Anthony Bradley has a provocative post about the cooperation of Christians with Jim Crow laws. He says, “Since it would be impossible for a Christian to see a sign like this and think that it was acceptable, many black theologians have concluded that during the Jim Crow era in the South…The whites attending churches during this time were not actually Christians, many would say.” He goes on to raise the historical question of how white Christians justified their participation in the Jim Crow system. This is an interesting and important question but I want to address the premise of the post and expand on my comment on his blog.
There is a collection of documents at the PCA Historical Society that begins to address this, but none of the PCA resolutions mentions active participation in segregation directly. I agree that support of segregation/Jim Crow was a sin. It tends to deny the humanity of those sentenced to second-class existence. We all know now that “separate but equal” wasn’t equal.
I think the premise of the post needs to be questioned, however. It is quite possible for Christians to think any number of wrong and immoral things and to sinfully cooperate with social injustice. It happens all the time. It’s happening right now. Sin itself doesn’t necessarily disqualify one’s profession of faith but impenitent sin does. If a consistory or session calls a member to repent of a sin and the member refuses, that’s impenitence. If a member remains impenitent he places himself in jeopardy of excommunication. Once that sentence has been executed we may say that one has shown himself to have been a hypocrite.
Obviously the situation is more complicated when the session/consistory is complicit in the same sin, but this is often the case in macro-level societal patterns. Many people with whom I grew up never questioned their racism. It was just the way it was. It was assumed to be the natural order. I knew folks who took it for granted that white folks are superior to black folks and I heard them try to justify their racism with the same arguments that slavers and others had employed for hundreds of years. Who knows what those same people think now? I knew black kids who held ignorant and racist ideas (and ideologies) about white folks.
Three or four decades later it’s much harder to think that way. Much of the ignorance was born of isolation. Many of my black friends did not know many white kids (apart from school) and some black kids I met had never really met a white kid at all. Segregation necessarily fostered isolation and, if one is born into and raised in isolation, well, it’s pretty hard to imagine any other sort of world. It took time, pointed attention and protest from the civil rights movement, and increased social, physical, and economic mobility, which helps to breakdown barriers, to begin to be able to see that the assumed patterns of segregation, official and unofficial, in the South and North (where cities are still terribly segregated). All that took time.
We ought to query the notion that committing some socially prevalent sin is sufficient, ipso facto, to disqualify Christian profession. Are those men and women (45 million?) who have participated in the socially prevalent sin of abortion ipso facto disqualified from any Christian profession. Substitute “abortion” for “Jim Crow” in the sentences above:”Since it would be impossible for a Christian to participate in abortion and think that it was acceptable, many anti-abortion theologians have concluded that during the abortion era in the USA…Those who participated in abortion attending churches during this time were not actually Christians, many would say.”
When we change the terms of the argument we can see that the form is inadequate. Who knows what sorts of things I accept now that I shall come, in later years, to see to have been false or misguided or even sinful? Isn’t this the struggle of Rom 7? Having ignorant or even sinful views on segregation and race relations (and consequent behavior patterns) or even abortion doesn’t make one ipso facto unregenerate does it? In that case what other sorts of sins necessarily disqualify one as a Christian? How do we avoid becoming perfectionist or defining sin out of existence? This is not to justify either Jim Crow or abortion. Both are wrong! To deny the humanity of folk because of race or because of size and inability to defend themselves is an attack on the image of God (Gen 9).
Isn’t it better, however, to say that such patterns of thought and behavior are inconsistent with Christian profession? Isn’t this how Paul challenged the Ephesians to walk in a manner worthy of their calling?