In the 4th century, Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria, was informed that his insistence on biblical fidelity was out of fashion, that the entire world was against him. His reply to this well-meant warning has come down to us as a rallying cry for unpopular truths.
He said, “Athanasius Contra Mundum,” Athanasius is against the world.
An inevitable implication of Christianity is that we will find ourselves at times standing against the world.
If a white evangelical pastor were to get up into his pulpit this coming Sunday and call upon his congregation to take concrete steps to improve racial relations and to consider the ways they have failed to love their neighbors of another race, this undoubtedly would be seen as controversial in some quarters.
At the same time, any such sermon would also likely garner praise from wide sections of contemporary society, both from within the church and from outside its walls. Plus, statements like this would find much in common with a great many other forums arguing the same basic point.
However, were that pastor’s predecessor to have made such a speech a generation or two earlier, things likely would have been rather different. The opposition would be more intense, the support less vocal, and the common voices not so common.
Many have rightly noted that evangelicals were often either absent from such discussions or were arguing in favor of continued elements of segregation. Several scholars have written of the publicly stated belief of pastors and theologians that God had ordained racial distinctions and that attempts at integration were connected to Communist plots.
In 1944 one evangelical magazine published an article equating a liberal group’s abandonment of the Bible with the call for interracial marriage. Apparently, to that writer, a multiracial couple was as much to be opposed as abandoning the inerrancy of the Bible. Another magazine’s editor referred to the war against Japan as ridding the Pacific of the “yellow pest.”
Twenty years later, a pastor first declared his great love for African Americans but then decried the way “Yankees” pushed for racial integration and intermarriage, saying “Evidently you think that spotted babies bring honor and glory to our Lord Jesus? Even the animals and fowls do not integrate and so called intelligent people push integration.” Needless to say, the writer neglected to point to any Scriptural passage which supported his contention that Jesus, the descendant of the non-Israelite, Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth, would object to so-called “spotted babies.”
However prominent such voices may have been then and in the contemporary memory, theirs were not the only ones raised in the 20th century’s great racial reevaluation. As early as the 1940s, some evangelical writers in “Christian Herald” condemned the war-industries for refusing to hire African Americans and publicly apologized when a popular and insulting term for Japanese people was used in their pages.
A poignant moment came in 1943 when an American soldier in “Moody Monthly” described an encounter with Japanese American civilians. What, from the title, sounded like the tale of a massacre of innocents, turned out to be quite beautiful. A white, Southern army major led his group of white and African American troops to an internment facility of Japanese Americans. The major was a chaplain and had gone to seminary with a Japanese pastor imprisoned in the camp. The writer described the joint worship service which followed:
As hearts were united in chorus and hymn, we knew that within we were of one color, and of one blood – the blood of Christ … Perhaps some of us could scarcely believe the emotions … that moved within our hearts as we marveled to see North and South, black, white, and yellow, the latter our “enemies,” enjoying this oneness through “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”
As the decades wore on and the call for racial justice increased, so too did the volume increase from some evangelical voices. When a Southern pastor claimed that the Klan’s presence had a “sobering influence” on society, “Christian Herald’s” response was, “The Klan has a ‘sobering influence’? Since when did men ashamed to have their faces seen accomplish anything but intolerance, bigotry and social cowardice?”
Regarding the (still-common) self-segregation of American churches each Sunday morning, a writer in “Eternity” challenged in 1953:
If that [situation] does not bring a deep sense of sorrow to your heart, and a poignant desire that the grief of the Holy Spirit should be stopped in this great sin against the Lord who shed His blood for black, white, brown, yellow, and red, then I have a right to wonder if you have really understood the nature of the sacrifice of Calvary and the wonder of your own personal salvation through grace.
Another article that same year in that same magazine rebuked American Christians for their pet sin of prejudice, saying “Because each man’s prejudice is the dear child of his own natural heart he nourishes it and protects it as long as he can from the searching light of God’s Spirit.” The author went on to note that Americans were all for caring for Africans overseas but wouldn’t lift a finger to aid their kin here in their own neighborhoods.
A few years later in “Christianity Today,” a commentator wrote that “From the humanitarian standpoint the issue hardly exists. The Negro is one of those endowed by their Creator, as a Southerner put it, with certain ‘inalienable rights.’ He is a human being, and in a land founded on Christian principles he deserves the more to be treated as such.” The failure of Christians to live up to their own beliefs was no mere oversight but a denial of their most dearly held principles.
The viciousness of pro-segregationist activities also came under attack. In 1963, another “Christianity Today” called out the police in Alabama for using excessive force to put down protesters.
The President has described Birmingham as ‘an ugly situation.’ And it is. As ugly as the arrest and jailing of a seven-year old girl; as ugly as the use of water pressure strong enough to strip bark from trees, and the use of dogs against human beings. For what? For wanting such simple rights as eating in a cafeteria, attending a school.
Two years later, writing in the “Lebanon Valley College Bulletin,” Carl F. H. Henry challenged the church to rise up to its own beliefs, saying,
Are we not driven to the wall on these insistent issues of human dignity and social justice, of love for neighbor and reconciliation? Of what use are all the noble visions of a world of law and order if, in our own small province, we lack the passion for the equality of human beings before the law – God’s law and ours? Is not the question of the dignity of the human race implied in the truth of the dignity and depravity of every race and not in the total dignity of some, or of one, and of the total depravity of others?
So, what happened?
If this was the kind of thing being written in evangelical magazines, why weren’t evangelicals at the forefront of the Civil Rights Movement? If there were such strong evangelical voices raised in protest against abuse of racial minorities, why did this position remain the minority one? If it was, as these voices contended, really part and parcel of the biblical message that all races were one and injustice to any member was a desecration of Image of God in all human being, then why did so many Christians fail to see this? If, on the other hand, the racialist views were so common, how is it that these others managed to stand athwart history when it came to human dignity here?
You won’t likely be surprised to hear me say that a lot of it comes down to worldview. Those who maintained the majority view held that race was an intrinsic facet of human nature and one to which certain moral and material qualities were innate. While this is not a popular opinion today, at least in the open, it would have been simply “in the water” throughout the mid-20th century. It was part of the worldview.
For much of the culture, challenging the reality of sharp racial distinctions would never have arisen as an issue. It’s not that people came up with the wrong answer on race so much as that they never thought to ask the question in the first place. The reigning worldview insisted upon this to the point that it would have taken a special revelation from on high to dismiss it.
And, a special revelation is precisely what they had. Despite what the ever-present power of their culture told them, human nature was not an arbitrary product of human society, nor was race as fundamental as they fervently believed. Instead, human nature was the creation of God. It retained its purpose and dignity from the Creator, and He had told us of these things in His Word. Those who chose instead to listen to the message of the world which said otherwise were enmeshed in the worldview foreign to the testimony of the Bible. Those who based their beliefs about humanity on the Scriptures were able to rise above society’s standards and proclaim the unpopular opinion in the face of fierce opposition.
So, what does this mean for us? We’d like to say that we’re not faced with the same cultural pressures as those of previous generations. But, that’s not exactly right. True, societal expectations don’t drift in the exact same directions that they once did, but challenges still remain. The pressure to fulfill the pattern set by the world is as potent as ever.
We’re still faced with the pressure of those who want to coerce a conformity to a worldly understanding of human nature rather than a biblical one. We’re still faced with people, within and without the church, who push us to go along with the latest trend regarding what grants people dignity and worth. We’re still faced with the temptation from ourselves to dance to the culture’s tune rather than the song of our Creator.
People today like to talk a lot about history and being on the right side of it. It’s a given, apparently, that progress inevitably leads forward, but forward to what isn’t quite clear. What also isn’t quite clear is where history was when “progress” meant increasing the separation of the races for the good of humanity. The moral meandering of history is not destined to improve of its own accord. Apart from the active intervention of God’s restoring power, “history” is as likely march to the wrong side of things as any place else.
The only sure way to be on the right side of history is to take our cue from the One who is above history. The world will always be offering to us counter-narratives which seek to define humanity, society, and the cosmos itself according to its own terms. If we are to claim the mantle of the Christian Worldview and Christian faith, we must maintain our focus on what God has said in His word, even if it means proclaiming the unpopular.