By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
Last week’s blog concluded with the observation that Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week—but is that such a bad thing? Should traditional black churches be expected to conform their unique worship services to a common norm in order to achieve racial reconciliation? And what about religious differences between Jews, Christians and Muslims?
The purpose of reconciliation in matters of race and religion is to achieve compatibility, not conformity. The diversity, or pluralism, of races and religions has given the U.S. its strength. It requires the assimilation of different races and religions in a common culture, but not their conformity. The only mandatory standard of conformity in the U.S. is its rule of law.
But some racial and religious differences require reconciliation based on a standard of legitimacy beyond that of the law, and that standard is love for one another. Racism and religious fundamentalism have long plagued our nation and the world with hatred and violence; but after the horrific racist violence at Emanuel AME church on June 17 it was love, not law, that reconciled grieving black and white folks in Charleston, for all the world to see.
That demonstration of forgiveness and reconciling love overcame racial and religious differences that have traditionally segregated black and white Christians. Those differences reflect a so-called “separate but equal” culture forced upon blacks in the Jim Crow South that did not change until the civil rights advances of the mid-twentieth century culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Most blacks now share middle class cultural values with whites, but there remains a black subculture with divergent values, primarily in urban areas, that remains a source of racial unrest.
The black church has traditionally been the central social and political institution of the black community and has never conformed to an integrated model of the church. For this reason, few mainline Protestant churches have integrated congregations, and that is reflected in the United Methodist Church (UMC), which is not as united as its name implies. Most UMC churches are predominately black or white, with integration at conference administrative levels. In their church activities and worship, black United Methodists seem more like their African Methodist Episcopal (AME) kin than like those whites in their own UMC denomination; but even with their differences, black and white United Methodists are congenial and compatible.
Civil rights laws provided the secular standard of legitimacy needed to eliminate racial discrimination, but it was God’s forgiveness and love that has enabled black and white Christians to experience true reconciliation. A similar common word of faith is needed to reconcile religious differences among Jews, Christians and Muslims, and that common word is the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself, including one’s unbelieving neighbors as taught by Jesus in the story of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).
The main obstacle to religious reconciliation is the belief of religious fundamentalists or exclusivists that theirs is the one true faith and that God condemns all unbelievers to hell. At their worst, radical Islamist fundamentalists like those in ISIS, al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and el-Shabab consider it a matter of faith to dispatch unbelievers to hell.
As with race, religious diversity can enrich a culture unless it becomes so divisive as to motivate fear, hatred and violence. Both the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an provide examples of divine sanction for violence, and despots have used those precedents to justify violence not only in religious fundamentalism, but also in racism, Fascism, Communism and Nazism.
Traditionalism might be included as an “ism. Like religious fundamentalism, it can motivate zealotry to preserve traditions that block progressive change. That was evident in the dispute over the Confederate battle flag, which was characterized as a conflict between hate and heritage. Fortunately reason and compassion carried the day with a spirit of reconciliation exemplified by Governor Haley and most S.C. legislators. The flag flap was a reminder of the racial division that has plagued the South for many years; and while racial reconciliation has come slowly, most blacks are now assimilated in a pluralistic culture based on shared values. There is no race war in America, despite the horrific efforts of Dylann Roof to create one.
Progress toward religious reconciliation is less certain. While most Muslims in the U.S. share our libertarian values, many are offended by the hedonism and excesses of freedom of a libertarian culture and favor fundamentalist Islamic laws (shari’a) that prohibit individual freedom. The reconciliation of differences in religion and politics requires a political climate of libertarian democracy and human rights that begin with the freedoms of religion and speech; and those freedoms cannot exist under shari'a, with its oppressive apostasy and blasphemy laws.
Reconciliation in matters of race and religion is ultimately a matter of the heart, and that requires the transforming power of God’s love and mercy to first reconcile people with God and then with their neighbors. God’s spiritual power enables us to love all people as our neighbors, regardless of their race, sex, religion or sexual preference, and to accept those of other religions as our spiritual brothers and sisters in the family of God. But a word of caution to those seeking God’s spiritual power. Satan does a convincing imitation of God, and does some of his best impersonations in the synagogue, church and mosque. The way to tell the difference is that God seeks to reconcile and redeem us through love, while Satan seeks to divide and conquer us through fear. Remember that God is love, and there is no fear in love. (1 John 4:16-21)
Notes and References to Resources:
For related blogs, see the following at Blog/Archives: The greatest commandment, posted January 11, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad: Is There a Common Word of Faith and Politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims Today? posted January 25, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, posted February 22, 2015; Promoting Religion Through Evangelism: Bringing Light or Darkness? posted February 8, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil? posted February 15, 2015; Christians Meet Muslims Today, posted June 21, 2015; Confronting the Evil Among Us, posted June 28, 2015; and Racism, Religious Exclusivism and Reconciliation, posted July 5, 2015.
The cultural and religious diversity of the black church in America is described by E.J. Dionne, Jr., in Liberated by grace, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-african-american-church-as-religious-oasis/2015/07/05/98c7b834-2114-11e5-84d5-eb37ee8eaa61_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
Marc Thiessen described “stupid” attitudes tying racism to the Confederate flag after Dylann Roof used that flag to justify his atrocity in Charleston in There’s no race war in America, at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/theres-no-race-war-in-america/2015/07/06/c91c19fe-23d9-11e5-b72c-2b7d516e1e0e_story.html?wpisrc=nl_opinions&wpmm=1.
On increasing tensions between Muslims and law enforcement agencies in England over how to counter the draw of Islamist radicalism, see http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/ten-years-after-77-bombings-britain-is-split-over-how-to-fight-extremism/2015/07/03/4d0bbf66-19e5-11e5-bed8-1093ee58dad0_story.html?wpisrc=nl_headlines&wpmm=1.
In Ethnic America, Thomas Sowell explained the correlation between the effective integration and wellbeing of minority groups in America with their willingness to take advantage of the opportunities for education and employment and assimilate into a pluralistic American culture.
The ban in Deuteronomy 20:16-18 and its application by Joshua at Jericho (Joshua 6:20-27) are precedents for ethnic cleansing; and the sword verses in the Qur’an call for slaying the infidel unbelievers and are often cited by radical Islamists (9:5; 9:29). See these and other verses that justify violence in the name of God in the J&M Book at pages 585-592 (Mosaic Law) and at pages 498-502 (Islamic Law).