Ferguson, Missouri. Baltimore. Minneapolis. Baton Rouge. Dallas. Black Lives Matter.
America is caught in the middle of racial conflict, as tensions between law enforcement and African American communities have erupted in violence. However, the problem has deep roots in history. An understanding of these roots will go a long way towards healing and reconciliation. Some of these roots go back to misinterpretation of the Bible.
In June, 2016, the Mississippi attorney general officially closed a 52-year old case involving the murders of three civil rights workers, in the summer of 1964. Members of the Ku Klux Klan in Neshoba County had killed two white men and one African American who had traveled to Mississippi to help segregated African Americans register to vote. The Klansmen feared that the efforts of these three men would lead to the “mixing of the races,” so they sought to teach the civil rights workers “a lesson.”
The Klansmen were aided by one of their number, a local deputy sheriff, Cecil Price, who arranged for the abduction of the three men after a supposed traffic stop and afternoon in jail. The three were taken to an earthen dam, where they were shot and buried, one of them still breathing as the bulldozer shoveled the dirt over them.
Deputy Cecil Price was never convicted of murder, but he was tried and sentenced to six years in prison on civil rights violations, in 1967. The ringleader of the Klan group, Edgar Ray Killen, was finally convicted of manslaughter and put in jail thirty-six years later in 2005, as part of this infamous “Mississippi Burning” case.1
Edgar Ray Killen was a part-time Baptist preacher. Killen had been put on trial back in the 1960s, but he escaped conviction back then due to a hung jury. One of the jurors in that early case claimed that they could have never convicted a preacher.
Price was the “law man,” and Killen had the Bible. Thankfully, men like Price and Killen are an exception, and do not represent in any way all law enforcement authorities or Christian preachers. Yet I sincerely doubt that Price would have been able to self-justify his actions if Killen, the preacher, had not somehow signaled that the terrible actions they ended up all taking were somehow, “Okay with God.”
So, what goes through the mind of someone, like “Preacher” Killen, who can justify such brutality, a man who claims to be guided by the Word of God? How can a law enforcement official, like Cecil Price, go along with such actions? Where do people get the idea, that the “mixing of the races” is something contrary to the Bible, to begin with?
Bob Jones and The Wretched Mishandling of Acts 17:26
A key to understanding such a horrifying way of thinking can be traced back to a tradition of reading the Bible, common among a number of Americans during that mid-20th century era. For example, in 1960, Bob Jones Sr., the founder of Bob Jones University, a Christian institution in Greenville, South Carolina, delivered a sermon on Easter Sunday, “Is Segregation Biblical?” Here are selected parts of the sermon (read it in full here, it is worth your time):
Now, we folks at Bob Jones University believe that whatever the Bible says is so, and we believe it says certain fundamental things that all Bible-believing Christians accept: but when the Bible speaks clearly about any subject, that settles it. Men do not always agree, because some people are dumb-some people are spiritually dumb; but when the Bible is clear, there is not any reason why everybody should not accept it….
…In recent years there has been a subtle, Satanic effort to undermined (sic) people’s faith in the Bible; and the devil has elf [sic] the race along until men have put their own opinion above the Word of God. You will find that practically all the troubles we are having today have come out of the fact that men in many instances have ceased to believe in an authoritative Bible….For instance, we are living in the midst of race turmoil all over the world today…
Now notice-this is an important verse- the twenty-sixth verse of the seventeenth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all of the face of the earth” (in some of the best original manuscripts, the word “blood” is not there, but it is not important anyhow, because the thoughts are the same). “And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth…” But do not stop there,”… and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation.” Now, what does that say? That says that God Almighty fixed the bounds of their habitation. That is clear as anything that was ever said…
…When nations break out of their boundaries and begin to do things contrary to the purpose of God…they will have trouble. The world is in turmoil today because men and nations go contrary to the clear teaching of the Word of God… The Africans are wonderful people. In many ways, there are no people in the world finer than the colored people who were brought over here in slavery in days gone by… White folks and colored folks, you listen to me. You cannot run over God’s plan and God’s established order without having trouble. God never meant to have one race…
…Yes, God chose the Jews. If you are against segregation and against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty because He made racial separation in order to preserve the race through whom He could send the Messiah and through whom He could send the Bible. God is the author of segregation.
The main point that Jones is trying to make is that Acts 17:26, in his mind, “clearly” teaches that the different races of humanity, defined by skin-color, were designed by the providence of God to be segregated. He even conflates the religious principle of segregation of the Jews in the Old Testament with the segregation of peoples by skin color in the twentieth century to justify his view.
Back in the early 1960s, Bob Jones was reacting against the practice of evangelists, like Billy Graham, who favored breaking down the colored barrier at revival meetings. Graham believed that Acts 17:26 emphasized our common humanity, regardless of skin color, whereas Bob Jones did not.2 Bob Jones University was well known for advocating against racially mixed-marriages, even among Christians, well into the 1980s and early 1990s.3
Now, I do not know what Bob Jones means by “clearly” with respect to the understanding of Acts 17:26, reproduced here from the ESV:
And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place,…
However, there are a number of points of evidence that demonstrate that Jones’ “clarity” is deeply flawed:
- Nowhere does the Apostle Paul in Acts 17 equate the concept of “nation” with skin-color. Nowhere in the New Testament is skin-color with respect to nationality ever taught. Nowhere in the entire Bible is skin-color, as a principle of segregation, ever mentioned. Never.
- Jones is correct to observe that God fixes the boundaries of nations, but he ignores the significant point about “allotted periods.” Time is always changing. There is no evidence to suggest that God fixes time in such a way that national boundaries can never change. Instead, the evidence of the text argues for the exact opposite. No matter what happens to nations across time, God is still sovereign over the affairs of humanity. Over time, people may move back and forth, even intermingle among one another, but none of this invalidates the providence of God. It is in this sense that in every time period God has fixed the boundaries of nations. There is nothing various nations of God can do that can subvert and undermine God’s sovereign oversight of the world.
- Jones’ misinterpretation of this verse ignores the larger context of Paul’s speech before the men of Athens. In Acts 17, Paul’s pagan audience considered the particular claims of the Jews, including Paul, to be rather “strange” (verse 20). So, instead of appealing to the differences between the pagans and the Jews, Paul is emphasizing the unity that all pagans and Jews, as well as Christians, have together in their common, shared humanity. There is but one human race. All are accountable to one God. Nevertheless, God has purposed that people from different nationalities might seek after God and find Him (verse 27). The idea that Paul is warning against mixing together different “races” on the basis of skin color appears to be a mental fabrication on the part of Bob Jones, a thought that is completely alien to the text.
Bob Jones is correct about one thing. We do live in an age where people do not submit to the Bible as the Word of God. But Bob Jones has done the church no favors by promoting a misinterpretation of Scripture that distorts that very Word. Thankfully, most Christians now, even the most “uncompromising” ones, condemn such views that were once popularized by those like Bob Jones Sr. For example, one notable condemner of racial segregation is Answers in Genesis executive director, Ken Ham.4
A Complicated Legacy
This is a difficult topic, as men like Bob Jones Sr. have done much to promote the cause of Christ. Bob Jones Sr. was a fine evangelist, whom God used to bring thousands to faith in the Lord, particularly in his earlier years. Dick Woodward, the late pastor emeritus at our church whom I deeply respected and admired, attended Bob Jones University under Jones’ tutelage, and Woodward went onto be greatly used by God for the building of His Kingdom.
So, it would not be fair to say that Bob Jones Sr.’s “separate but equal” views disqualified him from being a Christian. You can still be a Christian and still be terribly wrong in particular areas of doctrine. Also, it should be noted that believing in racial segregation does not necessarily make a person an advocate of Ku Klux Klan-style violence. Nevertheless, crossing the line from Bob Jones Sr.’s views against “mixing of the races,” towards tragic actions like those against three civil rights workers four years after this sermon was preached, has proven to be far too easy.
The misapplication of Scripture that promotes segregation has done tremendous harm to the cause of Christ, even in our day. By confusing the authority of Scripture with bad Bible interpretation, it has led to further confusion by wrongly persuading men, like the 1964 deputy sheriff in Neshoba County, Mississippi, to misuse their magisterial authority. We may not know exactly what convinced men like Edgar Ray Killen and Cecil Price to do what they did for sure. But then again, according to Bob Jones Sr., if you are “against racial separation, then you are against God Almighty.” Perhaps both Killen and Price had convinced themselves that God was on their side, as they took their actions to prevent the “mixing of the races.”
Is it any wonder then, why over fifty years later American culture still feels the distrust and tension between African Americans and law enforcement, despite our culture’s best efforts to correct the problem? Education and training help, but they can not ultimately fix what is essentially a spiritual problem, stemming back to a failed, mangling of the Bible. Our current generation is bearing the fruit of such distortion of the Bible introduced among our Christian ancestors from generations past. Let us pray that we all might learn “a lesson” from this past.5
1. A 1988 film by Alan Parker, Mississippi Burning, is loosely based on the events surrounding the disappearance and murder investigation of the three civil rights workers. I remember watching the film in utter disbelief, thinking that it was impossible to think that the KKK could ever consider themselves as being Christian. And yet the story of how otherwise reputable Bible teaching spilled over into acts of violence is grieving.↩
2. Billy Graham was a student at Bob Jones (then) College in the 1930s. Graham left Bob Jones College to attend Florida Bible Institute, much to Jones’ regret. The two eventually healed the breach between them, but then, after the 1957 Madison Square Garden crusade, the two men split again. The primary issue was over whether or not evangelicals could cooperate in any way, shape or form with liberal leaning Protestants. Jones rejected the practice, whereas Graham was willing to work with any man, if it meant an opportunity to spread the Gospel. But the issue of race was never far behind. Bob Jones flatly rejected Graham’s practice of having integrated revival meetings, preferring different services based on the color of a person’s skin.↩
3. In 2008, Bob Jones University apologized for its previous stance banning interracial dating, a policy that was finally rescinded in 2000. Today, Bob Jones University has a very positive policy regarding race.↩
4. At one point, I thought about subtitling this blog post as “Ken Ham is Right!” There have been times on the Veracity blog where I have taken issue with some of the dogmatism espoused by Ken Ham, the director of Answers in Genesis. But on this issue of racism, Ken Ham is right. Originally from Australia, Ham wrote a book One Race One Blood, directly aimed at putting down the racist-leaning rhetoric of those like Bob Jones Sr. I may not necessarily agree with all of the arguments used by Ken Ham, but fundamentally, I agree with the type of bottom-line dogmatism Ken Ham is promoting on this issue. This is quite a bold step for an anti-evolutionist like Ken Ham, as some of the leading voices against evolution in the 20th-century were racial segregationists, like Bob Jones Sr., as well as leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. I am very glad that Ken Ham has firmly made the stand that he has made. Every Christian should seriously repent of any lingering views about race that can not be substantiated in Scripture.↩
5. I first blogged about the topic of racism concerning the misinterpretation of the curse of Canaan, in the Book of Genesis.↩