Will the real Christians please stand up?

Published August 29, 2017

by Jake Caldwell
(Guest Editoral, published in the Herald-Mail on August 20, 2017)

The preacher obliged the odd ritual of the post-worship handshake line. A visitor waited his turn, red-faced, angry. The message had been on racial reconciliation — a timely word for a Southern congregation in the early 1960s. Not everyone was ready to say “amen” when the preacher sat down, which is a telling sign that the sermon might have mattered. He extended his right hand to greet the guest, who hissed in response: “I’m looking for a new church and seems like all I hear now are damn n—– sermons.” The preacher raised his hand to the man’s shoulder and drew him in close. “Yes,” he said, “there are fewer and fewer places for people like you to hide these days, aren’t there?”

I offer that story in the wake of the racist demonstrations in Charlottesville, Va., because a faithful response calls for the same theological vision and moral courage exhibited in that holy moment. So I will say this as clearly as I can: If your faith leads you to dismiss, devalue, dehumanize or discriminate against another person or group, you’re doing it wrong. And if your faith does not compel you to name and condemn the social sins of racism and classism, sexism and heterosexism, ageism and ableism, then you have lost your way. That should go without saying, but it cannot, given that the KKK and other white supremacist groups have historically branded themselves as Christian organizations, in much the same way that ISIA and other terrorist groups now present as Muslim.

As our country debates the relative value of removing the Confederate monuments that dot the South, I have heard it said that we should remember our history. This is true, though we must be clear in distinguishing remembrance from celebration. As a nation born of genocide and slavery, remembering our history must be done in a spirit of penance.

The Greek word that is translated “repentance” in most English versions of the New Testament means, to change one’s mind or to chart a new course. We should remember our history so that we can be better in the future. As many have noted, the vast majority of Confederate monuments were erected in the Jim Crow South in an effort to valorize the Confederate agenda while ensuring that people of color were kept separate and subservient. They served as a reminder that while the Confederate dream had died, white supremacy lived on in the form of institutional racism, as it does to this day. Keeping the monuments “to remember our history” then would be akin to the recovering alcoholic who insists on keeping a fifth of whiskey on his nightstand to remember his former life. Can you see why one might question his true intentions?

I would remind my fellow Christians of Martin Luther King Jr.’s admonition of “the white moderate” in his Letter From A Birmingham Jail: “In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.’ And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

He was, in essence, calling upon the religious community to turn to a more authentic, biblical expression of righteousness and godliness. He was asking for the real Christians to stand up and cast their lot, publically, prophetically, and persistently on the side of love.

That cause is no less urgent today as hate groups have been emboldened by their tacit acceptance in the highest levels of our government. When a group of (mostly) young, white, racist men is comfortable spewing hatred in Charlottesville, in the light of day, unmasked, in full view of the media, apparently without fear of any social repercussions, we have our work cut out for us.

So I ask, will the real Christians please stand up? Can we join our neighbors of every color and creed to build a community where there truly are fewer and fewer places for hate to hide?

Yes, we can. Let’s start today.

— The Rev. Jake Caldwell is senior minister at First Christian Church in Hagerstown

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