A Few Thoughts on Selma (Part 2)

Last week, Walter Strickland gave his thoughts on the movie “Selma” and especially the historical and cultural impact of Christianity in the civil rights movement. This week, Nathan Finn gives his take, part 2 in our reflections on the movie.  

From the moment I watched the first trailer for “Selma,” I knew this was a movie I wanted to see as soon as possible. To have the opportunity to watch it with my colleague Walter Strickland and some other friends from Southeastern Seminary was a rare treat. We watched the movie together and then enjoyed dialoging about it over coffee afterwards. (To put aside this particular movie for a moment, I’d encourage readers to watch a good movie with a group of friends and then discuss the film’s implications from the perspective of a Christian worldview.)

I admit up front that I did not come to “Selma” as a casual moviegoer. First of all, I am a Gen-X American who was raised on “this side” of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I was taught in school that Martin Luther King Jr. and his colleagues were right and that their vision for our nation was a good one. However, that does not mean I was “post-racial” or “colorblind” in my views. In recent years, God has increasingly shown me many ways that I have personally benefitted from structural racism and (often implicitly) embraced ethnocentric assumptions. I am a white southerner, and my world is still shaped by racial realities.

I am also a trained historian and an elder of an urban church. As a historian with expertise in twentieth-century American Christianity, I have read widely about the Civil Rights Movement; it is, in fact, a favorite topic of study. In my church, my fellow pastors and I regularly wrestle with how our predominantly white, educated, and affluent congregation can better reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom—and of our neighbors. This is especially important because the neighborhood in which we gather is predominantly African-American, less educated, and less affluent, though gentrification trends are gradually altering the demographics.

History Coming Alive

I really appreciated how “Selma” brought history to life. Yes, I know that some folks are exercised that the movie misrepresented Lyndon Johnson’s views on the March on Selma and the Voter Rights Act, ignored Malcolm X’s conversion to Islam, and made progressive white clergymen sound like evangelicals. I’m not really bothered by these historical errors. Movies—even those rooted in past events—are primarily works of art, as director Ava Duvernay has rightly pointed out in interviews. I expect inaccuracies in any historical movie, and in this case, they did not blunt the impact of the film for me.

Like probably many readers, I have watched lots of archival footage of Martin Luther King’s speeches. I have read many of his writings. I have watched numerous documentaries, including the award-winning PBS documentary “Eye on the Prize” (highly recommended). But none of that was quite like watching “Selma.” In a very real sense, I felt the impact of structural segregation, individual racism, civil disobedience, and faith-inspired activism in a way I never have before because of the power of the medium of film and the high quality of the product itself. The cast was outstanding, especially David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo, who play Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, respectively.

As a historian, I appreciate the sympathetic, but not hagiographical portrayal of King. “Selma” depicts King as a man driven by faith, but struggling with personal doubts. He is a man whose life was saturated with the biblical worldview, but was also marred by moral failure. In both of these respects, he was not unlike many biblical figures such as Moses, Abraham, David, and Paul. Furthermore, the movie helpfully shows that King was not a solitary prophet; others surrounded him and played crucial, if lesser-known roles in the movement. Coretta King, Ralph David Abernathy, and especially John Lewis receive well-deserved attention in this movie.

I also appreciate that the movie does not depict a uniform Civil Rights Movement. As Walter pointed out in his earlier review, there was tension and competition between groups like King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and other organizations not mentioned in the film. The Civil Rights Movement further fractured in the years following the March on Selma and especially King’s murder three years later, and not all of the fractures were as influenced by Christianity as the SCLC was during King’s lifetime.

This White Man’s Burden

Few films have moved me emotionally as much as “Selma.” The fact that I watched the movie in a theater that was predominantly filled with African-Americans moviegoers contributed to my emotions. They laughed during lighter moments. They wept when Jimmy Lee Jackson was murdered and when marchers were beaten unconscious by state troopers. They “talked back” to the movie. And they applauded when it was all over. I fought off tears throughout the whole film—and lost that particular battle several times.

I think white southern evangelicals should watch “Selma” for the same reasons I think they should watch “The Help,” another relatively recent movie that focuses on the theme of race in the mid-20th-century South: the struggle for racial equality is as much a part of our history as it is that of our African-American friends. Of course, society in general was segregated because of white supremacist assumptions. But we need to remember that white believers were complicit in that structural racism—even if implicitly. Too many of us have continued to embrace a thin view of the gospel that is blind to some of the ways that our black friends continue to struggle with racial equality. It’s easy to argue for a colorblind society when most of the blinders are painted white.

When we watch a movie like “Selma,” it reminds us why so many of our black neighbors respond the way they do to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and Eric Garner. It reminds us why so many of them are pro-life and pro-traditional marriage and voted joyfully for Barack Obama. It reminds us why phrases like “reverse racism” and “Welfare Queen” are so profoundly offensive and why affirmative action is so appreciated. It reminds us why they think Fox News is anti-Christian propaganda. Neighbor-love demands that we hear people’s hearts, try to understand them, and meet them where they are—even when we may never reach total agreement on all of the issues that separate us.

To be crystal clear, the gospel is most definitely the solution to racial strife in America. But let’s not kid ourselves, my fellow white evangelicals. If we appeal piously to the gospel without committing ourselves to the hard work of authentic cross-cultural friendships and open dialogs, policy debates, social justice ministries, intentional outreach, and repentance, prayer and service to those in need, then our gospel is a slogan that deflects rather than a truth that transforms. There is no gospel when there is no change. “Selma” reminds me of how far we’ve come, and how far we still need to go—how far I still need to go.

I am thankful for the life and witness of Martin Luther King Jr. and those with whom he partnered, both famous and unknown. And I am thankful that “Selma” is in theaters at this particular moment in our nation’s history. Please, go and watch this movie and then wrestle with all the emotions it evokes—it will be good for your soul.


Guest Post (David Prince): Jesus is Not Colorblind: Celebrating Racial and Ethnic Diversity in the Local Church

[Editor’s Note: Every so often, we at Between the Times wish to share with our readers especially important thoughts. Such is the case today. This post is by David E. Prince, Pastor of Preaching and Vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church and Assistant Professor of Christian Preaching at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.]

On Aug. 28, 1963, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Martin Luther King Jr. took his place alongside Abraham Lincoln as a preeminent shaper of American culture when he delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to 250,000 civil rights supporters. The most oft quoted line of the famous speech is, “I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Some have appropriated King’s words (wrongly I think) to argue that a colorblind society should be our ultimate goal.

King was arguing for racial equality, which does not necessitate a colorblind society. He uttered those words in a context where sinister Jim Crow laws legally codified the message that white skin meant a man was inherently superior and black skin meant a man was inherently inferior, even something less than a man. King’s rhetorical masterpiece publicly exposed the hypocrisy of America: A country founded in liberty as the land of “freedom and justice for all,” subjugating a people for no other reason than the shade of their skin.

“Separate but equal” was the bankrupt cry of segregationists opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1965. The segregationist mindset has been largely repudiated in American culture. Tragically, the one time in which America still functions as a segregated society is on Sunday morning. One article, “Race, Diversity, and Membership Duration in Religious Congregations,” published in Sociological Inquiry (July 2010) found that 90 percent of congregations in the U.S. are segregated (a single racial group accounts for more than 80 percent of membership). That Sunday morning worship is the most segregated hour of Christian America has become cliché, but it is largely true.

The usual defensive response when these facts are mentioned is that we all believe in racial equality, but we cannot help the fact racial groups have different preferences when it comes to worship, preaching and how church is done. In other words, we may be separate but we’re equal, so it’s nothing to worry about. After all, we reason, if someone of another race wants to attend our church, we would be glad to have them, so there is no problem here. Thus, tolerating racial and ethnic diversity amounts to doing our Christian duty.

However, a genuinely Christian attitude toward racial and ethnic diversity is not one of toleration, but celebration. The entire human race was made in the image of God (Gen. 1:27, Acts 17:26) and shares a common descent as the fallen children of Adam (Gen. 3:17, 1 Cor. 15:22). The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is composed of redeemed image bearers described as “one new man” (Eph. 2:15), a new race and ethnicity of people whose identity is found in being united by faith to Christ (Eph. 2:11-22). Racial hostility is a gospel issue, it is the spirit of Antichrist, and on the cross Jesus killed it (Eph. 2:16). The inclusion of ethnically diverse peoples in the household of God is God’s intention, fulfilling his gospel promise (Gen. 3:15, Gen. 12, 15, Ps. 67, Acts 2, Rom. 4, Gal. 3, 4, Eph. 2, 4, Rev. 5, 7, 14).

Sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark notes that the city of Antioch, during days of Roman rule, was divided into 18 different and intensely antagonistic ethnic groups with almost no social integration (The Rise of Christianity, 157-158). It was followers of Christ in the multi-ethnic church of Antioch (Jews, Africans, Arabs, Greeks, Romans, Syrians, Asians) who were first called Christians (Acts 11:19-26) and who took the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world (Acts 13:1-3). The gospel advanced as the Greco-Roman world stood in awe of the people who formerly hated each other because of ethnic distinctions, who now loved each other as family and worshiped and served together in the name of Jesus.

When we re-create Jesus and the biblical story in our own image, we ignore the gospel implications for how we are to understand racial and ethnic diversity as a cruciform community. Jesus is not colorblind and his followers must not be. Our differences are now seen in Christ, as celebratory markers of God’s expansive providential grace. The gospel does not erase our cultural, racial and ethnic distinctions, but rather reinterprets every aspect of our story in light of the gospel story (Rev. 21:24). The Christian community trades ethnocentricity for Christocentricity and is liberated to celebrate the breadth and length, height and depth of the love of Christ (Eph. 3:14-21).

In dominant white evangelical culture we often unwittingly proceed with a white Messiah attitude toward living out the demands of the gospel in our churches. Well-intentioned social ministry is often done with an off-putting aura of white evangelical aristocracy, albeit a benevolent one toward needy ethnic people. A local church unwilling to celebrate racial and ethnic diversity, interracial marriage, and transracial adoption, has a gospel problem. It is an inadequate justification for inaction to assert that intentionally pursuing a multi-ethnic congregation might disturb congregational peace. Jesus is at war with that kind of serpentine pseudo-peace.

We need to exorcise Jim Crow’s ghost that tragically still lingers in too many churches. “Separate but equal” was empty rhetoric used to defend cultural racial segregation in the 1950s and 60s. And it still is empty rhetoric when it is used to defend segregated churches today. The problem of latent racism will not be overcome by resolutions & conferences (though they have a place) but by integrated local churches. You do not need a platform at the Lincoln Memorial to do something about racial and ethnic segregation today. You already have the gospel and a local church.

By David E. Prince

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Briefly Noted: Hoping that the March On Washington Finally Reaches the Church

A recent edition of The Chronicle Review caused me to pause and reflect on the progress the United States has made, in terms of racial unity, but also on the long way we have to go. More particularly, it caused me to reflect upon how far we, God’s church in the United States, are from his ideal for racial unity. In the article, “Our Long Walk to Freedom,” Peniel Joseph reflects upon the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington (August 28, 1963), in which several hundred thousand Americans marched in a unified effort to address racial disunity, economic security, class struggle, and voting rights.[1] Peniel, Professor of History at Tufts University, is right that the 50th anniversary “provides an important milestone to reflect on race relations in America. It’s natural to ask: How far have we come? And what has brought us here?”

Toward the beginning of the article, he notes that during the 2012 presidential election, black voter turnout surpassed white voter turnout for the first time. According to the U. S. Census Bureau, 66.2 percent of blacks turned out to vote, which (in contrast to 64.1 percent of non-Hispanic whites), which “represents a potential game changer for American politics” (B10).

Peniel writes that Democrats and Republicans read this data in different ways. Democrats see it as evidence of an emerging political consensus built around minorities. Republicans argue it is a result of Obama’s (2008) election itself and thus only an outlier in the otherwise normal voting trends. Joseph argues however that both narratives underestimate “the political intelligence and sophistication of black voters.” According to Joseph this is an intelligence and sophistication founded upon the hard, culture-shaping work of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

The Democratic Party was not always the party of minorities, or especially of blacks, in America. By the late 1960s, however, the “Democrats found themselves identified primarily with the struggles of black and poor people” (B11). Though George McGovern was trounced in the Presidential election of 1972, as were most democrats from 1968–88, Martin Luther King Jr.’s “dream of a multiracial democracy did not die. It was, in retrospect, simply deferred: a sleeping giant waiting for demographic changes to come.” According to Joseph many of those changes may have come. The recent so-called “browning of America” “may turn the [Democratic] party’s identification with racial minorities from a political negative into an enduring electoral majority” (B11).

The possibility of such “an enduring electoral majority” has its beginnings, and its most important era, in the 1960s. As Joseph states, “The historic makeup of the Obama coalition can be directly traced back to events that took place a half-century ago.” Officially titled “the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom,” the demonstration pointed toward public policy issues such as economic security, class struggle, and voting rights that lay “beneath the surface of a battle for equality that many viewed, then, primarily through a racial lens” (B11). These issues arose again and again throughout the 1960s in the midst of conversation, debate, and outright battle over racial equality.

The March on Washington occurred in the most significant, and most tumultuous, year of that decade: 1963. The centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation witnessed several epoch-marking events. King was imprisoned in Birmingham, but from there wrote his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” In it he evoked the nation’s founding as the “well of democracy” from which the civil rights movement was nourished. On June 11 of the same year, President Kennedy “voice full-throated approval of King’s words.” After asking “who among us” would like to switch places with King or other black Americans, Kennedy “concluded by defining civil rights as a ‘moral issue’ as ancient as Scripture but in dire need of public policy, as well as spiritual, intervention” (B12). Following Kennedy’s speech, the next day, Medgar Evers was assassinated.

The same month King served as keynote speaker at the Walk to Freedom in Detroit, which was at that time the greatest demonstration of the civil-rights era. That was until the March on Washington on August 28, 1963. This event “seemed to cull the year’s triumphs and tragedies to carve out what King described as a ‘stone of hope’ from a mountain of despair” (B12). Indeed more tragedy followed, with the bombing of 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham (which killed four girls) and Kennedy’s assassination in November. Yet these events, especially Kennedy’s assassination, “created the moral high ground that was absent while [Kennedy] was alive” and enabled President Johnson to enact several landmark legislative acts. The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) are two of the most notable.

Such progress would seem to indicate that the U. S. presidency of “a son Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas” would be marked by an increasing resolution of race relations. Yet, as Joseph notes, these relations “remain contested” (B12). President Obama, for example, received 39 percent of the vote of whites in 2012, compared to 43 percent in 2008. Furthermore, John Kerry (2004) and Michael Dukakis (1988) both scored higher on this measure than Obama in 2012. Though young voters are less concerned with a candidate’s race than any previous generation, the racial tension remains and progress continues “in fits and starts,” according to Joseph (B12).

The recent not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman touched off a series of nationwide protests. President Obama reflected publicly and personally on the effect of the verdict for many black Americans. Such tension, then, marks Obama’s generation. He did however strike a hopeful tone with regard to the next generation: “they’re better than us” (B12). Joseph also comments on the disproportionate number of blacks imprisoned on drug charges as evidence of remaining racial tension. More generally, Joseph states, “blacks and whites are still more likely than not to live, work, socialize and die apart” (B12). (One may also think of the oft-quoted line, “Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week.”)

Good and bad fruit has come from the events of the 1960s, but no doubt fruit has come. Joseph sees this 50th anniversary as landmark for several reasons. “The most profound lesson that 1963 has to offer the present is about the power of collective, organized action . . . . Most of all [the civil rights activists, especially King] promoted a radical vision of American democracy with a tenacity that has almost allowed us to forget the long road we’ve traveled since then, and to pay scant attention to the hard journey that remains” (B12).

Some Reflections

In response to Joseph’s article, I’ll limit myself to four theological reflections which, taken together, underscore my hope that the March on Washington will finally reach the church, that our churches and seminaries will increasingly be places known for racial diversity, racial unity, and interracial healing. For the deepest and truest racial reconciliation is wrought by the cross of Christ, just as the ultimate reasons for honoring and loving our racially-different brothers and sisters are theological rather than social or political.

First, God built diversity into his good creation. In Genesis, we are told that God created the heavens and earth and declared it “good” and even “very good.” Part of that goodness is the multi-splendored diversity which marked both the human and non-human aspects of his creation. He could have created the world dully, grey, and monochrome. But instead, he created it pulsating with life and color. At the center of his creation stood humanity, who he created to live in a unified diversity, loving him and loving each other.

Second, Christ’s atonement enables the racial unity God desires and overthrows the racial arrogance he detests. During the dramatic narrative of Revelation 5, all of heaven’s inhabitants gather around the throne, as “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). This verse is a culmination of a major theme in Scripture: the God who created humanity is so profoundly true, so comprehensively good, and so strikingly beautiful that he will find for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped both by black Americans and white Americans (and Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans), and this togetherness is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship.

Third, we will not know Christ in his full glory until we know him as the King of the Nations. As we noted, Revelation 5 depicts a scene in which Christ is worshiped by every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. And at that moment, in this midst of this unified worship, it will be crystal clear that our God is not some tribal deity who is worshipped in a corner by one tribe of people (e.g. white Americans or black Americans). Instead, he is the King of the Nations, whose truth, goodness, and beauty is made known by the combined worship of all his people (both black and white, and other). We will not know him fully until we see him riding in as the King of the Nations.

Fourth, God calls us to shape our communities (socially and politically) in ways that preview his kingdom. As believers, we live in a time “between the times,” and one of our tasks is to bring every aspect of our lives (including social and political aspects) under submission to Christ’s Lordship. In so doing, God’s people provide a glimpse of the goodness that waits in Christ’s kingdom. In relation to racial unity and diversity, we are well served to ask three questions: what is God’s creational design for racial unity and diversity in the social and political realm? How has God’s design been corrupted and misdirected? How can we as Christians bring healing to this realm by redirecting it toward Christ? To be concise to the extreme in answering those questions, God’s design is a unity-in-diversity fueled by Christian love. This design has been corrupted and derailed by racism and segregation at the personal and institutional levels, and often is perpetuated by our society’s mediating institutions (of which the church is one). Following the lead of men like Norman Peart (Separate No More) and Jarvis Williams (One New Man), we must build churches which picture the gospel in their racial makeup and witness, and which work hard in the social and political realm to make racial reconciliation and unity a tangible reality.

When our churches are racially divided, and when they are monolithically uni-racial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to win admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American. In these days following the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, may we pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.

[1] Peniel E. Joseph, “Our Long Walk to Freedom” in The Chronicle Review (August 16, 2013: B10–12).