People everywhere spoke out about the act, saying how it not only defamed an important part of our history, but also continues to keep our school and our state locked in an image from the past that simply isn’t true anymore. And the language people used to describe the men who allegedly committed the act* was actually what surprised me most. Morons, idiots, dumbasses, assholes, pieces of sh**, and racist motherf**kers, were all terms that I heard people use this past week. This was not the kind of language you would expect in a town where such a heinous act of racism could still occur.
It was the kind of language that people use to make it clear how “unlike” the morons and idiots they are. It’s like our town was trying to collectively say, “The actions and opinions of a few misguided individuals don’t represent the whole town. Please don’t judge us based on their behavior. The rest of us don’t think that way. We promise.”
I’m not so sure.
As I write this article, I’m sitting in the food court of the student union on campus around lunch time. It’s almost entirely segregated by race. Blacks sit with blacks on one side. Whites sit with whites on another side. There’s nothing really overtly racist going on here. People from both races are amicable and respectful of one another. But it’s clear that there is still, at the least, a relational separation between the two groups. It’s evident all over town. We eat at different restaurants, shop at different stores, live in different parts of town, even to some extent send our kids to different schools.
But nowhere is this more embarrassingly true than in the church. Martin Luther King, Jr. once famously said, “It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” He said that in 1958. Fifty-six years later, it’s still just as true. And just as appalling.
If any institution or group of people ought to have a reason to figure out how to not be separated by race, it’s the church. Paul, who wrote most of the New Testament, makes it clear on multiple occasions that our unity as believers is an important aspect of how we display the work of Christ in us as a community of people who follow Him. We are united by the fact that we serve the same God, as he tells us in Ephesians 4:4-6:
There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
For those of us who are in Christ, there are no distinctions between us that should block us from shared love, worship, and fellowship with one another, as he tells us in Galatians 3:26-28:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Yet, both black and white Christians are content to go on worshiping Jesus separately. Our shared faith in Jesus should be the thing that has the most power to be able to unite us, and yet we still can’t find a way to be together on Sunday mornings. We are an offense to the very gospel we preach.
Now, to be fair there are some noteworthy efforts that have been made recently at bridging the divide between black and white churches. I was pleased to read just the other day about the reconciliation between racially divided Pentecostal denominations. Even in our town, the largely white First Baptist Church made a very public apology for their own past segregationist attitudes and sought forgiveness from the historically black Second Baptist.
But if we can learn anything form the past, it’s that removing barriers at the institutional level, while healthy and necessary, is not the same thing as creating racial harmony or unity. In order for that to happen, we have to actually know one another.
Recently, the young woman who happened to be the first black, female student body president at Ole Miss, wrote a piece in the student newspaper that recalled an incident after she was elected that involved derogatory racist statements being made about her. Initially she pursued charges against the young man who committed the act, but when she learned that his sentence would possibly result in expulsion she dropped the charges. Sensing that this punishment wouldn’t actually lead to any lasting change, she instead pursued the option of having the student meet with her individually. She believed that if he knew her, he wouldn’t have said the things he did, and likely wouldn’t say things like that ever again. I cannot imagine anything braver. It is exactly that kind of bravery that is necessary to see racial unity occur within the church.
Since I have been back in the South, I have had real conversations with probably no more than about two dozen African-Americans. The number of them that I can actually call friends is around 5. And while I am embarrassed to admit this, I’m quite sure that my experience is not unique. If we have any hope of moving forward with a culture where hate-filled racist actions are not only intolerable, but inconceivable, we have to create a culture where we know each other.
My belief is that my town can lead the way in creating a culture where blacks and whites actually do know each other–that our lives are not separated by race. If any place in Mississippi can do it, Oxford can. That’s my belief. But my hope is different. My hope is that the church will be the first to show up to this party, instead of the last, like we were during the 1960’s. It’s time for those of us who follow Christ to recognize the unity that is already ours in Christ and start relentlessly pursuing it until we are fully and maturely able to live it out. It’s time. I think we can do it if we actually try.
That’s my hope. What’s yours?
*At the time of this writing, three men, all students at Ole Miss, have been arrested related to these actions. The references in this article to the alleged perpetrators are based on that information.