Racism and Repentance

There is no doubt that the election of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States was historic. I couldn’t help but wonder if we had not finally entered a time when, as Martin Luther King so famously said, our children would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

But humans being what they are—fallen creatures—we will always struggle with sin. And racism, like all sins, will be always be crouching at the door. Even within the church.

I was reminded of this recently by a pastor I had dinner with in Mobile. He told me a great story about what happened to his former associate, who took over the First Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. His name is Dr. Stan Lewis.

First Baptist had struggled with racism since the 1960s. On Easter Sunday in 1963, the Rev. Earl Stallings, who was then the pastor, had welcomed African-American Freedom Riders to the church, but the ushers refused to seat them. Still, Martin Luther King commended Rev. Stallings later that week in his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Things got worse when the 16th Street Baptist Church was bombed and four little girls were killed. Based on the reaction from First Baptist, Rev. Stallings was forced to write in his weekly newsletter, “The hearts of some of us [were] broken last Sunday when the despicable crime of the bombing of a house of worship and the taking of the lives of innocent children became a reality.”

Stallings would later be honored for his efforts at racial reconciliation, but the church, which he left in 1965, continued to be divided. As late as 1970, the First Baptist congregation voted to deny membership to African Americans. With that the church finally split, and a new church was formed.

But what of the old church? Dr. Lewis says, “Over the next few decades First Baptist Church would continue to decline in membership and influence.” During these years the church “stumbled and lost its identity…The church struggled with strife over theological and cultural issues.”

That’s no surprise, is it? When a church follows cultural instead of scriptural standards, theological troubles are certain to follow. In 2009, Dr. Lewis, new in the church, decided it was time for the church as a body to repent of its sin. He preached a message of “corporate repentance” from Nehemiah chapter 1.

The deacons led the congregation in a “time of confession and repentance,” and the church went through a period of prayer, fasting, and reaching out to other churches for guidance. “Since that time,” Dr. Lewis told me, “we have seen more people baptized and join our church than ever before. There is a sense of freedom from past sin.”

I think this is a wonderful model for any church to follow when it confronts corporate sin—whether it’s the sin of racism or anything else.

As Christians, we cannot change the past. But we can be accountable to God for what we do now. We can appeal to Him for forgiveness, restoration, and direction. Then and only then can we really be free to be God’s people.

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