EDITOR’S NOTE: Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is writing a weekly meditation on the Sunday lectionary texts for Epiphany, considering what it might mean for America to experience a #RacialJusticeEpiphany in 2015. You can follow his weekly posts at The Everyday Awaking and get other resources for you and your church by following the hashtag #RacialJusticeEpiphany on Twitter.
Clarence Jordan, the Southern Baptist radical who started an inter-racial farming community in Southwest Georgia in 1942, used to tell a story about a time when he was invited to preach at a big, fancy church in the city. The pastor showed Jordan around his mid-20th century version of a mega church, celebrating the merits of an education wing, an office suite, and an expansive sanctuary. Standing outside, the pastor pointed to the top of the church’s steeple and said, “You see that golden cross up there? The cross alone cost us $10, 000.”
“Well, ” Jordan said to his host, “I hate to be the one to tell you, but you got swindled. Time was when you could get one of those for free.”
Like all the prophets before him, Jordan wasn’t much impressed by tall towers in the big city. After all, his Lord Jesus had said to his disciples when they were impressed by Jerusalem’s temple, “Not one stone will be left upon another.” God is building up a new world, but its glory is not manifest in tall towers and great cities. The glory of the God Movement is the grace of its God.
Jonah, the prophet for this third week of #RacialJusticeEpiphany, knew this about God. It turns out that God’s grace was the thing that got under Jonah’s skin more than anything else. “That is why I fled to Tarshish in the beginning, ” the reluctant prophet shouts, berating his God at the end of his story. “I knew that you are a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” Jonah says he’d rather die than face the radical grace of this God.
It’s a story that can be hard for white folks to understand.
But I recall an honest conversation in a black church parking lot that made clear the nature of God’s radical grace for me. It was not the sort of conversation that almost never happens at a racial reconciliation workshop or a Martin Luther King luncheon. No, this revelation was a gift from a sister who, for whatever reason, had decided over time that she could trust me. We were talking about collard greens or the weather or something equally banal. We were, after years of being members of the same church, just talking.
Then, out of the blue, she said to me, “You know, I used to hate all white people.”
“I don’t doubt it, ” I said. “I’m sure you had plenty of reason.”
“My daddy raised me to believe that I could do anything I set my mind to. So I studied hard and did well in school. Then, I went to college. I told them I wanted to study architecture, but the professor said a black woman would never be an architect. I told that white man I’d be the first, and I refused to change my major. But you know what he did: he changed my answers on the entrance exam so I would fail. I was so mad I swore I’d hate white people til my dying day.”
Terrible, yes. But it’s one experience, white folks might say. You can’t blame all white people for one person’s narrow-mindedness.
But my sister at church knew what Clarence Jordan knew about America—what Jonah knew about Nineveh, which is why he refused his assignment from the start. Tall towers and great cities are built on the backs of the people who, for whatever reason, have been deemed expendable by a society. For 500 years in the West, the primary justification for the expendability of human life has been race. This isn’t just one person’s meanness. It is the internalized bias of everyone and the systemic reality of our culture. My sister didn’t hate white people because of one professor. She hated us because she could see clearly that we have been exhalted by the same system that has denigrated her for one reason and one reason only—because of the color of her skin.
That much I understood. But I was curious why she said, “I used to hate all white people.”
“What changed?” I asked.
“Well, at church one day my daddy was preaching, and he said God is a God of love. ‘If you want to be with God, you’ve got to get on board with love. Because hating, ’ he said, ‘will send you to hell.’ Well, I got to thinking about how many whit folk gonna be in hell, and I said, ‘ My Lord, I better love ‘em now or I’m gonna have to deal with ‘em for eternity.”
Dr. Cornel West calls that the “radical love ethic” of Afro-American Christianity. It is, in short, the sign and wonder that most persuades me of the gospel’s power—namely, that a people who were not Christian could be stolen from their homes and enslaved by people who called themselves Christian only to trust Jesus and show their oppressors what Christianity means.
It is, as my sister suggested that day, a terribly and terrifying grace. Which is why we can all sympathize with poor Jonah. But we must also attend to the reality he witnessed: that all of Nineveh, from the king down to the cattled, repented and joined the God Movement.
That, in the end, might be the most frightening revelation of all for us: that God’s grace is real in the radical love ethic of Afro-American Christianity—and that, even more—our future depends on turning toward the radical grace of their God.