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Shalom, Part Deux

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

A year ago, I was praying for Shalom. Three years ago, I was looking for God’s stones of help. Eighteen months ago, I was struck by the very different perspective on community I was hearing in my new life. That it wasn’t about separation; it was about unity.

I heard the same sermon yesterday. I don’t have words yet for it. It’s that new. It’s that close. It’s that strange. Beautifully strange.

I’ve confessed the community-killing sin of racism that I participated in here, here, and especially here. In confessing that sin, however, I didn’t yet realize its connection to the Church-maiming, Gnostic sin of separatism. I want to confess that now.

I have heard numerous southern religious leaders admonish their worshipers to comply with a desegregation decision because it is the law, but I have longed to hear white ministers declare: “Follow this decree because integration is morally right and because the Negro is your brother.” In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, unBiblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail

A set of texts just fell into my lap this weekend, and it wasn’t until just today — Martin Luther King, Jr. Day — that I fully understood what they prove. I will post them here with little commentary, and, in fact, I will close comments on this post because I intend to make this about the texts themselves, not the angst I know they will engender. I want that angst to simmer for awhile.

A little context: these primary texts are from the Bob Jones University archival files, collected in chronological order. As far as I know, they have never been publicized or even viewed by any outside historian or journalist. As a 17-year employee, I had never seen them myself. They are file-copies of letters that span just over 20 years, from all three of the first Bob Jones University presidents. Adding Stephen Jones’ November 2008 statement, you have a complete picture of Bob Jones University’s racism from all administrations since just before Brown v. Board to the present day.

I have redacted all the names of employees and recipients and even attorneys. Even though every one of them, as far as I can tell, has passed, I thought it best to keep things focused on the arguments themselves rather than the individual readers.

Bob Jones, Jr. mentions one statement he claims that NBC wouldn’t broadcast in 1958. You can read a copy of that statement here.

On the face of it, there is little progress in the arguments. The shifts are only in precision. It becomes obvious even on a cursory glance that the administrations became progressively more stylized in their defense — cutting and pasting (pre-word processing, of course) nearly identical paragraphs no matter the recipient. All BJU alumni know these form letters well. We’ve all received them.

In sum, these texts prove what I’ve wondered for years: that the essential doctrine of separation which BJU and all IFB churches claim as most important is nothing more than egocentric, white, pessimistic, racist, Scripture-less, and Gospel-less provincialism. In other words, the ideograph of “separation” is simply code for “segregation.”

I hope scholars of religion and race, separatism, conservative Evangelicalism, revivalism, and the civil rights movement find these texts enlightening. I hope that all believers are struck by how easily we let ego shape our faith.

And I pray that you reading will forgive me for my participation in this self-righteous sin of separatism. Publish this as widely as you wish. The world needs to know the truth. “No lie can live forever.”