[Editor's Note: This article first appeared on November 2, 2005.]
Last week, civil rights icon Rosa Parks died at her home in Detroit, Michigan, at the age of 92. Parks was best known for her refusal to relinquish her seat to a white man and move to the back of the bus, which provoked the Montgomery Bus Boycott lead by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Park's courageous action helped make others aware of the struggle for civil rights and acted as a catalyst for numerous other protests.
Dr. King once said that Parks' arrest was the precipitating factor rather than the cause of the struggle against segregation: "The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices .... Actually no one can understand the action of Mrs. Parks unless he realizes that eventually the cup of endurance runs over, and the human personality cries out, 'I can take it no longer.'"
Reformed theologian James Danne, in Dictionary of Christian Ethics, marvelously defined the problem of racism. He wrote: "Skin color or different national origins are racial differentia. These differentia are incidental and relative to what constitutes authentic humanity. When these relative differences are turned into absolutes, race turns into racism. When the relative factor of white skin color is absolutized, white racism emerges. When Hitler absolutized Nordic origin, Nazism was born. When a feature of race incidental to our humanity is absolutized, the race possessing this feature exalts itself as a superior race, develops the consciousness that it is the historic bearer of a transcendent destiny to lead the world, by whatever required means, into its future. Its manifest destiny, however, is only manifest in its peculiar racial difference."
Few things in life are more ugly, even demonic, than racist attitudes and beliefs. Yet it has always troubled me that conservative evangelicals were largely silent during the battle for civil rights. In fact, many were attempting to justify prejudice by erroneously appealing to the Bible. The argument was that African Americans were the descendants of Ham, that God placed Ham under a curse, and this therefore justified the subjugation of black people. Not only was this unbiblical, dishonest and mean, but it was a clear example of proof-texting -- using the Bible for one's own wicked ends.
Sadly, the problem is not simply one of the pasts. Still many conservative evangelical churches are some of the most segregated places left in the country. Two occasions that illustrate this fact happened during my own pastorates. While serving one church, I suggested we include handing out gospel tracts during door-to-door visitation to the Black and Hispanic community in our city. I was quickly informed by some of the church's leadership such action would produce a controversy that would likely result in my resignation or dismissal. Another time at a different church, I invited an evangelist from a darker ethnic background to speak. A prominent and influential member of that church told me, "You can be certain there will be some negative ramifications for getting that "sand n#*#*#" to preach." These are not isolated instances. Currently, similar problems are quite prevalent everywhere in Bible-believing churches.
Racism in any form, however, ought not to ever be named among the people of God. By definition racism exalts itself above God and projects itself as God. It is one of the grossest violations of the fundamental import of God's law as stated by Jesus: "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind; and thy neighbor as thyself" (Luke 10:27). The apostle James contended: "But if ye have respect to persons, ye commit sin, and are convinced of the law as transgressors" (James 2:9). Respect of persons -- or "favoritism," as the NIV puts it in that same verse -- is inconsistent with God's grace.
In the Spring of 1999, Michelle Shocks -- nine months pregnant and riding a City Transit bus in Seattle, Washington -- struck up a conversation about her faith in Christ with another passenger. When the bus driver overheard what Shocks was talking about, she called Shocks forward and warned her that talking about religion could be offensive to others on the bus.
Michelle couldn't believe she was being asked not to speak about her faith in Christ. She then moved next to the other passenger so they could continue their conversation more quietly. That's when the bus driver angrily declared, "That's it. At the next stop, both of you are off my bus." Shocks, even though she was pregnant, had to walk a mile on the side of the highway in the pouring rain to get to her destination.
Describing this situation in his book, What If America Were a Christian Nation Again, Dr. D. James Kennedy declared that for many Christians today, it's not simply go to the back of the bus, it's "get off the bus."
The circumstances surrounding Mrs. Shocks were an infringement upon her civil liberties. With great unanimity, Christian people across the nation were rightly outraged. But the incident poses a critical question for followers of Christ still demonstrating racist views and actions: If we are not willing to demonstrate the love of Christ equally and seek to defend the legitimate rights of all, how can we with credibility demand our own?
Rosa Parks showed that no one should be relegated to the back of the bus or ordered off the bus, so to speak, because of their race, color, religion or national origin. Everyone should ride as equals. As the Scriptures say, "God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:34-35).
Rev. Mark H. Creech (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina, Inc.