1972, somewhere in the American heartland —
I was a eight-year-old boy fidgeting in a church pew. Well scrubbed, my white face glowed pink. Well dressed, smiling people surrounded me. All of the other children looked like me.
The preacher stepped up to the pulpit after the music director finished leading us in song. “What a Friend we have in Jesus.” Have you heard it? It’s lovely. I hum it to myself sometimes even today, decades later. I hear it in my head now as I clack away on my laptop.
The melody stirs up dissonance in my soul. It invites tempest.
“My friends,” began the preacher, “I want to talk to you about Jesus’s love. He loves us all, all the human beings His Father created to populate our beautiful Earth. He invites us all to share in His love and His glory.”
I eyed the preacher carefully. I followed his every word with grave attention and care. I was in God’s house, and I was listening to God’s words channeled through the voice of His minister.
“Friends,” the preacher continued, “God’s love has limits. We must read His Word, understand His plan, and bow to His will. Good Christians are obedient.”
I nodded my head, glancing up at my mother, who was cradling my hand in hers, her thumb randomly caressing my skin. My Sunday School teacher had taught me that we must all obey God just as little children must obey their parents.
I watched the pastor take a deep breath. “My beloved flock,” he intoned, voice heavy and sad, “our nation is embroiled in controversy and strife. We live in trying times. Satan and his forces are marching, seeking what they can devour. As God’s children, we must rise up and say no to the forces of evil. We must stand up and march together as Christian soldiers.”
My soul stirred. Yes!
“We must fight the evil of racial integration. God created the races of the Earth. Red and Yellow, Black and White. He loves us all, but His plan as laid out in His Holy Word tells us that the races are meant to live each to its own kind.”
I nodded my head and chalked up a lesson, knowing how important it is to learn God’s will.
Rattling up and down in the backseat of our Volkswagen Beetle on the way home, I puzzled over the Red and Yellow bit. I didn’t get it. American Indians and Chinese people didn’t look red and yellow to me. I could never understand why people said they did. I asked my mom once why we called Black people Black, when their skin was really brown. She told me to go play.
So I kept quiet, figuring this was just one thing I’d understand “when you’re older.”
Mom had put a roast in the oven to slow cook during church. We stepped into a house filled with its fragrance. Over servings of beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, and buttery peas, my father explained to his little family that the preacher was wrong. That he didn’t understand God’s will, that racism was actually a perversion of God’s plan.
Dad spoke with great passion, waving his potato-laden fork in the air, pausing between words to spear a slice of meat.
He told us that even though the Baptist denomination we belonged to accepted and encouraged racial segregation, that we must not believe in it. He taught us that it’s wrong to discriminate against people because of the color of their skin.
He taught us to reject religiously based racist bigotry.
I could continue this story and talk about the details of the struggles my father went on to have in evangelical Christian churches that he pastored later. I could tell you about threats of church splits, demands of outraged deacons, and so forth. I could talk about the night when I was 13 years old, my ear pressed secretly against my father’s study door, listening in on shouted conversations and words of racial hatred shouting by leading members of our church.
I’ve written about it before.
That’s not what I’m writing about today.
I’m writing about moral complicity. You see, Dad didn’t just teach me to reject the evil of racist bigotry. He taught me to stand up for what’s right and not accept wrongdoing when it harms others.
He demonstrated to me throughout his life that accepting evil is the same thing as committing it.
He invited Black families into his congregation (and into our home) and told his outraged parishioners that if they didn’t like it, they could leave the church. He refused to compromise. He refused to condone racism.
He was right, of course.
All these decades later, we take his righteousness for granted. “Well, naturally,” I can hear you muttering now as you read this story. “Isn’t that obvious?”
No, it wasn’t obvious then. Entire denominations of evangelical Christians were religiously certain that racism was ordained by God, and that Martin Luther King was Satan incarnate.
Evangelical Christian churches and denominations, though, gradually changed their beliefs and revamped their theologies because of countless Christians like my father who had the courage to stand up and say no. They had the courage to stand up for decency, humanity, and love. They rejected the evil Christian belief that mixing the races is sinful.
I was there. I saw it happen. I watched people consciously and deliberately change their deeply held beliefs.
If you’re much younger than me, this may astonish you, even if you’re an evangelical Christian. As a nation and as a people, we’ve forgotten where we used to be and how we got to be where we are now.
That’s a shame, because much of our nation is immersed in a similar moral fire today.
Religious people all over the American heartland preach that God rejects another kind of people, another set of humans in a biological minority. They preach that we LGBTQ people, we lesbians, gay men, bisexual people, and transgender people live our lives in violation of God’s will. They brand us as sinners. They stigmatize us, shame us, exclude us, and work to stop us from enjoying full integration in society.
Evangelical Christians, conservative Catholics, and Mormons join forces to persecute us and oppress us.
Worse, they loudly proclaim and demand that we respect their beliefs. They tell us we’re hurting them when we announce that their beliefs are evil and that they must change them, that they must become more moral, more decent, more humane, and more loving.
They tell us that if we don’t respect their sincerely held religious beliefs, then we’re bigots, that we’re intolerant of them.
If so, then we’re bigoted and intolerant in the same way my dad was when he preached to his flock that racism is evil and counter to God’s will. We’re bigoted in the same way he was when he announced to white families that if they couldn’t accept integration in our congregation that they should feel free to worship elsewhere.
My dad taught me how to be moral, how to reject bigotry. How not to be complicit.