I just finished reading The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation by Stephen R. Haynes.
As a pastor relatively new to Memphis, it’s important to read works like this in order to understand the history of Christianity in my city. Clearly the Martin Luther King, Jr. assassination sounds as the loudest single event, but even that terrible moment in time was preceded by a history of ecclesial racial tension in Memphis. Haynes explores, in particular, the church kneel-ins, specifically in his own Presbyterian tradition. Undoubtedly, the image he (re)constructs of racial tension within the church could be expanded beyond his own denomination.
Led by both black and white college students in the 1950’s, local congregations around the nation were challenged with regards to their willingness to accept black visitors on a Sunday morning. The kneel-in movement was an interracial prophetic movement designed to force these local congregations to make a decision regarding whether or not they would accept Christ’s worshipers no matter the color of their skin. Week after week, students would show up, seek entrance into the church building, attend the service, pray, and leave…if permitted. If not permitted entrance, they would come back week after week until the church acknowledged its prejudice and allowed them entrance.
Of course, congregations seeking to maintain racial segregation by disallowing these college students justified their actions in other ways. The most common reason given for keeping these students outside the church building was that “the church is not a place for political demonstrations.” Leaders of such congregations felt the social order’s political challenges had no place in Christ’s body, and these students were violating the sanctity of the church by forcing such a secular and non-religious agenda. Citing Jesus’ confrontation with the money changers in the Temple, these congregations said that God’s house is supposed to be a house of prayer, not a place where financial, political, or otherwise secular agendas were engaged.*
Many contemporary evangelicals do not understand the degree to which our forefathers and foremothers contributed to the racial problems in our world today. In our individualism, we assume each issue of racial upheaval is an isolated incident. But what The Last Segregated Hour effectively accomplishes is looking at the systems – both political and ecclesial – that explicitly maintained systems of injustice in this country until just a few decades ago. Today, we are much better at hiding and ignoring these injustices…in particular, in the church.
Haynes rightly points the finger at the church and asserts that we, of all people, ought to have been – and ought to be – leading the charge in issues of racial justice. But when the church becomes the mascot of a social order, when the church becomes the comfortable and wealthy big sister of society, we lose our prophetic voice. When we have moved to the center of the social order, losing our touch with those on the margins, we lose that prophetic imagination necessary to truly be the church.
Haynes does a good job through The Last Segregated Hour of making sure he both speaks the truth about the history of ecclesial racial tension in Memphis, but he also does so in a way that doesn’t shame those involved. In this sense, he is far less judgmental and far more gracious than I am.
When I look at the majority of evangelical and mainline churches in America today, I see mostly a group of intentionally segregated churches. Whites and blacks now choose not to worship together. In some sense our experience of God is too different. Or maybe we just haven’t truly dealt with our past yet. Despite the fact that those brave young college students in the 1950’s fought to bring racial unity to the church, the segregation that was once legally enforced (or theologically enforced)we now willingly accept as “good.”
Evangelical leaders are looking for the next great place where God is moving in our world – the next great place where the church can have maximum impact. In my opinion, as long as we continue to have white churches and black churches, as long as we continue to ignore our racial history, as long as we continue to ignore our privilege as whites, as long as we continue to pretend like the past is not creeping into the present, we can never take that next step and truly be the prophetic community of hope in a fallen world. We lament the disunity in the church between protestant denominations, and even with protestants and Catholics, and Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox. But why are so few people lamenting the disunity that’s happening on an even more fundamental level – between Christians of different races? We think the denominational splits are hurting the church’s reputation, but there’s a much bigger log of racial disunity. Until we deal with this, we’re only playing church, not being the church.
*Your Turn: Have you read this book? What do you think would be a good step in alleviating the American church’s racial tensions? In what ways do you see the American church avoiding this issue? In what ways do you see her trying to deal with this issue?
*In a future post, I plan to look at the “cleansing of the temple” within its context to demonstrate, not only how these congregations misused that text, but also how we cheapen it with our interpretation in modern churches.*