Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Whatever Happened to "Merry Christmas"?

As I grow older, I find myself sounding more and more like my parents and those of their generation. I catch myself saying things like, “When I was growing up…”, or “I remember when…”, or “It didn’t use to be this way, why in the old days…”

So, having admitted this, let me say, I can remember when you would go to the store during Christmas and, after finishing your shopping, the store clerk would wish you a Merry Christmas; which you joyfully returned. But, it wasn’t just in stores, practically everyone wished one another a Merry Christmas.

Not today, however. Today I am bombarded with, “Happy Holidays”. And whereas Christmas cards used to proclaim boldly, “Merry Christmas”, now they simply wish the recipient a “Happy Holiday”, or “Seasons Greetings”. Such a generic proclamation could refer to any holiday, or any season.

On this point, Christmas Eve 2002, the New York Times ran an article that included the following observation about this “holiday” season:

“Heaven forbid that anyone mention specifically that what is being celebrated tomorrow is called Christmas. And, for sure, let us not acknowledge explicitly that this is also the season of Hanukkah, Id al-Fitr, Kwanzaa and, lest Wiccans feel slighted, the winter solstice. (Atheists will have to fend for themselves on this one.) Out of fear that someone, somewhere, might somehow be offended, we have abandoned all hope of giving each religious and cultural festival its due. We now lump them all together in a bland generic blob called ''the holidays.''

Many retailers recognize the controversy and rather than step on anyone’s beliefs, they simply display holiday greetings. Merry Christmas has been neglected in our culture for so long that many of us who used to say it find ourselves slipping in the occasional, “happy holidays” without even realizing it.

So, what happened to Christmas? How did we get to the point where it has lost its original significance in the culture, and simply became a “happy holiday”?

The roots of it probably began with litigation filed decades ago on behalf of Jewish plaintiffs, suing for the right to have Hanukkah given the same recognition as Christmas. Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, is typically celebrated during the Christmas season and, as many cities allow Christmas displays on city property, some Jews believed that a Menorah – a symbol of Hanukkah – should be given equal standing.

Courts began to rule in favor of this and in some cities menorahs and mangers, or menorahs and Christmas trees began appearing together. Naturally, other groups would wanted representation, including atheists, who began suing for the right to display representations that they don’t believe in anything.

A recent example of this is the case that arose out of a display in the capitol building in Washington. The display began as a manger scene and eventually a menorah was added. After a few years the Jewish group, that donated the menorah, seemed to tire of it and quit putting out their Menorah. However, an atheist group petitioned to fill the void and were allowed to place a sign that simply stated:
“At this season of THE WINTER SOLSTICE may reason prevail.
There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell.
There is only our natural world.
Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

It doesn’t seem like reason is prevailing here. In fact, this whole attack on Christmas seems quite lacking of rational thinking. Consider Jersey City’s attempt to satisfy a court ruling in such a way that would allow the city to continue a decades’ long tradition of displaying a crèche outside City Hall.

“For now, Jersey City has a court's approval to continue its 35-year tradition of erecting a holiday display of a menorah and a creche outside City Hall as long as officials make sure to include Santa, Frosty the Snowman, a little red sleigh and an evergreen decorated with Kwanzaa ribbons… a Federal appeals court panel has ruled that this mix of religious and secular symbols satisfies United States Supreme Court rulings that upheld similar displays in Pawtucket, R.I., in 1984 and in Pittsburgh in 1989.” New York Times 2/19/99

Unfortunately this is not an isolated event. Amorak, NY had a long standing tradition of placing a Christmas tree in a public park. Eventually, Jewish residents thought Hanukkah should also be given recognition and a large menorah was placed to the right of the tree. Then, a couple of years ago, a Muslim resident thought the Islamic faith should also be represented and, you guessed it, a large crescent moon and star (the symbol of Islam) was placed to the left of the tree.

At least the Christmas tree and the menorah are intended to represent something that is actually celebrated during the month they are placed in the park. The crescent moon and star has nothing to do with any Islamic event that coincides with the celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah. Next thing you know, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, and every other religious group will be demanding their religion should also be represented in the park. And, how could they be denied.

Let us not lose sight in all of this, that, as far as Christianity goes, the Christmas tree is not the symbol of our faith or of what we are celebrating. If this is about religious recognition, then perhaps it is time for Christians to exercise their rights and demand a cross be placed beside the symbols of other religions; for as best as I can tell, we very rarely have our symbol represented in this so-called fight.

So, let me conclude by wishing you a hearty Merry Christmas! That’s what we used to say in the old days.

“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord." Luke 2:8-11
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Monday, November 16, 2009

Compassion Found in Hell?


The other morning I drove past an art gallery a block from my office and saw a huge black sign draped in front of the building proclaiming:

“Even in Hell there is compassion.”

What!! I thought as I did a double-take. Who would proclaim such a message; and, right here in the heart of the Bible-Belt, no less?

Surely, this must be some kind of prank. But, of course it isn’t. The sign was placed there to promote a new exhibit by the Compassion Project. It is the work of two artists who have placed this same message on billboards in several other Southern cities.

Even for those who are not particularly religious this is probably a message that seems quite odd, initially. After all, whether you believe in it or not, everyone knows that hell is a place of pain and suffering. So, on what do these artists base such a positive spin on hell? The teachings of Buddhism; Surprise!

The art exhibitor says they are sponsoring the work in order to promote understanding of a more expansive view of escaping damnation than that offered by the Christian Church. In other words, the message of the Christian Church regarding hell is wrong so one must look elsewhere to find the truth. They have found the Christian view too narrow and restrictive. It needs to be broader for them.

For these two artists, and perhaps their sponsors, the answer is best found in the teachings of Eastern religion. For, in the religions of the East, everyone ultimately makes it (though it may require numerous reincarnations to finally escape this existence).

The placement of such a message, in the heart of the so-called Bible-Belt, indicates a growing willingness for some to believe and promote anything as true; especially at the expense of the Christian faith. Perhaps most alarming, it reveals how our culture has steadily moved away from its Christian roots; so far, that there are those who deny this nation was founded on Christian teachings and principles, in the first place.

Events like these should be a wake up call for the Church to what is going on in our culture. This exhibit and campaign, is indicative of the interest people have in spiritual matters. And, while the culture is having this important dialogue regarding the place of faith and spirituality in one’s life, the Church is noticeably absent from the conversation.

While I strongly disagree with the message of the Compassion Project, they have every right to display it. Likewise, Christians have every right to talk about what we believe. If we truly, believe that Christ is the answer, we must not wait within the walls of the Church building in hopes that seekers will find us. Instead, it seems to me, we should get out in the marketplace and begin to participate in these spiritual discussions.

There is a choice to make. We can look at a sign like this and be critical of its sponsors; or, we can recognize that the fact such a sign is being prominently displayed indicates an opportunity for us to engage the culture on a meaningful discussion of spiritual matters. It is an invitation for dialogue and though that may not have been the artists’ true intent; they have opened the door for the conversation. Knock, Knock!

We'll be covering this in more detail in our next issue of CrossingCurrents. If you are not a subsciber, just click on the subscribe button in the right column. Want to know more about advertising rights regarding one's religious views? Watch our video below on Billboards and Religion.


Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Do What is Right, not What is Easy

Almost as soon as the tragic news broke of the events at Fort Hood last week the clamor began that it was an act of Islamic terrorism. Shortly after the killing spree, Muslims reported that some of their Mosques had received threatening telephone calls. Apparently, there was no time to take a wait-and-see approach – to get the facts – folks were already making up their minds on this one

Now the facts have come out and the killer was, in fact, Muslim and from the information being released, was acting based on his connection to a radical Islamic cleric. So, all those who first claimed it was an act of Islamic terrorism, can say a hearty, “I told you so.” However, does that justify some of the hostile reactions directed toward some of the Muslim people in our nation?

Without question, there have been tremendous atrocities carried out in the name of Islam; but do those who perpetrate such actions truly represent the Muslim religion? While the terrorist would say yes, most Muslims in the West would respond, they do not. In fact, many Mosques, including one in my own city, quickly issued statements of condemnation concerning the actions at Fort Hood. Muslims, from the Mosque where the killer worshipped, also attended the service held today in remembrance of those who had been killed.

Though I am convinced we need to take a much more cautious approach in responding to these type events, I am not so naïve as to think there is not an anti-American sentiment among Muslims in the Middle East. There is. Just as some Muslims in America have such sentiments.

However, when it comes to acts of terrorism carried out by Muslims, I think we would do well to consider that most of these actions take place in the Middle East and that more Muslims, than non-Muslims, are killed by these terrorists. If for no other reason than that, I can find it credible that a Muslim can truly find the actions of an Islamic terrorist, reprehensible.

It seems to me that at some point we must quit reacting on the basis of one’s culture, ethnicity, skin-color, and/or religion and lay aside our fears and personal prejudices. I believe this should be particularly true for those of us who claim to be followers of Jesus. Where possible, we need to develop relationships with our Muslim neighbors; and, even if we cannot come to agreement, to at least try to understand one another.

While there are certainly Muslim terrorists in this country, I do not believe that most Muslims have come here to overthrow this country or to do harm to its citizens. In my own experience, I have found that Muslims in my city share many of the same concerns as their non-Muslim neighbors. Like so many of us, they are concerned about their children’s welfare and education, job security, having a roof over their head, and staying ahead of the bill collector. They want to live in a nice home, drive a good car, and even if they may despise our policies, they want to enjoy the freedom this country affords them – to live the American dream.

It is easy to label every Muslim a terrorist and proclaim Islam a terrorist religion. However, as Christians, we have not been called to take the easy road; but to do what is right – to love even those who hate us. It is a hard calling, but it is the right thing to do. It is the example that Christ gave us.

Click here to read our article on Islam.

Monday, June 8, 2009

"Lap Time"

Recently, as I sat in Church waiting for the service to start, I noticed a man seated a few rows ahead of me and to my right. He had left empty the two seats beside him and next to the aisle. As the service started these two seats remained unoccupied and I noticed that periodically he would look at them with consternation.

As you can tell, I was rather curious about all this and paying more attention – possibly too much – to what was going on to my right than what was occurring on the stage.

About ten minutes into the service a couple came down the aisle and stopped at the two empty seats and the man welcomed them to sit down. Accompanying them was a child who appeared to be about seven years-old. However, there was not a vacant seat for him. Then it suddenly all became clear.

As the man who had saved the seats pulled the child to him and the young boy climbed up on his lap it was obvious that this was the boy’s grandfather. Considering there was no shortage of seats in the Church, it was also clear that granddad had not made a mistake in the number of seats he had saved. As his grandson settled in his lap and he wrapped those granddaddy arms around him there was not a doubt that he had intentionally saved only two seats.

The look of consternation was gone; replacing it was a big old smile that could have lit the place if the lights went out. Looking up at him, and smiling just as big, was that little boy. You could tell he didn’t have a care in the world. He was snug and secure in granddad’s lap. And, to tell you the truth, at that moment, I don’t think granddad had a care in the world either.

I can remember as a young boy being with my grandfather and I know just how this young boy felt. As I watched, I have to admit, it wouldn’t be so bad to have a place where all our cares would disappear, even if only for a moment. Of course, my granddad is long gone from this world, and even if he were still here I would be much too big to climb into his lap.

However, we do have such a place if we will avail ourselves of it. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-29

The love of this young boy and his grandfather reminds me that Jesus said to not hinder the little children from coming to him. He also said that we must come to him as little children.

Hmmmm, feeling weary and worn out? Maybe we are due some lap time.

Note: If you are not getting our E-Letter, the current issue addresses the latest “missing-link” finding. You can read the full story at: Monkey Business

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Shrinking Church

In recent years many Christian denominations have acknowledged slower growth rates while claiming an increase in the number of adherents. Certainly, it is good that the Church is experiencing growth and not stagnating, or is it? Do the numbers really tell the whole story?

The recently released American Religious Identification Survey 2008, issued out of Trinity College in Hartford, CT, tells a different story. The Survey does confirm that, from 1990 to 2008, those affiliated with the Christian Church increased some 13.5%, from 151.2 million to 173.4 million. However, during that same time the US population increased about 30% from 175.4 million to 228.2 million.

What this survey found is that those who identified themselves with the Christian Church now represent 76% of the population; whereas, in 1990 this group represented 86.2% of the population. So, compared to the population as a whole, the Christian Church is shrinking in size, and possibly influence.

When broken down into subcategories, (i.e. Baptists, Methodists, Lutheran, etc.) almost all groups either saw only modest growth or a decrease in the percentage of the overall population they represented in 2008, from that of 1990. A few groups however did see quite remarkable growth and serve as good indicators of the spiritual trends emerging in today's culture.

During this same time frame, the survey indicates "eastern religions" have increased from 0.4% of the population to 0.9% and Buddhism, from 0.2% to 0.5%. This means that each of these have experienced over a 50% growth rate. Atheism and agnosticism (which were grouped together in 1990's survey) have also increased over 50%, from 0.7% of the population to 1.6%; as has the Muslim growth rate, increasing from 0.3% of the population to 0.6%.

Combined, these five groups have increased from representing 1.6% of the population to representing 3.6% of the population. To give this some perspective, they comprise a larger, or nearly as large, segment of the population than the Jewish religion (1.2%) and the following Christian groups: Lutherans (3.8%), Presbyterian (2.1%), Episcopal/Anglican (1.1%), Pentecostal (3.5%)

While mainline Christian churches continue to experience small growth, they are actually growing smaller in relation to the overall population. At the same time, the Survey found that those who choose not to identify themselves with any particular religion are seeing explosive growth, increasing from 8.2% of the population in 1990 to 14.1% in 2001 and now to 15%, in 2008.

Clearly, these trends indicate there is a growing disinterest in the Christian Church; at least as it is currently presented or perceived. This is not the first time in its history the Church has been so viewed. Furthermore, these statistics, and other trends that we have been reporting, seem to give evidenced that the culture is doing a much better job of absorbing the Church than is the Church in changing the culture.

It is imperative that those who follow Christ begin to engage the culture with the redemptive message of the gospel. For, it is only the hope that we have in Christ that can turn around these numbers and the trends they represent. And, that is certainly something to hope, pray, and labor for.

Truly, the fields are white unto harvest.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Bus Wars! Atheists and Christians Take to the Buses

Amazing as it may sound, during a time of such economic difficulty as we are currently experiencing, atheists and Christian groups are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to advertise on buses, in what can only be called - the "Bus Wars". As we reported last November, it began when an atheist group in England raised funds to purchase advertising on London buses that proclaimed: ""There's probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."

Obviously, atheist groups around the world found this to be a brilliant strategy as several of them adopted the campaign in their own cities. In the November issue of Crossing Currents we reported an atheist group was also introducing an advertising campaign on metro-buses in Washington DC. They are now joined by groups in Canada, Brazil, Australia, Germany, and Italy.

Do not be misled into believing that their message is limited to the posters placed on the sides of buses; it has a much broader scope. As the media picked up the story the message also found its way into local and national periodicals and has been widely reported on Internet sites.

For example, Time Magazine reported the slogan to be placed on Italian buses will read: "The bad news is that God does not exist. The good news is that we do not need him." Therefore, it is not only the people of Genoa, Italy who are exposed to this campaign but the readers of Time and other media outlets who run the story, without a Christian response. And, by Christian response, we do not mean on the side of a bus.

Unfortunately, it appears there will be no shortage of such reactive responses made by Christians. For, it is not only the atheists who are investing their donations in bus advertising. Christian groups are also jumping on the band-wagon, or should we say, the band-bus.

For example, to counter the atheist campaign in London, a Christian group, the Trinitarian Bible Society, has spent $50,000 to place Psalm 53:1, "The fool has said in his heart there is no God", on the side of 125 London buses. Apparently, this let's those atheists know where they stand.

A conservative political group, the Christian Party, is also placing a message on London buses: "There definitely is a God, so join the Christian Party and enjoy your life." I guess in this case, God wants you to enjoy life by joining a political party.

Even the Russian Orthodox Church has joined the fray, partnering with a Russian satellite-TV channel. Their "bus message": "There is God. Don't worry. Enjoy your life!"

Thus far, the "Christian" response, as reported by the media, has been to call the atheist a fool (of course using Scripture), to point out life really begins when you join a political party, and to boil it down to just enjoying life. Nowhere in these responses is there any hint of the gospel.

One would think if we were going to expend the funds and efforts to counter a message that says there is no God, it would be to point to the only one who can connect us to God, Jesus.

This is not to say the Christian response has not gone unnoticed by the atheists. It hasn't. In fact, Hanne Stinson, CEO of the British Humanist Association, said, "[The Christian response] just proves that we've had an impact."

If, by impact, Ms. Stinson means it has raised the ire of some Christians, I would agree. However, if "impact" means winning people over to their way of thinking, I believe an ad proclaiming, "God probably doesn't exist" - probably - isn't going to convince someone He doesn't.

On the other hand, neither is advertising that the atheist is a "fool" probably going to win anyone over to the belief that God is real. As the Time article noted, in quoting renowned author and atheist Richard Dawkins, "That's a particularly obnoxious quote from one of the Psalms...[the humanist's] was extremely gentle and respectful by comparison."

I would agree with Dawkins assessment that the humanists probably come off looking better than the Christians, in this case. Now, don't get me wrong, this is not to say, that when confronted by a campaign like that of the humanist groups, our primary goal should be to try and appear to be the least offensive. However, that does not mean we should dismiss all charity and wisdom from our sharing. After all, the gospel is offensive enough on its own to those who reject it.

In fact, the origin of the current campaign by atheists is evidence of this. It was initiated by comedy writer, Ariane Sherine, who was reacting to a Christian ad campaign which she found offensive. Here is how she describes its origins: "...the campaign was originally started as a positive counter-response to the Jesus Said ads running on London buses in June 2008. These ads displayed the URL of a website which stated that non-Christians 'will be condemned to everlasting separation from God and then you spend all eternity in torment in hell... '. Our rational slogan will hopefully reassure anyone who has been scared by this kind of evangelism." www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/06/religion-atheism

Note the Christian ad is depicted as condemning and scary. The atheist response, however, is depicted as positive", "rational" and will "reassure".

Had she seen a poster on the bus that said, "You are condemned and going to hell" I could understand why she might be upset and describe it as she did. However, here are the words that were on the ad she saw: ""When the son of man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" (Luke 18:8)."

In fairness, she did say the message that so offended her was on the website the ad promoted. She is correct in that the website does contain language such as she describes. However, context is very important. Here is the website so you can read it for yourself: http://www.jesussaid.org

Interestingly, when one goes to this website the first message proclaimed is not of condemnation, but hope. Here is what is boldly proclaimed across the top of the web page, "JESUS said:I AM the resurrection, and the life, whoever believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in Me will never die."

In fact, to find the message that so enraged Ms. Sheine, you have to read eleven pages into the twelve page website. The rest of the pages are a clear presentation of the gospel describing how to avoid that which so upset Ms. Sherine. Quite the contrary from being condemning, these pages contain such headings as: "who is Jesus", "who are we", "what is religion", "if you believe you become a brand new person", and "good news".

What observations can we make about the culture from this? First, it is noteworthy that, in 2008 London buses were advertising a message asking if Jesus would find faith upon his return and the media did not report on this and promote the message of the Christian website sponsoring the campaign. However, when an atheist group placed ads on buses they were found to be newsworthy with the media circulating their message as part of the story. (It is interesting that when the "Jesus Said" campaign is mentioned as part of this story it is in a negative light.)

Next, atheists are becoming increasingly vocal in defending and promoting their own views. And, despite their protestations to the contrary, are attempting to recruit others to their beliefs about god and religion. The bus advertising campaign is but one example of this. This is also being done through books written by such best-selling authors and atheists, as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens; as well as through lectures and public debates with Christian leaders.

Finally, Christians need to be prepared to present a reasoned response - not simply resorting to name-calling, even if under the guise of quoting Scripture - that offers the real hope found only in Jesus Christ. We must realize the attention given to the atheists' ad campaigns has presented Christians with a wonderful opportunity to talk about the gospel - the good news that not only does God exist but he cares for you.

We might do much better to not focus on the ads so much as on the opportunities they present. Rather than view the atheist bus ads as an attack on Christian beliefs, let us appreciate the fact that they have introduced an important question into the culture: "Is God real"?

Now, that is a great question and one that we should want to discuss. If we don't, then it seems the only ones who will actually benefit are the owners of the buses who probably hope the "Bus Wars" last for a long time.

Read the full Time article at: www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1877658,00.html
To read more about Ariane Sherine:
www.guardian.co.uk/profile/arianesherine
Video of Sherine and others discussing their campaign: www.youtube.com/watch?v=bSrSwRpBdHk

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Becoming a Post-Racial America? Part 2

The day before President Obama took the oath of office I acknowledged in my blog the magnitude of the historical moment and that it was, truly, evidence we have made great advancement as a country when it comes to race. However, I also wrote, “The question remains as to how much farther we must yet travel to truly be “one people” and ‘one America’”.

At least some of the pundits would have us to think that the trip is not that far, proclaiming we are already in a “post-racial” America. Certainly the President did not say or do anything that might lead us to believe otherwise. Yet, the reminder of darker times was still there as evidenced in the Inaugural’s closing prayer by Rev Joseph Lowery, which he concluded with:

“Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.

Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen.” [Endquote]

To this there was a resounding Amen from the audience, which Rev. Lowery had them repeat two more times for emphasis.

As I heard the last line of his prayer and noted the laughter of the crowd as he spoke this refrain, I could not help but think that we may still be bogged down too much in the past; and, that such old-school rhetoric is not helpful as we move forward. It appeared the President agrees with this as he seemed to visibly wince as these lines were delivered.

The thoughts expressed by Rev Lowery are not new. They are found in songs and choruses of the past. Some of which became part of the history of the civil rights effort. One is the song Black, Brown, and White written by, blues singer, Big Bill Broonzy in 1949 as an attack on racism:

This little song that I'm singin' about,
People, you all know that it's true,
If you're black and gotta work for livin',
Now, this is what they will say to you,
They says: "If you was white, You's alright,
If you was brown, Stick around,
But if you's black, oh, brother, Get back, get back, get back."

I was in a place one night,
They was all havin' fun,
They was all buyin' beer and wine,
But they would not sell me none.
They said: "If you was white, You's alright,
If you was brown, You could stick around,
But as you's black, hmm, hmm, brother, Get back, get back, get back."

I went to an employment office,
I got a number and I got in line,
They called everybody's number,
But they never did call mine.
They said: "If you was white, You's alright,
If you was brown, You could stick around,
But as you's black, hmm, hmm, brother, Get back, get back, get back."

Me and a man was workin' side by side,
Now, this is what it meant:
They was payin' him a dollar an hour,
And they was payin' me fifty cent.
They said: "If you was white, You'd be alright,
If you was brown, You could stick around,
But as you's black, oh, brother, Get back, get back, get back."

I helped win sweet victories,
With my plow and hoe,
Now, I want you to tell me, brother,
What you gonna do 'bout the old Jim Crow?
Now, if you is white, You's alright,
If you's brown, Stick around,
But if you's black, oh, brother, Get back, get back, get back.

A website dedicated to Bill Broonzy researched these lyrics and offers that its roots go even further back (the following is from http://www.broonzy.com):

“It was an old rhyme in black oral culture before Bill and others changed the subject from intra-racial to inter-racial color caste, by editing it. To quote from a review of mine in Blues & Rhythm:

Big Bill abridges an old rhyme, which John Cowley suggests he may have got from Zora Neale Hurston via Alan Lomax. In Hurston's Story In Harlem Slang (American Mercury, July 1942), one pimp says to another: Man, I don't deal in no coal. Know what I tell 'em? If they's white, they's right! If they's yellow, they's mellow! If they's brown, they can stick around. But if they come black, they better git way back! (Im indebted to Konrad Nowakowski for this reference.)

Personally, I suspect that the first line originally started 'If they's bright...' (light-skinned black) rather than 'white.' In other words, it originally expressed internalized racism, as Brenda Dixon Gottschild notes in Dancing in the Dark: African American Vaudeville and Race Politics in the Swing Era¹ (New York, Palgrave, 2000; p. 135):

Internalized racism ensures that the values encapsulated in this vernacular rhyme serve as an insidious, self-fulfilling prophecy:

If you're white, you're right.If you're yellow, you're mellow.If you're brown, stay down [sometimes changed to 'stick around']But if you're black, stay back.

Her endnote is interesting:

According to folklorist Roger Abrahams, the words to this refrain, as sung by the Almanac Singers in the 1940s, did not include the second line, 'If you're yellow, you're mellow,' but the group was responsible for spreading the 3-line version of the rhyme in a song frequently performed in northern, leftist labor movement concerts. (Telephone conversation, 1 December 1999) The origin of the saying is unclear, but it seems probable that it is African American.” [Endquote]

The Civil Rights movement owes much to Rev Lowery and others who, early on in the movement, joined with Dr. King and helped define and establish the course that has lead us to the election of an African-American President. Without question, much of the progress we have made as a nation was built on their labors.

It is also true that history is not something we should ignore or forget. It reminds us where we came from and where we have been. It can also remind us of the roads that must not be taken again and point us toward a better way and better days. However, it is not always something to be clung to.

If we are going to truly become post-racial then we have much to do and the rhetoric of old must be done away with. Perhaps, to move forward, we may need to quit singing the songs of the past. This is particularly true in the Church and among those who would take the mantle of Reverend, Pastor, Church leader, Christian – no matter what the pigmentation of one’s skin.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Becoming a Post-Racial America?

No matter what one’s political affiliation, as we again observe the transfer of the presidency, it would be difficult not to acknowledge the particular historical significance of this moment. Without question, President-elect Obama’s inauguration is evidence of the tremendous advances we have made, as a nation, in regards to race relations. Some have even begun to refer to this as a post-racial America.

However, this is still up in the air. The question remains as to how much farther we must yet travel to truly be “one people” and “one America”. Christians, in particular must be willing to address this question.

Dr. Martin Luther King once said, “You have allowed segregation to creep into the doors of the church. How can such a division exist in the true Body of Christ? You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11:00 on Sunday morning to sing "All Hail the Power of Jesus Name" and "Dear Lord and Father of all Mankind," you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America. They tell me that there is more integration in the entertaining world and other secular agencies than there is in the Christian church. How appalling that is.” (Paul’s Letter to American Christians, 1956)

These words were spoken over fifty years ago and, unfortunately, still ring true today. As Dr. King recognized, the Christian Church should be at the forefront in racial reconciliation, not bringing up the rear. If we cannot worship together in our Churches, how shall we ever walk together in our social and community structures?

Concerning the role of the church, Dr. King said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority. (Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love, 1963)

As we remember Dr. King, on this day that commemorates his birth, and as we prepare to observe the oath of office being given to our first African-American President, let us celebrate how far we have come. However, let us also not forget that there is still a ways yet to travel.

Surely, in these days of good will, we are not so naïve as to think racism will not continue to rear its ugly head. Let us pray that it will not be so in the Church and that God will give us the grace and power to be part of the solution and deal with it quickly and decisively.

Those who call themselves Christian must strive to see that it is never again said that any institution or agency has surpassed the Church in establishing racial equality and harmony. And, though we may have different cultural backgrounds that make us distinct, may it never again be the color of our skin that separates and divides us; especially at 11:00 on Sunday morning.

[The Crosswinds Foundation for Faith and Culture is currently working on a documentary that examines the current state of race relations in America. Updates will be posted periodically on our website for those interested in this project.]