Racism and the Lord’s Supper

Racism and the back of the bus

In his book, Chase the Lion, Mark Batterson writes,

Shortly after being installed as the twentieth pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon in November of 1954 titled “Transformed Nonconformist.” “The Christian is called upon not to be like a thermometer conforming to the temperature of his society,” said King, “but he must be like a thermostat serving to transform the temperature of his society..

“I have seen many white people who sincerely oppose segregation and [discrimination],” said King. “But they never took a [real] stand against it because of fear of standing alone.”

On December 1, 1955, just five blocks from Dexter Avenue Baptist, a woman boarded a Cleveland Avenue bus. When the white section filled up with passengers, the bus driver ordered Rosa Parks to give up her seat in the colored section. Rosa politely refused. She took a moral stand by remaining seated.

“Our mistreatment was not right,” Rosa said….“I was just tired of it. The only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” Rosa Park’s stand against racial segregation led to a court battle, which led to a citywide boycott, which led to the Supreme Court ruling segregation unconstitutional. (Multnomah, 2016, pages 121–122)

You might not have ever heard this story before, but it probably doesn’t surprise you. It involves a very famous incident and two of the main players in the civil rights movement, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Both of them, of course, were African-Americans, and it was African-Americans who led the fight for civil rights for all Americans. In fact, if you think of the leaders of the civil rights movement, it’s hard to come up with the name of a single white person who was influential in the movement.

That was Dr. King’s point.

Christianity and the Civil Rights Movement

It’s easy to think of the Civil Rights Movement as a secular issue in which segregation was seen as a violation of the Enlightenment ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence — all men are created equal — and embodied in our Constitution.

But it was a Christian sermon preached by a Christian pastor in a Christian church that challenged people to stand up, even if they have to stand alone.

It’s not a stretch to say that the Civil Rights Movement was a Christian movement, nurtured in Black churches by pastors and lay persons who not only understood the Gospel message of Jesus but who, as an oppressed people, deeply felt the promise of freedom that is at the core of the Gospel.

White Christians often miss the Christian aspect of the Civil Rights Movement, in large part because so few white Christians spoke out against racism, slavery and segregation.

No wonder; in the South most slaveholders were church-going Christians, as were Jim Crow segregationists. The South didn’t become the Bible Belt after slavery and Jim Crow were ended, it was the Bible Belt during slavery and Jim Crow.

But this was in fact just a subsection of Christianity. Most Christians saw the incompatibility of slavery and segregation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The movie Amazing Grace is about William Wilberforce’s successful effort to end the slave trade in England. He was a member of Parliament but it was his commitment to Christ and the Gospel that compelled him to act.

The famous English preacher Charles Spurgeon preached fearlessly against slavery, so much so that some of his sermons were burned in America.

Methodist founder John Wesley called slavery “the foulest of all villainies.”

In America Evangelicals such as Charles Finney and Harriet Beecher Stowe were vocal in their opposition to slavery, and the Abolitionist movement found its greatest leaders and supporters among the Quakers.

They did so because they understood that equality among all persons wasn’t an issue that was tangential to the Gospel, as a mere side-effect of Jesus death on the cross. They understood that equality was central to what Jesus came to accomplish in his life and through his death.

Keeping Unclean From Clean

It’s easy to think of the Jew/Gentile division as being a religious distinction, along the lines of our Christian/non-Christian line. There’s Jews, and there’s everybody else, just as there are Christians and there’s everybody else.

Jew/Gentile, however, was more of an ethnic division that also involved religion. In fact, it was ethnic bigotry that tried to claim God as its source. It was racism that claimed God’s approval.

The clean/unclean rules in the Old Testament were imposed to maintain the ethnic purity of the Hebrews.

Have you heard the OT injunction that good Jews weren’t supposed to weave two different types of cloth together? Leviticus 19:19 told them not to wear garments composed of two different types of material.

I’ve heard that the reason for this was that when washed they would shrink differently and therefore tear the garment apart.

No, it was their way of saying that things that are different shouldn’t be combined. Don’t breed two different kinds of animals, don’t plant your field with two different types of seed. Don’t wear clothes sewn from different materials

Things that are different shouldn’t be combined. Jews are different than everybody else. Don’t marry a non-Jew. Don’t go to their house and eat their food. Keep separate. Keep pure.

Ezra the Lawgiver wasn’t so politically correct as to couch it in terms cloth and seed. He said it explicitly, and forced the Israelites to end their mixed marriages. The Israelites blamed their idolatry on these Gentile wives, starting with Solomon as the chief offender but extending into the post-exilic community.

Which is really rich, given that the Israelites were perfectly capable of idolatry all on their own.

There were no Gentiles involved in making the Golden Calf.

Jesus and the Unclean

When Jesus went around ignoring the clean/unclean laws, he wasn’t making a theological statement about law vs. grace, he was making a theological statement about ethnic and racial separatism.

(By the way, I’m forced to talk about race and ethnicity as if they are similar but different things because that’s how we talk about bigotry. We act like an ethnic group is a subgroup of a racial group. “Race,” however, is not a thing. It’s a fairly recent construct, going back just a few centuries, to justify colonialism and slavery. It says that our differences are not just accidents of geography and language, but of creation. God made the races different. But it’s not true. There is only one race: the Human Race.)

Jesus made a big deal about God accepting Gentiles into the kingdom of God, which was supposed to be for Jews only, a time when they would drive out all the foreigners and immigrants and be a pure nation.

So he welcomed Gentiles. He said of a Roman centurion, “I’ve never seen faith like this in all Israel.” In other words, “I’ve never seen a Jew have this kind of faith.”

Acts picks this theme up. Pentecost wasn’t primarily about a common language, but a common humanity. Peter had a dream about all food being declared clean, and then had his own encounter with a Roman centurion.

Paul also understood that this was central to what Jesus was about. In Galatians 3:28 he said, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

In Ephesians 2:11–16 he wrote:

So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision” — a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands — remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.

Lord’s Supper as Proclamation

In his first letter to the Corinthian church when Paul recounts the Lord’s Supper, he says something at the end that is puzzling:

“For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.”

In what way could eating the elements of Communion be a proclamation? They were inside a house with the doors shut; nobody could see them eating the bread and drinking the wine, so how is it a proclamation?

To understand a single verse you have to look at the context. At the beginning of this section about the Lord’s Supper Paul writes,

Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, to begin with, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it. Indeed, there have to be factions among you, for only so will it become clear who among you are genuine. When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. (1 Corinthians 11:17–20)

They were coming together for a common meal and worship, but they were separating themselves into the old categories that they formerly observed: specifically rich keeping away from the poor, but probably also men from women and Jew from Gentile. In doing so, he says, they may be eating bread and drinking wine, but it’s not the Lord’s Supper they are eating.

Not with the rich keeping the poor away, men keeping the women away, Jews keeping the Gentiles away.

You can’t rebuild the walls of hostility that Jesus died to destroy and claim to be following Jesus.

But, he is saying, when your neighbors who observe these distinctions see rich entering the home along with the poor, men entering with women, Jews entering with Gentiles — all coming together at suppertime to eat, not separately but together; when they see this, you proclaim the Lord’s death — shorthand for the full Gospel — until he comes to establish his kingdom in all its fullness.

When they come together, truly together, and share this meal together, they are proclaiming a new humanity.

White Christians and White Supremacy

I can’t believe that in 2017 and 2018 we are having to deal with white supremacy again. I mean, what in the world is going on? This has to stop, and we are the ones who have to stop it.

African-Americans did their part back in the 50‘s and 60’s. They stood up when no one would stand up for them. They understood the Gospel. They understood Jesus.

It’s time for all of us, especially white Christians, to follow their example and take a stand.

Take a stand for equality.

Take a stand for Jesus.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

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