From Bethlehem to Samaria with Embossed Letters KKK on a Pulpit Bible


Will Campbell at his cabin during interviews for "Beneath the Skin." (Photo: EthicsDaily.com)

No sooner will we leave Bethlehem than we will journey to Samaria.

The sanctuary greenery and Christmas tree will be safely stored before we return to a culture in conflict.

One wonders what message we will carry from Christmas to Martin Luther King Day and then the inauguration three days later of a new president.

A Baptist-boy preacher once journeyed morally from the sanctuary to Samaria.

At 16 years of age, he recalled rubbing his fingers, in a small Mississippi Baptist church, across a big thick pulpit Bible with the embossed letters KKK.

The same preacher stood with four black students to integrate the public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. Black civil rights leaders opposed his effort to become a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, founded by Martin Luther King.

Liberals and black leaders fired off critical letters when this white preacher ministered to Ku Klux Klan leaders and visited James Earl Ray, King's assassin.

Will Campbell was identified often as one of the most admired figures by several of those whom EthicsDaily.com featured in its profiles in goodwill series.

EthicsDaily.com's media producer, Cliff Vaughn, and I had the honor of spending a day with Campbell at his cabin when we were producing "Beneath the Skin," a documentary on Baptists and racism.

He was blunt about the situation of race in America. Asked what it would take to integrate churches, he said he didn't know. He said maybe it just had to die. He noted that black preachers weren't willing to give up the power their pulpits afforded them, which made integration even harder.

His story was one of many stories we recorded.

The same documentary included a Hispanic Baptist leader who recalled the words on Texas restaurant signs: "No Mexicans or Dogs Allowed."

One on-camera interview took place a day after a Hispanic Baptist woman found plastered across the offices of her Christian employer fliers with her picture. The flier said to call an INS 800 number if anyone saw her.

Despite all the hoopla over a post-race America with the election of President Obama, race clings to us like our skin.

We know theologically that all human beings are the same. We are sinners. We have the same proclivities for prejudice - blacks and whites, blacks and browns, Asian and blacks. We all misuse power for self-benefit when we obtain power.

Perhaps Emmanuel McCall offered one of the best theological thumbnail statements about our shared humanity. The long-term Baptist leader quoted a mortician friend, who said, "Beneath the skin we're all the same."

Martin Luther King Jr. more famously said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character."

That ideal still resides on a distance horizon.

We've all witnessed racism - white, black, brown, Asian racism. Most of us know that the easiest way to smear one who holds a divergent opinion is to accuse them of being racist.

If we want to draw nearer to King's vision, every group needs to stop playing the race card every time there is a disagreement.

Stop playing the race card over a public policy dispute. Stop claiming every wrong done is race based. Stop blaming electoral losses on race. Stop asserting that all divergent views on taxation are racial. Stop spreading the false narrative that poverty programs are only for racial minorities.

One way to refocus our applied Christianity to the theological conviction that we are all the same beneath the skin is by observing Martin Luther King Day.

It's scheduled for Jan. 16, 2017, three days before the inauguration of a new president.

Could there be a more providential confluence of events than to remember King's vision and fulfill the biblical admonition to pray for our government leaders?

We have a new Republican president who has said terrible things about minority groups. He called Mexicans "rapists."

We have a Democratic presidential candidate who said hateful things about Trump's supporters. "You can put half of Trump supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables," said Clinton. "Right? Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic, you name it."

One way for goodwill Baptists to leverage constructively this confluence of events is to observe MLK Day.

Let's remember where we've been as a house of faith. Let's recall our leaders on the journey to racial reconciliation and justice. Let's discuss where we are now and what we need to do.

Perhaps we don't really need this year another choir and pulpit exchange between black and white churches. We don't need another meeting of religious leaders joining together to talk about race and to make empty promises.

Jesus said when you pray, go into your closet and shut the door.

Maybe what we need to do is to show "Beneath the Skin" in our churches with real discernment about our own hearts and what local congregations can do to renew the church and redeem society.

Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook. Order his new book, "The Disturbances." It is available as either a paperback or an e-book.

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