Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair.
These four young girls suddenly lost their lives one Sunday in a church bombing just down the street from where I have served as pastor. You may wonder, Why was their church bombed? And the answer has nothing to do with the kind of persecution that people face around the world for their faith in Christ. No, their church was bombed because they were black, and the men who bombed it were white supremacists.
Not long ago, I had the honor of preaching alongside the pastor at Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in the very building that had been bombed fifty years before. I stood onstage with him and other pastors in the city before a room full of black and white Christians as together we remembered that horrible event, sadly one of many such atrocities that occurred across Birmingham (at one point called “Bombingham”) during that time period, and we renewed our commitment to one another in Christ for the sake of the gospel in our city.
That gathering took place on Good Friday, the same day when, fifty years prior, Martin Luther King Jr. had led a peaceful march through downtown Birmingham, only to be thrown into jail. Facing harsh conditions in solitary confinement, someone delivered a published letter to him, penned by eight white Birmingham pastors, criticizing King for his methods and calling for him to maintain patience in promoting civil rights. King wrote a letter in response:
It is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say wait. But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her little eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see the depressing clouds of inferiority begin to form in her little mental sky, and see her begin to distort her little personality by unconsciously developing a bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son asking in agonizing pathos: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross country drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” men and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger” and your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and when your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tip-toe stance never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” —then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into an abyss of injustice.
Then, following King’s explanation of his obligation to disobey an unjust law of the government in order to obey the just law of God, he piercingly indicted these pastors with the following words:
In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern.”
Then he pleaded for them to apply the gospel to such social issues, saying:
There was a time when the Church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the Church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. . . .
But the judgment of God is upon the Church as never before. If the Church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early Church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century.
I reread these words as I prepared to make my remarks on that Good Friday, and I was freshly grieved by the gospel-less actions of my white forefathers during those days.
But I had to be honest. As much as I wanted to distance myself from those eight pastors in 1960s Birmingham, I had to admit that I have the same gospel-denying tendencies that elicited their letter. For I am prone to prefer people who are like me —in color, culture, heritage, and history. If I walk into a room by myself and see two tables, one with a group of people ethnically like me and the other with a group of people ethnically unlike me, I instinctively move toward the group that is like me. I suppose something in me assumes that those who are like me are safer, more comfortable, and therefore better for me. Similarly, I’m prone to act as if those who are unlike me are less safe, less comfortable, and less beneficial. It seems to me, then, only a short walk from such simple preference to the kind of sinful prejudice that marked my pastoral predecessors. The difference between them and me is more one of degree than of kind.
So when I preached my sermon that Good Friday, I had to confess the sinful tendency of my own heart to prefer one person over another based on particular commonalities. Furthermore, even as I write these words on this day, I have to admit that I have not resisted this tendency in my own heart and in my own church with the fierceness with which I ought to fight it. I feel inadequate to write this book on so many levels, but that inadequacy may be felt most in this chapter, for even as I have sought to develop friendships, foster partnerships, and forge initiatives that promote unity across ethnic lines, I know there is so much more that needs to be done in my own life and in the church of which I am a part.
This is all the more evident when it comes to the related issue of immigration in our culture. I have lived and worked in a state where lawmakers have sought to enact the toughest immigration legislation in the country. Fiery debate over Alabama laws has reflected fervent discussion across the United States regarding how to address the twelve to fifteen million undocumented immigrants currently living in our country. These men, women, and children live in my community (and yours), representing various ethnicities, speaking different languages, and coming from different cultural backgrounds. The church has taken small steps to reach out to them in specific ministries, but we desperately need to consider how we can —we must —avoid the sins of those who went before us in the Civil Rights era. Majority oppression of migrant people is certainly no better than white segregation of black people.
The gospel compels such action. By the grace of God, we must work to overcome prejudicial pride in our lives, families, and churches, a process that I’m convinced begins with changing the conversation about race altogether. Moreover, with the wisdom of God, we must labor to respect immigration laws in our country as responsible citizens while loving immigrant souls in our community as compassionate Christians. In a context where minorities will become the majority over the next thirty years, we must consider how to apply the gospel across a multiplicity of colors and cultures for the glory of Christ. — David Platt, Counter Culture: Following Christ in an Anti-Christian Age (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2015).