Archive: The Black Crisis in the Church

Condensed from an address by Tom Skinner, Evangelist

Black Americans are not much influenced by a church whose Gospel excludes personal involvement. Wanted: Christian radicals who are willing to be fools for Jesus Christ.

It’s a real pleasure and opportunity to be here. I appreciate very much your broadmindedness in allowing a renegade Baptist to address you.

I believe there are three main crises that we must deal with in our time. One is the crisis of identity. It is a crisis that is becoming acute across our country. People want to know who am I? Why am I here?

The second crisis is a crisis of community. Once I find out who I am, the question is, “Who is the person next to me? The person I work with?”

The third issue is POWER. Once I find out who I am, and once I find out what’s my responsibility to my neighbor, where do I get the power to pull it off? Where do I get the power to be what I ought to be?

Now in the light of that, what is the black crisis that we face? And what is the Church’s response? What is the evangelical response to this crisis of our time?

To clearly understand, we must try to get into historical perspective how that crisis developed. To do that I must take you back to when the first ships landed in America at Jamestown in 1619. On those ships were approximately 40 black people. Notable among them was Isabel and Antony who sired the first black family on American soil in 1624. Black people have been a part of American society from its very inception.

Between the periods of 1619 and 1660 our country had no race problem, as we know it today. Our country, rather, had what was known as indentured servanthood. People who were criminals or who were in jail for one reason or another in England, were allowed to be released from jail as they were bought by more prosperous people who were coming to the New World. Those indentured servants would work for seven years; then they would be released to develop their own lives. Both black and white people held indentured servants.

Both black and white people were indentured servants.

But by 1660 there developed cries from certain sectors of society. The white indentured servants could run away, and very easily assimilate into the rest of society. It was very difficult to recapture them. But black people who ran away – It was very easy to recapture them because of their high degree of visibility. It was therefore decreed that only black indentured servants would be used.

By 1701, slavery became a permanent way of life in American society and only black people were subjected to this. During this period of time, millions and millions of black people were shipped as slaves from Africa via the West Indies, to the United States. Along the way, hundreds and thousands of them died.

Someone with a moral conscience began to ask the question, “How do you justify killing so many people?” To provide a rationale and basis for the slave trade, someone answered, “Suppose they are not people. Suppose they are subhuman. Suppose they do not have a soul. Suppose they do not even have a brain. Suppose they are just slightly higher than animals.”

Upon such remarks and such theories was predicated the whole philosophical basis and rationale for slave trade.

Slavery was upheld by three sectors of society. One, it was upheld by the economic system because slavery was economically feasible. Two, it was upheld by the political system. Politics and economics in American society have always run hand in hand. The third sector that upheld slavery was the church. There were numerous religious institutions in American society that preached that slavery was ordained by God and that God had ordained that black people should be hewers of wood and all the rest.

On a slave plantation, very few children went around saying “Mommy” or “Daddy.” Because they didn’t know who they were. The slave masters, rather, developed what was known as a stud system. This was where a healthy male slave would be allowed to cohabit with a healthy female slave until she was pregnant. Then he was moved to another quarters to do the same thing. Within the course of 10 years he could have brought into the world 100 children – and never allowed to “father” any of them.

During this period of time, with the exception of some radical Christian groups, the church in general never opened its mouth. And that same church which condemned immorality, which held up high moral standards about marriage and about sex, still allowed immorality to prevail among slaves in order to breed other slave children, in order to keep the economic system going.

In 1865 Emancipation came. And the black man was set free. But all Emancipation did was to decide what the slave was not. It never defined what he was.

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.” They expected this man to “pull himself up by the bootstraps” and make his way in the world.

The amazing thing was that he began to do it. Between 1865 and 1877, black people began to move into the main stream of political life. Between those 12 years, the state legislatures in South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana were controlled by black politicians. The speakers of the house in the state legislatures of South Carolina and Florida were black. A black man was Lt. Governor of the State of Louisiana for four years.

By 1877 there developed cries from certain sectors of society which said that the former slaves were moving too far too fast. They said, “He has only been freed for 12 years. Don’t these black people know that these things take time? They must learn to be patient. ”

Between 1877 and 1901, all kinds of attempts were made to eliminate black people from public political life. The last black person to be elected to the United States Congress and Senate was in 1901. Between 1877 and 1925, more than 6000 black people were lynched in this country. They could be disarmed, their women raped, their children beaten, their homes burned. But they could not have recourse to the courts of law.

In 1918, World War I came. The black man put on an American uniform and went off to defend the American system. Now you must give him credit! He had been denied his rights. He had been disenfranchised, relegated to 4th class citizenship. He could not buy a home in any community he could afford to live in. He was not allowed to vote. He could be lynched for looking at the wrong person too long. He was forced to walk on the other side of the street. He was subject almost to animal existence. And yet he put on a American uniform and went off to defend the democratic principles of a nation that had so nobly denied him those principles!

Today, more than 17 percent of the fighting forces in Viet Nam are black; 43 percent of all the casualties in Viet Nam are black. It is not the black man who is burning his draft card and running off to Canada.

As a result of being stationed in the armed forces in World War I, the black man became exposed to such large cities as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles. And word began to trickle back to the south, where then 90 percent of the black population lived, that if black people would migrate North they would find greater economic and political opportunity. So during the late 1919’s and early 1920’s there was a fantastic movement of black peoples to northern cities.

But when they arrived North, they discovered that the patterns of segregation were not too different from the South. They were forced to live only in certain communities. They could buy or rent only in certain neighborhoods. They discovered that when they moved into certain communities in large numbers, whites moved out in large numbers.

Ironically, and sadly and tragically, among those people who packed up their belongings and ran, were those Bible-toting Christians who said that Christ was the answer. They sold their homes and moved out and at the same time said “the Gospel was for everybody. ” But they said that while they were running.

I was born and raised in New York City. Let me, in seeking to develop this crisis for you, relate to my own personal experience. My bitterness and my attitude reflected then much of the attitude that exists now in the black community towards the Church and towards Jesus Christ.

My father being a preacher, I grew up in church. I went through a fantastic search for identity – trying to find and discover who I was. I knew I was black. I knew I lived in a black community. But no one ever told me what that meant.

Turning on the television, I found nothing that I could really identify with. There was Rochester. They said that was me, and I said, “No Way!” Of course there was Amos and Andy. That was an insult.

During this whole period of time there wasn’t anything I could say with dignity and honor, that is me.

I had the impression – the strong feeling – that I had been left out. That I had been denied. Eventually, I entered into a life of violence. I didn’t care what happened to the people around me, because when one doesn’t know who he is, there is no possible way by which he can relate to anybody else. During this period of time I came under the influence of a group of people at school in Harlem, known as the Black Nationalists. My social science teacher was a nationalist. Very candidly he said “Tom, your problem is that you’ve been brainwashed. You’ve been educated and trained and brought up under Christianity which is nothing more than a white man’s religion given to black people in order to keep them in their place.”

They pointed out to me that the leading exponents of hate, segregation and bigotry in American society were Christians. They pointed out that the most segregated hour in American society was 11 o’clock on Sunday morning. They pointed out that the church was irrelevant to me as a black man because the church presented an irrelevant Christ, and an irrelevant religion and an irrelevant theology.

Buying this, I rebelled while continuing to go to church. I joined the Black Nationalist movement because I felt it was the only hope for freedom for black people. This was the response of an overwhelming number of other people who grew up in my community. And it is an overwhelming response of young angry black men and women across America today.

I had difficulty in responding to anything that was religious because there were two basic extremes that I had met with. One was what I call the pseudo-existentialist, better known as the beatnik or the hippie. He looked at life and said it was difficult and complex. The Establishment was corrupt. The people in it were mixed up. The world had no worthwhile values. So he copped out. Sat on a mountainside, created his own world, established his own values, and, in fact, became his own god. He was a coward because he didn’t have the guts to face life.

But on the opposite extreme was another coward. He was what I called the hyper-Christian. He called himself, “A Bible-believing fundamental, orthodox, conservative, evangelical Christian.” He had a half a dozen Bible verses for every social problem that existed. The problem was, he would never get involved.

You went to him and told him that a place like Harlem existed, with 40% slums. You told how there were more than 45,000 drug addicts supporting an average habit of more than $50 per person per day. And you tried to explain that you could set your watch as to when the police would drive into the neighborhood to collect their bribes to keep the rackets going. You told this evangelical how it was not uncommon for some ghetto mother to wake up in the night and send a piercing scream through the community as she discovered that her few-weeks-old baby had been gnawed to death by a vicious rat.

If you went to this Christian and you told him some of this, his reply was “What those people up there need is a good dose of salvation.” That was true – but I never saw him in Harlem, ministering that dose. If you told him about the social complexities, and the racial oppression, of black communities like Harlem, he would come back and say, “What we need to give those people is Christ. Christ is the answer.” I would agree: 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 with His own life, and then send that man out in open display in a world of conflict as a living testimony that it is possible for the invisible God to make Himself visible in a man. So that Christ through man becomes the answer.

My evangelical friends would say Christ was the answer, but they would never come. They would spend millions of dollars to send missionaries to reach black people across the sea. But they would not spend one dime to cross the street of their own town to talk to a group of black people.

Nobody told me how Christ would solve the problem of racism.

Nobody told me how Christ would stop white people from lynching black people.

Nobody told me how Christ would bring racial justice in the courts for black people.

Nobody told me how Christ would make it possible for black people to buy a decent home.

The nagging question was, If Christ was the answer, then why were all those Christians who had Christ still bigoted? Why were their churches still segregated? Why were they running away from black people?

One night I was mapping out strategy for a gang fight. I was listening to my favorite radio disc jockey when my program was interrupted. A man started talking, from II Corinthians chapter 5, verse 17, “If any man be in Christ he is a new creation.”

I wanted no part of it because I had a problem with this guy Jesus. The impressions that I got of Christ was that He was some kind of softie. An Anglo Saxon, middle class, Protestant, Republican. Irrelevant to my kind of situation. Jesus came off very smooth. Very effeminate, very soft. And I said, “There is no way I can be committed to that kind of Christ. He would never survive in my neighborhood. We would do Him in on any street corner, and we wouldn’t have to wait until after dark. He just didn’t seem tough enough, based on the way the church painted Him, to deal with my kind of dilemma.

Further, I had difficulty with this person Jesus because the church pictured Jesus as the head of the American System. They wrapped Him up in an American flag. They said a vote for Jesus was a vote for America. They made it that Jesus was the president of the New York stock exchange, chairman of the Republican Party, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon. Super-capitalist extraordinary. Jesus Christ, therefore, came across to me as a segregationist, who was prepared to step on me to keep me from being where I ought to be, as a black person.

Let me say to you, with all the love I know how to say to you, as evangelicals – stop allowing yourselves to be brainwashed by other people in this country who call themselves conservative! They are not conservative theologically. They are not conservative Biblically. They happen to be conservative politically. Anybody who uses the word conservative, we bring them right into our ranks, whether they are committed to Jesus Christ or not.

Christ’s life, His Death, His resurrection and His shed blood, from that you cannot move me. But ask me to adopt certain political ideologies, in the name of conservatism, I cannot do that.

Jesus Christ is not an American, any more than He is a Russian. He’s not a Republican, any more than He’s a Democrat. He’s not a capitalist, any more than He’s a socialist or communist. He is the Lord of Heaven and earth!

If you have a political point of view, about Viet Nam or about race, don’t try to put God in it. Search out the Scriptures. Find out where Jesus would be, before you ask Him to endorse your particular political views.

It would be an insult to me as a black person to say that the reason I’m angry and the reason I’m militant is because the communists got to me. I don’t need a communist to tell me a man’s got his foot on my neck. I don’t need a communist to tell me that I can’t buy a home in the community I can afford to live in. I have the God-given intelligence to know this for myself. I’m reaping the results of discrimination, not the communists. A radical is a person who gets to the root of a problem

A radical is a person who deals with diseases, not symptoms. A revolutionary is defined as taking an existing situation that is unworkable, doing away with it and replacing it with a system that works.

For the first time in my life, I heard on that radio broadcast that the whole reason that Jesus came was to be a true revolutionary! “If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. ”

There is something wrong with man’s nature. He is cut off from God. He is independent from God. He is doing his own thing. The results are racism, hate, war, murder, lust, violence and conflict. Jesus came by His death to destroy this human nature. By His shed blood to forgive it, and by His resurrection to impart a new man-a man who is willing to trust HIM. Now if that is not revolution, what is?

There arose in the hills of Jerusalem a radical revolutionary by the name of Barabbas. And they had to arrest Barabbas as an insurrectionist, a murderer and an anarchist.

But out on those same streets was another radical. His name was Jesus. He had no guns, no tanks, no ammunition. Of all the dumb things in the eyes of the militants, He went around preaching a thing called the Kingdom of God!

Fundamentally, there would have been no disagreement between Jesus and Barabbas in terms of diagnosing the Roman system. Barabbas probably said, “the Roman system stinks! It’s oppressive, it’s militaristic, it’s racist.” And Jesus would have agreed. But the disagreement between Jesus and Barabbas would have been in the propagation of the solution. Understand this.

Jesus would have said, “Barabbas, alright. Everything you say about the Roman system is right. But what are you going to do about it? You are going to replace the Roman system with your own messed-up kind of system. And there is basically no difference between you and the Romans.

“What I have come to do, Barabbas, is to establish a whole new order. And that new order is built on Me. I’ve come to establish a whole new Kingdom, and that Kingdom is not like anything that exists. I’ve come from heaven. God has sent Me as His son, as One who was with Him before the foundation of the world, to impregnate the common clay of men’s humanity with new life. And I’ve come to bring a new Kingdom into the hearts of men.”

Jesus went out, and began to rap that down. And by the hundreds, people began to come around Him and sit at His feet. At the feet of a Man who was more alive than any man they’d ever met. From miles around they came.

Jesus’ words went out with such weight! His light became so effective! Who He was penetrated so that people began to drop everything and come after Him. He began to shake the whole Roman Empire. Without firing a shot. But a whole Roman system is shaking beneath this Man’s life and message. So they had to arrest Him. Because He was dangerous. He came to change the system, and anybody who tries to change the system is dangerous.

So they locked Him up. And they made the mistake that’s been made down through history. They thought they could get rid of an idea by getting rid of the man from whom the idea originated. So they nailed Him to a cross-little realizing that they were playing into the hands of God.

The whole reason that Christ came was to bear in His own body our sin. Our independence. Our alienation from Him. When He hung on that cross the Bible declares He was the just dying for the unjust. He who knew no sin became sin that we through Him might become the righteousness of God. On that cross He shed His blood to cleanse us of the works of our independence. On that cross He was experiencing the hell we deserve. He was becoming the sacrifice, the Lamb of God, in our place.

They didn’t know that. They took Him down off that cross, laid Him in a tomb, rolled a stone over His grave. They wiped their hands and they said, “That is one radical that will never disturb us again. ” And they went away content that it was all over.

But three days later Jesus Christ got up out of the grave. The Bible declares that He arose as a new man, the Leader of a new creation. The Establisher of a new order.

I discovered Him. I found Him. I became attracted to that Christ. Not a namsy-pamsy sissyfied Jesus. Not an effeminate, soft Christ. But a Christ of justice. A Christ of mercy. A Christ of love and compassion. I was in accord with Him because I discovered that when He walked the face of the earth, He rubbed shoulders with people like me. He ate and drank with sinners. (He was even disregarded by the “Fundys” of His day, who wrote Him off on the grounds that He was hanging out with worldly people, losing His testimony.)

I found out that He was my kind of Jesus. So I gave my life to Him. Now I know who I am: I am God’s son! A member of the royal family of God.

There are a lot of people who haven’t changed their attitudes. There’s still places I can’t live. Still people who don’t want to fellowship with me. Still folks who shake my hand and call me their dear colored brother. My answer to them is simply this: “I’m God’s son. If you don’t want to rub shoulders with royalty like me, that’s your problem, not mine. ”

I know what my responsibility to my neighbor is. My responsibility is to love, not looking for anything back. And all I ask is that you give me the privilege to love you. Whether you love me back or not is totally irrelevant.

Now don’t mix that up with softness. Don’t think that because I love you that means I will allow you to walk over me. Because if I allow you to walk over me, you are not only dehumanizing me, you are dehumanizing yourself. And I love you too much to let you do this.

Now I have the power to be God’s son. Jesus Christ, the Resurrection and the Life, now lives in me. Knowing this has relieved me from trying to carry around in my inside pocket a bunch of rules and regulations. Don’t do this! Stay away from that! Don’t touch that! Don’t go near that!

Praise God, I’ve been delivered from those evangelical hang-ups. All I have to do is simply make myself available – allow Jesus Christ to do His thing in me. I have not had to give up my blackness in order to be a Christian. But Jesus Christ now lives His life through my redeemed blackness.

I challenge you as Christian evangelicals – that is the revolutionary Christ you will have to preach. Not a Christ of any man’s system. But a Christ who is God.

There’s no way that I can respond to your Jesus when I discover you have moved out of the neighborhood to avoid me. There is no way that I can respond to your Christ when you have sheltered your sons and daughters because you’re afraid I’m so irresistible they’ll have to marry me. There’s no way that I can respond to your Christ if your church remains segregated and closed. There is no way that I can respond to your Jesus if you’re not willing to pay the price of being a real brother to me. And a brother is a person who lays down his life for his friend. That is what the Church is going to have to do if it’s going to meet the present crisis.


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