THE BLOG
09/30/2015 03:01 pm ET Updated Sep 30, 2016

Jesus, Ignored

I have long wondered how in the world there can be Jesus, with millions of people professing to believe in him, and there can yet be racism, sexism, homophobia, militarism, hatred and enmity. The words of Jesus seem so simple and straightforward, yet it has seemed to me that a broad swath of people calling themselves Christian ignore those words.

One cannot forget that Gandhi, who studied Christianity but who never became a Christian and who experienced discrimination from white Christians based on the color of his skin, said that if Christians really practiced Christianity, the world would be revolutionized.

And then there is the late Senator Strom Thurmond, who was once asked if he knew that the Bible, or, more specifically, Jesus, said that we should "love our neighbors as ourselves," and Thurmond responded that of course he knew those words, but added that he "had the right to choose who his neighbor was."

I hadn't noticed that Jesus gave us the option of choosing. I thought the words meant that all of us are to love each other, whomever that "other" might be.

My ever-present questions about this apparent disconnect between the words and directives of Jesus, and how the world actually works hit me as I read Charles Marsh's book God's Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights. Marsh, writing about the Rev. Ed King, who led a campaign to visit white churches in the South to see if he could get them to follow the Gospel as he understood it, said that the white church in the South "steered perilously close to idolatry in its devotion to the Southern Way of Life. (p. 130)

The white church, Marsh noted, kept its doors closed and displayed a "pervasive inhospitality" toward black and interracial groups. (I would maintain that white churches in the North did the same thing.) Those churches, Marsh writes, were "theologically bankrupt," leaving the words of Jesus on the back burner as they worked to preserve and protect the Southern Way of Life. (he capitalized that phrase as I have written it.) Nothing should shake that, Marsh concluded the white church position to be, not even the commands of Jesus.

Even more interesting was an analogy that Marsh noted. White people were vociferously afraid of black men degrading white women sexually; the white vagina was to be kept closed to black men, even as white men were known to rape black women at will. The white vagina was closed to black people as was the white sanctuary; keeping the "doors of the church," closed, then, carried a sexual undertone, if Marsh is correct, in a way that I had not noticed before. Two things, apparently, could keep the white church at odds with the words and commands of Jesus: their women and their churches, Jesus notwithstanding.

Even more interesting was the belief of many whites (north and south) that black people were not Christian. In October of 1963, on World Wide Communion Sunday, two black women and one white woman, as a part of Ed King's church visitation project, attempted to attend Capitol Street Methodist Church in Jackson, Mississippi. When they walked to the front doors of the church, they of course found the doors closed, with ushers standing in front of them to make sure they stayed closed. One of the black women, Bettye Poole, asked one of the ushers if he didn't realize that they were all brothers and sisters in Christ? "The usher told her point blank that she was no Christian" and that "none of her type" were Christians. "They were communists and troublemakers and didn't care about the church...they were just trying to make white people look bad." These women were arrested for trying to enter the church, and one of the women showed the arresting officer a picture of hands, of all colors, "coming together in communion," and she asked him if didn't see these hands, indicating people of all races coming together? The officer reportedly said, "If God had intended for the nigger and the white man to be together, he never...would have made the nigger and the white man." (pp. 134-135)

Marsh concludes that the white church was "hostile to the Gospel and indeed, to Christ himself." (p. 139) The doors of the white church were closed and would remain so, in spite of King's intentional campaign to bring a sensitivity to the Gospel message. Jesus' commands for people to "love their neighbors as themselves" would continue to be compromised by the white church's definition of "neighbor."

Are the doors to churches, white and black, still closed? Marsh, quoting Rev. Ed King, noted that the preacher said that "many people talk of being Christian..."but are "afraid of Christianity" as much as they were "afraid of black people." King preached that white people in the South were "afraid of a guilty conscience" and were afraid that blacks would "treat us as we have treated you." (p. 145)

So, do many white people and white churches, even today, ignore the Gospel when it comes to race, and in fact to the command to love one's neighbor, whomever that neighbor might be? Do churches, white and black, have "closed doors" when it comes to the Gospel command to "love one's neighbor as oneself?" For those Christians who choose to shut their doors and their hearts to some people, are we to believe and ascribe to the belief that there is still a large amount of theological bankruptcy infusing our society, coming straight from our churches?

Is this willingness to ignore the words of Jesus the reason Jesus preached "not everyone who says 'Lord, Lord!'will enter the Kingdom of Heaven?"

It just makes one pause and think.