I eventually learned that, for many in the civil rights community, it isn’t enough to reject the South’s deplorable history of systemic racial discrimination. They feel compelled to reject many of the things that may have coexisted with it—the accent, the manners, the religious beliefs; they’re all fruit of the poisonous tree.
The most painful part of those early years in D.C. was dealing with all the negative assumptions about my faith. Most of the attorneys I met in the civil rights community were agnostics; and they rightly noticed that churches were one of the most racially stratified segments of southern society.
No doubt, the church is racially stratified everywhere in the United States. But to my fellow civil rights attorneys, it took on a special quality in the South, where religious practice is central to culture, and where the influential Southern Baptist Church was formed over the issue of slavery. So to them, persistent church segregation was just more blatant evidence of systematically entrenched racial hostility.
It’s hard to argue with that.
That’s why my heart skipped a beat last week when prominent Southern Baptist leader (and Mississippian) Russell Moore called for the Confederate battle flag to come off of state flags. He wrote, “The cross and the Confederate flag cannot coexist without one setting the other on fire.”
I was barely done shouting glory when Mississippi Speaker of the House Philip Gunn publicly stated, “As a Christian, I believe our state’s flag has become a point of offense that needs to be removed.” Amen! Then Mississippi Sen. Roger Wicker (R) cited his Christian faith as the basis for his belief that “our flag should be put in a museum.” Preach it!
Statements calling for the flag to be removed represented significant cracks in the glass ceiling separating evangelical southerners from taking collective responsibility for the ways we have alienated African Americans. Even so, I still felt a little discouraged.
We can call for a flag to come down all day long, but if Christians are going to address the problem of segregation in churches, it’s going to require more than statements from preachers and politicians. It’s going to require true hospitality towards African Americans, the kind that springs from our love of Jesus—not just our good southern upbringing.
God knows there are southern, evangelical churches that have tried to be welcoming to African Americans. Some send volunteers to support charitable causes that benefit the black community; or there’s the occasional joint service with a black church; and every once in a while, a white church hires a black associate pastor.
But it doesn’t seem to make a huge difference, and white evangelicals feel exasperated when their efforts are underappreciated or rejected. As I’ve heard many a time from well-meaning white, southern Christians, “I wasn’t the one who owned slaves, so I’m tired of being blamed for all this. At some point, people have to get over it and stop playing the victim.”
To that person, I would say this: If you truly believe in scripture, then let’s recognize that we’re talking about your siblings, not some abstract group of “victims.” That’s your family that, for generations, was abused, discriminated against, disenfranchised, and murdered for their skin color. We’re talking about brothers and sisters of yours who didn’t even receive the protections of the Voting Rights Act until 13 years before I was born—and I’m only 36! Get angry for them; acknowledge the harm; let your heart break for them.
See the tragedy for what it was and continues to be; and then engage in true hospitality, inviting siblings of color into your home, onto your softball team, and to your child’s birthday party. Ask them how it makes them feel when you mock Barack Obama; ask them to tell you stories about “driving while black”; and hold back any conservative talking points you may be tempted to share. And by all means, don’t do any of this because you feel sorry for them.
As community activist John Perkins explains in the film series “For the Life of the World,” we can’t “approach [people] like we’re going to give dignity to them. You don’t give dignity to people; you affirm it. Hospitality is saying, ‘You’re significant. I honor you. I love you. You are under my roof.’ Love and hospitality is the platform that makes justice—any kind of justice—available.”
Sure, as Christians, advocating for that flag to come down is the least we can do, and I applaud the leaders who are willing to acknowledge the need. But for the love of God, let’s also do our part to be a church that renounces the sins of the past by relentlessly affirming, through word and deed, the dignity and significance of our African-American siblings in Christ. Let’s act like the family we claim to be.
Joshua Rogers is a civil rights attorney in Washington, D.C. You can follow him at @MrJoshuaRogers.