Tag Archives: racism

Hidden Figures

I wanted to briefly encourage Veracity readers about a new movie (and book), Hidden Figures, that explores the lives of several African-American women, who made a vital contribution to America’s space program, in the early 1960s. Like several other recent films, Hidden Figures is set in Virginia, not too far from where I live, in eras when African Americans were either enslaved (The Birth of a Nation), or later segregated from the white community (Loving and Hidden Figures).

One of these talented women, Katherine Johnson, worked as a highly skilled mathematician, who at one point in her career, was asked by astronaut John Glenn to verify the reentry trajectory and coordinates for his historic NASA mission, being the first person in space to encircle the earth, in 1962. Many NASA people at the time did not trust the new IBM computers, instead relying on expert mathematicians, like Johnson, to verify the calculations.

It is difficult now to comprehend how so many white Christians advocated the corrupt concept of segregation, using the Bible for justification, as in The Birth of a Nation or Loving. In contrast, Hidden Figures, while in a handful of places slipping in needless profanity and inappropriate remarks, has overall a very positive image of Christian faith, as all of the lead African-American female characters are portrayed as actively involved in their church. Though not a “Christian” movie per se, I found it refreshing that a Hollywood movie would portray Christian faith in such a positive light, without also buying into the popular narrative that sees a conflict between science and faith. Plus, the movie is quite funny at times.

Most of the women depicted in the film had since left NASA Langley Research Center, in Hampton, Virginia, before I started working there in the mid 1980s, as a computer programmer. The old card punch card systems, like the “new” IBM computer in the movie, were on their way out the door, upon my arrival, so the need for human “computers” to assist in such mathematical work was no longer needed. It is quite remarkable that the story of these pioneering African American women is only now being told, some 55 years later, but it really is a great story to tell. Kudos to author and Hampton, Virginia native, Margot Lee Shetterly, for bringing this story to light.


Loving vs. Virginia vs. the Bible

Richard and Mildred Loving

Richard and Mildred Loving

My grandmother grew up in a rural part of King and Queen County, Virginia. In those days, as she put it, the “colored” people lived in communities separate from the “white” people, but everyone seemed to get along.

The house she grew up in was less than a twenty minute drive from Central Point, a very small town in Caroline County, Virginia.  In the mid-20th century, a story developed in Central Point that has forever changed American society, and that still continues to reverberate in the cultural discussions of our day, some 50-60 years later.

Richard Loving and Mildred Jeter were just two teenagers, from rural and mainly poor families, who fell in love with one another.  In 1958, they drove up to Washington, D.C to get married. The difficulty was that Loving was white and Jeter was part-black and part-Cherokee. In the Commonwealth of Virginia in those days, it was against the law for a white man to marry a black woman. When the couple returned to Virginia, the police raided the Loving home, and they were arrested.

Virginia Judge Leon Bazile ruled against the Lovings, and exiled them from Virginia, saying:

Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.

A new film by Jeff Nichols, Loving, is a dramatic portrayal of the Lovings’ story. Richard and Mildred decided to fight the verdict, and the case was taken to the United States Supreme Court. In 1967, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Lovings in Loving v. Virginia, and the ruling struck down all state laws forbidding interracial marriage. Virginia had been the first to pass such an anti-miscegenation law in 1691.

My grandmother died some years ago, and so I am not sure exactly what she would think about this new movie, where many of the events portrayed happened just a few miles from her childhood home. But I would not be surprised if her sentiments did not echo those of Judge Bazile.

As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), Judge Bazile’s idea, that the Bible forbids people with different skin color from marrying one another, is a complete fabrication, with no foundation in Holy Scripture. But clearly, many Virginians in my grandmother’s generation thought very differently. Sadly, there are still a number of folks in our churches who still think this way, despite what the Bible teaches.

Racism is a sin, and it runs deep from generation to generation. It surely exists in my own life, in ways unconsciously known to me.

Yet what was so insidious about the Loving story is that the Bible was used to blatantly justify such sinful attitudes. Shortly after the Supreme Court ruled in their favor, legally allowing them to return to their home in Virginia as a married couple, a cross was burned in the yard of their home in Caroline County.

A cross? Why would a symbol of Christ’s unending love for you and me be misused as a weapon of fear and intimidation?

The struggle against racism, both inside and outside of the church, has been a long and difficult one. We are almost one year shy of remembering the 50th year since Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and just a few months shy of the 50th year since the Supreme Court’s decision in Loving v. Virginia (June 12, 1967).

What can we learn from the Biblical missteps taken by believers in previous generations? Where has the message of the Bible been misused today? Let us not be deceived by our own chronological snobbery in our day and age. We are not much better than those who lived before us. Technology, and other advancements, have surely progressed, but the human spiritual condition remains the same. Where have we, in our current generation, twisted the Bible to legitimize some sin?

For those concerned about how Biblical values apply to the wider culture, the questions raised by Loving are essential to address (To learn more about the story, HBO did a documentary on the Lovings a few years ago, and here are some clips). If you have the opportunity to view this new film, Loving, I would love to hear from you as to what your thoughts are.


Nat Turner’s Virginia Slave Rebellion, Hollywood, and How We Read the Bible

In August, 1831, a literate slave and Bible preacher, Nat Turner, led a rebellion against his white masters, in rural Southampton County, about a one hour drive south of where I live in Williamsburg, Virginia. After the 48-hour mass killing of 55 whites ended, Turner’s insurrection was eventually crushed, and tougher laws were enacted to try to prevent such slave uprisings in the future.

Nate Parker’s new film, The Birth of a Nation, is a fictionalized retelling of this tragic and violent story (deserving of the R-rating)…and just to think, the events depicted only happened less than two hundred years ago, practically in my own backyard. The film’s director is enveloped in controversy, and early reviews of the film are mixed. Intended to subplant the legacy of the 1915 silent film of the same name, a cinematic apology for the Ku Klux Klan, Parker raises a number of important issues, but one wonders what the film will actually accomplish.

Gospel Coalition blogger, Justin Taylor, summarizes some of the most significant elements regarding the history behind the film’s story. For more details on the history, you can start with the Nat Turner Project. Some historians are disappointed with the inaccuracies of the film, which frustrates me, as I am more interested in the actual history than I am in Hollywood’s fantasies. Does the film tell us about what really happened, or does it tell us more about the mind and state of contemporary pop-culture? How much of the film is about Nat Turner, and how much of it is about the film’s director, Nate Parker?

In the film trailer below, the Nat Turner character recites 1 Peter 2:18, in an effort to encourage his fellow slaves to keep in line. I confess that I, as do so many other evangelicals, tend to water this passage down:

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust (1 Peter 2:18 ESV).

I have euphemistically tried to replace “servants” with “workers,” and “masters” with “supervisors,” but does that really get at the original context? I am afraid not.

Slavery during the New Testament period is difficult to comprehend in modern terms, and it was very different from how many Americans viewed slavery prior to the Civil War. As I have argued elsewhere (here and here), many of my southern, Virginia evangelical forefathers did not properly understand passages like this either. Instead, they read things into the Bible that were not there.

If any Veracity readers end up seeing the film, I would like to know your thoughts.

 


Racism, Police Authority, and the Misinterpretation of the Bible

FBI posted looking for three civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, June 21, 1964.

FBI poster looking for three missing civil rights workers in Neshoba County, Mississippi, June 21, 1964.

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? Continue reading


The Civil War as a Theological Crisis

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter's Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

A steep, dugout embankment defending Redoubt #1, off of Quarterpath Road, where Confederate troops waited for advancing Federal soldiers to attack from Tutter’s Mill Pond below, during the Battle of Williamsburg. Sadly, relatively very few of my fellow Williamsburg neighbors even know that this place even exists.

Does the American national tragedy over the Civil War have something to teach us about how we are to read the Bible?

As a kid, I grew up near the remains of an oft-forgotten, Civil War battlefield. Whenever I ran among the dugout, redoubt embankments, I always kept in mind the warnings of neighbors to be careful, as there was likely to be found unexploded ordinance somewhere underneath my feet.

On the same day, hundreds of miles away, when Mexico was resisting the French on May 5, 1862, remembered now as Cinco de Mayo, Federal forces met Confederate forces just east of my town, for the Battle of Williamsburg, with nearly 4,000 casualties among both sides. Within a couple of years, the significance of that battle faded, displaced in memory by placenames like Antietam and Gettysburg.

Efforts to preserve the battlefield from being run over by suburban housing developments have been somewhat, moderately successful, though the land, as well as the intellectual debates that the led up to the war, have sometimes been forgotten. I often wonder myself, if such a national crisis could have been averted, without such terrible bloodshed.
Continue reading


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