Author Susan K. Williams Smith was sickened to learn that a passage from the New Testament inspired Samuel Bowers’ to launch the Mississippi White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1960s.
Smith’s new book, With Liberty and Justice for Some: The Bible, the Constitution and Racism in America, examines how sacred texts are used to rationalize and justify Christian nationalist and white supremacist world views. 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 bringing the project to life.
“I knew I would write this book the day I read that this former grand wizard of the KKK said he had a ‘Damascus Road experience’ in which God called him to save white supremacy,” said Smith, an ordained United Church of Christ minister and former pastor. “Here is a Christian man who goes to church on Sundays but trains people to kill Black people. And he would tell them to pray and fast before they went out to kill.”
How, she wondered, could someone like Bowers see in the Bible a blueprint for racism and murder?
“It just bugged me, this reality that so many people could go out and lynch somebody on a Saturday night and go to church Sunday and take Communion,” said Smith, the author of six books and founder of Crazy Faith Ministries in Columbus, Ohio.
In part, it bugged her because such racist and hate-based expressions of Christianity so glaringly contradict the faith Smith learned growing up in the pre-UCC Congregational Church in Detroit, Mich.
“The God I grew up with — and my mother was my first theologian here — held that if you are Christian, you have to do what Jesus said and do what Jesus did and you have to love people and forgive.”
A conversation in high school was especially memorable for Smith because it drove home the fact that white supremacy resides deep within people. “It was in a political science class, and I remember a student saying, ‘You can make laws all you want, but you cannot legislate the hearts of people.’”
That struggle subsequently took on 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 began to wrestle with that.”
In With Liberty and Justice for Some, Smith said she alighted on an answer to that disturbing question: “In this book I decided there are two Gods. There is the God of white supremacy and white nationalism, and the God of other people.”
Her conclusion helps explain why the Damascus story in the Book of Acts, in which the Apostle Paul moves from darkness into light, can be transformed into a story of progression from good into evil, she said. “When I read Bowers’ story, it made me physically ill because that’s a sincere faith on his end and for him it’s what the Bible is all about.”
Just as sickening are the attitudes and behavior those interpretations and experience condone and motivate, she added. “I think white supremacy takes the souls of people. It is a disease — an illness that is in people’s pores and enables what Martin Luther King called the ‘thingification’ of Black people — to see and treat Black people as less than human.”
The U.S. Constitution also provides language that historically contributed to the dehumanizing of African Americans, Smith said. “In the Declaration of Independence — ‘all men are created equal’ — the founding fathers and the founding preachers never meant that to refer to Black people because they were not viewed as fully human. The founders believed they were creating a country of white people for white people and even then, only for white male wealthy landowners.”
The founders believed they were creating a country of white people for white people and even then, only for white male wealthy landowners.”
America also has a tradition of disregarding constitutional protections, including the 15th Amendment that granted voting rights to Black men in 1870. White-only primaries, poll taxes and intimidation were routinely used to bypass those voting rights.
“There is a history of white nationalists absolutely ignoring the Constitution just like they ignored Brown v. Board of Education for a number of years,” Smith said about the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling prohibiting the racial segregation of public schools.
The pushback to white supremacy requires the interest and mettle to confront America’s racist history, she said. “If we don’t have the curiosity about the truth and the courage to listen to it, this thing will kill our country.”
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