The Land of the Free?

Last Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr. day, the federal holiday set aside to honor the fallen Civil Rights leader, as well as the movement that he led.  The holiday serves as an annual reminder that the phrase “Land of the free and home of the brave” was a misnomer for much of American history.  Until recently, entire segments of human beings in this country were denied basic rights and were treated as sub-human.  For much of our existence, we denied the very foundation of the Declaration of Independence we hold dear, that “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Rather than being true to that noble claim, we acted like the pigs in George Orwell’s Animal Farm, who proclaimed that “all animals are created equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  Slavery, and then later Segregation and the Jim Crow laws, are a blight upon American history.  I think it is right and just and good that all Americans be reminded of our sordid past when it comes to racial issues, and that we celebrate the progress made toward racial harmony and racial equality, progress that has come at the expense of much blood, sweat, and tears.

Racism of any kind is philosophically indefensible and morally reprehensible.  That is why it is particularly perplexing how Christians would justify racism in their own hearts, minds, and actions, when they have been born again by the power of God and awakened to faith in the gospel of Christ, when they are being restored to the image of the God with whom there is no partiality (Rom. 2:11) and who is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34).  Racism is sin.  Please don’t misunderstand… I can totally understand how genuine Christians struggle with racism.  We constantly struggle with our sinful flesh and battle against the strongholds of sin that remain even after regeneration and conversion. What I have trouble understanding is how Christians can justify racism as if it were not sin, even to the point of institutionalizing racism through legalized slavery and segregation.  And yet it happened… a lot… even among those who otherwise were utterly orthodox believers:[1]

  • Cotton Mather, a colonial Puritan of considerable influence, once wrote a document entitled “Rules for the Society of Negroes,” in which he argued that slaves who disobeyed their masters were to be beaten and barred from the church.
  • John Newton, the great evangelical pastor and hymn-writer of late 18th century England, was a slave ship captain for years after his conversion to Christ.  It is said that Newton celebrated communion on the main deck of his ship while human beings suffered in chains below deck.  It was only later that Newton repented of buying and selling human beings, and greatly encouraged William Wilberforce in the task of abolishing the slave trade throughout the British Empire.
  • Such theological luminaries as Jonathon Edwards and George Whitefield owned slaves; although to be fair, both strongly opposed cruelty to slaves.

In the words of the 19th century African-American abolitionist and Presbyterian minister Henry Highland Garnet, while slavery “stretched its dark wings of death over the land, the Church stood silently by – the priests prophesied falsely, and the people loved to have it so.”[2]  It makes one wonder what other evils pervade our land while the Church stands silently by, while the priests prophesy falsely and the people love to have it so…

[1] The following examples are cited in Philip Graham Ryken, 1 Timothy (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2007), 235-236.

[2] Quoted in Ryken, 235-236.

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One Response to The Land of the Free?

  1. exegete77 says:

    Indeed, it is this that should cause us to step back and evaluate critically what we assume.

    I would put abortion into this same category. Estimates are 51-55 million babies have been killed, and yet as a nation we are indifferent. And worse many Christian church bodies endorse abortion as not only right (as in correct action), but also a right (as a personal right). It has pleased me to note that the two Lutheran church bodies I have been involved with have also been strongly pro-life, and one LCMS, even prior to Roe v. Wade. There was a book several years ago called,”The Silent Scream.” May many Christians and church bodies awake to this devastating legacy.

    Good thoughts, Tim. Thanks.


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