These were his spiritual sons, men he’d ordained into ministry and sent into a hateful world. And now they’d turned their backs on him.
Bishop Charles Harrison Mason, a Southern holy man, the son of freed slaves, had shared the platform with white and black preachers in the darkest years of Jim Crow. Mason knew that the gospel he preached allowed no provision for hatred or prejudice; these were sins that damned a soul to hell.
He suffered for this gospel. Mason was beaten and thrown in jail; the FBI maintained a file on him because of his interracial practices and pacifism. History provides only the scantiest details about Mason, the black Pentecostal apostle who founded the Church of God in Christ. His followers were drawn from the lowest strata of society, laborers, domestics and dirt farmers who desperately needed a miracle-working Jesus for everything from food to freedom. Theirs was largely an oral tradition.
We do know that many of the white ministers Mason had ordained pulled away from their black brothers to form the Assemblies of God.
One remarkable fact is noted in the history books. At the Assembly of God’s first convention in Hot Springs in 1914, Mason was invited to preach. He did that and more -- offering his blessing on the new, all-white organization, which would later become the largest Pentecostal denomination in the world. The division of black from white is starkly evident today: The Church of God in Christ is overwhelmingly black, and the Assemblies of God are predominantly white.
I think of Mason when I consider the words and deeds of a much more ordinary man of God: Barack Obama’s former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Throughout his life -- he lived to 95 -- Mason never betrayed bitterness toward white people, or rich people or any of those groups of men who oppressed his largely poor congregants in real and wicked ways. Mason had tapped into a reality that transcended the bigotry of his time: This Jesus Christ he followed gave him the supernatural strength -- the grace -- to love his enemies. And enemies there were.
This, I know, is what is so frustrating to many black Christians and to the Reverend Wright, whose incendiary comments about race have rocked the Obama campaign: that white America’s churches neglect to acknowledge their own sordid past in perpetrating and prolonging racial hatreds. That they have indeed been the enemy on many occasions, churning out racist rationalizations for slavery and failing to defend their black brothers in the eras of Jim Crow and civil rights. That some, such as the revered commentator of the original, unsanitized Scofield Reference Bible, went so far as to twist the Scriptures to gin up justifications for treating blacks as inferiors.
Even today, white evangelicals display only a tepid interest in bridging the divide between black and white. The Word of God teaches that we know what is right, and it is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before our God. I’ve always found it interesting that the Scriptures command us to do justice: thinking nice thoughts about justice evidently won’t cut it with God.
A recent study has shown that white Americans fail to appreciate the difference in perceptions about racial justice. White Americans with Forrest Gump-like obliviousness insist that ours is generally a fair and just society; black Americans see differently.
Reverend Wright, pastor of the largely black Trinity United Church of Christ in the South Side of Chicago, has pointed out these disparities from the pulpit in bitter and angry verbiage. He has mixed in conspiracy theories -- that, for example, the white American powers that be concocted AIDS to destroy the black race. For that I will not demonize him; like the white preachers who pushed away from Mason to help found the Assemblies of God, he is simply a man who’s failed to rise above his time.
And the truth is, bigotry against whites is often deemed an acceptable bigotry among blacks, a reasonable response to jacked-up times.
It is the extraordinary believer who refuses prejudice in any form, who simply calls a hater a hater.
But I have known men and women like this, who understand the eternal truth of the Christian faith that God is love. Prejudice, to them, is a form of hate. The Scriptures speak in uncompromising terms about men who hate their brothers: They are murderers, and they have no place in the Kingdom of God.
My two closest friends are black evangelicals. We know each other intimately; they’ve seen me at my best and worst. One thing that’s remarkable about them is that I have never seen even a trace of bitterness toward white people. I suppose I wouldn’t be a close friend of theirs if this weren’t true, since I am as white as a white baby’s butt.
I wanted to know how they got that way -- devoid of bitterness -- since I saw so many opportunities for a different outcome. Turns out their backgrounds were markedly different, but their conclusion was the same: My faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t give me the option to hate.
Evangelist Diane Eddington, who’s in her late 40s and grew up in mostly segregated schools, spoke from the pulpit in my church a little over a week ago and warned the largely black congregation that haters go to hell, whether they’re black or white. How do you know a hater? Listen to them talk, she said. It’ll come out sooner or later. What’s in the heart can’t but spill out.
She’d heard too many prejudiced comments against Latinos, how they’re taking over the schools and such. She detected the hate behind the half-truths. She wouldn’t stand for it.
Evangelist Diane takes a Christian’s responsibility to love so seriously that she considers it folly for blacks to watch movies that chronicle America’s hateful past -- even Roots. She believes these films provoke prejudice. She has little use for the concept of Black History Month for the same reason; if you’re going to teach it at all, she says, teach it throughout the year. Weave it into the bigger story; separation implies inferiority.
Diane grew up in the Church of God in Christ, where you will seldom hear statements of the racial tenor of the Reverend Wright’s. While COGIC has its problems, as regular readers of this column will know, it has largely steered clear of the divisive rhetoric common to more theologically liberal black churches. At the core of Pentecostalism there still exists a dream of being one: a recognition that our heritage in Jesus Christ is much more powerful than the things that would separate us.
My other best friend, DD, who’s in her late 30s, grew up as the only black kid in her rural Texas elementary-school classes. “I thought my first name was Nigger,” she says. Compounding her separateness was the fact that she was impoverished as well, living in a tumbledown shack with an outhouse.
Coming up, she had every reason to hate. The same day she held in her hand an acceptance letter to medical school, a truck full of yahoos barreled past her in the street and screamed, “Nigger!” One of the first times she entered the operating room in scrubs, she was mistaken for the cleaning lady. She has duly noted the disparities in position and pay for women of her race, and it frustrates her that many of her white colleagues assume she is a beneficiary of affirmative action.
Every black girl she knew growing up, she says, wanted at some time to be white and blue-eyed with straight, silky hair pulled in a ponytail. It is something few white people understand at all -- what it’s like to have a sense of inferiority sown in your soul from the earliest age. DD gathered from her early school years that everything black was bad, and everything white was good. Black kids were stupid, ugly, poor, dirty and despised. White kids were smart, pretty, rich, clean and worthy.
The stain goes so deep, she says, that only a relationship with Jesus Christ can purge it out. When she got saved at the age of 21, she says, she gradually lost all those feelings of inferiority -- replaced by an understanding that she was a daughter of God. The people who reached out to her at that time, she says, were white Christians. It is something she will not forget, and it precludes her from viewing white people as an evil, homogeneous group. She loves her white brothers and sisters in Christ.
“I live my faith and not my race,” she says. “It is a simple choice.”
I mention my friends because I see them as part of the answer; they have chosen the way of unconditional love, what the Apostle Paul deems “the most excellent way,” and my Bible tells me plainly that this kind of love “never fails.” In the political sphere I find a parallel in Barack Obama, and I applaud his wise and eloquent discourse yesterday on race. He soundly repudiated the divisive rhetoric of his mentor and spiritual father, the Reverend Wright, without denying the positive contribution the pastor has made in his life.
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The American church is complex and confused, and in its sanctuaries love can be found right alongside hate.
Do the Reverend Wright’s words rise to the level of hate? Nah. Not what I’ve heard, anyway. It’s the same conspiratorial talk-radio junk that’s been kicking around in black communities for years.
I do wonder who he’s preaching to. It seems like he’s directing his inflammatory statements to whites, but in one of the widely viewed YouTube clips it’s clear that his congregation is almost entirely black. His words, then, do nothing to prick the consciences of the “rich white men” he rails against. So what is the point? To provoke a few amens, to get some of his members to slap him on the back with a hanky?
The Reverend Wright’s problem isn’t hate. He, like so many members of his Christian generation, black as well as white, suffers from something much more mundane: a failure to love. --Julie Lyons