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During a series of interviews four years ago with the late Rev. C.T. Vivian for a book on his life that I am doing, we talked about the strange relationship that some white people have with Christianity.
While professing to love “the Lord Jesus,” these people openly and unabashedly support white supremacist beliefs, and, as we talked about it, I could see Vivian’s eyes change. There was a fire that began to push through his gaze as he spoke, and finally the beloved civil rights activist said, ”You cannot be a Christian and be racist!”
The words were coming from a deep place in a man who had spent his life fighting against those white people – many of whom called themselves Christian – who not only believed that their views on white supremacy were correct, but were a part of the ethos of God, and therefore, of Jesus.
The late Bob Jones, who founded the conservative Bob Jones University in South Carolina, said in a 1960 radio address entitled, “Is Segregation Scriptural?” that “God is the author of segregation!” and that the practice was a part of God’s “established order.”
Many segregationists/white supremacists believe that it is their duty to keep the races separate. They have heard sermons that criticize any belief in the pursuit of “social justice,” teaching in many instances that social justice is “anti-biblical.”
Forrest G. Woods, in "The Arrogance of Faith," as well as Katherine Stewart in "The Power Worshippers," point out the words of clergy over decades defending racial segregation and white supremacy in sermons and articles. They cite those who have said such things as “Christianity and slavery are both from heaven …” and some have said that the concept of democracy as a government where “all men are created equal” was never God’s intent.
Consider the Rev. Robert Lewis Dabney, a well-respected 19th century clergyperson whose white supremacist beliefs belittled the concept of democracy and who called it a “mobocracy” instead. According to Stewart's book, he argued that slavery was “right,” and while maybe uncomfortable for the enslaved, was the will of God. To oppose slavery, he said, was “tantamount to rejecting Christianity.”
Well, then, how does one determine who is a Christian?
The insurrectionists who stormed the Capitol on Jan. 6 stopped their invasion and destruction of the building long enough to pray. Those who believe that democracy is against the values and teachings of Christianity probably had no issue with their beliefs or with their actions. These people, while calling on the name of Jesus, seem to be comfortable ignoring what Jesus commanded: that we love our neighbors as ourselves.
Which brings us to the deadly murders of 10 Black people in Buffalo, who were killed during a mass shooting earlier this month in what has been characterized by authorities as a racist hate crime. An 18-year-old suspect is accused.
It is no surprise that we have heard precious little from so many of those white supremacists who claim to be devout Christian following the deadly events. What is troubling is not that they are silent, but that they believe that their silence is all they can offer.
They must remain silent, it seems, because to come out and decry the murders would be an affront to their fellow white supremacists. They seem not so concerned with their silence perhaps being an affront to God and to the Jesus they say they love.
With this divide between people who believe that God wants us all to love each other and those who believe God sanctions bigotry against some people, it makes the situation we are in seem untenable. If a people cannot agree on the tenets of God, then they are like the blind, leading others though none of them can see.
And what we are left with is a chasm, over which the blind will eventually cross, where on one side, there is a Rev. C.T. Vivian, declaring “You cannot be a Christian and be racist” and a Bob Jones on the other, saying, “God is the author of segregation.”
We as a country are in deep, deep trouble.
The Rev. Susan K. Smith is the founder of Crazy Faith Ministries in Columbus and director of clergy and leadership development for the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, Inc.
Keeping the Faith is a column featuring the perspectives of a variety of faith leaders from the Columbus area.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Faith: Mass shootings beg question: Can you be Christian and racist?