To Churches with Segregation Histories– Take Up Israel’s Song

Within evangelical and Reformed communities, we cling tightly to the notion that real spirituality is marked by radical confession. To come into our Savior’s kingdom is to be ‘born again.’ We are to decisively commit to turning from sin in its many forms: hatred, apathy, wayward selfish desires, blind self-defensiveness. We live into a new identity of humble dependence upon Christ and the Spirit as we strive to reflect God’s goodness, righteousness, and mercy. Yet, our past sins and current struggles with the flesh are still a part of this drama of salvation. The ‘born again’ do not overlook, hide, or continue in their follies. Instead, they make it a part of their confession and witness to proclaim the pitying mercy of God upon their sins, past and present. They know that within the narrative framing of Christ’s blood, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, and the full eschatological coming of His kingdom, there is hope and therefore freedom for confession and honest acknowledgment.

Psalm 106 (in full below at the end of this post) helps us realize that these features of faithful individual confession ought also to mark our corporate confession– the self-identifying measures made by a concrete body of believers. Here are verses 6-8:

Both we and our fathers have sinned;
    we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness.
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
    did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
    but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
    that he might make known his mighty power.

Many churches and denominations with histories of moral failure on slavery and segregation have crafted statements of contrition in the wake of continuing racial injustice. Yet, careful consideration of Psalm 106, I think, might lead us to even more radical, ‘born again’ ways of incorporating these statements of contrition into our witness than is the usual practice. Statements of contrition for moral failure are often completely separate (i.e., there is not even a link or mention of its existence) from a main ‘history’ webpage that only highlights the positive developments in a church’s historic and ongoing ministry, sometimes with a boldly triumphalist tone.

This is doubly significant as many ‘positive’ ministry developments during slavery and segregation eras were consciously developed as tactics to stave off more thoroughly just actions and policies. Others were simply unjust responses to calls for equity.

Thus, what can seemingly be praised as faithful developments in the historical life of a church are not always what they appear to be. There is a need for greater wariness about continuing self-deception. Carolyn Renée DuPont includes some helpful examples from her historical study “Mississippi Praying: Southern White Evangelicals and the Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1975.” She writes,

Understanding that Christians outside their state increasingly regarded segregation as sinful and often considered Mississippi Baptists as a hypocritical lot, [Mississippi Baptists] answered potential condemnation by expanding their Department of Negro Work (DNW). Tellingly, the DNW’s most active years correspond closely to those of the racial crisis, suggesting both its purpose as a segregationist stop-gap measure and its character as the desperate grasp of an embattled religious paternalism. … Ironically, white Baptists congratulated themselves for stepping in to amend the educational deficiencies of Mississippi’s African Americans, even though such weaknesses clearly stemmed from the segregated schools these same Baptists insisted on preserving. … Though leaders took pains to describe their efforts as “interracial” and “not paternalistic,” the DNW sold itself to Mississippi whites as an agent of black control and foil to civil rights activity. Accepting the notion that black’s desire for integration came only at the urging of outside agitators, spokesmen for the DNW suggested that the ministry would render its black beneficiaries less vulnerable to such influences: “[unchurched] minds and hearts furnish the battleground for many ideas and ideals detrimental to Christian faith and unity.” (121-122)

Here is another example from DuPont’s book:

— Presbyterian Church in — most vividly displays the ties that bound the defense of segregation to PCA leadership. This church adamantly rejected their denomination’s endorsement for the Brown decision in 1954. In subsequent years, the congregation and its pastor, Dr. M–, relentlessly opposed every General Assembly initiative and every denominational agency that stood for racial equality. Members of Citizens’ Councils [“grassroots organization devoted to preserving segregation,” (73)] occupied positions of leadership and responsibility in the congregation. Like other downtown — churches, — Presbyterian refused to seat black worshippers during the church visit campaign of 1963-1964, though black activists regarded it as so impenetrable that they quickly stopped wasting their efforts on it. In 1965, as school segregation in Mississippi faltered under the guidelines imposed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, — Presbyterian led the first wave of Mississippi churches to open private academies. (218)

This Presbyterian church in Mississippi highlights the service of each pastor on its website’s history page and includes under the heading for Dr. M–:

Also under the leadership of Dr. M–, the church established in 1965 The — Presbyterian Church Day School, which to this day has provided outstanding scholastic training and strong biblical teaching to thousands of young people in this city.

On this website page, there is no mention of the segregationist origins of the day school or this pastor’s large contribution to his denomination’s and church’s support for other segregation policies. What we demand of ourselves as individual Christians— an honest and thorough recognition of sin— we must also demand of ourselves as corporate bodies. For we are people of hope.

47 Save us, O Lord our God,
    and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
    and glory in your praise.

Psalm 106.

1Praise the Lord!
Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever!
Who can utter the mighty deeds of the Lord,
    or declare all his praise?
Blessed are they who observe justice,
    who do righteousness at all times!

Remember me, O Lord, when you show favor to your people;
    help me when you save them,
that I may look upon the prosperity of your chosen ones,
    that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation,
    that I may glory with your inheritance.

Both we and our fathers have sinned;
    we have committed iniquity; we have done wickedness.
Our fathers, when they were in Egypt,
    did not consider your wondrous works;
they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love,
    but rebelled by the sea, at the Red Sea.
Yet he saved them for his name’s sake,
    that he might make known his mighty power.
He rebuked the Red Sea, and it became dry,
    and he led them through the deep as through a desert.
10 So he saved them from the hand of the foe
    and redeemed them from the power of the enemy.
11 And the waters covered their adversaries;
    not one of them was left.
12 Then they believed his words;
    they sang his praise.

13 But they soon forgot his works;
    they did not wait for his counsel.
14 But they had a wanton craving in the wilderness,
    and put God to the test in the desert;
15 he gave them what they asked,
    but sent a wasting disease among them.

16 When men in the camp were jealous of Moses
    and Aaron, the holy one of the Lord,
17 the earth opened and swallowed up Dathan,
    and covered the company of Abiram.
18 Fire also broke out in their company;
    the flame burned up the wicked.

19 They made a calf in Horeb
    and worshiped a metal image.
20 They exchanged the glory of God
    for the image of an ox that eats grass.
21 They forgot God, their Savior,
    who had done great things in Egypt,
22 wondrous works in the land of Ham,
    and awesome deeds by the Red Sea.
23 Therefore he said he would destroy them—
    had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
    to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

24 Then they despised the pleasant land,
    having no faith in his promise.
25 They murmured in their tents,
    and did not obey the voice of the Lord.
26 Therefore he raised his hand and swore to them
    that he would make them fall in the wilderness,
27 and would make their offspring fall among the nations,
    scattering them among the lands.

28 Then they yoked themselves to the Baal of Peor,
    and ate sacrifices offered to the dead;
29 they provoked the Lord to anger with their deeds,
    and a plague broke out among them.
30 Then Phinehas stood up and intervened,
    and the plague was stayed.
31 And that was counted to him as righteousness
    from generation to generation forever.

32 They angered him at the waters of Meribah,
    and it went ill with Moses on their account,
33 for they made his spirit bitter,
    and he spoke rashly with his lips.

34 They did not destroy the peoples,
    as the Lord commanded them,
35 but they mixed with the nations
    and learned to do as they did.
36 They served their idols,
    which became a snare to them.
37 They sacrificed their sons
    and their daughters to the demons;
38 they poured out innocent blood,
    the blood of their sons and daughters,
whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan,
    and the land was polluted with blood.
39 Thus they became unclean by their acts,
    and played the whore in their deeds.

40 Then the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people,
    and he abhorred his heritage;
41 he gave them into the hand of the nations,
    so that those who hated them ruled over them.
42 Their enemies oppressed them,
    and they were brought into subjection under their power.
43 Many times he delivered them,
    but they were rebellious in their purposes
    and were brought low through their iniquity.

44 Nevertheless, he looked upon their distress,
    when he heard their cry.
45 For their sake he remembered his covenant,
    and relented according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
46 He caused them to be pitied
    by all those who held them captive.

47 Save us, O Lord our God,
    and gather us from among the nations,
that we may give thanks to your holy name
    and glory in your praise.

48 Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
    from everlasting to everlasting!
And let all the people say, “Amen!”
    Praise the Lord!

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