taking the words of Jesus seriously

I grew up in a church where hell-preaching and aisle-walking were a sport. I don’t know why they insisted we wear dresses and suits to church – workout clothes and tennis shoes were far more practical. When we got to the tenth verse of “I surrender all,” I never dared look at the pastor for fear he’d start another round, just for me. Making eye contact during the invitation was dangerous, which is why we closed our eyes to pray.

I’ll confess that I was baptized more than once. Hell seemed so scary that I wanted to make certain I was safe. During one year of my life, I secretly prayed the prayer of salvation weekly, just in case. Once saved, always saved, they said – but I wasn’t taking chances. I didn’t want to be a public spectacle like that one kid in my youth group who got baptized 12 times, so I waited until the end of my prayer-a-week-year to get re-dunked.

But while I walked the aisle at that church more times than I can remember, I was never really saved because I was never taught my sin.

When apartheid was raging in South Africa and a white minority held power over a black indigenous majority, Archbishop Desmond Tutu urged white and black South Africans to see themselves as the “rainbow people of God.” Then he said the most curious thing – he argued the oppressor was oppressed too. But the Archbishop wasn’t selling cheap reconciliation. He was preaching about how hard it was for the rich, the white, and the privileged to find salvation.

I thought about what Archbishop Tutu said when the horrible images of white supremacists and neo-Nazis flooded our screens from Charlottesville this weekend. The news reports told us these people were worried they were being replaced, that they felt oppressed.

Maybe they were right. Hate is a mighty powerful oppressor, and we watched them bow down to it. As Archbishop Tutu proclaimed, hate keeps you from being fully human. If I oppress another person, I cannot be fully human until I repent of my oppression.

Maybe they were right. Maybe white supremacists and neo-Nazis are being replaced. At least that is my prayer. I like to think that good will win. That we can build a society that is just, where hate crimes do not exist, and life expectancy is not determined by race or class. I pray – oh how I pray – that those who cling to their identity based on white skin will find salvation in the Jesus who came for all of God’s beloved, every beautiful hue of creation.

But before we get distracted by the skinheads and Nazi flags, we must give attention to our own salvation.

Time for my confession. When I saw the pictures from Charlottesville this weekend, I did not ask myself, “Who are these people?” While their faces scared me, they did not look unfamiliar. At one point, I scanned the crowd, wondering if I might see the kids from my old church who went to the all-white private school or the deacon who was rumored to carry a KKK card in his wallet.

When the plane is going down, when the president is sympathetic to white supremacists, it is important to put on your own oxygen mask before helping others.

READ: Sound the Alarm: A Liturgy for Troubling Times

So white people – no matter who you voted for – let’s talk about our salvation.

I’m Baptist, so let me give you my testimony. God did save me, but not at church.

My salvation began when I learned to recognize the sin of racism.

My salvation began when I met the Christ of the gospels and realized he was not the white Jesus on the wall in the fellowship hall.

My salvation began when I realized that salvation is not about heaven or hell but the good news of the Gospel is that Jesus cares about life, here and now.

My salvation began when I knew in my bones that Black Lives Matter because God created black lives and when black people are killed by police officers, God’s image-bearers are dying.

My salvation began when I saw that my sin was not mine alone, but structural sin built into the very fabric of this nation. That the land I live on was stolen from Native Americans, and its wealth was built on the backs of those who were enslaved.

But even more, my salvation began when I realized that my being saved is dependent on my recognition of these truths.

When Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment, he proclaimed that our salvation – our loving God – was all wrapped up in loving our neighbor. Then he went on to say, we don’t get to choose our neighbors.

I can’t be fully human if I don’t recognize your full humanity. If I do not see you as God’s beloved, then I simply cannot receive the saving love of Christ. There’s no room for God’s love to fill me if I hold on to hate. Any racism or discrimination I harbor will prevent God’s love from saving me, because I’m not really turning from my sin.

The Jesus who went to the cross – who did not look like me, who was never white – died for every person God created. So how can we ever be saved if we refuse to be saved with our black or brown neighbor?

It’s easy to point fingers at extremists carrying torches in Charlottesville. They need to be saved, we say, and we’re right. But we need to be saved too. And our silence gets in the way of our being saved.

RELATED: Will America Pick Up Its Cross?

For the white moderate, two things stand in the way of our salvation.

First, the white church in America has failed to recognize the deep belovedness of God’s black and brown children. If we knew this well, we couldn’t bear to worship with all white folks on a Sunday morning. We’d know we were incomplete without each other.

And second, the white church in America has failed to call back our racist brothers and sisters who carry the cross and come to church but think it’s also okay to carry a tiki torch, or a confederate flag, or place a “blue lives matter” bumper sticker on their car.

We have work to do. White Christians – it’s time for us to preach this salvation to our own.

If you’ve read to the end of this article, you’re probably among the choir I’m preaching to. So, let me tell you another story.

I once had the opportunity to have dinner with Desmond Tutu. It was 1999, eight years after the end of apartheid. During that dinner, someone asked him if there were times when he didn’t think he’d make it, when he didn’t think it would work out. His reply was that it would have been “extraordinary” if he never doubted. And then he said, “Sometimes I wanted to whisper in God’s ear and say, ‘I know it’s going to work out, but could you prove it to us!’”

Yes, God’s kin-dom will come, God’s will will be done, but it will come far too slowly if God’s white church people keep getting in the way.

Anyone want to join me in another walk down the aisle? I think I recognize this song… I surrender all.

About The Author

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Rev. Dr. Melissa Browning is a theologian, ethicist, and activist who studies community-based responses to injustice. Melissa teaches seminary students at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University where she is the Assistant Professor of Contextual Ministry. In this role, she teaches courses in practical ministry, community development, and community organizing. For the past 17 years Melissa’s study and fieldwork has been tied to East Africa. Her most recent book, “Risky Marriage: HIV and Intimate Relationships in Tanzania,” builds on a year of fieldwork completed in Mwanza, Tanzania, where women were asked to re-imagine Christian marriage as a space of safety and health for women. Melissa is also active in death penalty abolitionist work in Georgia and worked as an organizer in the #KellyOnMyMind collective – a public clemency campaign for Kelly Gissendaner. Melissa is an ordained Baptist minister with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

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