Silent Bystander

Lacking centralized authority, Churches of Christ sought to mediate their theology through denominational journals, colleges, and lectureships. As the only centralized voices of the denomination, these entities failed to address the division between African Americans and whites, thereby providing a false veneer of cohesion to insiders and outsiders of Churches of Christ. These three bodies not only failed to cohere African Americans and whites, they also helped maintain the illusion of racial unity within Churches of Christ. –Theodore Wesley Crawford

Today is the day the United States celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday.  I’ve shared before that my religious upbringing didn’t address racism, not really, as well as that the denomination I belonged to functioned by allowing all churches to have autonomy.  Consequently, I didn’t really know what belonging to a Church of Christ meant, including not having an understanding of what that might mean racially.  After taking part in my first racial reconciliation class a few years back, I made a decision to reread MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail each year on his birthday.  This year was no different, and just as last year, I again learned something new.  Unsurprisingly, I’m not the only person curious about racism in the church that raised me, because its racism raised me too.  I need to understand where I came from so that I can grow and change and be the better person I want to be.  Martin Luther King was deeply hurt by the lukewarm attitudes of fellow white Christian leaders in Birmingham.  He believed them to be worse than the KKK, because it’s easier to challenge an opponent that is actually doing something to harm you than an adversary who is antagonistic in their silence and inaction.  In other words, the bystander that looks the other way is more harmful than the bully.  MLK references other Christians questioning him disturbing the peace, breaking the unity, stirring up trouble.  Though racism and misogyny are not the same, they do come from the same sinful place of control.  When someone wants to have the power, they are generally not pleased when someone suggests that the dynamic should change.  Like the catalyst I mentioned in yesterday’s post, before our difficult break-up with our old church home, I heard some of the same retorts when I tried again and again to confront some of the leaders of our former church about the harm they were doing by continuing to prevent women from roles of leadership within our congregation.  I was going to cause our church to break up, that it wasn’t ready for this progress even though they did understand why I wanted what I did, that it was already so much better than it was, that I should be patient….  I even referenced MLK and the Civil Rights Movement in one conversation, reminding them that congregations did split; years later, we look at those churches and acknowledge that white people were wrong to try and prevent integration.  As I knew I would, I left that particular day knowing what I already knew: the church leadership was more concerned with a unity that protected them than a unity that protected more.  I used to believe the parallel wasn’t that similar, that I was stretching, but I no longer believe that.  My rights are constantly in jeopardy and I believe that the issues women face are global.  I’m not as elegant as MLK, but his general point resonates with me.  What will it take to make you care about those of us being harmed while you are not?  I am white, and I have great privilege because of it, but I am still a woman and the world has never been on my side.

This year, that conversation came back to me.  It occurred to me that I don’t really know what happened during the Civil Rights Movement in the church that built me and broke me.  The individualization of Churches of Christ makes it easy to hide history.  After reading some of Crawford’s work, I wondered if integration ever really happened.  Did we acknowledge the error in our thinking but not actually move beyond that?  So, I started with Birmingham, Alabama, since MLK may have been alluding to Church of Christ preachers in addition to others in his letter.  With just a little time with Google, I could see that most Churches of Christ began just before Brown vs. Board of Education or a little after and nothing has changed since.  The photos alone indicate that there are black Churches of Christ in Birmingham and there are white Churches of Christ.  Homewood Church of Christ opened in 1951, still predominantly white, and Woodland Park Church of Christ, predominantly black, followed in 1958.  About the same time that Woodland Park was opening its doors, Homewood was helping other white congregations open across Birmingham, including Shades Mountain Church of Christ.  A couple of decades earlier, Roosevelt City Church of Christ made a home for local black believers, because worshiping with the oldest Church of Christ in the city wouldn’t have been possible.  Other churches like Bush Hills, Avondale and more are easy to find with a little internet searching.  Their historical information isn’t as readily available, but it’s not that hard to deduce which churches are black and which churches are white.  The majority of churches, regardless of denomination, began segregated and remain so, unless there is intentional effort to build communities of faith together.  My own church is not significantly better with its radical difference between white membership and black membership. Since Churches of Christ vary drastically from congregation to congregation, it’s no wonder that Birmingham has nineteen Churches of Christ within its city limits.  If you’d like to see just how inconsistent it is from one church to another, follow the links.  You’ll see that one church has female leadership in children’s ministry, many have only men in leadership, others openly speak against women’s rights and access to healthcare.  Some take the bible literally while others give it some wiggle room.  Based on the geographical layout of where the predominantly black churches are in comparison to predominantly white churches in Birmingham, it’s fairly obvious that MLK would be able to logically assume that though Churches of Christ had alternating theological beliefs, they didn’t have different racial beliefs.  As Crawford illustrates in his work, the autonomy of Churches of Christ has led to a rationalized lie that its members across the US have somehow moved past their anti-integration background.  This clearly isn’t true.  There may no longer be active efforts to prevent integration, but there are also no active efforts to integrate either.  

What does this degree of separation look like now?  Would Martin Luther King, Jr. write the same things from a jail today?  The vocabulary MLK uses indicates the age of his writing.  Other than that, Letter from a Birmingham Jail could be read currently in response to any number of recent events in which white churches have chosen to act the part of the silent bystander, looking away.  Some are using the same tactics they used decades ago, asking people of color to wait, to be patient, to be grateful for the change that has already come, to remember what it used to be like, to be hopeful, to be still, to be forgiving.  Meanwhile the abuse against people of color that MLK mentions in his letter is still happening.  Black people are still lynched in broad daylight and those in charge of justice attempt to hide itThey die at the hands or knees of police officers.  Teachers still use the words “boy” and “coon”.  Judges use racial slurs and consider themselves impartial.  The Birmingham of 1963 is very different from the Birmingham of 2022, but not different enough.  If MLK, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and others hadn’t continued to protest, what would our modern day look like?  If these brutal events are still occurring, if my son’s book on the Civil Rights Movement spends its last section on present-day systemic racism in spite of the movement, it is glaringly obvious that being a silent bystander was, and is, wrong.


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