Pretending Pious Engagement, and Spiritual Catharsis

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The President of a very regressive and sectarian institution awoke from a dream in which he saw devoted Christian youths from around the world, gathered for praise and worship. He said to himself — ‘THIS is JUST what John said … a great multitude from every land, people, tribe and tongue.’ He decided to make it so. After tireless work and many preparations, the day came. The throng which gathered at Bob Jones University showed more colors than Joseph’s coat. There was weeping and joy, sorrow and forgiveness. Healing and reconciliation followed. In all Greenville and far beyond, this witness to Jesus was believed. The kingdom of God is like that.

Tuesday of this week, SFL linked to the Bob Jones University public announcement that henceforth, the school would observe Martin Luther King Jr. Day. That was the necessary backdrop for this post.

The same day BJU Blogs posted President Steve Pettit’s announcement, another announcement was made. This one was internal. The difference between the two is telling. I am indebted to What In The World for bringing this to light. But before going there, some general thoughts on BJU’s recent discovery of the suitability of this day for commemoration.

Divining Steve Pettit’s ‘Racial Equality’

What will Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day look like at Bob Jones University?

It it affirming that racially different people face persistent contempt in public life? Will it entail advocacy work? Will BJU put its legal team at the disposal of impoverished Blacks who need legal council? Would it mean raising awareness of civil rights issues in Greenville? Would MLK Day at BJU actually imply any tangible solidarity with Black Americans in their struggle to achieve racial equality? Would BJU students, faculty, staff or Steve Pettit in any way or sense ‘stand with,’ ‘march with,’ ‘speak with’ or an any other way align with American Blacks?

Does Bob Jones University acknowledge and/or address the racilization of life in America? Has the President or board instructed the BJU theological faculty develop a theological basis for integrating American believers into American congregations? Does Bob Jones University remind the many congregations that feed it money and students that as Dr. King said, Sunday morning is America’s most segregated hour? Does BJU in any way encourage the few Greenville congregations it recognizes to join like-minded Black congregations in worship? If congregations hosted such meeting, would BJU students be permitted to attend them? If not, what black churches are BJU students allowed to join?

How many Black/Caucasian couples married on the BJU campus? In all its years of operation, how many a Black speakers have addressed the BJU Bible Conference? When the BJU Presidency was vacant, how many qualified Black candidates were considered? What Black, fundamentalist Christian leader was interviewed for the job?

Coming to It

If Martin Luther King Jr. Day truly had meaning for Bob Jones University or President Steve Pettit, would his announcement not mention that the Black community is in genuine distress? Would it not address..

Not only Black poverty but its causes?
Policing practices in black residential areas?
The mass incarceration of young black males?
The state of public education in black districts?
Heavy voter-repression protocol in black districts?

Had Dr. King lived, would BJU students be allowed to march and speak with King on these issues? Would staff and faculty? Would Steve Pettit?

No one can be allowed to make ‘racial harmony and respect’ mean, ‘we’re here to bestow our benediction on Blacks who accept status-quo poverty, mass incarceration, broken schools and communities and more.’

Inside Announcement — What is Said

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Inside Announcement — What it Means

Prayer for Racial Harmony

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Prayer sessions focus on ‘racial harmony’  for good reasons.

Prayer is invaluable. It is key to Christian living. But prayer has other functions also.

Prayer lets one pretend to be piously engaged while studiously avoiding things that truly need doing. And prayer for ‘racial harmony’ studiously avoids the racial reconciliation that truly needs doing. Why is that?

Racial ‘reconciliation’ means someone needs to confess to wrongdoing in order to fix the relationship. Fundies preach about this all the time. They call it the ‘Gospel.’ But that doesn’t mean they need to believe or practice it where racially-different people are concerned.

What would happen if BJU or Steve Pettit told supporting congregations in the South that they need to practice the Gospel and seek reconciliation?

It’s really important to pray for racial harmony. It’s harmless! It’s safe!

Service Opportunities

With prayer, service is a great and necessary Christian practice. That’s why I find it humorous and unsettling to read serving ‘in our community … on that day.’ In Christ, we are free to serve. We could live dangerously and tell people that they’re free to serve and to use their freedom.

While service is basic to Christian existence, we speak of a community with stories of life-long, forced and often cruel service to the families of those who are now encouraged to serve them on this day. After all — their ‘economically disadvantaged.’ Of course, that isn’t why they were pressed into slavery. But we’re not going there. It’s racial harmony. Remember?

It all seems a little too patronizing, especially in the absence of real action for social justice.

Meet the CGO

The Center for Global Opportunities is a Bob Jones University project. BJU Director of Missions Mark Vowels has it that Pettit was its impetus.

The center casts for itself the role of promoting a vision for and participation in 21st-century Gospel expansion for students at Bob Jones University in Greenville and to the ends of the world.’ We know this because it say so on the CGO Facebook page. And if you go there, you’ll see that it is all about missions.

Like prayer and service, missions is a vital component of our Christian existence. None of this is in question. Moreover, Bob Jones University is welcome to observe MLK Day in its own, ‘unusual’ ways.

But in the absence of concrete conviction about the issues and struggles associated with the life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it is difficult to see how this ‘observance’ fits the spirit of this modern-day martyr.

Dr. King certainly believed in prayer, service and mission. But he was too intelligent and spiritually perceptive NOT to see that what is required runs run far deeper than a day of prayer for harmony and service will address. If I could offer Mr. Petitt any council, it would be for him to ponder well the questions stated above the ‘inside’ announcement.

That’s the rub. Mr. Pettit’s words seem more to feign respect and honor for Dr. King’s labors, than actually to respect and honor them. In the face of the social issues of our time, this just seems sad.

Many people have misunderstood Dr. King. But I do believe that Dr. King understood Jesus. Hopefully, those who misunderstand King will learn to understand the King.

Whitewashing Dr. Martin Luther King Junior

bju-observes-martin-luther-king-jr-dayThis Wasn’t My Idea.

Last week, ‘BJU Blogs‘ reported University President Steve Pettit to have announced that as of January 2017, Bob Jones University will observe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day each year. Plans are to close the school offices, cancel classes, and to encourage students to participate in Greenville area service opportunities and prayer sessions centered on racial harmony.

Far be it from me, to accuse Bob Jones University of doing a ‘PR’ job to ‘fix’ public perception of the University line on Dr. King. Pettit relates:

“Dr. King accomplished much in his short life here on earth,” said Pettit. “We believe his voice and leadership to nonviolently oppose the wrongs of the day while paving the way for racial equality and harmony should be respected and honored.”

We waited so long … for this?

Tame? That’s downright innocuous. To serve up this just two years shy of a half-century lacks all conviction. Whatever took BJU so long?

Much has and will be said and written about Dr. King. David Stewart [the head-case at the fundie ‘Jesus Is Savior’ website] informs us that King was a false teacher with a Communist agenda who ‘openly incited violence under the banner of “nonviolence.”’ Presenting no evidence, Stewart makes many hysterical assertions about King. But Stewart isn’t alone.

J. Carville and others cite a supposedly sane and decidedly more influential Jerry Falwell who also questions Dr. King’s commitment to non-violence.

In my thankfully brief intersection with fundamentalism, I soon learned that the communist Martin Luther King Jr. line was a recurring motif.

Meeting Daniel K. Williams

Daniel Williams, associate professor of history at the University of West Georgia, unfolds this intriguing story. His perspective helps us assess MLK related hysteria and misgivings, and explains the broader civic/religious connection in fundamentalism. In his book, God’s Own Party, he writes:

‘The contrast between Graham and Falwell’s messages signaled a fault line in conservative Protestantism that would divide mainstream evangelicals from self-identified fundamentalists for the next generation.’

How things went as they did

Williams’ steady hand shows that politics and faith together divided ‘evangelicals’ and the Falwell/Jones/Rice/etc. crowd. The divisions in political life and the faith community were replicated in each other.

Particularly telling is a section, ‘The “Christian Americanism” of Bob Jones Jr.’ In addition to illuminating differences between the Senior and Junior Jones, Williams relates a side of early BJ Jr. which may not be so well known. More than one may guess, Christian fundamentalism was the political engine that powered the US ever more reactionary tendency.

A Case in Point

‘Jones became an ardent crusader against communism and political liberalism…’ Williams wrote. He adds that in Dec. 1950, Jones hosted a convention where many free-world foreign diplomats delivered speeches. Jones gave the keynote address and castigated the Department of State for ‘inexcusable stupidity or vicious betrayal.’ He charged it for throwing China’s democracy forces to ‘the raving wolves of the Kremlin.’

The ‘A-HA’ Moment

Bob Jones Jr. is the articulate and comparatively erudite version of the David Stewarts of the world. But far from rising above Stewart’s level, the rhetoric and perspective of Bob Jones Jr. normalizes Stewart’s hysterics.

Liberals and democratic socialists recognize that the socialist tendencies of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In that day, anticommunism was treated by many Christian fundamentalists as a necessary adjunct to the gospel. For many fundamentalist leaders, the mass demonstrations were not so much demands for racial equality as a political challenge to capitalist rule.

Over time, King’s socialist tendency was forgotten. To the degree that this is so, he becomes socially tolerable. So Pettit can now say of King:

“We believe his voice and leadership to nonviolently oppose the wrongs of the day while paving the way for racial equality and harmony should be respected and honored.”

I can’t help but think even that milquetoast remark is forthcoming solely because Dr. King’s socialist tendency is largely forgotten, so that he can now be portrayed as someone who should be ‘respected and honored.’

Otherwise, why did we have to wait 48 years — just for this?

Methinks a post on the ‘service opportunities’ and ‘prayer sessions’ centered on racial harmony might be in order…