By Bert Montgomery
I am a descendant of white slave owners, sharecroppers, Confederate soldiers, and white citizens across the American south. And, I am a white Baptist preacher. Under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and by the grace of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, I join in the chorus of voices proclaiming, “Black Lives Matter!”
I was born and raised in a denomination which taught me to love God, baptized me into the faith, instilled in me a deep love of the Holy Scriptures, and which stressed the “Golden Rule” of Jesus (“do unto others as you would have them do unto you”) as the fundamental guide for all Christian behavior. For these things I am eternally grateful.
However, that same denomination was founded not to share the love of Jesus with all the world, but rather to defend the buying, selling, owning, beating, raping, and murdering of beloved children of God. It is a denomination which was created for the purpose of baptizing the sin of slavery. I was taught to love both God and neighbor in a denomination which itself was birthed on the assumption that Black Lives did not matter.
Growing up white in Louisiana with deep, deep Mississippi roots, I learned and repeated endless nigger jokes. I learned them from and shared them with family and friends; at school and in church; I learned them from white Baptist preachers. Does seeing the “N”-word make you uncomfortable? Good! Thankfully, we are more willing as a culture today to acknowledge the horrific violence associated with it; a word which told the world that Black Lives did not matter.
Some jokes played with exaggerated stereotypes; others made light of murder. Jokes about Klansmen throwing a black man into an abandoned well; about white preachers “accidentally” swerving their vehicles to run over black men walking on the side of the road; comments made about “a tall tree and a short rope.”
I told myself I was not racist because I knew black people. I sat next to black students in classes. I played in the school bands with black musicians. In fact, some of my favorite athletes and entertainers were black. Hey, I never wore a white robe, burned a cross, or attended a lynching. Therefore, I gave myself permission to laugh at and share racist jokes because I was disassociated from a history in which Black Lives did not matter.
Still, there was a cognitive dissonance present in me since childhood. I have very clear images seared into my conscience as a child from watching the “Roots” TV miniseries. I grew up watching “Good Times,” “What’s Happening!!,” and “The Jeffersons” on TV. Limited, of course, by the 30-minute situation comedy format, these shows nevertheless pricked my consciousness and made me aware that life for many people in the United States was not as comfortable and privileged as mine, and it all boiled down to skin color. Infused into all these things was the essential Biblical truth that we ALL bear the image of a God, not just white folk; that even to God, Black Lives Mattered.
I began studying the Civil Rights Movement. I studied slavery. I entered into meaningful, honest conversations with African American classmates and coworkers. In doing so, I was exposed to very real, graphic images and stories of horror. Prevalent, commonplace, deadly atrocities committed by “good” white folks against innocent black men, women, and children. Sometimes even while they were singing about Jesus in church. Black Lives may have mattered to God, but they did not matter in our white society.
I realized over time that my words and jokes were far from harmless. They perpetuated a false sense of racial superiority. Below the surface, they implied that our world be better off if the Civil Rights movement never happened, or if the Confederacy had won the Civil War. They meant that my black brothers and sisters, who, like me, bore within them the image of God, simply did not matter nearly as much as mine.
Recently, a sitting United States Senator from Mississippi “joked” about being on the front row of a public hanging, and she talked about making voting more difficult for people at “those schools.” Unfortunately, many of us white folk refuse to acknowledge the racism inherent in her statements because we are still unwilling or unable to see the long, terrible history of violence against African Americans and its lasting effects in our social structures and institutions. Open the eyes of our hearts, Lord!
White friends will tell me, “But, ALL lives matter!” True. However, until we white folks can say with conviction that “Black Lives Matter,” saying “all lives matter” is completely meaningless. Affirming that Black Lives Matter does not negate the value of non-Black Lives; it reminds us that Black Lives – the descendants and relatives of slaves, lynched men, raped women, and murdered children – must be included equally whenever we say “all.” To refuse to do so keeps us is locked in sin’s chains; we remain in the deathly bondage of sin against both God and neighbor.
Join me in repenting and believing the Good News: Black Lives Matter!
Rev. Bert Montgomery pastors University Baptist Church in Starkville, teaches religion and sociology courses at Mississippi State University, and is a distant relative of the Confederate General Robert E. Lee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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