by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert
What Would Jesus Do?
In his book The Last Days: A Son’s Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of the New South, Charles Marsh describes growing up in Laurel, Mississippi, during the 1960s. Racial tensions were high as the federal government sought to end segregation. Civil rights workers, many of whom came from the North, poured into the region, seeking to end centuries of discrimination against the African American. Charles’s father was the well known pastor of First Baptist Church in Laurel and a pillar of the community. Beloved for his outstanding preaching and godly living, Reverend March was to his parishioners the model Christian.
Also living in Laurel, Mississippi, was Sam Bowers, the imperial Wizard of the White Nights of the Ku Klux Klan of Mississippi, who terrorized African Americans through the region. Bowers was suspected of plotting at least nine murders of African Americans and civil rights workers, seventy-five bombings of African American churches, and numerous beatings and physical assaults.
How did Reverend Marsh, the modal Christian, respond to this situation? Charles explains:
There is no doubt my father loathed the Klan when he thought about them at all. In his heart of hearts, he considered slavery a sin, racisms like Germany’s or South Africa’s an offense to the faith, and he taught me as much in occasional pronouncements on Southern history over homework assignments. “There is no justification for what we do to the Negro. It was an evil thing and we were wrong.” “Nevertheless, the work of the Lord lay elsewhere. “Be faithful in church attendance, for your presence can, if nothing else, show that you are on God’s side when the doors of the Church are opened,” he advised in the church bulletin. Of course, packing the pews is one of any minister’s fantasies—there’s always the wish to grow, grow, grow. But the daily installments of Mississippi burning, the crushing poverty of the town’s Negro inhabitance, the rituals of white supremacy, the smell of terror pervading the streets like Masonite’s stench, did not figure into his sermon or our dinner table conversations or in the talk of the church. These were, to a good Baptist preacher like him, finally matters of politics, having little or nothing to do with the spiritual geography of a pilgrim’s journey to paradise. Unwanted annoyances? Yes. Sad evidences of our human feelings? Certainly. But all of these would be rectified in some eschatological future—“when we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.”
Reverend Marsh had reduced Christianity to a personal piety that was devoid of social concern emanating from a kingdom perspective. He believed Christianity consisted in keeping one’s soul pure by avoiding alcohol, drugs, and sexual impurity, and by helping others to keep their souls pure too. There was little “new” of the kingdom for Reverend Marsh, apart from the saving of souls. For Reverend Marsh, James 1:27 said: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: . . . to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” Somehow, he overlooked the phrase that pure and faultless religion included look[ing] after orphans and widows in their distress.”
While Reverend Marsh preached personal piety and the hope of heaven, African Americans were being lynched in Mississippi through the plotting of Sam Bowers, Less dramatic but even more pervasive was the entire social, political, and economic system designed to keep African Americans in their place. What would King Jesus do in this situation? Would He simply evangelize the African Americans, saying, “I have heard your cries for help, but your plight is of no concern to Me. Believe in Me, and I will transport your soul to heaven someday. In the meantime, abstain from alcohol, drugs, and sexual impurity”? Is this how Jesus responded to the blind beggar who pleaded for mercy?
Reverend Marsh did play a role in the civil rights movement, but it was not to “seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, [or] plead the case of the widow” (Isaiah 1:17). Instead, he focused his attention and energies on the lack of personal piety and unbelief of some of the civil rights workers. This culminated in his writing a famous sermon, :The Sorrow of Selma,” in which he lambasted the civil rights workers, calling them “unbathed beatniks,” “immoral kooks,” and “sign-carrying degenerates” who were hypocrites for not believing in God.”
In one sense, Reverend Marsh was right. Many of the civil rights protestors longed for the peace, justice, and righteousness of the kingdom, but they did not want to bend the knee to the King Himself, which is a prerequisite for enjoying the full benefits of the kingdom. In contrast, Reverend Marsh embraced King Jesus, but he did not understand the fullness of Christ’s kingdom and its implications for the injustice in his community. Both Reverend Marsh and the civil rights workers were wrong, but in different ways. Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights workers sought the kingdom without the King. The church needs a Christ centered, fully orbed, kingdom perspective to correctly answer the question: “What would Jesus do?”