The Subversion of the Southern Church in the Civil Rights Era

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1603063501The Church is supposed to live in a way that deliberately challenges and subverts the dominant idolatries of the culture. Unfortunately, the culture too often subverts the Church. When this happens, the Church’s witness is harmed and evil flourishes.

I belong to a denomination sadly familiar with the reality of cultural subversion. During much of the past century, Southern Baptists and other evangelicals in the South failed to embrace the full implications of their gospel of grace. Evangelicals accommodated the surrounding culture at the very points we should have challenged it.

Alan Cross is a fellow Southern Baptist, and as a pastor, he sees much of our history with sadness. Grief led him to ask the question, What went wrong?, and that question is what led Alan to investigate his Southern roots and identify the reasons why evangelicals capitulated to the racial superiority that characterized Southern culture. He has chronicled his investigation in When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus.

Exploring Tough Questions

Alan Cross’ book weaves back and forth between historical reflection, cultural analysis, and pastoral exhortation. It begins with the story of the “Freedom Riders” – whites and blacks who volunteered to ride interstate buses in Southern states in order to ensure the safety of black passengers. Alan recounts the brutality the freedom riders endured, and he tells the harrowing story of an attack on people gathered in a Baptist church on Ripley Street in Montgomery, Alabama.

Where was the church? Most pastors and members of white churches across the South were largely silent regarding the racist violence in their midst, neither condoning nor condemning the evil, and thus becoming complicit in the injustice. While most evangelicals weren’t active participants in the fight against racial equality, they were content to quietly support the established culture of the South. Put simply, “culture trumped Christ” (35).

The Roots of the Church’s Compromise

Why was the church disengaged? Alan traces the roots of the conflict back to economic considerations, or to put it in biblical terms – Mammon. The idolatry stretches back to the beginning of our country:

“The economic and social / cultural need for black slavery came first and then the theological justification came later. The colonists used God to defend and promote what they wanted. They used God and the Bible as a means to an end of defending and promoting their goals or way of life.” (41)

White Southerners didn’t always see slavery as desirable, but because the Southern economy and culture depended on the practice, they couldn’t imagine life without it. So, in order to justify their cultural accommodation, Southern Christians went back to the Bible and began to develop “biblical” defenses of racial superiority (the curse of Ham, the Tower of Babel, applying biblical references to slavery in ancient times to permanent, race-based slavery).

Southern Christians failed to be salt and light and instead became a “permission-giver to all that the Southern slave-owning society already affirmed” (52). Alan sees this tendency at work in every generation:

“Instead of starting with Scripture and letting our consciences and lifestyles be informed by the biblical witness, we often take our cultural presuppositions to Scripture and look for support in the Bible for the life we want to live…” (48).

Recipe for Racial Disaster

Once slavery fell, Southern evangelicals who wanted to reach their culture allowed their evangelistic passion to turn into a desire for approval, leading to the compromise of Christ’s demands. This is a perennial temptation:

“A call for total repentance of the sinner’s lifestyle is often forsaken for a more palatable conversion – one that is more culturally acceptable” (43).

In the 20th century, slavery was no more, but segregation was the cultural rule in the South. Those who resisted the cultural pressure toward segregation had everything to lose and nothing to gain. One of the ways pastors could keep from engaging in the civil rights movement was by preaching an individualistic, personalized gospel, a message about individual conversion that had little or nothing to say about what happened in society, justice issues, righteous laws, etc. Pastors saw themselves as bystanders, thinking, We can sit this out. It’s not our duty to involve ourselves in social turmoil.

Unfortunately, without the prophetic witness of the church challenging the cultural hegemony, most Southern Christians quietly succumbed:

“Racial separation was applied to churches not because the Bible commanded it, but because the culture demanded it and the church was the chaplain to the racist culture in the Bible Belt South” (99). “Instead of Jesus challenging Southern society, he was enlisted to sanction and maintain it” (103).

Moving Forward

What if the church had been different? Alan believes that because the egregious sin of subverted Christianity was exposed so clearly, evangelical churches lost much of their moral authority. Today, the Christian leaders do not elicit the kind of respect afforded in generations past, primarily because of continued fallout from evangelical compromise on race relations.

So where do we go from here? When Heaven and Earth Collide doesn’t stop with the history lesson and cultural analysis. Alan believes we have a long way to go. He sees consumerism as the dominant idol today that the church is too often failing to challenge. Racial issues continue unabated, albeit in more subtle forms, such as white flight, missiological strategies that depend on homogeneity, and church structures that make it easy to associate only with people like ourselves.

We have made progress, but not enough. We have more work to do. This is a book that helps us along the way. As Alan writes:

“It is only when our prophetic imagination is fired with a clear vision for how things are to be in Christ that we can model and teach and pray according to God’s will and reality of Heaven and Earth colliding in Christ and in the church for God’s glory and man’s good.” (247)

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