A clear indication that we are at the threshold of a new dark age is the simplistic dualism created by religious leaders between heretics and believers, between the saved and the damned. Ages of ignorance, which contributed to the education of Dylann Roof, occur when religious leaders participate in demonizing their Others; when they maintain that Jews, Muslims, Unitarians, and everyone else that rejects “their” particular Christian orthodoxy is destined for the flames of Hell. History has shown that such xenophobic Christian views have been the root cause of so much of global genocide. There is something terribly wrong when Christian orthodoxy has been responsible for most of the world’s horror and misery perpetrated in the name of Jesus. Only an ignoramus ignores the gulf that separates the history of humanity from how Christians remember their place in that history, full of the bodies of those labeled enemies of the true faith. Regardless of the type of Jesus that Roof heard about when he attended church with his family, there exists a U.S. Jesus that was and continues to be silent in the face of slavery, Jim Crow, and today’s color-blind racism. We cannot ignore that U.S. Christianity and white supremacy were twins at birth. The Jesus of this white Christianity, as James Cone reminds us, is satanic.
One person who has relegated so many to destruction because they have not accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior in the same matter as him is the president of my alma mater – Albert Mohler of Southern Theological Seminary. He writes: “Any belief system that pulls persons away from the Gospel of Christ, denies and subverts Christian truth, and blinds sinners from seeing Christ as the only hope of salvation is, by biblical definition, a way that leads to destruction. Islam, like every other rival to the Christian gospel, takes persons captive and is devoid of genuine hope for salvation.” Demonizing those who have different religious views creates a social and cultural milieu that makes it acceptable to see the heretical Other destined for Hell.
Deeply moved by the tragedy of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre, Mohler, in a somewhat courageous article, does raise the question as to whether even the founders of the seminary were heretics. The article attempts to come to terms with the historical complicity of Southern Baptists with the white supremacy that led to Roof’s actions. Mohler admits that, “The Southern Baptist Convention was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument.”
And yet, Mohler goes on to claim: “I gladly stand with the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in their courageous affirmation of biblical orthodoxy, Baptist beliefs and missionary zeal. There would be no Southern Baptist Convention and no Southern Seminary without them. James P. Boyce, Basil Manly Jr. and John A. Broadus were titans of the faith once and for all delivered to the saints. But there is more to the story. The founders of the SBC and of Southern Seminary were defenders of slavery. Boyce and Broadus were chaplains in the Confederate army. Just a few months ago I was reading a history of Greenville, S.C., where Southern Seminary was founded, when I came across a racist statement made by Boyce, my ultimate predecessor as president of the seminary. It was so striking that I had to find a chair.”
Mohler may boldly ask, “Were the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary heretics?” – but in reality, he is asking the wrong question. Mohler fails to question the salvation of the founders of his denomination and seminary. By ignoring this question, he limits the depths of their complicity (and Mohler’s) with oppression. What he should be asking is if the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary ever knew Jesus, or to use his terminology, if they were ever saved.
Personally, I find both the terms “heretic” and “saved” problematic. To label you a heretic assumes that you do not know the universal truth as expressed by God as “I” do. I lack the hubris to claim that my finite mind can grasp and fully know the Infinite. Nonetheless, for purposes of discussion, I will use these terms the way Mohler defines them. Thus, I am less concerned if Boyce, Manly and Broadus held heretical views and more concerned with whether or not they knew Jesus. And if they did, because of their racism and support for the Confederacy, which supported the institution of bondage, which brought rape and death to so many, was the Jesus that they profess knowing in reality Satan disguised as an angel of light (2 Co 11:14)? Scripture is clear: Anyone who claims to be a Christian but hates his neighbor (i.e., slavery) is still in darkness (1 Jn 2:9). Here is how we know who are the children of God and who are the children of the devil. Anyone who does not do justice, who does not love their brother or sister, is no child of God (1 Jn. 3:10). If a tree is known by its fruit (Mt 3:10), then the noisome fruit of pro-slavery and racism expressed by Boyce, Manly, and Broadus means that their trees should be cut down and thrown into the fire.
Mohler, along with many conservative Christians, ignores the fact that salvation is liberation. Jesus is first and foremost a Savior, that is, a Liberator. For onto us is born this day a Savior/Liberator (Lk 2:11). The Hebrew word translated in the Scriptures for “save” (yāša‘), along with the Greek term (sōzō) are both used to connote “liberate.” Etymologically, to be saved is to be liberated. Hence the question: salvation/liberation from what? From what (or from whom) are the wretched of the earth rescued and delivered?
Salvation is neither an abstract concept, a decision made walking down an isle, nor a personal warm fuzzy feeling; rather, it is a state of being that encompasses rescue and deliverance. Justice occurs when we are saved/liberated from sin, when sin is understood as the forces (individual or corporate) that bring oppression, enslavement, and death. To be liberated from this type of sin is to be saved. Salvation, thus, means more than simply acknowledging that Jesus died for our sins, where salvation is obtained through right beliefs – orthodoxy. James, the brother of Jesus, reminds us that salvation is more than orthodoxy. “So,” he writes, “you believe that there is only one God, fine. But the demons also believe, and tremble. You fool; don’t you know that faith without works is dead?” (Jm. 2:19-20). But it’s not just the demons who believe in God and tremble at God’s name; “good” Christian folk like Boyce, Manly and Broadus, prospering from power and privileged obtained at the expense of the disenfranchised, also believe. Salvation/Liberation does not come about by having the right beliefs, doctrines, or ideologies, as Mohler would argue. The emphasis then is not on what doctrines are believed to obtain salvation, but rather, what actions are committed that lead to liberation.
Salvation, understood as liberation, is for everyone – oppressed and oppressor, slave and slaveholder, subjugated and subjugator. But while many are called, few are chosen. Jesus warns his followers to enter through the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad the road that leads to ruin, and many are those who enter in this fashion. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and few find it (Mt. 7:13-14). Those like Boyce, Manly and Broadus who oppress, enslave, and subjugate are on the broad road that passes through the wide gate. Preventing them from experiencing salvation or liberation due to their complicity with social structures that brings misery to the vast majority of humanity, regardless as to whatever commitment was made to Jesus or whichever sinner’s prayer was recited.
In fact, many of those who profit on the backs of the world’s wretched call themselves Christians, and believe that they are, due to some cultural upbringing or some intellectual (or emotional) decision to follow Jesus. But for Jesus, not everyone who calls him Lord will enter God’s reign. On the ultimate day when all must give an account, Jesus will respond, “away from me you evildoers, for I never knew you. Only those who do the will of God will see the glories of his reign” (Mt. 7:21-23). And what is the will of God? What does the Lord require? Simply stated: To act with justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with one’s God (Mic. 6:8).
Maybe if Roof’s education would have consisted of a more liberal understanding of God’s love the Charleston massacre might have been averted. Instead, he grew up in a society where simplistic religious dualism undergirds the culture. While I am not arguing that a direct correlation exists between conservative evangelical Christianity and Roof’s actions, I am proposing that the predominant xenophobia of conservative Christianity’s dualisms, bathed in a historical racism that religiously justified slavery, Jim Crow and color-blind racism contributed to an atmosphere that provided space for Roof’s education to flourish.