In one of my first classes at Boston University School of Theology, we explored the expansive terrain called “Christianity.” At one point I asked my professor (who eventually became my advisor), Robert C. Neville:
When do beliefs push so far against the religious tradition that they are no longer “Christian”? What do we even mean by “Christianity” for that matter? Furthermore, who gets to decide what Christianity is in the first place?
I’ve wondered about these questions ever since, particularly now in our current religious context. Are all the Christian churches around the U.S., for example, worshiping the same God? Are we enacting the same faith?
At a recent lecture I attended, Jim Wallis said that he regularly asks white Evangelicals if they’ve ever heard a sermon on racism. Unsurprisingly, almost none have. So what, if anything, does that mean within a conversation on God and Christianity?
Did you know that the Southern Baptist Church (SBC) and the Assemblies of God (AG) were founded largely on racism? SBC split from the Northern Baptist church over slavery in 1845 and then about 100-years later opposed civil rights. Although the SBC adopted a resolution opposing racism in 1995, the convention’s inability to quickly denounce white supremacy following Charlottesville exposed the still-present racist undertones.
AG’s story is similarly tragic. Following the Azusa Street Revival, social pressure started to mount. Were white Christians really supposed to accept a black minister as their leader, whether it’s William J. Seymour or Charles H. Mason? Did an upwardly mobile society really want women to assume power? To both, and many similar questions, the answer was a resounding “NO!”
So the white ministers in the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), founded by Mason, decided that they would no longer inconvenience themselves with the problems that accompanied their affiliation with a predominantly black denomination. In the words of Judith Casselberry,
“Within six years of the founding of COGIC, the groundswell of White ministers who objected to being credentialed by Mason, an African American, came to a head. In 1914 White ministers pulled out of COGIC to form the Assemblies of God (AG).”
And let’s not forget my own denomination: Church of God, Cleveland, TN. The next General Overseer that is a person of color will be the denomination’s first. And of course, like the SBC, it would be impossible for a woman to be General Overseer since women have been barred from full ordination.
As John 3:8 famously says, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know
where (insert: “which man”) it comes from or where (insert: “to which man”) it goes.”
What do we even mean by “God”?
Kelly Brown Douglas clearly and powerfully states that enslaved people knew that they were not worshiping the same god as their white “Christian” oppressors. These “god-fearing” slaveholders leaned on scripture to maintain their authority and dominance. They fought political battles at every turn that might allow their free workforce rights and humanity. Their god championed the cause to lay waste to whatever people would contaminate the pure and holy land. All things not imbued with “whiteness” were god’s gift to use for further dominance.
Once the dominion cracked during the Civil War, these Christians mourned their lost supremacy, crying out to their god to restore proper order. Communal professions of “The South will rise again,” rang with a prophetic fervency as they rallied behind their Confederate flag god.
But fear not! A legal loophole remained. To remind those formerly enslaved about their god-ordained place, laws were constructed to target black people. If they could not be enslaved at least they can be imprisoned.
Public lynchings came along as well. White people from all over the region would respond to the newspapers’ invitation to come and see the festivities.
They were a family affair…
Then the follow-up reports…
It’s safe to say that the majority of the 15,000 present in Waco, Texas in 1916 were god-fearing “Christians.” In 1948, 88% of the U.S. population still identified as Christian for goodness sake!
When can we admit that we are serving different Gods?
Theologians throughout time have bickered about the most mundane, erudite, and pedantic matters. Quibbles over the proper translation of a single word have caused major religious rifts.
However, to be honest, these minor differences don’t really matter, at least not as much as the more basic issue of understanding what one even means by “God.” Like Douglas stated, it is clear that multiple Gods are being worshiped in the U.S. under the title “Christianity.”
Are we really supposed to believe that…
…the god that enslaves is the same God that liberates and frees?
…the god that builds walls is the same One that told a story about the Good Samaritan?
…the god that relies on guns is the same One that moves throughout creation as Spirit?
…the god that blindly supports political parities is the same One that professed a new ethic that doesn’t bend to government principalities and powers?
…the god that serves and worships under the American flag is the same One that rejects all forms of idolatry?
…the god that refuses and vilifies refugees is the same One that welcomes all the little children?
…the god that oppresses women is the same One that creates all people in God’s image?
…the god that promotes racism is the same One that condemned all forms of hatred?
The god that lynches, abuses, oppresses, rejects, and enslaves is not and cannot be the Creator God. How could a god that seeks to steal, kill, and destroy be found in the God that brings abundant life?
At some point we have to admit that these are not the same Gods. Once we can see that, we are invited to search our hearts in order to find out what God we serve.
Jim Wallis said that Sojourners is going to discuss if they want to continue to self-identify as “Evangelicals.” I’ve personally rejected that moniker for a long time. But now I’m confronted with a more basic question: can I continue to identify as a “Christian”?
In the words of James H. Cone:
“Can the Church of Jesus Christ be racist and Christian at the same time? Can the Church of Jesus Christ be politically, socially, and economically identified with the structures of oppression and also be a servant of Christ? Can the Church of Jesus Christ fail to make the liberation of the poor the center of its message and work, and still remain faithful to its Lord?”
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