The eyes of the nation are trained these days on the county where I live. Glynn County, Georgia, where the county seat is Brunswick.
Three months ago, two white men killed a black man, and three weeks ago people started to notice. I watch NBC Nightly News, and they have given extensive coverage to what is happening.
What is happening is a mixture of law and politics with a lot of public relations thrown in. There is a good bit of business involved—one of the lawyers lives across the street from me—and more religion than we know.
Here’s what I mean.
Religion is at the center of this catastrophe. The best way to explain to ask a question.
What is it about southern white religion that gives people—Christian people—permission to buy and sell slaves, track and lynch people, segregate people by color for everything from drinking water to learning math to mowing grass, profile black people as persons to be feared and accused, and in general judge people not by their character but by the color of their skin?
What is it about southern white religion—in which I was raised and now live—that allows us to treat people this way and, more despicable, turn our eyes when others do it (sometimes on our behalf)?
How is it that our love for Bible reading, gospel preaching, and hymn singing has been nurtured over the years in the very same environment that practiced all the evils listed above?
Don’t you find this a strange and troubling situation?
Now here we are. Scores of white people have played roles in this ugly drama: police officers, district attorneys, judges and jailers, clerks in several county offices, photographers, journalists and editors, and neighbors. Most of these folk are members of a church somewhere, and they would answer yes if you asked, “Are you a Christian?”
All of them would, of course, deny being racist, just like the two now in the county jail charged with murder deny guilt of anything criminal or immoral.
Everybody is innocent.
Except that everybody is guilty.
In some way, in the deepest way, we are all guilty. We are all complicit in a system that has, century after century and one year after another, practiced slavery, lynching, segregation, suppression of civil rights, denigration and mass incarceration of people of color, and the denial that anything is wrong.
Something is wrong. Something is wrong with our religion. Somehow the sweet love of Jesus that we teach our children has never gotten out of our churches into the jails and courts and streets of our cities. Our city—Brunswick.
Otherwise somebody involved in this most despicable of all dramas would have stepped forward, or spoken up, or pushed back, or marched out. Somebody somewhere would have said, “This ain’t right!”
If that happened, it didn’t happen strong enough or long enough to get out of the court room or police car or jail house far enough to make any difference.
We can be indignant about it now, and embarrassed; but we Christians know how this works. We have a hard time getting these things into our church—into our music, into our sermons, into our bible classes, into our prayers. It is all too controversial to allow into the sanctuary (just like we don’t let black folk themselves into our sanctuaries).
And because such matters of justice, of gospel justice, of human justice never make it into the church, they never make it out of the sanctuary. Which is why hundreds of public servants and private professionals can continue year after year, century after century, subverting the very gospel we claim to treasure even as we stand and sing the doxology.
Here we are, four hundred and one years after that first ship full of black folk docked in Virginia, still tracking down and killing blacks, still denying civil and economic rights to blacks, still blaming blacks for their centuries of poverty and illiteracy as we throw them to the ground and haul them off the jail (and then make them pay a daily fee for being in jail!)
It ain’t right!
Jesus said something about this, you know, although we never hear it in church like this: “When you do it unto the least of these my brothers, you have done it unto me.” And by “it” Jesus meant not just feed and clothe and visit, but also lynch and jail and disrespect.
How come this religion of ours has produced all this wickedness? How does it happen right here is a county so religious a man can’t get elected dogcatcher without being a deacon in some church?
Ninety-seven years ago, somebody published an essay Mark Twain wrote 18 years earlier, in 1905. He was angry about the lynching of three black people in his home state of Missouri. After rejecting one response after another, he hit upon the one that will work, the only one that will work. He wrote, “Let’s bring home all the missionaries in China and see if they can convert the Christians.”
The conversion of the Christians to the religion of Jesus is the only thing that will work. It’s not the sheriff, not the jailer, but its me, O Lord, and you, standing in the need of prayer!
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