In 1970 the funky strains of Soul Liberation filled cavernous Assembly Hall on the campus of the University of Illinois. The audience of 11,000 mostly white evangelical college students, who had gathered from around the country for a triennial gathering called “Urbana,” hesitated at first, not sure how to react to the band of black musicians sporting afros and singing “Power to the People,” a song full of idioms from the Black Power movement. But the swell of students soon rose to its feet to sing and clap along, delighted by the radical departure from the usual hymns.
Tom Skinner, a black evangelist, then rose to deliver the evening sermon, a searing critique of racial prejudice. Cheered on by over 500 black students who had arrived early to secure seats directly in front of the podium, In the wake of Richard Nixon’s “law and order” presidential campaign of 1968, Skinner preached, “You soon learn that the police in the black communities become nothing more than the occupational force in the black community for the purpose of maintaining the interests of white society. … You soon learn that what they mean by law and order is all the order for us and all the law for them.”
On this occasion, white evangelicals responded. After Skinner ended his sermon with a rhetorical flourish—“Go into the world that’s enslaved, a world that’s filled with hunger and poverty, racism and all those things that are the work of the devil. Proclaim liberation to the captives, preach sight to the blind, set at liberty them that are bruised. Go into the world and tell them who are bound mentally, spiritually, physically: The liberator has come!”—he received a standing ovation. One observer described the deafening response as “the most powerful moment that I’ve ever experienced at the conclusion of a sermon.” For many students, Skinner’s speech portrayed all that was wrong, and suddenly hopeful, about evangelicalism.
Skinner’s words remain disturbingly relevant. On Monday, after calling protesters “thugs” over the weekend, President Trump declared himself “your president of law and order” as police dispersed peaceful protesters just outside the White House gates with tear gas.
What does it mean that overwhelming numbers of white evangelicals support Trump–even as some of them simultaneously decry police brutality–fifty years after Skinner’s sermon? Skinner himself suspected that most white evangelicals, even those cheering him in this emotional moment, would maintain current economic, political, and policing structures. “Christians supported the status quo, supported slavery, supported segregation,” he said. Even today, he predicted, evangelicals will “go back to their suburban communities and vote for their law-and-order candidates who will keep the system the way it is.”
Now again in 2020 many white evangelicals see light ahead. Christianity Today reported Tuesday that “Minneapolis pastors are hopeful that this new cooperation and coordination will meet the needs of the city in its moment of crisis, but also mark a change for the evangelicals in the area.” It quotes Carl Nelson, director of Transform Minnesota, as saying, “It has to be a turning point. It has to. There have to be enough of us in the church to say we’re going in a different direction. We can’t battle our way through this just to return to normal.”
But this is the same tired refrain we hear every four years from the evangelical left–and every racial crisis from moderate white evangelicals who speak of “racial reconciliation” but don’t reckon with white power and privilege. What makes us think that this week’s version will be any different?
Here is Skinner’s fifty-eight-minute address in full. Or listen to the audio here. Be sure to listen to the powerful conclusion, starting at the 55:00 mark.
Tom Skinner, “The U.S. Racial Crisis and World Evangelism,” December 1970
Any understanding of world evangelism and racism in our country must begin with an understanding of the history of racism. To understand why we are in the middle of a revolution in our time, to come to grips with what the black revolution is all about and to understand what the nature of racism in our society is, I must take you back approximately 350 years, to when the early ships landed in this country, in approximately 1619.
The History of Racism in the United States
On those ships were approximately forty black people. Notable among them was a couple known as Isabel and Antony, who started the first black family on American soil in 1624. You must keep in mind that one year before the Mayflower, 150 years before the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence was ever signed, black people had settled this country and were an integral part of this society.
Between the periods of 1619 and 1660, there was relatively no race problem in our country. Rather, our country had what was known as indentured servanthood. An indentured servant was a person who, coming from the Old World, could not afford to pay his passage to the New World, was brought out by someone of means. He came to this country and worked for that individual for seven years as an indentured servant, something like Jacob did for his father-in-law. At the end of seven years, he was set free to develop his own life.
Now keep in mind (in that context) that those people – who, in the name of God, seek to say that America was founded on godly principles; and that our country was started by God-fearing people; and that the people who settled our country were deeply committed to the truths of God’s Word – must reexamine that in light of the fact that the jails of England were emptied in order to bring people here to this country to settle it.
The state of Georgia is a classic example. Georgia was first settled by prisoners from England whom the English wanted to get off their hands. The English sold them to wealthy people for whom they worked for seven years until they finally were set free to develop their own lives. So, if you have any illusions that America was founded on godly principles, reexamine them.
We must also understand that between the periods of 1619 and 1660, black and white people worked together. Black and white people were indentured servants. Black and white people owned indentured servants. Black and white people lived together, ate together, slept together, fought each other, killed each other, sued each other, married each other, took each other to court, murdered each other and pretty well lived together with each other (so, as you see, there was no problem).
But, in 1660, there arose a tremendous problem: that was, white indentured servants tended to run away. It was very difficult to recapture those white indentured servants because they could easily assimilate into the majority society. When black people ran away, it was very easy to recapture them because of their high degree of visibility. It was therefore decreed in 1660 that only black indentured servants would be used. By 1702 slavery became a permanent way of life in American society.
Slavery Upheld (3 Systems)
Now, let’s understand that slavery was upheld by three sectors of society. First, it was upheld by the political system, secondly by the economic system and thirdly by the religious system.
It was upheld by the economic system because slavery was economically feasible. A good, healthy male slave could be bought for $600; a healthy female for $300. You had them cohabit and within several years, you could breed a prosperous brood of slaves.
What is upheld by the economic system is generally upheld by the political system in our country, because you must keep in mind that politics and economics in our country are synonymous. They are parallel to each other. What happens in the economic world affects the political world. If you check out the state of politics in our country previous to the 1968 election, you will notice that when Richard Nixon was nominated at the Republican convention, the Dow Jones industrial average went up eleven points. The day before the election, when the polls showed that Mr. Humphrey was narrowing his margin on Mr. Nixon, the stock market reacted by backtracking. If something happens in the political world, it affects the economic world.
You must keep in mind that in our country only 1% of the total population controls the entire economic system. One percent of all the companies in our country produce 70% of all the wealth. One percent of all the people in our country have 46% of all the outstanding cash. And no matter what they tell you about people’s capitalism in our country, that everyone can have a piece of American society, it really boils down to the fact that 90% of all outstanding common stock in this country is controlled by 5% of all the stockholders. It is those 5% who make the political decisions. It is those people who, in the smoke-filled rooms of political conventions, nominate who they want and at election time issue two of them to us to decide which one we like.
But the third sector that upheld slavery was the religious system. Numerous churches and denominations preached that slavery was a divine institution ordained by God. There were those who quoted a verse in the book of Genesis where Noah is supposed to have gone to bed drunk one night. He was also naked. His son Canaan mocked his nakedness. The following morning, when Noah discovered what his son has done, he cursed his son.
A group of ad hoc biblical dispensationalists argue that Canaan was a descendant of Ham. The word Ham means black; therefore, God has cursed all black people and relegated them to conditions of servitude. And, incidentally, I can name to you right now at least five Christian colleges and at least a dozen Bible institutions in this country that still teach that in their classrooms today.
During slavery, the slavemaster allowed no marriages. Where he did, they were only temporary arrangements, and they were usually pronounced with the words, “Do you promise to stay together until death or distance do you part?”
Rather, the slavemaster developed what was known as the “stud system,” in which a healthy male slave was forced to cohabit with a healthy female slave in order to bear healthy children. When the woman became pregnant, the male was moved to other quarters to do the same thing. And within the course of ten years, he could have brought into the world a hundred children, never being allowed to father any of them. Very few children went around the plantation saying “Mommy” or “Daddy” because they did not know who they were.
Now keep in mind that numbers of slavemasters were also Christians. These same slavemasters – many of them deacons and elders in their own local churches – would have never tolerated sexual immorality in their own church, but found no difficulty in putting a black slave woman and a black slave man under immoral conditions together for the purpose of breeding slaves to maintain the economic system.
Not Yet a Man
Slavery finally came to an end with the declaration that slaves were free – the Emancipation Proclamation. But keep in mind that all the Emancipation Proclamation said was that he was no longer a slave. The proclamation never defined him as a man. It simply said, “He is not a slave.”
Between the periods of 1865 and 1877, the society then turned to the former slave and said, “Now that you are free, you are to settle down, become the husband of one wife, the father of your own children, and you are to assimilate into American cultural society.” And they expected this former slave to undo in one night what he had been taught to do another way for 250 years. And the amazing part about it was that he began to do it.
Between the periods of 1865 and 1877, numerous black people were elected to state legislatures in South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama, North Carolina and Louisiana. A black man was governor of the State of Louisiana in that period. The speakers of the house and the state legislatures in 1876 in South Carolina and Florida were black. Black politicians controlled numerous state legislatures throughout the South. Scores of them were elected to the United States Senate and Congress, and they began to make a tremendous upsurge in political power.
But by 1877, there developed cries from certain sectors of society, which said, “This former slave is moving too far too fast.” They said, “He has only been free for twelve years. Does he expect to have all of his marbles in twelve years? These people must learn that these things take time. They must learn to be patient. They cannot have everything at once.”
Now that was 93 years ago. When was the last time you heard that statement?
In 1877, the United States presidential election was thrown into the House of Representatives. Mr. Hayes, in order to be elected, entered into a compromise with Southern politicians in which he promised that, if elected, he would withdraw troops from the South, end Reconstruction and allow white people to deal with black people in their own way. It is ironic that that compromise was put in black and white and signed and sealed in the Alexander Hotel of Washington, D.C., which at that time was owned and operated by a black man.
In 1877, Mr. Hayes was elected. Troops were withdrawn from the South and white political leaders began to deal with black people in their own way. And from 1877 to almost the present, there began a wave of lynchings and murders and drownings and disappearances of black people, unequalled in the history of the Western world. Black people were lynched by the thousands, their homes burned, their women raped, their children beaten. They could not go to court or fight the issues. A black man was looked upon as property and not as a human being. He could be put to death for looking at a person too long, for being too familiar with a white person or wanting to do dumb illegal things like vote.
In 1914, World War I came, and the black man put on an American uniform and went off to defend America as “the land of the free and the home of the Boston Braves.” As a result, he became stationed in the armed services in the northern metropolitan cities – Chicago, New York, Philadelphia – and word began to trickle back to the South (where then 90% of the black population lived) that if black people would migrate north, they would find greater economic opportunity and social justice.
Between the periods of 1920 and 1950, there was a mass movement of black people to northern cities. Songs like “So Long, Dixie” developed. The North became the Promised Land. And by the thousands, people made their way to the northern cities in hope that there would be liberation.
But when they arrived in the North, they discovered that the patterns of segregation were no different from the South: They were forced to live in certain communities; they could buy, sell or rent only in certain neighborhoods. They soon discovered that integration in the North was defined as that period between the time when the first black family moves into a neighborhood and the last white family moves out.
You must keep in mind that, during this period of time, in general (there were some notable exceptions, but in general) the evangelical, Bible-believing, fundamental, orthodox, conservative church in this country was strangely silent. In fact, there were those people who during slavery argued, “It is not our business to become involved in slavery. Those are social issues. We have been called to preach the gospel. We must deliver the Word. We must save people’s souls. We must not get involved in the issues of liberating people from the chains of slavery. If they accept Jesus Christ as their Savior, by and by they will be free – over there.”
To a great extent, the evangelical church in America supported the status quo. It supported slavery; it supported segregation; it preached against any attempt of the black man to stand on his own two feet. And where there were those who sought to communicate the gospel to black people, it was always done in a way to make sure that they stayed cool. “We will preach the gospel to those folks so they won’t riot; we will preach the gospel to them so that we can keep the lid on the garbage pail.”
And so they were careful to point out such scriptures as: “Obey your masters,” those scriptures which said, “Love your enemy,” “Do good to them that hurt you.” But no one ever talked about a message, which would also speak to the oppressor.
It was during this period that my own parents found their way from Greenville, South Carolina, to the city of New York, where I was born and raised. I was born in a little community called Harlem, which is typical of most black communities throughout America. Harlem is a small, two-and-one-half square mile area with a population of almost one million people. The social scientists tell us that if you took the entire population of the United States of America – all two hundred million Americans – and you forced every American citizen to live somewhere in New York, New York still would not get as congested as Harlem is right now.
Law and Order
It was in that community that I was born and raised in a fairly religious home, religious to the extent that my old man is a preacher, and that makes me a preacher’s kid. But don’t feel too bad about it – I got through it. I went through the motions because it was expected of me. But I never bought any of it basically because, like a great number of black people, I could not reconcile Christianity with the kind of community that Harlem was. Harlem was more than 40% slums. Thousands of people lived in rat-infested, rundown, dilapidated apartments where the landlords never came around to provide services.
It was not uncommon for some mother to wake up in the middle of the night and send a piercing scream through the community as she discovered that her two-week-old baby had been gnawed to death by a vicious rat. You could set your watches by the police who drove into the neighborhood to collect their bribes to keep the racketeering going.
Now, during this great upsurge in revolution and rebellion that has been going on, there have been great numbers of evangelical Christians who have joined the hoot and cry for “law and order.”
But how do you explain “law and order” to a mother who stands at the foot of her bed watching her baby lie in a blood bath, when she knows that that baby would never have been bitten by the rat in the first place, and the rat would have never been in the building, if the landlord to whom she had been paying high rent had been providing the kind of service she deserved for the kind of rent she was paying?
How do you explain law and order to her when she knows the building code inspector, who represents the city administration, who is supposed to check out violations in buildings, came by that building the day before but was met at the front door by the landlord who palmed a hundred dollars in his hand, and the building code inspector kept going? Now that is lawlessness.
But the point is, we never arrest the landlord. We never lock up the building code inspector. But I tell you who we do lock up. We lock up the frustrated, bitter, sixteen-year-old brother of that two-week-old sister who in his bitterness takes to the street and throws a brick at that building code inspector. Then we lock him up and say, “We gotta have law and order!”
Make no bones about it: the difficulty in coming to grips with the evangelical message of Jesus Christ in the black community is the fact that most evangelicals in this country who say that Christ is the answer will also go back to their suburban communities and vote for law-and-order candidates who will keep the system the way it is.
Quarter in a Dime
So, if you are black and you live in the black community, you soon begin to learn that what they mean by law and order is, “all the order for us and all the law for them.” You soon learn that the police in the black community become nothing more than the occupational force present in the black community for the purpose of maintaining the interests of white society.
Now, you may not be able to understand that. But allow me to break it down for you. If you go to the city of Chicago for instance, you will run into a community there called the South Side of Chicago. In that community are several hundreds of thousands of black people. Black people make up 30% of the population of Chicago. To illustrate it in the words of Jesse Jackson: 30% of the population of Chicago, which is black, lives on 10% of the land. There are thirty thousand black people per square mile in the black community, and in the white community there are only three thousand white people per square mile. What they are seeking to do is the same thing that would happen if you took a quarter and tried to fit it into the area of a dime. Over one-fourth of the city’s population is asked to fit into 10% of the land and is expect the community to maintain order. No way.
That is the reason why the emphasis is placed in the black community on property values, and the interest is placed in the white community in human life. That is the reason why Chicago’s Mayor Daley can say, “Shoot the looters.” What does he mean? “We must protect property at any cost. We don’t care about human life. In the black community, we will shoot people in order to maintain property.” But in the white community, because there are fewer people in proportion to property, the emphasis can be on human life and not on property values.
Dick Gregory says that when Mayor Daley said, “Shoot the looters,” he agreed with him. In fact, he sent him a telegram to say, “I agree. We ought to make that retroactive 250 years and put the guns in the hands of the Indians.”
Proclaimers and Oppressors
In this context, the question then becomes: how in all the world do you communicate the gospel – whatever that is? How do you go in and communicate the message of Jesus Christ to a society that has been cut off from the rest of society, especially when those people who wish to proclaim Christ have participated in their oppression?
I couldn’t put that together, so I rebelled against any concept of Jesus Christ having any relevance. In that particular time, I put people in two basic extremes (I think I still do). On one extreme was what I called the pseudo-existentialist. Don’t get excited by that word; he’s better known as the beatnik or the hippie. He is the cat who looks at life and says, “Life is too mixed up to get involved.” He withdraws, sits on a mountainside, creates his own world, establishes his own values and, in fact, becomes his own god.
But on the opposite extreme was another coward. He was what I called the hyper-Christian. He called himself, and I quote, “a Bible-believing, fundamental, orthodox, conservative, evangelical Christian,” whatever that meant. He had half a dozen Bible verses for every social problem that existed. But, if you asked him to get involved, he couldn’t do it. If you went to him and told him about the problems of Harlem, he would come back with a typical cliché: “What those people up there need is a good dose of salvation.” And while that might have been true, I never saw that cat in Harlem administering that dose.
If you went to him and told him about the social ills of Harlem, he would say, “Christ is the answer.” Yes, Christ is the answer, but Christ has always been the answer through somebody. It has always been the will of God to saturate the common clay of a man’s humanity and then to send that man in open display into a hostile world as a living testimony that it is possible for the invisible God to make himself visible in a man. One must then come to grips with the fact that God has always been the great manager of all time: He gets his job done through people.
The Social Gospel
But, you see, because of the silence of the evangelical witness in the black community, it is unfortunate that God had to raise up other witnesses. This may be difficult again for us to understand. But allow me again to break it down for you. Throughout the world it has not been the message of the evangelist which has liberated people, unfortunately. What I mean by that is this: almost a hundred years ago today, a position paper was written entitled “The Social Gospel.” It said something about Christians having to become involved in the issues of the day and making Christ relevant in those issues.
Immediately, that position paper produced a dichotomy. On one hand there were those who said, “No, we are not called to be involved in social issues; we are called to preach the gospel.” On the other hand, another group said, “No, our position is to feed hungry people, feed empty bellies, put clothes on people’s backs.” And the more the fundamentalists said, “Preach the gospel,” the more the liberals said, “Feed people.” And the more the liberals said, “Feed people,” the more the fundamentalists said, “Preach the gospel.”
The problem was that both positions were wrong. Both were extremes. Both compartmentalized me. One said, “Just give him a passport out of hell to heaven, get him saved, give him eternal life and never mind about his oppression. Never mind about the fact that he has to live with rats and roaches. Never mind that he’s a fourth-class citizen. Never mind that he will be shot on sight. Never mind that there are places he can’t go.”
Not Without a Witness
On the other hand the liberal compartmentalized me because he wanted only to feed my belly. He did not see me as a total spiritual being. Both of them were extremes. Throughout the world we have developed the same problem. But you see, God will not be without a witness, which is precisely why, when the evangelical church began to become silent on the issue of preaching the worth and the dignity of all men, God had to allow communism to sweep the world in the last fifty years with its emphasis that the state is more important than the individual. And because it emphasized the state, there finally rose up those people who began to reconsider the dignity and the worth of the individual.
Because the evangelical church became silent on the issue of humility, and we evangelicals went out and supported the industrial complex, we, too, began to preach technological efficiency. We lost all sense of spiritual life, humility and spiritual being. That’s the reason why God has not been without a witness. And this time he has had to raise up a great upsurge in consideration of Eastern religions. Why do you think young people are caught up with mysticism, Buddha and Hinduism? Simply because they want something that teaches humility, something that teaches spiritualism. In the midst of all the technology and super-scientism that has engulfed our society, God will not be without a witness.
Understand that for those of us who live in the black community, it was not the evangelical who came and taught us our worth and dignity as black men. It was not the Bible-believing fundamentalist who stood up and told us that black was beautiful. It was not the evangelical who preached to us that we should stand on our two feet and be men, be proud that black was beautiful and that God could work his life out through our redeemed blackness. Rather, it took Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, Rap Brown and the Brothers to declare to us our dignity. God will not be without a witness.
But you see, the problem that we have is that we tend to think that truth can come only from those people we recognize to be anointed by God. That is the reason why when Martin Luther King came along and began to buck the system and began to do some things to help liberate black people, immediately we evangelicals wanted to know, “Is he born again? Does he preach the gospel?” Because you see, if we could just prove that Martin Luther King was not a Christian, if we could prove that he was not born again, if we could prove that he did not believe the Word of God, we could dismiss what he said. We could dismiss the truth. My friends, you must accept the fact that all truth is God’s truth, no matter who it comes from.
And so I wrote the church off. Now, like a great number of talented black young men and women, I was not a dumb kid. I was president of the student body at school. But, in my frustration and bitterness, I became a member of one of the leading gangs in Harlem. I will not go into detail, but the problem was that I wrote off any Christian message. I accepted it as the white man’s attempt to subjugate me, to brainwash me.
The Bootstrap Lie
Now you might say, “But, Tom, I don’t understand. If you were a star student, if you were getting good marks, if you were president of the student body at school” – I was also president of the young people’s department in my church – you would say, “well, Tom, how do you reconcile your life?” You just proved a statement that all of us believe: all you have to do is pull yourself up by the bootstraps and you, too, can succeed.
But, you see, this bootstrap theory is one of the most damnable lies being preached in America today. There is no such thing as pulling oneself up by the bootstraps. Nobody pulls himself up by the bootstraps. Any of us who are anything at all are there because somebody opened some doors, somebody gave us some breaks, somebody provided some opportunities. In the case of black people, it is difficult to pull yourself up by the bootstraps when somebody keeps cutting the straps.
My nationalist friends said to me, “Tom, it’s a fine thing that you’re a brilliant student. It’s a fine thing that you show the brilliant qualifications of leadership. But if you’ve got any ideas of making it in our kind of society, you’d better think again.” And here’s what they’d say: “This is the white man’s world, and in his world he controls things from the top to the bottom. He might allow you to be a jazz player, a rock-and-roll singer or the janitor in his building. But he will not allow you to compete with him on an open basis to make a tangible contribution to society. He does not consider you to be his equal. You may be able to make $30,000 a year and move into the best of communities, but as soon as you move out there, they’re going to protest so loudly, you will never make it. If you do succeed in moving, there will those who put up their ‘For Sale’ signs and run. And among those people who will sell their homes will be those Bible-toting Christians who say Christ is the answer.
“If by some stretch of the imagination some of them should stay, when you move out there and grow up and have kids and your kids go out in the street to play with their kids, they are going to call their kids in their house, because they don’t want your kids to play with their kids. They’re afraid that, playing together at six years of age, they might plan to intermarry or something. And of course, they believe that integration would lead to intermarriage, and intermarriage would mongrelize the races and people would walk down the streets with black blotches on one side and white on the other. Now please do not walk away saying Tom Skinner advocates racial intermarriage. I do not know where white people get the idea that they are so utterly attractive that black people are just dying to marry them.
But just to set the record straight, keep in mind that when black people were shipped here from Africa, they were pure Negroid. Today less than 6% of all black people in this country are now pure Negroid, which means that there is a dead cat on the line somewhere. You must keep in mind that the sexual aggression could not have taken place on the part of the black person, because he would have been lynched if he were the aggressor.
22 Notches and An Interruption
In the middle of all of this, one must come to grips with where racism really lies. And so I became very angry and very bitter. I got to the point where I could bust a bottle across a fellow’s head and be undisturbed about it; break the bottle in half and dig the glass in his face and not bat my eye. By the time I left the gang, I had twenty-two notches on the handle of my knife, which meant that my blade had gone into the bodies of twenty-two different people, and I didn’t care. All that mattered to me was that Tom Skinner got what he wanted. How he got it made absolutely no difference. Quite by accident one night, I was mapping out strategy for what was to have been the largest-scale gang fight ever to take place in New York City. And for the first time, my rock-and-roll radio program was interrupted by a very simple program. A guy started talking from a passage written in 2 Corinthians 5:17, which says, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things have become new” (AV).
For the first time something came through. For the first time I was told that what makes a person a sinner is the fact that he is born into the human race without the life of God. And that it is the absence of God’s life in a man that causes a man to be what the Bible defines as a sinner. Now, up to this point, this is the first time I’d ever heard that. What few gospel messages I did get from the evangelical crowd, it was always that sin was a long list of no-no’s: no smoking, no drinking, no night clubs, no miniskirts; no, no, no, no. And I soon got the impression that being Christian meant that you carried around in your inside pocket a bunch of rules and regulations which read, “Don’t do this, stay away from that, don’t touch that, and, for God’s sake, don’t look at that.”
But for the first time I was told that what made a man a sinner was the fact that he does not have God’s life in him. And I was told that the whole reason that God became a man in Jesus Christ was for the purpose of taking me in my human depravation, my oppression, my mental and spiritual slavery, and taking God in his liberation and bringing us together.
But I had a problem with this guy Jesus: Everything that I had ever been told about Jesus Christ gave me the impression that he was some kind of softie, some kind of effeminate. All the pictures of Christ were pictures of an Anglo-Saxon, middle-class, Protestant Republican. He had those nice soft hands that looked as if they had just been washed in Dove or something. And I said, “There is no way that I can relate to that kind of Christ.” I said, “He doesn’t look like he would survive in my neighborhood. We would do him in on any street corner, and we wouldn’t have to wait until after dark.”
Jesus Never Did Anything
Then I discovered that the Christ who leaped out of the pages of the New Testament was nobody’s sissy, nobody’s effeminate. Rather he was a gutsy, contemporary, radical revolutionary, with hair on his chest and dirt under his fingernails. Perhaps one of the great debates going on today is being pushed by those people who resist the idea that Jesus was a revolutionary. But let us come to grips with what the Word of God says.
First, the definition of a revolution is to take an existing situation which has proved to be unworkable, archaic, impractical and out of date; you seek to destroy it, and overthrow it and to replace it with a system that works. The whole premise of the Scripture is that the human order is archaic, impractical; it is no good, it is infested with demonic power, with sin, racism, hate, envy, jealousy, pride, war, militarism. The whole existing human order is infested with ungodliness. And the whole purpose of Christ coming into the world was to overthrow the demonic human system and to establish his own kingdom in the hearts of men.
Allow me to quote for you I Corinthians 1:28: “He has chosen things low and contemptible, mere nothings, to overthrow the existing order” (NEB). That’s the Word of God.
But, of course, the moment we hear that – and by your silence you immediately think of SDS, Black Panthers, Communists, running through the streets with machine guns to overthrow the order. But that is not what God has in mind. And the thing that you have got to understand is what made Jesus Christ so utterly radical, so utterly different, was that he was the only man who ever walked the face of the earth who never did anything. How does that grab you? Jesus never did anything. He never healed the sick; he never raised the dead; he never gave sight to the blind; he never performed any miracles.
You say, “Tom, heresy! I can buy a lot of that militant stuff you’re saying up there. But now you’re telling me Christ never did anything. We all know he was miraculous.” Jesus never did anything. His Father did it. Jesus never once made a move on his own. Jesus himself said, “That which I do my Father does it in me. I do only those things which please my Father.” He even said to his disciples, “I don’t want you to believe me because you see me healing the sick, raising the dead and giving sight to the blind. I want you to believe me because the works I do my Father is doing them in me. And if you ever see me do something that my Father is not doing in me, then you don’t have the right to believe me. But as long as I’m doing what my Father tells me to do, you’d better believe me.”
Now, what made Jesus radical was that he could walk into a temple, where they had desecrated the house of his Father, and knock over the money changers and drive them out of the temple in a holy furor. And when they came to ask him, “By what authority do you perform such a radical act?” his answer was, “My Father.”
The Real Oppressor
But then one must also understand who the real oppressor is. And this is very important, especially for those of us as black students – to come to grips with where real oppression lies. It was Dick Gregory who put me on to this (again, not noted to be an evangelical, but nevertheless, a prophet). It was Dick Gregory who said, “We get angry at that policeman who busts our heads in the black community. But many of us never really understand that the policeman in the black community is the real nigger. Why? Because he, too, is oppressed. He’s only taking orders.”
So then when I find out who is oppressing that policeman, then I must find out who is oppressing the man who is oppressing the policeman. I keep going until I get on a higher plane. Then I begin to understand what Paul means when he says, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against the rulers of darkness, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”
The difficulty for us to understand as Christians is who really runs this world; in whose hands the world really belongs. One of the great problems we have is with some of our hymnology – songs like “This Is My Father’s World.” When you read the Scriptures, you discover the Bible says Satan is the prince and power of the air; he is the prince of this world and has not been removed from that position. That is why, when Satan took Jesus on a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and said, “I will deliver them to you if you will bow down and worship me,” Jesus refused.
Many theologians say that the reason Jesus refused was he already had the kingdoms. That was not true. If Christ already owned the kingdoms of the world, then what Satan offered him would not have been a real temptation. The temptation lay in the fact that Satan did have the power to deliver to Jesus the kingdoms of this world. If, then, the kingdoms of this world belong to Satan, then at best, what you and I as evangelical Christians must become is infiltrators, fifth columnists in Satan’s world for the purpose of preaching liberation to an oppressed people.
That is why, just as the Indian Christians had to renounce the British Empire, I as a black Christian have to renounce Americanism. I have to renounce any attempt to wed Jesus Christ off to the American system. I disassociate myself from any argument that says a vote for America is a vote for God. I disassociate myself from any argument that says God is on our side. I disassociate myself from any argument, which says that God sends troops to Asia, that God is a capitalist, that God is a militarist, that God is the worker behind our system.
The thing you must recognize is that Jesus Christ is no more a capitalist than he is a socialist or a communist. He is no more a Democrat than he is a Republican. He is no more the president of the New York Stock Exchange than he is the head of the Socialist Party. He is neither of that. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. And if you are going to respond to Jesus Christ, you must respond to him as Lord.
Let me conclude my thinking, then. There is no possible way you can talk about preaching the gospel if you do not want to deal with the issues that bind people. If your gospel is an “either-or” gospel, I must reject it. Any gospel that does not talk about delivering to man a personal savior who will free him from the personal bondage of sin and grant him eternal life and does not at the same time speak to the issue of enslavement, does not speak to the issue of injustice, does not speak to the issue of inequality – any gospel that does not want to go where people are hungry and poverty-stricken and set them free in the name of Jesus Christ is not the gospel.
Allow me to conclude with this illustration. The thing that turned me on to Jesus was the fact that in his day there was a system working just like today. The Romans were oppressing the Jews. And there arose in the hills of Jerusalem a fellow by the name of Barabbas. Barabbas said to his people, “There is only one way to get that Roman honky off your back, and that’s to burn him out.” And Barabbas went through the hills and suburbia burning those nice Roman suburban homes. They finally caught up with Barabbas and arrested him and charged him with anarchy, insurrection and murder.
But out in those same hills was another radical. His name was Jesus. He had no guns, no tanks, and no ammunition. And, of all the dumb things, he went around preaching a thing called the kingdom of God. But some things started happening. Blind people started seeing. Lame people started to getting up and walking. People started getting liberated mentally and physically. Homes started being put back together. And from miles around people came to sit at the feet of this man who had this strong rap, this tremendous taste for the kingdom of God.
Full-Time Is for Everyone
He began to point out some things. And people started to get themselves together. But people also began to get disturbed, because Jesus made the tragic mistake of hanging out with the wrong people. The greatest accusation brought against Jesus was, “This man eats and drinks with sinners.” If Jesus had chosen to walk the streets of our ghetto today, you could see him walking down Lenox Avenue and 125th Street. And there is a little short brother who can’t see Jesus, so he climbs up on the fire escape so he can get a view of him. And as he climbs the fire escape to get a view, Jesus spots him and says, “Hey, Zack, what’re you doing up there? Come on down, because today I’ve got to abide in your house.” And I can see those Bible-believing fundamentalist Christians standing in the background, saying: “But, Lord, you can’t go to his house. You might lose your testimony.”
But you see, Jesus lost his testimony every day because he rubbed shoulders with people. And I challenge you that if you are talking about evangelism and you’re talking about missions, you’ve got to be talking about going into the world. And the world is where the action is. Get away from this business of “full-time Christian work” and recognize that every last one of us is called to a mission.
You may be called to be a business executive. Study, get your management principles down and infiltrate the business world for Jesus. You may be called to be an athlete. Get out on the field and become the kind of athlete that can cause you to have an effective witness in the sports world; that is your mission field. If you are called to be a secretary, get it together, work your way up, become sharp secretaries to the top executives in this country. Secretaries influence executives. You can influence America from those offices. That’s where the mission field is.
Some of you will be called to a lifestyle of militancy. Get away from this business that to be militant is to be anti-God. I am a militant; make no bones about it. Jesus was militant. And there are those of us who will be called to adopt the militant lifestyle. But keep in mind that militancy and radicalism must be disciplined and controlled by the Word of God and by the Holy Spirit.
Change the System
Let me hasten to conclude. Jesus was turning the whole thing upside-down, so that they finally had to arrest him too. Because, you see, Jesus was dangerous. He was dangerous because he was changing the system. The whole Roman Empire was shaking. But no shots were being fired, no fire bombs were being thrown, but the whole Roman Empire was rocking. Because, you see, anybody who changes the system is dangerous.
Remember Chicago? Remember those 15,000 kids that went to Chicago for the Democratic Convention in ’68? Why did people get disturbed because those kids went? Were they mad because they threw urine at the police? No. Were they mad because they cursed the police? No. Were they mad because they were lawless? No. They were mad because the kids went to change the system.
Now, I don’t agree with what they did, but I am saying their motive was to change the system. Because you see, six weeks before the Democratic Convention, the Shriners met in Chicago. Thirty Thousand Shriners had their convention in Chicago. And it is a fact that when the Shriners met in Chicago more booze and prostitution flowed in the streets of Chicago than in any other given period in that city. Prostitutes were brought in from Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and from all around to meet the needs of those men. But you never read about it, because those Shriners did not come to Chicago to change anything. They came to buy something. And as long as you are buying and not changing, you are safe.
But Jesus came to change the system. And so they had to arrest him too. Now, Jesus would not have disagreed with Barabbas’ diagnosis of the human system. Barabbas said, “The Roman system stinks, it’s militaristic, it’s oppressive.” And Jesus would have agreed. The difference between Jesus and Barabbas would have been in their solution to it.
The Two Jesuses
And so the Romans have two revolutionaries locked up. It is around festivity time. And Pilate stands out before the Jews with these two prisoners – potential radicals. And Pilate says, “You know, around this time of year, I get very gracious. I want you to know that I love all you dear Jewish people. Some of my best friends are Jews. Now, I’m going to release one of them to you, and I want you to tell me which one you want. Over here I’ve got Barabbas” and incidentally Barabbas’ name was Jesus – Jesus Barabbas. “So you’ve got two Jesus’ on your hands, so it’s not a question as to wheether there is going to be a revolution. It is which one.”
Pilate went on: “Over here you’ve got Barabbas. Barabbas has been burning the system down, killing people. Do you want him? Or over here I’ve got Jesus, who claims to be the son of God. I’ve interrogated him, and I can’t find anything wrong with him, other than the fact that some dead people are alive because of him, some blind people have seen, some deaf people are hearing and, by the way, he did feed a few thousand people with a welfare give-away program, but other than that I can’t find anything wrong with him. Now which one do you want? Jesus or Barabbas?”
And with one voice they cried out, “Give us Barabbas!” The question is: Why Barabbas and not Jesus? Barabbas is the cat burning the system down, he is killing people. Why him instead of Jesus? Very simple: if you let Barabbas go, you can always stop him. The most Barabbas will do is go out, round up another bunch of guerrillas and start another riot. And you will always stop him by rolling your tanks into his neighborhood, bringing out the National Guard and putting his riot down. Find out where he is keeping his ammunition. Raid his apartment without a search warrant and shoot him while he is still asleep. You can stop Barabbas.
The Greatest Political Coup
But how do you stop Jesus? They took and nailed him to a cross. But they did not realize that, in nailing Jesus to the cross, they were putting up on that cross the sinful nature of all humanity. I was told that as Christ was nailed to the cross, it was more than just a political radical dying; he was God’s answer to the human dilemma. On that cross Christ was bearing in his own body my sin, and he was proclaiming my liberation on that cross. And on that cross he shed his blood to cleanse me of all my sin, to set me free. They took and buried him, rolled a stone over his grave, wiped their hands and said, “That is one radical who will never disturb us again. We have gotten rid of him. We will never hear any more of his words of revolution.”
Three days later Jesus Christ pulled off one of the greatest political coups of all time: he got up out of the grave. When he arose from the dead, the Bible now calls him the second man, the new man, the leader of a new creation. A Christ who has come to overthrow the existing order and to establish a new order that is not built on man. Keep in mind, my friend, with all your militancy and radicalism, that all the systems of men are doomed to destruction. All the systems of men will crumble and, finally, only God’s kingdom and his righteousness will prevail. You will never be radical until you become part of that new order and then go into a world that’s enslaved, a world that’s filled with hunger and poverty and racism and all those things of the work of the devil.
Proclaim liberation to the captives, preach sight to the blind, set at liberty them that are bruised, go into the world and tell men who are bound mentally, spiritually and physically, “The liberator has come!”