Author Susan K. Williams Smith was disgusted to learn that a New Testament passage inspired Samuel Bowers to launch the Mississippi White Knights from the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s.
Smith’s new book, With Freedom and Justice for Some: The Bible, the Constitution and Racism in America, examines how the sacred texts are used to rationalize and justify Christian nationalist and white supremacist worldviews. And Bowers, who died in 2006 while serving a life sentence for the 1966 murder of an African-American grocery store owner, was one of the catalysts for the project to come to fruition.
“I knew I would write this book the day I read that this former great wizard of the KKK said he had an “experience on the road to Damascus” in which God called him to save white supremacy, “said Smith, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ and former pastor. “Here is a Christian who goes to church on Sundays but trains people to kill black people. And he would tell them to pray and fast before they go out to kill.
How, she wondered, could someone like Bowers see in the Bible a model for racism and murder?
“It bothered me, this reality that so many people could go out and lynch someone on a Saturday night and go to church on Sunday and have Communion,” said Smith, author of six books and founder of Mad Faith Ministries in Columbus, Ohio.
Partly it bothered her because such a racist and the hateful expressions of Christianity so blatantly contradict the faith Smith learned growing up in the pre-UCC congregational church in Detroit, Michigan.
“The God I grew up with – and my mother was my first theologian here – argued that if you are a Christian you have to do what Jesus said and do what Jesus did and you have to love people and forgive.”
One conversation in high school was especially memorable for Smith as it made it clear that white supremacy resides deep in people. “It was in a political science class, and I remember a student saying, ‘You can make laws whatever you want, but you can’t legislate in people’s hearts.’ “
This fight then took spiritual dimensions, she explained. “There is the age-old theodicy question: why is this evil allowed to last and cause so much pain and suffering to so many people? I started to struggle with it.
In With Liberty and justice for some, Smith said she came across an answer to this troubling question: “In this book I have decided that there are two gods. There is the God of white supremacy and white nationalism, and the God of others. “
Her conclusion helps explain why the story of Damascus in the book of Acts, in which the apostle Paul turns from darkness to light, can be turned into a story of progression from good to evil, she said. . “When I read Bowers’ story, it made me physically ill because it is sincere faith on his part and for him it is the raison d’être of the Bible.”
Equally sickening are the attitudes and the behavior that these interpretations and experiences tolerate and motivate, she added. “I think white supremacy takes people’s souls. It is a disease – a disease that sits in the pores of people and allows what Martin Luther King called the “thingification” of blacks – to see and treat black people as less than human. “
The U.S. Constitution also provides for language that has historically contributed to the dehumanization of African Americans, Smith said. “In the Declaration of Independence – ‘all men are created equal’ – the founding fathers and founding preachers never meant to refer to blacks because they were not considered fully human. The founders believed they were creating a country of whites for whites and even then only for wealthy male landowners.
The founders believed they were creating a country of whites for whites and even then only for wealthy male landowners.
America also has a tradition of ignoring constitutional protections, including the 15th Amendment that granted black men the right to vote in 1870. White-only primaries, voting taxes and intimidation were common. used to circumvent these voting rights.
“There is a history of white nationalists absolutely ignoring the Constitution just as they ignored Brown v. Board of Education for a number of years, ”Smith said of the 1954 US Supreme Court ruling banning racial segregation in public schools.
The decline of white supremacy requires interest and courage to confront America’s racist history, she said. “If we don’t have the curiosity for the truth and the courage to listen to it, this thing will kill our country.” “
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