For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
-Ephesians 2:14-18 (NIV)
In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, four children died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
Four members of the Ku Klux Klan set the dynamite that killed them. At 10:22 AM on Sunday, September 15th, 26 children were walking into the basement assembly room when the bomb went off. Four girls - Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley - were killed in the blast. They were all between the ages of 11 and 14. Twenty-two others were injured.
The bombing was a response to the city’s agreement the previous May to integrate public places.
On the day of the bombing, Atlanta Constitution editor Eugene Patterson wrote an editorial that begins this way:
A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.
Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.
It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.
Only we can trace the truth, Southerner -- you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.
We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
We -- who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.
We -- who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their … jokes.
We -- who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.
We -- the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition -- we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die.
Not quite five years after Patterson’s editorial, I was born in Atlanta. I grew up in the South - the New South, mind you. The integrated South. By the time I started school, the turbulent 60’s had passed. My parents were horrified by racism. My schools were desegregated - even though most of my classmates were still conspicuously white. My neighborhood was desegregated - even if only white people chose to live there.
The blacks - and later the Latinos - well, they just preferred to go to school and live elsewhere.
Elsewhere. In the older sections of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the poorer neighborhoods. In the bad schools.
They preferred it.
We Southerners have no small amount of regional pride - even when, like I have, we relocate. We tend to hold on to our drawls and our “y’all’s.” But Eugene Patterson was right. We watched the stage set for those killings. Every Southerner - even those of us not yet born - by what we did and did not do were complicit in those killings. Patterson’s only mistake was in not spreading the blame widely enough.
In Montana, I saw Native Americans stereotyped and marginalized as surely as blacks ever were in the South. In Chicago, where I live now, whites still regularly enough perpetuate ethnic stereotypes and blame their problems on Blacks, on Latinos, on Poles or Asians or Indians. Our politics are still, in large part, racially divided.
Half a century of “enlightenment” later, Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Chicago are still racially divided cities.
And in all those cities, believers worship in racially divided churches.
If Eugene Patterson was right, and Southerners and people everywhere who did nothing to stop or stand against the tenor of the times shared responsibility for the bombing of 16th Street Baptist, then isn’t he still right? Isn’t there still plenty of blame to go around for the inexcusable conditions in which minorities still live? And doesn’t blame especially fall on those of us who wear the name of Jesus?
Jesus’ intent, Paul says, was to “create one new humanity.” Not one in which racial and ethnic differences disappear, but in which they’re acknowledged, appreciated, and celebrated. A humanity in which what makes us different in no way causes us to lose sight of what joins us together. In one body, Paul writes - his body - he reconciles us to God and to each other. On the cross, as he dies, so does the hostility that keeps us estranged. He came and preached peace - the peace of God’s acceptance, and the peace of the Holy Spirit.
One of the stained-glass windows at 16th Street Baptist was replaced by a Welsh artist named John Petts who was horrified by the news of the bombing. The new window showed a black Jesus, crucified - one outstretched arm pushing away hate, one offering forgiveness. And it offers as a reflection on the bombing the words of Matthew 25:40 - “You Do It to Me.”
Our actions, or lack of action, still matter. As believers in Jesus, we have the responsibility to act out the message of the cross, that in Jesus human divisions and hostilities fall away, dead with his dying body. And that together, in one new body, we’re brought to reconciliation with God and each other. Living that out will require that we not perpetuate the hostilities and estrangement that Jesus died to demolish, either by our own words, thoughts, and actions, or by allowing the words, thoughts, and actions of others to go unchallenged. It will mean reaching out in love and self-sacrifice. It should affect the way we vote, the way we give. It might very well say something fundamental about where we go to church, where we live, and where our kids go to school.
It’s not enough for us to watch the news, and see the racial and ethnic hatred that still exists in our world, and thank God that we’re beyond that. And then go back to living in our own little bubbles, untroubled by the walls and barriers that Jesus died to tear down. We will act out the message of the cross in our lives, or we will act out another.
God forbid that we must hold another shoe before we realize this.