I loved Selma – the film about Martin Luther King’s epic march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. I don’t understand how David Oyelowo did not get the Oscar he so richly deserved. His portrayal of King was an act of genius. The film itself has been well reviewed elsewhere – not least by Martin Saunders on Christian Today – but I found it so moving and it made me so angry that I thought it would do us no harm to think of some of the lessons that we can learn from what remains a desperately sad event in human history. So what can we learn?
1) Racism is deeply engrained in human culture and is an affront to the majesty of God and the dignity of human beings who are created in his image. There is of course no real reason why our atheist materialists should not be racists. Thomas Huxley, the man who popularised the science v religion myth, once argued “No rational man, cognizant of the facts, believes that the average Negro is the equal, still less the superior of, of the white man.” HG Wells declared that the Chinese, like the Negro, would probably have to go, for the benefit of the whole human race. Strange how the ‘enlightened liberals’ used to argue! Of course nowadays every liberal is going to hold it as part of their creed that all human beings are the same and that race should not factor. They have little intellectual justification for this and find it difficult to provide a rationale for their belief, so instead they have just borrowed the Christian teaching about the essential equality of all human beings – and seek to have the fruits without the roots.
2) Christianity makes a phenomenal difference. This is clearly seen in Selma. Luther King was a clergyman and the fight against racism was often led by Christians. And with good reason. The Bible clearly teaches that all human beings are made in the image of God. In Sunday school I remain being ‘indoctrinated’ with the belief that ‘red, and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight”, long before being anti-racist became the fashion of the day. Although human sin has distorted that image and resulted in the gross sin of racism, Christ came to restore that image. He died that we might be one. As Paul says, in Christ there is no Barbarian, Scythian, slave or free. “For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility….” (Ephesians 2:14 – NIV).
However that is not the whole story. There were plenty churches and plenty professing Christians who justified racism and sought to use the Bible to do so. Whether it was the blasphemy of the KKK using a burning cross as a symbol for their hatred, or the ‘whites only’ churches in some areas, it is a sin that many have still to repent of. I recall talking to one pastor in Jackson, Mississippi who told me that he saw a white minister being hit in the face, after he announced to the congregation that they were going to permit and encourage African Americans to join. Racism is a sin. And churches and Christians should no more tolerate it then we would adultery, theft, greed, idolatry or violence. I once asked a man to either repent of his racist attitude towards Pakistanis or be excommunicated. He was offended and left.
3) Apartheid in the Church is wrong. I stayed in Jackson for six months and came across strong remnants of the racism that has so blighted the South in the US. One example will suffice. There was a large Baptist church that had made a $10 million move from the edge of the city centre out to the suburbs. I asked one of the pastors in a Presbyterian Church that was staying, why did they move? His answer was simple. White flight. The area was becoming ‘blackened’ and the church, which was 95 per cent white, was going to move. No matter how it was dressed up, it was $10 million-worth of racism. But then I saw it on the other foot as well. A friend took us to a black Baptist church in West Jackson to celebrate Black History month. It was a strange and salutary experience for me. We were the only white people in a congregation of some 400. One of the pastors told me that there were even some people who objected to us being there, in ‘their’ church. I guess racism works all ways.
Here is the $64,000 question. Are churches based on ethnic or racial grounds ever justified? Biblically. I know it’s not fashionable to say so and it goes against what some missiologists tell us but my concern is with what the Head of the Church says. Did Jesus die for us so that we could work together, live together, play together but on Sundays go our separate ways so that we do not worship or pray together? I just can’t see it. Since when did Church have to be PLUS (People Like US)? As someone who regularly defends the Christian Gospel to unbelievers, you know what one of the great ‘apologia’ for the Gospel is? A church where people of different races are worshipping and serving Christ together. Commenting on the different races, social classes and ages in our church, one visitor said to me “what is it that you all have in common?” The answer of course was obvious – “nothing except Jesus”!
I realise that the argument is not as simple as I am putting it. Questions of language, culture, styles etc have to taken into account. But can anyone justify biblically having a Scottish Church in London? Or a Chinese Church in Edinburgh? Or a Nigerian Church in Belfast? Or a Korean Church in New York? An English Church in Paris? An American Church in Berlin? Personally while I am sure that most of us would regard the kind of hard racism as seen in Selma as disgusting, I wonder if we are too prepared to give up on the unity of the body of Christ and perpetuate a kind of ‘soft racism’, calling it separate development for the good of the Kingdom. You know that the Afrikaans word for separate development is ‘apartheid’. Do we really want to practice spiritual apartheid? “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no-one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb”. (Revelation 7:9). Does the Bible really teach that while this will be the reality in heaven, on earth we are to divide into our separate nations, tribes, peoples and languages, in order to worship and serve the Lamb? Maybe the lesson from Selma is that we need to stop repenting of other people’s racism, and start repenting of our own?