Baal In America
I know most Americans today do not worship Baal, but when I look at the church in America, I fear that we have our own Baals that demand our worship. I see so many people bowing down before prosperity theology and the idea that God just wants to make us wealthy and happy. I see people entrapped by the “-isms”—racism, sexism, ageism, classism, and so many others—that divide our church, choosing first to obey and revere these divisive systems rather than the God who has called us to be reconciled to one another and to be one in Christ Jesus.
Perhaps people today aren’t declaring their allegiance quite as bluntly as the elder’s mother in the Mississippi Delta story I told earlier, but as we look at our churches, we cannot deny that they are divided by ethnicity, class, and age. We surround ourselves with people who are like us and value like-mindedness over genuine love and care for our neighbor.
Racial Division in America
While I was sitting at a stoplight a few blocks from my [Emerson’s] home in Minneapolis, reflecting on the recent rash of drive-by shootings in the area, three African-American teens clad in the urban uniform of the day—baggy pants and shirts, jewelry, and Fila basketball shoes—crossed the street in front of me. I was the only white in the area and on seeing me these young men abruptly stopped, turned, and faced me. The middle one drew up his hands, positioned as if holding a pistol, to mock-shoot me. After taking aim and pulling the imaginary trigger, complete with a kickback motion from the force of the weapon, he blew the imaginary smoke off his finger. Confidently smiling, as if to say it would be that easy, they turned and walked away. I sat there, frozen.
My highly educated colleague James, an African American who recently moved to a new state, was driving from work, which is in a nearly all-white, well-to-do suburb, to his home in another nearly all-white, well-to-do suburb. About a mile after he left work, a police car began to follow him. It followed him all the way to his suburb. “Why are they following me?” James thought, and as they continued to trail him, “Why don’t they pull me over?”
The police continued to follow him to his street, and even to his home. When James had pulled into his driveway, the police blocked the driveway entrance to the street, turned on the police car lights, and ordered him, over the loudspeaker, to get out of his car with his hands away from his body. Neighbors peered out their windows, and those outside stopped their activities to observe their new neighbor and the unfolding scene. Although frustrated, angry, and very embarrassed, he did as he was told.
The white police officers got out to search and question him. After a few minutes they told him they were sorry for the inconvenience and he was free to go. It turned out it was merely a case of mistaken identity; they thought he was someone else wanted for a serious crime. James asked why they had to follow him all the way to his home, resulting in embarrassing him in front of his neighbors and likely reinforcing stereotypes about black men. He never did get a clear answer.
Since that incident, which took place about a year ago, the police stopped James twice more. In both instances, it turned out to be a case of mistaken identity. The same thing, he told me, has happened all his life, no matter where he has lived. Curiosity raised, I asked other African Americans if they had ever experienced anything similar. Nearly everyone I asked had. My colleague and neighbor Walanda told me she had been pulled over by the police in a posh suburb, home to upscale shopping, four times, and no longer goes there.
Why do these incidents happen? Why do we think it worthwhile to mention the race of those involved?
The Solution to Division
The solution to gender, race and social divisions is not to eradicate our differences but to see them in light of Jesus. The Pentecostal movement in the United States in the early twentieth century was astonishingly diverse. Blacks, whites and Latinos worshiped together, and women played an important role in ministry.
They were fond of saying that the “color line was washed away in the blood of Jesus.” This was because they saw their unity in the Spirit. Males and females, whites and blacks, rich and poor-all were conduits for the same Spirit. Equality was discovered not by disregarding differences but by finding the source of unity within their diversity.
Taken from The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love by James Bryan Smith, Copyright (c) 2010 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Tearing Down the Dividing Wall
In 1973, Voice of Calvary Ministries, the ministry Vera Mae and I started after we moved back to Mississippi in 1960, opened a health clinic in the black section of Mendenhall. We had an X-ray machine and all new equipment. We were thrilled about our clinic, but we had barely gotten it open before a terrible flood caused thousands of dollars of damage to our equipment and the facility.
We needed to find a location on higher ground. The white doctor who had run the clinic up by the courthouse had died, and according to his wishes, his widow was to sell the building only to someone who would use it as a medical clinic. The property was located uptown, in the white section of town, and no property had ever been sold to a black person there before.
The widow sold us the building because we convinced her we were committed to using it to provide health care for the community. I’ll never forget the day we took possession of that building. We paid her $75,000 cash, and she deeded the clinic over to Voice of Calvary.
As soon as we had the keys, a bunch of us went inside. The first thing I noticed was the wall that divided blacks and whites. Many times I had stared at the wall from the black side. For the first time, we were able to look at both sides of the wall, and it confirmed what we had already assumed: the white side had nice, beautiful paneling; the black side was bare and worn.
The stark contrast was symbolic of how everything we blacks had was inferior. I picked up a sledgehammer and started slamming it against the wall with all my might.
We tore down that dividing wall in less than thirty minutes. It felt good! It also reminded me of something the apostle Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:14–16: Christ has made peace between Jews and gentiles, and He has united us by breaking down the wall of hatred that separated us. It was an emotional experience, and I didn’t care that we had ruined nice paneling that, under other circumstances, we would have reused. From that time on, we determined there would be only one waiting room—open to blacks and whites.