Clarence Jordan preached a radical version of the Gospel. It’s not so radical today but in the 1950s in South Georgia, a preacher who welcomed blacks to the pews was radical. Jordan was removed from more than one pulpit for those teachings. Segregationists threatened not only his livelihood, but also his life.
Following one fiery sermon about how all people were welcome at the table, an elderly southern belle approached him. “My granddaddy fought for the Confederacy,” she screamed, “and I will never believe a thing you say.” Jordan calmly responded, “I didn’t say it. Jesus did and now you’ll have to make a choice between your granddaddy and Jesus,” his way of saying, “You have to choose between what you’ve been taught and what we’ve all learned is the truth.”
The pathway to justice is characterized by choices between what we’ve been taught and what we have learned is the truth. Jesus of Nazareth often taught by saying, “I know you’ve heard it said…but I say to you.” Then he’d explain the choice his listeners had to make between their granddaddy’s teaching and his. Truth and justice are always matters of choice.
Students weren’t always taught the sun is at the center of the universe. The “granddaddies” taught it was the earth. In the 16th century Copernicus suggested it was the sun. It took a couple of centuries, long after most thinking people conceded Copernicus was right, before some of the religionists accepted the new idea. Why? Because the church was as angry with that as some of it is today with the idea that people who love each other should be allowed to marry even if they happen to be of the same sex.
During the 19th century, granddaddies taught grandchildren it was right to enslave people of color. They used scripture to defend the institution of slavery. Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy argued slavery was “established by decree of Almighty God” and “sanctioned in the Bible, both Testaments.” A prominent southern Presbyterian minister, Robert Dabney, preached that, “the existence of church and state hangs on our arduous effort to defeat the doctrine of Negro suffrage.” As Martin Luther King said it would, the arc of history bent toward justice and slowly we made a choice between what our granddaddies taught us about slavery and what was right.
Things change. Truth changes. What passes for the truth evolves as people and cultures mature and experience one another in new ways. Seems that every generation has to make those choices. It began long ago, even before the early followers had to decide whether they would open the doors to gentiles. Those who came of age in the 1950s were faced with new choices about the rights of African Americans and women. People whose granddaddy’s taught them blacks were inferior and women were second-class citizens experienced life differently. What they had been taught to believe no longer made sense, no longer seemed true as their own life experiences gave way to a deeper understanding.
Our generation is now in a process of making new choices with respect to gays, lesbians, bisexual, transgendered and questioning folks. As children, many of us were taught that homosexuals chose their lifestyle and their choice was an abomination. But as the Apostle Paul said, “When we were children we thought like children.” Now we are adults and we are expected to deal with difficult ideas in an adult manner. To adults in a free society, discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation seems not only childish but also wrong.
Take notice of how fundamentalist religious beliefs and literal interpretation of scripture were the heart of all of granddaddy’s teachings. That may explain why the march toward justice, though inevitable, is always slow. People who learn from those standing in pulpits cling to ideas long after the rest of the community has discarded them.
That may explain why organized religion is increasingly irrelevant in the lives of many.