Al Mohler’s curious defense of conversion therapy

Conversion therapy (also known as reparative therapy) is rooted in the idea that same-sex attraction is a sickness that can be healed. Throughout most of the 20th century, psychoanalytic and behavioral psychologists had different ways of explaining same-sex attraction, but it was generally assumed that some form of developmental malfunction was involved. A variety of fixes were proposed, everything from talking cures, to electroshock therapy, to ice-pick lobotomy (which is every bit as nasty as it sounds), to aversion therapies in which subjects were shown homoerotic images after nausea had been induced.

The typical Victorian response to same-sex attraction was simple moral revulsion. The subject was so taboo that it was rarely discussed in public.

Oscar Wilde

In 1895, when the playwright Oscar Wilde was convicted of “gross indecency,“ he was forced to walk a treadmill for hours a day, a punishment so barbaric it was banned in England in 1903 as a form of torture. The only reading material Wilde was allowed was the Bible and Pilgrim’s Progress. At one point, while being transferred between prisons, a crowd jeered and spat at him as he stood on the railway platform.

So thinking of same-sex attraction as a developmental malfunction rather than a moral failing was an advance.

But when the gay rights movement was sparked by the Stonewall police riot in 1969, mainstream attitudes toward homosexuality underwent a gradual revolution. In 1973, the American Psychiatric Association stipulated that same-sex attraction no longer would be regarded as a form of mental illness. By the 1990s, the only people championing conversion therapy were evangelical Christians.

Robert Spitzer

Their movement received a boost in 2003, when Robert Spitzer, the prime architect of the APA’s 1973 decision to stop labeling homosexuality as an illness, released a study suggesting that, in some cases at least, sexual orientation could change. Christian groups like Exodus International and Focus on the Family leapt for joy. A stream of testimonials poured forth from formerly gay men who claimed to be functioning heterosexuals. Conversion therapy became a hot media topic.

For a while. Then the bottom dropped out. In 2013, Spitzer reversed himself yet again. His earlier methodology had been deficient. He now was convinced that sexual orientation was an immutable fact of life. That same year, after many of its supposed converts had “relapsed,” Exodus International went out of business and apologized to those who had been damaged by its work. Conservative evangelicals like James Dobson of Focus on the Family continued to cite Spitzer’s 2003 study, but the conversion therapy movement never would recover.

Mohler’s 2015 book

In his 2015 book, We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., argued that the marriage between biblical Christianity and psychotherapeutic theory had been wrongheaded from the drop. Secular forms of therapy, he said, were overrated.

In 2005, Southern Seminary abandoned the old term “pastoral counseling,” a blend of biblical and psychotherapeutic practice. Instead, the seminary would offer courses in “biblical counseling.” Since the Bible contains the full counsel of God, seminary officials argued, secular modalities were unnecessary.

Albert Mohler

Mohler remained adamant that “the gay lifestyle” and “gay marriage” were inherently sinful. We Cannot Be Silent argued that if a son or daughter marries a person of the same sex, mom and dad should boycott the ceremony. Attending your child’s gay wedding, he argued, was a tacit affirmation of gay marriage.

Although he believed gay marriage and “the gay lifestyle” remained sinful, Mohler no longer believed that secular forms of therapy could change sexual orientation. The problem was spiritual and demanded a spiritual response, he said.

“By God’s grace, that might happen over time as a sign of God’s work within the life of that individual,” Mohler stated at a seminary-sponsored conference held in conjunction with the release of his book. But “for many, many people struggling with these patterns of sin, it will be a lifelong battle.”

The words “lifelong battle” were Mohler’s way of admitting that preaching, penitence and prayer were no more likely to alter sexual orientation than were secular forms of therapy. Since heterosexuality wasn’t a realistic option for some people, lifelong celibacy was the only option.

“Since heterosexuality wasn’t a realistic option for some people, lifelong celibacy was the only option.”

Here Mohler was parting company with the Pentecostal/Charismatic wing of the evangelical coalition.  Mohler calls himself a “friendly cessationist.” He believes the kinds of signs and wonders we read about in the Bible died out at the conclusion of the Apostolic Age. God can perform miracles whenever God wishes, Mohler insists, but the Almighty shows little interest in the flashy stuff these days. The practice of exorcism, favored by Trump-supporting preachers like Paul White, was right out.

Mohler gets new religion

But Mohler is a resilient man. Six years after giving up on conversion therapy, he has emerged as its champion. In a rambling, 4,000-word essay published in The Briefing blog on April 22, Mohler lamented that the United Kingdom is poised to ban conversion therapy.

“We believe that Christians can fight sin and must fight sin,” Mohler says. Further, “we believe that by the means of grace, Christians, all Christians are to be conformed to the image of Christ.” Then comes the kicker: “We understand that there are those who have a sexual inclination that is not biblical. We understand that that is of sin. That it is in essence itself, sin and sinful.”

“We understand that there are those who have a sexual inclination that is not biblical. We understand that that is of sin.”

In We Cannot be Silent, Mohler argued that even if same-sex orientation is innate and immutable, it remains sinful. Even the discovery of a “gay gene” wouldn’t change his thinking. If the Bible calls something sin, that’s what it is. The fact that it might be “natural” changes nothing. Because we live in a fallen world, what is “natural” still may be wrong. The natural world, he says, is “tainted by sin.”

Therefore, if the case for banning conversion therapy implies that gay is good, Mohler’s against it.

He points out that, in the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson backs the ban. Since Johnson leads the Conservative Party, the last bastion of opposition has disappeared and the cause is lost.

Mohler overstates the case. Johnson did promise to ban conversion therapy shortly after rising to the position of prime minister in 2019, but at the first sign of push-back from UK evangelicals, the prime minister backed off. Johnson has denied being “a serious, practicing Christian,” but he’s a smart politician. Jayne Ozanne, a devout evangelical Christian, recently resigned from Johnson’s cabinet to protest the government’s foot-dragging.

Jayne Ozanne and Matthew Hyndman

Jayne Ozanne

Growing up in the conservative evangelical wing of the Church of England, Ozanne gradually came to terms with the fact that she was gay. She says she has seen God work some amazing miracles over the years, especially through her work with the Archbishop’s Council, but changing her sexual orientation wasn’t one of them. Realizing that all the prayer in the world wouldn’t help, Ozanne took a vow of lifelong celibacy. But after 20 years of living in denial, her body literally shut down and she wound up in a hospital bed. Unable to find a physiological problem, her doctor said: “Jayne, there is obviously something deeply wrong here. You will die unless you actually confront what’s going on.”

That’s when Ozanne decided to take a fresh look at Scripture. “And I think the biggest thing for me was trying to understand the real core of the message of Christ,” she says. “Which is that he came to save the lost, that he came to love all, and that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from that love of Christ.”

In Mohler’s extended rant, he mentions “God” 14 times and the Bible (or God’s word) 21 times. Jesus gets two mentions. The word “love” doesn’t appear at all. In Mohler’s theology, the “Word of God” is the Bible. For evangelicals like Ozanne, the Word of God is Jesus.

Mohler refers to Ozanne as “a person identified in this news report as gay evangelical Christian,” which implies that she can’t be a true evangelical because she is a mouthpiece for the “gay agenda.” Why else would she say that she takes “freedom of religion very seriously up until the point that it causes harm.” Mohler resents the suggestion that the gay agenda is the cure for an evangelical disease.

Matthew Hyndman

This resentment takes center stage when Mohler eviscerates Matthew Hyndman, the gay ex-evangelical who is currently leading the charge against conversion therapy in the UK. Hyndman opposes any “religious exemption” to the proposed ban on conversion therapy that would permit attempts to “pray the gay away.” If this kind of prayer takes place “in an overwhelmingly homophobic or transphobic context,” Hyndman says, “the pernicious power of prayer must be dealt with.”

If Mohler wore pearls, he would be clutching them. But Hyndman is simply stating that prayer predicated on the view that gay and transgender persons are sinners in the hands of an angry God becomes pernicious.

Like Jayne Ozanne, Hyndman speaks from experience. When he came out to his faith community in Northern Ireland at the tender age of 21, he was swiftly excommunicated. Forgiveness was impossible, Hyndman’s friends and family told him, unless he repented his sin and submitted to conversion therapy.

For people like Ozanne and Hyndman, conversion therapy is painfully personal. For Mohler, it’s an abstraction. Considered objectively, the practice is ineffective. But since it has become a pawn in the culture war, it must be defended. It’s the Bible or the gay agenda, and he stands with the Bible.

“For people like Ozanne and Hyndman, conversion therapy is painfully personal. For Mohler, it’s an abstraction.”

Parallels to young earth creationism

Mohler’s defense of conversion therapy mirrors his embrace of young earth creationism. The physical evidence, Mohler freely admits, suggests an ancient earth. But since the Bible describes a young earth, the apparent age of the planet is deceptive. God, for God’s own inscrutable reasons, made the earth to appear old.

In similar fashion, Mohler accepts the idea that, in virtually every case, sexual orientation cannot be altered. But it doesn’t matter that same-sex attraction comes naturally to some people. It’s unbiblical. And therefore, it must be sinful.

From our limited perspective, God might appear cruel and capricious, making the world look older than it actually is and creating gay people and then condemning them for being gay. But a Sovereign God makes the rules; we don’t.

The people who tune in to The Briefing may accept this tortured logic; but thinking Christians will demand something better.

Alan Bean

Alan Bean

Alan Bean is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who now lives in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is a member of Broadway Baptist Church and leads a nonprofit organization, Friends of Justice.

 

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If you’re not concerned about the Southern Baptists, you ought to be!

“I just ran into some weirdos in the airport,” Uncle Eugene reported. “You know, the kind with their heads shaved except for a little ponytail at the back.”

“I think they’re Hare Krishna,” I said.

“Well, whatever,” Uncle Eugene continued in his slow Texas Panhandle drawl, “I said, ‘Are y’all Southern Baptists?’ They said they weren’t, and I said, ‘Well, you ought to be.”

Alan Bean

Alan Bean

Since the end of the great Depression, Southern Baptists had been growing like topsy and showed no sign of letting up.  Missions and evangelism were denominational hallmarks. The goal was to win the world for the Southern Baptist Jesus.

This brand of denominational pride was on full display in 1975 when I drove the 2,000 miles from Edmonton, Alberta, to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. There were more Baptists in the three biggest Louisville churches than could be found in the four western provinces of Canada. In those days, everybody was talking about the Southern Baptist Convention’s Bold Mission Thrust, a plan to proclaim the gospel to every person on earth by the year 2000. This wasn’t a cooperative strategy; the SBC intended to do it all by themselves. Because, if folks weren’t Southern Baptist, they ought to be.

Most of my professors had issues with this triumphal vision. The SBC had been created, they told me, so that enslavers could be missionaries, and the seminary’s founders had been slave owners. The SBC had defended slavery and Jim Crow segregation and opposed the Civil Rights Movement.

A few years after I returned to Canada, civil war broke out in the SBC. Baptists appeared to be fighting over the right way to interpret the Bible. But the real problem was that the denomination was losing its mojo. How could you win the world for the Southern Baptist Jesus if preachers and professors were riddled with self-doubt? The suggestion that white Baptists in the South could learn a lot from the Black churches, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Jews and even women was a confidence buster.

“The real problem was that the denomination was losing its mojo.”

By the time I returned to Southern Seminary in 1989 for doctoral work, my old professors were gone or on their way out the door. Soon Southern Seminary was dominated by Albert Mohler. He was only 33 when he became seminary president; but he was an old-school Baptist determined to rid the school of liberals and uppity women.

But even Mohler didn’t believe the SBC had gotten everything right. In 1995, on the denomination’s 150th anniversary, he helped draft a detailed resolution calling Southern Baptists to repentance. “Some Southern Baptists,” the statement said, had operated under the false belief “that racial prejudice and discrimination are compatible with the gospel.”

“We lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest,” the statement said, “and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past.” The Resolution on Racial Reconciliation concluded with a plea for forgiveness, “acknowledging that our own healing is at stake.”

Since Bold Mission Thrust was announced in 1976, SBC membership plateaued. Next came a slow but agonizing numerical decline. Southern Baptist funerals were beginning to outnumber baptisms. Reaching out to Black Baptists wasn’t just good for growth stats, it countered the traditional identification of the SBC as a bastion of white supremacy.

“Reaching out to Black Baptists wasn’t just good for growth stats, it countered the traditional identification of the SBC as a bastion of white supremacy.”

Still, questions remained. If the SBC had been wrong on race, maybe it had been wrong about the role of women and gay rights. The denomination’s founders had used a literal interpretation of the Bible to defend slavery and white supremacy. If racism was inconsistent with Christian witness, maybe a theology invented to defend it was suspect. Had Mohler and friends thought this thing through?

In 1998, just three years after Mohler drafted the resolution on race, he was asked by Larry King if his stance on race was inconsistent with a rigid insistence on biblical inerrancy. Mohler replied that the Bible clearly requires slaves to obey their masters. If slavery were still the law of the land, he argued, Christian slaves would be bound to that teaching.

But what about Harriet Tubman, King asked. Did her successful efforts to smuggle enslaved persons out of Dixie violate a biblical mandate?

Mohler wouldn’t back down. There are no loopholes, he said. (Last year, when pressed about his comments to King, he called them “stupid” and said, “I repudiate the statements I made.”)

When Black SBC pastors had problems with Donald Trump, Mohler endorsed their concern. In 2016, when the “Access Hollywood” tape went public, Mohler said the GOP nominee was “so far over the line that I think we have to recognize we wouldn’t want this person as our next-door neighbor, much less as the inhabitant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

As proof of his sincerity about race, Mohler in 2018 authorized a dispassionate assessment of his seminary’s historic connection to slavery and Jim Crow racism.

“Black Southern Baptists stood aghast as their white counterparts signed on to the MAGA revolution.”

But as the 2020 presidential election neared, Mohler’s position as seminary president was in peril, as was his lifelong ambition to lead the denomination. Black Southern Baptists stood aghast as their white counterparts signed on to the MAGA revolution. Mohler could recover his status as a denominational leader, or he could continue to champion Black inclusion within the SBC; he couldn’t do both.

Pro-Trump Southern Baptists couldn’t attack Black churches directly, so they launched a propaganda campaign against Critical Race Theory, a critique of white supremacy that figures prominently in the Black liberation theology of James Cone.

In his 2012 book, Martin and Malcolm and America: A Dream or a Nightmare, Cone presented his theology as a cross between Martin Luther King Jr.’s Christian witness and Malcolm X’s celebration of blackness. Especially in his early sermons and writing, Cone observed, King emphasized that Black and white Americans shared an essential unity as children of God, a perspective which, in Cone’s view, minimized the radical power imbalance between white Christians and people of color. God is Black, Cone insisted, because God always sides with the powerless. The death of Jesus on the Cross was a lynching, a fact that white theologians failed to grasp. The Cross means that God takes the side of the oppressed.

“If the powerful in our society want to become Christians,” Cone said in an interview, “they need to give up that power and become identified with the powerless. You can’t be a Christian and also identified with the powerful at the same time. That’s a contradiction in terms.”

Then the professor cut to the heart of the matter: “If you are identifying with the victim, you not only want to feel good about that; you also have to pay back that which you took. You don’t just say, ‘Please forgive me now.’ The only way in which your repentance can be authentic is if you give back what you took. And white people took a lot from Black people!”

“The assault on Critical Race Theory is designed to get white Southern Baptists riled up.”

In essence, Cone was flipping the old SBC script on its head: If you’re not worshipping a Black Jesus, you ought to be!

As Raphael Warnock admits in his The Divided Mind of the Black Church, Cone’s Black theology has been a minority view within the Black church. But in recent years, as Black Baptists saw their white preachers attacking Obama and celebrating Trump, Cone’s stock began to rise. The Black Lives Matter movement isn’t church based, but its critique of white supremacy draws from the same intellectual well as Cone’s Black theology.

The assault on Critical Race Theory is designed to get white Southern Baptists riled up. The first step was to associate CRT with controversial names like Karl Marx, Malcolm X and Jeremiah Wright. Next, it is argued that Cone’s focus on oppression can be used to undermine the Southern Baptist stance on patriarchy and gay rights.

As the war on Black Southern Baptist churches intensified, Mohler was forced to pick a side. Asked if Southern Seminary’s historical survey would be followed up with financial support to Black colleges or the renaming of buildings named in honor of slavers, Mohler said he had no plans to do either. Shortly thereafter, he declared he would be voting for Trump in 2020. Finally, Mohler drafted a denunciation of Critical Race theory, and, with support from the SBC’s five other seminary presidents, fired off a press release. Not a single Black pastor or professor was consulted.

The response was immediate. Four prominent Black pastors announced they were taking their churches out of the SBC, and others announced they were on the verge of following.

Dwight McKissick, a prominent Black pastor in Arlington, Texas, explained why. “Given the SBC’s history on race,” he said, “it is preposterous to ask African American churches to blindly trust their interpretations regarding CRT — and by extension, ‘race.’”

“What is driving this propaganda campaign against Critical Race Theory?”

What is driving this propaganda campaign against Critical Race Theory? In a recent blog, Mohler railed against the “identity politics” roiling the Democratic Party. If every minority group is pressing its demands, he said, all hope of spiritual unity is lost. Mohler ignored the elephant in the room. The GOP has fallen captive to a toxic form of white identity politics. The racial tension within the SBC is simply a function of electoral politics.

The Black Baptist preachers affiliated with the SBC aren’t proclaiming a Black Jesus, railing against white racism, or demanding reparations from white Baptists. But Black Baptists reject the MAGA revolution that has taken the GOP, and the SBC, by storm. That is their unforgiveable sin.

The SBC has hit the default button and returned to 1959. And if you’re not concerned about that, you ought to be.

Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas.

 

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The righteous and the wicked: The progressive Baptist quest for a new gospel

For decades, progressive white Baptists have opened leadership roles at the highest level to women and people of color. But Black Baptists have shown a greater willingness to affiliate with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention than with more moderate groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Meanwhile, Southern Baptist women have flocked to hear unapologetically evangelical lay teachers like Beth Moore.

Southern women and Black Baptists stuck with the SBC out of a shared commitment to earnest evangelism, opposition to abortion, support for traditional sexual mores, and an emphasis on the authority of Scripture. Progressive Baptists have talked an inclusive game, but their commitment to evangelism and Scripture seem shaky.

Enter Donald Trump.

The 45th president famously captured 81% of the evangelical vote, and he likely performed at least that well among Southern Baptists. Prominent SBC pastors like Robert Jeffress and Jack Graham scrambled to land a spot on Trump’s evangelical advisory board.

“If 81% of white evangelicals supported Trump, 19% did not.”

But if 81% of white evangelicals supported Trump, 19% did not. It is difficult to find Black evangelicals who support Trump. Even John Perkins, a Black evangelical leader with strong ties to white evangelical churches, was growing more defiant. Toward the end of Trump’s presidency, Perkins stopped talking about “racial reconciliation” because “the phrase implies white and Black people can become equals without addressing historical inequities.” Change was in the wind.

Disaffected Black evangelicals

In 2018, I got a call from a New York Times reporter looking for disaffected Black evangelicals. I took the reporter to visit with Dwight McKissic, a prominent Black Southern Baptist who was openly critical of Trump. The result was “A Quiet Exodus: Why Black Worshippers are Leaving White Evangelical Churches.”

As Kristin Kobes Du Mez observes in a recent Anxious Bench column, Black evangelicals are no longer exiting quietly, and this is particularly true of Black Baptists affiliated with the SBC. Tensions with the SBC leaders attracted national headlines when the presidents of all six SBC seminaries issued a statement denouncing Critical Race Theory. For the past half-century, CRT has provided tools for identifying systemic racism and the subtleties of white privilege. It has denounced the theological defense of slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Remarkably, the seminary presidents, none of whom were well versed in the nuances of CRT, issued their statement without consulting Black pastors and scholars.

Within days, prominent Black megachurch pastors like Charlie Dates and Ralph West announced that they were finished with the SBC. “Their stand against racism rings hollow,” West, a Houston pastor, tweeted, “when in their next breath they reject theories that have been helpful in framing the problem of racism.”

Beth Moore was willing to remain in a pro-Trump denomination until her critique of Trump sparked a wave of denunciation from prominent evangelical preachers. Like the Black Baptists exiting the denomination, Moore discovered that the SBC remained captive to paternalistic racism.

“Progressive Baptists would be thrilled to receive the women and the Black Baptists who no longer feel welcome in the SBC. But it is complicated.”

“I am still a Baptist,” she said, “but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists. I love so many Southern Baptist people, so many Southern Baptist churches, but I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past.”

Progressive Baptists would be thrilled to receive the women and the Black Baptists who no longer feel welcome in the SBC. But it is complicated.

Dueling visions of the church

In 1986, theologian James McClendon predicted that the conservative-moderate divide in the SBC couldn’t be understood until both sides were “brought out and brought under the schooling of the determinative narrative of Jesus Christ.

Conservatives appealed to the authority of Scripture, McClendon asserted, but their primary concern was the preservation of Southern culture. Self-styled moderates’ appeal to “soul liberty” made theological consensus difficult.

I have spent the past two weeks ploughing through all 977 pages of James Leo Garrett’s Living Stones: The Centennial History of Broadway Baptist Church, Fort Worth, Texas, 1882-1982. Garrett’s writing is tangled and cluttered with extraneous detail, but his thesis is simple: Broadway emerged as a leading congregation within the SBC because it focused on soul-winning and went into a death spiral the moment it abandoned evangelism.

If Broadway had maintained this emphasis, Garrett argued in 1982, she would still be growing. But, for J.P. Allen, John Claypool and Welton Gaddy, the pastors who shaped the congregation’s witness between 1962 and 1982, traditional Southern evangelism had become deeply problematic.

The righteous and the wicked

The heart of that problem lies in Article XVII of the 1833 New Hampshire Confession, which served as Broadway’s first confession of faith. “We believe that there is a radical and essential difference between the righteous and the wicked;” the article declared. Only genuine Christians “are truly righteous” in the eyes of God.” In contrast, “such as continue in impenitence and unbelief are in his sight wicked, and under the curse.”

Saloon on Main Street in Fort Worth
Postcard (Source: www.rootsweb.com)

This easy distinction between saints and sinners appealed to a genteel congregation located across the tracks from Fort Worth’s Hell’s Half-Acre, an assortment of saloons, gambling dens and brothels built to service the needs of weary cowboys at the end of a long cattle drive. The notorious red-light district was going strong in 1882 and continued to thrive until the end of World War I.

Gun play and knife fights were a fact of life. But the real victims were prostitutes. Desperate and with nowhere to turn, they took their own lives in shocking numbers. In the eyes of the righteous, these women were wicked and thus God-forsaken.

In 1911, Garrett tells us, Fort Worth pastors launched an investigation of “the Acre,” as it was popularly known. A private investigator “revealed that there were 80 houses of prostitution operating in the zone” and that several of them were owned by “prominent, influential” persons aligned with the very congregations that had paid for the investigation.

Fort Worth’s pastors, including, one assumes, Broadway’s Emmanuel Burroughs, immediately lost interest in their clean-up crusade. But J. Frank Norris, the firebrand pastor of First Baptist Church in Fort Worth, secured the services of the racist and anti-Semitic evangelist Mordecai Ham and launched a 90-day crusade to purify the community. Norris eventually was drummed out of the SBC for his attacks on denominational leaders, but his response to sin established a standard others would emulate.

When Douglas Hudgins accepted Broadway’s call in 1932, he announced that his focus would be on “fighting sin” and “saving souls.” Decades later, Hudgins landed in the pulpit of First Baptist Church of Jackson, Miss., where he served as spiritual shepherd to the leading businessmen, newspaper publishers and Klansmen of Mississippi.

“Hudgins denounced civil rights ‘agitators’ with the same venom J. Frank Norris had aimed at Hell’s Half Acre.”

When Freedom Riders were arrested on the streets of Jackson and hauled off to the notorious Parchman prison, Hudgins applauded. In his book on “Freedom Summer,” theologian Charles Marsh called Hudgins the “premier theologian of the closed society.” Hudgins denounced civil rights “agitators” with the same venom J. Frank Norris had aimed at Hell’s Half Acre. A segregated Mississippi, Hudgins declared, was “ordained by God as part of his design for the created order.”

Hudgins had it exactly backward. In the social drama playing out in 1960s Jackson, the righteous were being hauled off to prison and the wicked were sitting comfortably in the pews of First Baptist Church.

A new take on an old gospel

Back in Fort Worth, when Guy Moore passed the pastoral torch to Jimmy Allen in 1962, Broadway was exposed to a new take on an old gospel. A new generation of Southern Baptist scholar-pastors had been exposed to Ivy League culture, the neo-orthodox theology of Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr, a surging ecumenical movement, and the non-violent direct action of Martin Luther King Jr.

Vintage postcard of Broadway Baptist Church

J.P. Allen wasn’t sure how to blend these exciting new trends with the Southern piety of his youth, but he was determined to make the pieces fit. Broadway’s facilities now were surrounded by poor neighborhoods and intractable social problems. Under Allen’s leadership, the congregation responded vigorously to the need.

John Claypool introduced Broadway to confessional preaching. He didn’t have all the answers and repeatedly said so. He shifted the focus from evangelical proclamation to liturgical mystery, a tradition Welton Gaddy, Claypool’s successor, embraced with enthusiasm.

The viability of institutional life

These developments made James Leo Garrett uneasy. In Living Stones, he argued that Broadway’s focus had “shifted from evangelism, visitation, participative church training, Sunday school enlargement, and mission-and-church-planting” to “more liturgical worship, more emphasis on Holy Week and Advent, pastoral care and nurture of its members, and a Christian social ministry to persons and families in the community having specific needs.”

Garrett was a Broadway deacon and a theology professor at Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary when he churned out Living Stones. With a Harvard doctorate, Garrett was familiar with the theological currents of the time. He endorsed the Civil Rights Movement. He favored ecumenical dialogue. But his overriding commitment was to the continued viability of SBC institutional life. And that, as everyone realized in 1983, was in jeopardy.

As Broadway sought new ways of living and preaching the Christian gospel, an informal network of like-minded churches evolved across the South. Cecil Sherman, the plain-spoken preacher who took the helm at Broadway in 1985, identified two large groups within Southern Baptist culture.

“There was a group that was into evangelism … and there was a group clustered around missions and the denomination.”

“There was a group that was into evangelism,” Sherman wrote in 2007, “and this group tended to be conservative theologically. And there was a group clustered around missions and the denomination” and came down on the progressive side of issues like race, hunger, ecology and the role of women in church and society. These two groups were almost exclusive. If you were in one, you were not in the other. I never invited one of the rightwing to my church. Their gospel was different from mine.”

Today, a reckoning

As McClendon predicted 35 years ago, both kinds of Baptists are now facing a stern reckoning. Eager to overcome its association with human bondage and Jim Crow injustice, the SBC has attempted to stir a little racial reconciliation into the denomination mix. But the rise of Donald Trump has exposed the inadequacy of these efforts.

Meanwhile, comparatively progressive Baptist churches like Broadway have struggled to find a way forward. When Broadway ordained its first female deacons in 1981, six male deacons resigned in protest and a few families drifted from the fold. In 2008, gay couples asked to appear together in the church’s pictorial directory and the congregation fractured.

Now, we are confronting the systemic roots of poverty and racial injustice. Mere charity, we realize, is insufficient. We can’t find solutions until we admit that we are a much larger part of the problem than we had imagined.

Our fixation with the line between the righteous and the wicked has deflected our attention from what McClendon called “the determinative narrative of Jesus Christ.” Pogo had it right: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”

If a congregation has been steaming full-speed in the wrong direction, the wise move is to cut the engines until the ship can safely make a wide U-turn. There are no shortcuts. No easy answers. No simple formulas. But we’re heading in the right direction. We can feel it. And after generations of uncertainty and turmoil, that comes as a tremendous relief.

Alan Bean

Alan Bean

Alan Bean serves as executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas, and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth.

 

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Jimmy Allen, visionary denominational leader, dies

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Prophecy is obedient imagination

Prophecy is a big deal within the world of American nondenominational Christianity. I’m not talking about the kind of application of apocalyptic biblical texts to current events that Hal Lindsay and Tim LaHaye made popular back in the day. No, our latter-day prophets receive messages straight from God. And the messages they receive relate to all the burning concerns of the day, everything from the winner of the World Series to the next American president.

Alan Bean

Alan Bean

America’s new crop of Christian prophets unanimously predicted a Trump victory. Given their social location, it is hard to imagine them predicting anything else. But they were wrong. And that’s a problem.

Jeremiah Johnson, a Christian prophet who gained notoriety in 2015 by correctly predicting a Trump victory in 2016, has apologized to his followers for getting it wrong in 2020. Johnson probably would have been OK if he had ignored his mistake or blamed the unexpected outcome on election fraud. But he was up-front about it.

“I was wrong. I am deeply sorry, and I ask for your forgiveness,” he told his fans. “I would like to repent for inaccurately prophesying that Donald Trump would win a second term as the president of the United States.”

The result of his confession, inevitably, has been an avalanche of hate mail and death threats.

What is prophecy?

When I was in seminary in the late 1970s, my professors told me that biblical prophecy wasn’t about predicting the future. Prophets like Elijah and Jeremiah, they said, were all about “speaking truth to power.” Prophecy, we were taught, is more about “forthtelling” than “foretelling.”

That was way too simple.

Walter Brueggemann’s 1978 book, The Prophetic Imagination, sent a seismic shock through the world of Christian theology. Whenever the gap between God’s unrelenting purpose and realities on the ground became intolerably immense, the Old Testament professor said, the prophets offered Israel an alternative future, conjured through the power of sanctified imagination.

I have seen this kind of prophetic ministry up close and personal.

A lesson from Mariah

Fifteen years ago, I was working full time as director of Friends of Justice but was contemplating a return to pastoral ministry. Then I got a call from a Black Cajun woman named Ann Colomb who, along with three of her sons, had been charged with running a massive crack cocaine ring out of their modest FHA bungalow.

We met in the lobby of one of the big hotels in the French Quarter and retired to the nearest McDonald’s. Ann was traveling with her daughter, Jennifer Price, and Mariah, her 4-year-old granddaughter. While Nancy kept Mariah entertained, Ann and Jennifer showed me the five binders of legal documents their attorneys had given them.

Ann Colomb

The federal prosecutor told Ann he would let her off if her boys would plead guilty. She laughed in his face. “We didn’t do none of this,” she told me, “and I’ll be damned if I’m gonna send my boys to prison on a lie!”

It soon was obvious that none of the 30-odd government witnesses possessed actual knowledge of the Colomb family. Most of them couldn’t even get the name right. There is no parole in the federal legal system, but inmates facing long sentences can win time cuts by snitching on their friends. It was a system ripe for abuse. I told Ann she needn’t worry. No federal prosecutor would take facts this flimsy to trial.

When I discovered I was wrong, I cancelled vacation plans and drove the 725 miles to Louisiana. Each day, I would make the drive from Church Point to the federal courthouse in Lafayette with Ann and her family. Every evening, I would blog about the case and make calls to local news agencies. When the jury handed down a conviction, Ann, Danny, Sammy and Edward were taken into custody. Their families collapsed in horror and disbelief.

A month later, I was visiting with the Colomb clan in Church Point, hoping against hope that this legal travesty could be righted. When little Mariah asked me to read her a story, I found an illustrated children’s Bible and turned randomly to a family friendly rendition of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. The picture showed the hero languishing in prison.

“Who’s that?” I asked, pointing to Joseph.

“That’s Jesus,” Mariah told me. “He’s in jail with my granny, and God’s gonna get them out.”

“That’s Jesus,” Mariah told me. “He’s in jail with my granny, and God’s gonna get them out.”

Mariah was quickly proved right. A federal inmate had been brought to Lafayette for the trial but wasn’t needed. He had assumed that Ann and her boys were guilty until he read my blog posts and conversed with two of Ann’s sons behind bars. Realizing that Ann’s boys didn’t fit the drug dealer profile, the inmate told the judge that neither he, nor any of the other witnesses, knew anything about Ann and her sons. He had participated in perjury parties, he said, in which identifying information on the defendants was passed from witness to witness. Everybody wanted a piece of the action.

A special hearing was quickly scheduled, the jury verdict was vacated, and, on a sweltering hot summer’s day, Ann and her boys walked free.

Imagining an alternative future

How could little Mariah anticipate these developments when I couldn’t? She saw no visions. She had no special word from the Lord. But she knew her granny didn’t belong in prison and that God wouldn’t stand for it. Instinctively, she imagined an alternative future where the crooked was made straight and all flesh beheld the glory of the Lord.

Biblical texts, Brueggemann explains, “are acts of imagination that offer and propose ‘alternative worlds’ that exist because of and in the act of utterance.” They don’t just say what’s going to happen next; they make it happen.

William Blake

William Blake arrived at a similar conclusion late in the 18th century. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the painter-poet informed his readers that, just the other night, “the prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel dined with me.” Since childhood, Blake had been given to vivid visions in which he conversed with ancient worthies from Elijah to Shakespeare. So, he may have described a mystical encounter. More likely, the conversation was merely a poetic device.

Prophetic speech, Brueggemann says, “must be imaginative because it is urgently out beyond the ordinary and the reasonable.” If it sounds absurd, “it is an absurdity that may be the very truth of obedient imagination.”

“I was persuaded, and remain confirmed, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God.”

Blake asked his dinner guests how they “dared so roundly to assert that God spake” to them. Isaiah, by Blake’s account, freely admitted that he neither heard nor saw God. “But my senses discovered the infinite in everything, and I was persuaded, and remain confirmed, that the voice of honest indignation is the voice of God.” Therefore, the prophet explained, “I cared not for consequence but wrote.”

The gap between the real and the ideal was so huge that God had to be outraged.

Does believing make it so?

Blake voiced the obvious objection: “Does a firm persuasion that a thing is so, make it so?”

“All poets believe that it does,” the prophet answered. “And in ages of imagination this firm persuasion removed mountains.” Unfortunately, in Blake’s day, “many are not capable of a firm persuasion of anything.”

Ezekiel agreed with Isaiah’s account.

Last week, Ann Colomb passed into the eternal mystery while her husband, James, was fetching her a cup of coffee. The family is grieving, but they also rejoice that Ann was able to live out the last 15 years of her life with the family she loved. So, did young Mariah bring about her gramma’s release by uttering her prophetic word?

Maybe. How would I know?

What we know about the unknown

In his 1910 book on Blake, G.K. Chesterton argued that when we limit the regions of truth to what can be objectively verified, we are “turning the key of the madhouse on all the mystics of history. You cannot take the region of the unknown and calmly say that, though you know nothing about it, you know all the gates are locked. We do not know enough about the unknown to know that it is unknowable.”

“If we are firmly persuaded that the God of Jesus lives, all bets are off.”

But if we are firmly persuaded that the God of Jesus lives, all bets are off. The word of prophecy becomes not only possible but appropriate; not merely appropriate, but necessary.

In the preface to the second edition of The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann envisions a day when real flesh-and-blood churches will function as “prophetic subcommunities” set against the flagrant injustice and numbing consumerism of our time. But that can’t happen, he cautions, apart from “a shared willingness to engage in gestures of resistance and acts of deep hope.”

And this kind of “evangelical will for public engagement,” demands a new kind of pastoral leadership.

An example in Fort Worth

Fortunately, men and women are stepping forward to point us in the needed direction. Thanks to the prophetic leadership of pastor Ryon Price, Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, has created an ACT council. ACT stands for “acknowledge, confess, transform.” We acknowledge our complicity, historical and present, in systems of sin. As we confess, we are transformed into prophets.

“Jesus taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come ‘on earth as it is in heaven,’ the church’s website reminds. “At Broadway we pray and we work for the hope of heaven come near. We invite you to pray and work with us.”

William Blake spent most of the hundred years after his death disparaged as a crackpot. But since 1916, his most famous poem, “Jerusalem,” has evolved into the unofficial national anthem of Great Britain. “I will not cease from Mental Fight,” Blake declares, “nor shall my sword sleep in my hand, ’til we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”

As an appendix, Blake quoted Numbers 11:29: “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, and that the LORD would put his spirit on them.”

May it be so!

Alan Bean serves as executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas.




Trying to make sense of January 6: Jesus wept

I watched the bizarre assault live on television as I rocked an infant in my arms. I have spent every waking minute reading eyewitness accounts, listening to podcasts and watching cable news. I’m trying to understand. I’m asking myself if American democracy and evangelical Christianity can survive this horror.

Alan Bean

Alan Bean

The first really helpful insight I encountered came at the very beginning of a podcast conversation between Chris Hayes and Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you really believe the election was stolen, Coates said, then storming the Capitol might be appropriate behavior.

For those of a particular persuasion, Coates observed, the “stolen election” is simply the consummation of a string of outrages. For eight years, they endured a president who was “some kind of Muslim-Kenyan Sleeper,” a man unqualified for the presidency because he wasn’t one of us. He wasn’t a true American. Then a woman who is “somehow involved in a cult that exulted in child pornography” served as Secretary of State and “came within a hair’s-breadth of inhabiting the White House.”

After almost stealing the 2016 election, the media and “the deep state” spent four years humiliating a great and noble man, then stole the presidency. All of these beliefs, Coates said, have been majority positions within the Republican Party.

“We can no longer pretend that the truth doesn’t matter.”

We can no longer pretend that the truth doesn’t matter. Either we suffered under an imposter president for eight years, or we did not. Either Hillary and Bill Clinton lead an international cabal of pedophiles, or they do not. Either the 2020 election was stolen, or it was not. The people who stormed the Capitol are either patriots, or they are deluded seditionists.

According to recent polls, between 70% and 80% of Republicans are convinced that Trump won the election. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that 45% of these voters approve of the siege on Jan. 6.

The evidence is scant at this point, but it appears that most of the folks storming the Capitol, and most of those who are down with insurrection, identify as Christians of a particular type.

James McGrath

In a post-siege blog post, James McGrath observed, with sorrow, that many of his old mates from Sunday school are now knee-deep in conspiracy theories like QAnon. At first, McGrath wondered how these people, who seemed perfectly normal back in the day, could have changed so much. Or had they learned their religious lessons all too well?

“Whether the subject is biblical inerrancy, the end times, Satanism, antievolutionism or anything else,” McGrath says, “people are enculturated … in such a way in conservative Christian circles that all the supporting ‘evidence’ can be shown to be false, and yet the structure built on that foundation doesn’t fall.”

McGrath’s post made a big impression on Fred Clark, a gifted blogger who attended a Christian high school in the 1980s. Clark (known to his faithful readers as “the Slacktivist”) remembers that Hal Lindsey’s pop-apocalyptic writings were assigned as school textbooks. In that world, Lindsey’s belief that the world was sure to end by 1990 was taken as a core belief, not to be questioned.

At the same time, Clark’s teachers stressed the importance of getting good grades so you could get into a good college, land a high-paying job and support your Christian family.

“It wasn’t a matter of ‘But just in case the Bible prophecy scholars are wrong and the Lord tarries, then you’ll need a Plan B,’” Clark explains. “It was, instead, a constant yet constantly unacknowledged contradiction. And what that contradiction taught us was that the things we believed or claimed to believe didn’t matter — that the substance of our ‘beliefs’ did not need to correspond to reality or to affect the reality of our lives in any meaningful way.”

The folks at the vanguard of the Capitol siege were primarily members of paramilitary groups like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers and 3 Percenters. These people were intent on insurrection. Nancy Pelosi and Mike Pence came within seconds of being face-to-face with these men; a confrontation that almost certainly would have ended in bloodshed. Check out Luke Mogelson’s chilling piece in the New Yorker, “Among the Insurrectionists,” if you want to know more about the rightwing militia movement.

But most of the people surrounding the Capitol were dilettantes. They reminded me of the professional wrestlers on Stampede Wrestling when I was a boy. Archie “the Stomper” Goldie would snatch the mic and, in full drill sergeant mode, threaten to burn down the promoter’s house with his family inside. I didn’t take this talk seriously. Not really. But I kind of believed it. Just enough to enjoy the show. Nothing Archie Goldie said meant anything. His only real interest was in self-promotion.

“When Trump realized his response had placed him in legal jeopardy, he read a statement off the teleprompter decrying violence and vandalism.”

Donald Trump has a long affiliation with WWE wrestling, and it shows. His words and actions are designed to enhance his personal brand and are adjusted to suit the situation. His first response to the Capitol riot, according to White House staff, was childish delight. Then he worried that the rioters weren’t showing enough class. Finally, after hours of inaction, he told the rioters they were “special” and announced that the party was over. When Trump realized his response had placed him in legal jeopardy, he read a statement off the teleprompter decrying violence and vandalism.

In short, the ex-president came off with all the gravitas of Jacob Chansley, the “QAnon Shaman,” who waltzed into the Senate chambers covered in tattoos, grotesque body paint, Viking horns and an American flag attached to a spear. Chansley bellowed, he howled, he plopped down in the Speaker’s chair and scrawled a note to Mike Pence: “It’s only a matter of time, justice is coming.” He came to the Capitol to promote his personal brand and made the most of the opportunity.

Texas Realtor Jenna Ryan

Or consider the case of poor Jenna Ryan, a successful Realtor and talk show host from North Dallas. Jenna flew to Washington, D.C., in a private jet rented by a friend. Like most members of the mob marching to the Capitol, she spent most of her time memorializing “one of the best days of my life” for her followers on social media.

“We’re gonna go down and storm the Capitol,” she told her people. “This is a prelude to going to war. We are going to f**king go in here. Life or death, it doesn’t matter. Here we go.”

Arriving at her destination, Jenna paused to take a selfie by a shattered window. “Window at The capital,” she tweeted. “And if the news doesn’t stop lying about us we’re going to come after their studios next.”

Then, apropos of nothing, she blurted, “Y’all know who to hire for your Realtor; Jenna Ryan for your Realtor.”

Once inside the building, with the sound of sirens and breaking glass providing background music, Jenna screamed, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” and “Here we are, in the name of Jesus!”

Jenna was arrested shortly after arriving back in Plano, Texas. The charges against her are misdemeanors but could escalate. Instantly, her message shifted. “Hatred and violence toward each other are not going to solve our country’s issues,” she told the media. “As a nation, we need to come together Republican, Democrat and independent and have an open and honest discussion about the issues in our country and resolve our issues in peace.”

“How do we reconcile Jesus-warrior Jenna with peace-and-love Jenna?”

How do we reconcile Jesus-warrior Jenna with peace-and-love Jenna? We can’t. Like the preachers and politicians she grew up listening to, Jenna is a self-promoting cypher. She believes and says whatever suits her purposes at the moment. And none of it means anything.

And yet, as Jenna the Realtor, Jacob the QAnon shaman and ex-President Trump are about to discover, words and actions have consequences. Life ain’t pro wrestling. It’s painfully real. If Jesus were just another vacuous self-promoter, he would have lived to see his grandchildren. But Jesus spoke hard truth to hard power and lived with the hard consequences.

Jesus was present at the Capitol Jan. 6. He heard the speeches. He saw the pious and profane posturing. Jesus comforted police officers and politicians in their distress. He cradled the dying in his arms. And, once again, Jesus wept.

Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas.

 

Related articles:

Insurrection postscript: The church’s one foundation isn’t the USA  | Bill Leonard

Denominational leaders denounce Capitol violence while evangelicals offer mixed responses

Toxic masculinity, 24-hour news and complacency fed the Jan. 6 riots | John Jay Alvaro

Broken churches, broken nation: Will evangelicals ‘recalculate’ or rebel? | Bill Leonard

We knew there would be a reckoning for religious leaders enabling Trumpism, we just didn’t know it would be today | Mark Wingfield

It’s past time to admit the hard truths behind the Capitol riots | Wendell Griffen

Christian symbols and sedition at the Capitol: The church has work to do | Rhonda Abbott Blevins




How 300 children lost their fathers to lynching on a single day because of a conspiracy theory

At last count, 73,923,495 Americans have voted for Donald Trump. Trump eclipsed Barack Obama’s previous record by more than 4.5 million votes. Trump topped his own 2016 performance by 11 million votes. That’s huge.

Trump lost the election; but he grew his base. By a lot.

That is not to say that everyone who voted for Trump is enthusiastic about family separation, the denigration of Black Lives Matter protestors, a tendency to value blind loyalty over competence, the president’s cozy relations with autocrats like Vladimir Putin, or a continual flow of strategic disinformation.

Some are willing to overlook these peccadillos because, they believe, Trump ushered in a booming economy and low taxes.

But Trump’s most avid supporters embrace his personality, posturing and policies with open arms because they live in an alternative universe. QAnon enthusiasts, for instance, believe their president Trump is secretly combatting a global cabal of Satan-worshipping pedophiles with a shared passion for ritual baby sacrifice. It is this battle, not the faux conflict between Republicans and Democrats, that will determine the future of the Republic. QAnon devotees anticipate a coming “storm” when Trump will round up, imprison and expose the enemies of America.

Millions of voters have never heard of QAnon yet are nonetheless convinced that George Soros secretly controls Washington politics, or that the COVID-19 pandemic is a liberal hoax. Ask these people if Barack Obama is an American citizen, or even a Christian, and you will typically hear an emphatic “no.”

“Only 3% of Trump voters believe Joe Biden won the election. That is stunning!”

Sidney Powell, one of the attorneys making allegations of massive voter fraud, is convinced that “communist money” and a sinister computer algorithm have combined to steal the 2020 presidential election. Powell’s legal claims may be failing miserably in the courts, but they are welcomed as gospel in the QAnon community.

According to a recent poll, only 3% of Trump voters believe Joe Biden won the election. That is stunning!

Nothing new about conspiracy theories

There is nothing new about conspiracy theories. Recently, while doing some research on the history of lynching, I learned that Anthony Bewley, a Methodist minister, was lynched in Fort Worth, Texas, back in 1860. Bewley was the victim of a bizarre conspiracy theory.

Bewley’s troubles began back in 1844 when the Methodist Episcopal Church divided over the issue of slavery. A resolution passed by the Southern churches explained that, “We regard the officious and unwarranted interference of the Northern portion of the Church with the subject of slavery alone, a sufficient cause for a division of our Church.”

Bewley’s presence in North Texas was deeply resented by Southern Methodists. Texas was a slave state, after all, and Bewley was affiliated with the abolitionist Northern Methodists. Bewley was a circuit preacher ministering to 232 people in six sparsely populated counties. He generally avoided the hot topic of slavery, but everyone knew where he stood.

In 1860, the year Bewley was lynched, two-thirds of Texas residents were from somewhere else. Many were from free states, and pro-Union sentiment was strong. A year earlier, Sam Houston, running on a Unionist platform, had been elected governor. Having brought Texas into the Union in 1846 (two years after the Methodist split), Houston regarded talk of a Southern Confederacy with suspicion. In this political environment, Bewley’s abolitionist sentiments were tolerated.

When the tide turned

But when John Brown raided Harper’s Ferry, and the Republicans selected Abraham Lincoln as their presidential nominee, the tide began to turn. Bewley knew he was living in a different world when he learned that Solomon McKinney and Parson Blount, two itinerant preachers from Iowa, had been run out of Dallas (and the state of Texas) for airing their anti-slavery views.

Bewley’s fledgling band of Methodist churches held their annual conference in Fannin County in July 1860. Attendees sensed something was afoot when two Southern Methodist ministers joined the gathering.

One of these visitors reported to the local “committee of vigilance” that a member of Bewley’s group had “sought to influence a local Negro by reading to him after which the slave became useless to his owner.” In his testimony before the committee, the man “apologized for incriminating any white man, even a suspected abolitionist, by the testimony of this Negro.”

Bewley and his followers were commanded to discontinue their activities forthwith. As the situation deteriorated, Bewley gathered his family and fled to Missouri.

A fiery summer in Dallas

Shortly after his departure, a general store in Dallas caught fire. Every business in the downtown area was reduced to ashes. In coming days, fires were reported in nearby Denton and several other North Texas communities. The area was in the grip of a terrible drought. The temperature had soared to 110 degrees in Dallas the day of the fire. Historians now speculate that phosphorous matches, newly introduced to the region, spontaneously ignited in the extreme heat.

“Pryor fired off hand-written letters to every pro-slavery newspaper in Texas detailing a ghastly conspiracy.”

But in the eyes of Charles R. Pryor, a Dallas physician who recently had inherited the Dallas Herald, the multiple fires were no coincidence. His printing press having been destroyed in the Dallas inferno, Pryor fired off hand-written letters to every pro-slavery newspaper in Texas detailing a ghastly conspiracy. With each letter he wrote, the scope of the conspiracy grew.

“A LETTER FROM DALLAS,” read the headline in the Houston Telegraph, “A Most Diabolical Plot! Unheard of Scoundrelism!” Pryor blamed the fires on “abolition preachers” who were “actuated by a fiendish malignity of spirit,” and had “returned by stealth, and planned to wreak their vengeance upon the offending communities.”

Within days, Pryor had convinced himself that “emissaries” throughout the state, using vast financial resources provided by “the Abolition Aid Society of the North,” had hatched “a well digested plan, which by fire and assassination will finally render life and property insecure, and the slave by constant rebellion a curse to the master.”

Slaves rounded up and whipped

Hanging of the three slaves in Dallas.

Whipped into a frenzy, the Dallas committee of vigilance quickly rounded up 100 Black slaves, whipping them mercilessly until they told the story the committee wanted to hear. Pryor soon was reporting that “the three ring leaders,” Sam Smith, “an old Negro preacher,” and two men identified only by their Christian names, Cato and Patrick, were “escorted from the jail to the place of execution.” Pastor Smith, Pryor reported, had “imbibed most of his villainous principles” from Blunt and McKinney.

Fort Worth citizens gather to observe the body of William Crawford.

A few days later, the body of William H. Crawford, a white resident with abolitionist sympathies, was found suspended from a pecan tree about three-quarters of a mile from Fort Worth. According to Pryor’s report, “a large number of persons visited the body during the day.” A hastily formed committee of vigilance “endorsed the action of the party who hung him.”

Days later, an incriminating letter was found near Bewley’s home. A scheming abolitionist named William H. Bailey discussed the details of a massive plot to spark a slave revolt throughout Texas using poison, arson and assassination. A $1,000 reward was issued for the arrest of Bewley, (more than $30,000 in today’s money), and it wasn’t long before a committee of vigilance in Fayetteville, Ark., located the refugee preacher in Missouri.

Bewley extradited

Bewley was stuffed into a stagecoach under armed guard and turned over to the authorities in Fort Worth. He told the committee of vigilance that he had nothing to say to them. It was clear, he said, that he would be hanged no matter what he said. Before he could have his day in court, a mob broke into the jail, dragged Bewley to the same pecan tree where William H. Crawford had been lynched two weeks earlier, and strung him up. Bewley’s lifeless corpse swung from that tree for two days until slaves were dispatched to cut him down and bury him in a shallow grave.

Ephraim Daggett

A few days later, Bewley’s remains were exhumed, flesh was stripped from bone, and the skeleton was draped on top of Ephraim Daggett’s storehouse where school children were encouraged to play with the bones.

In the next few months, more than 100 persons, Black and white, were connected with Pryor’s conspiracy theory and summarily lynched. On Feb. 2, 1861, Texas threw in its lot with the Confederacy: “a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as Negro slavery — the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits — a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

Refusing to sign the declaration, Sam Houston was denounced as a “traitor-knave” and forced to resign the governorship. The following year, with the Confederate Army desperate for conscripts, 41 men in Gainesville, Texas, were hung en masse for refusing conscription into the Confederate Army. In a single day, more than 300 children lost their fathers. It was the largest mass hanging in American history.

What has changed in 160 years?

How much has changed in the 160 years since preaching that Jesus came into world “to set at liberty those who are oppressed” was a hanging offense?

If anything, the conspiracy theories raging in the America of 2020 are more far-fetched than Charles Pryor’s nightmare scenario.

“These fantasy worlds are constructed for, and by, white people.”

Conspiracy theories like QAnon and pandemic-denial are typically associated with a lack of formal education. Bristling with resentment for the coastal elites who are cashing in on the information age, benighted souls come to believe that all their troubles are the work of dark demonic forces.

This analysis makes a lot of sense. If we are talking about white people. But how many uneducated Black people fall into conspiratorial traps such as QAnon, birtherism and the Proud Boys? No more than a handful. No, these fantasy worlds are constructed for, and by, white people. They are a sign of desperation; the last redoubt of white supremacy.

The history of our nation has been disfigured by racial inequity and iniquity. This is not my opinion; it is a fact. And it didn’t happen by accident. It was fully intentional. If white Christian America can’t reckon with this dismal reality, our flight into fantasy can only accelerate.

Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas.

 

Related articles:

‘The Critique’ versus ‘The Heroic Narrative’ defines the debate in America today | Alan Bean

Church in the Age of Conspiracy Theories |Rhonda Abbott Blevins

Why are Christians so susceptible to conspiracy? | Andrew Gardner

Is QAnon a prophet or provocateur? And how should Christians respond? | Aaron Coyle-Carr




‘The Critique’ versus ‘The Heroic Narrative’ defines the debate in America today

In 2015, 37% of Republican voters told pollsters that “colleges have a negative effect on the United States.” By 2019, 59% of Republicans said they believed that.

Among non-white voters, educational level had no effect on political preference in the 2016 election. Within this demographic, 68% of college-educated voters supported Hillary Clinton and 77% of non-college-educated voters supported Clinton.

Alan Bean

Alan Bean

But among white voters, a different story: College-educated white voters supported Clinton over Donald Trump by 17 points, while non-college white voters went for Trump by a stunning 36 points. A gulf of 53 points cries out for an explanation.

What’s the correlation?

It is tempting to see a correlation between high levels of education and support for Democrats. But as Michael Sandel notes in The Tyranny of Merit, it wasn’t too long ago that a majority of educated whites voted Republican while the Democratic base was solidly blue collar. Something new is afoot.

There is a second factor that correlates famously with strong support for Trump: White Christianity. As Robert P. Jones demonstrates in his searing White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in White Christianity, “The more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian.”

Again, this doesn’t apply to Christians per se; just white Christians.

Although Jones grew up Southern Baptist, he isn’t just talking about white evangelicals. White members of Catholic and Protestant mainline churches show far higher levels of racial resentment than you will find among non-white Christians and white non-Christians.

The advance of enlightenment?

In 2015, 37% of Republican voters told pollsters that “colleges have a negative effect on the United States.”  By 2019, 59% of Republicans said they believed that. 

American history has traditionally been chronicled as a steady advance of enlightened white civilization over the forces of ignorance and superstition. The mass slaughter of Native Americans and the horrors of chattel slavery either have been ignored or glossed over.

The nostalgic lyrics of Steven Foster’s Old Folks at Home, written on the verge of the Civil War, reinforced the image of happy Southern slaves:

All up and down de whole creation
Sadly I roam,
Still longing for de old plantation,
And for de old folks at home.

“The servitude of the African race, as existing in these States,” the state of Texas declared in 1861, “is mutually beneficial to both bond and free, and is abundantly authorized and justified by the experience of mankind, and the revealed will of the Almighty Creator.”

This narrative was endorsed by Columbia historian Ulrich Bonnell, whose 1918 book, American Negro Slavery, would shape how white Americans understood the scandalous institution until mid-century. “On the whole,” Bonnell wrote, “the plantations were the best schools yet invented for the mass training of that sort of inert and backward people which the bulk of American negroes represented.”

“We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans.”

As W.E.B. du Bois put the matter in 1935: “We have too often a deliberate attempt so to change the facts of history that the story will make pleasant reading for Americans.”

‘The Critique’

That verdict no longer applies. Enroll in a class in history, sociology or anthropology in your typical secular university and you will encounter a full-frontal assault on all things America. I have come to call it “The Critique.”

Let me offer a highly simplified pencil sketch of the five most prominent elements of The Critique.

  1. White supremacy. The focus here isn’t on men in white sheets who use the n-word. “White supremacy” refers to the assumption that white lives matter more than non-white lives. The phrase has fallen into disfavor in some circles because it is prone to misunderstanding. Why not simply speak of racism? But the fact that America’s commitment to white supremacy is invisible to most white people is precisely the point. White supremacy is invisible because it is assumed.
  2. There was a time when only radical feminists dared argue that American society has been shaped by men with the specific purpose of suppressing the rights and aspirations of women. This is now the dominant view within the academy.
  3. In elite academic circles it is now assumed that the LGBTQ community is every bit as normal, and therefore acceptable, as straight folk, and should therefore be afforded the rights and dignity traditionally reserved to the straight community. Anyone believing otherwise is displaying a crude form of bigotry born of fear and ignorance.
  4. It is widely assumed that free market capitalism is prized by the powerful because it produces winners and losers. American society is controlled by oligarchs who, having reaped the economic benefits of our capitalistic system, are determined to keep the goodies to themselves. The steadily widening wealth gap is a consequence of political decisions controlled by the rich and powerful for their own benefit.
  5. The proliferation of Western empires gobbling up realms of influence in the global South was once viewed as a process of transferring the blessings of civilization (including Christianity) to benighted realms. Empire building is now defined as a series of crude power-grabs; the domination and exploitation by one country of people over another group of people.

According to the principle of “intersectionality,” these five forms of oppression are seen as overlapping and mutually reinforcing. The climate crisis, for instance, is often attributed to a combination of economic imperialism that is closely linked to oligarchy, patriarchy and white supremacy. The immigration crisis is viewed through a lens combining white supremacy, oligarchy and imperialism.

A single individual may be seen as complicit in, or victimized by, all five forms of oppression at once.

It also has become axiomatic that white Christianity is hopelessly entangled in all five forms of oppression highlighted by The Critique. It is hardly surprising that young white people who take their moral cue from The Critique are abandoning their churches in unprecedented numbers.

“When people disparage ‘political correctness,’ they are usually recoiling from some aspect of The Critique.”

When people disparage “political correctness,” they are usually recoiling from some aspect of The Critique. And it must be admitted that “wokeness” can be wielded as a rhetorical club or reduced to smug virtue signaling.

Those most committed to The Critique exhibit the moral passion of 17th century Puritans, and they have incurred the same sort of backlash.

In undiluted form, The Critique is an instrument of revolution. The goal is utopian: The utter eradication of oppression. If you’re not part of the solution; you’re part of the problem. Even people who identify as progressive express frustration with this level of moral certitude.

The Black Lives Matter movement is grounded in The Critique. White supremacy may be the primary focus, but most of the young people on the streets are down with the entire package.

‘The Heroic Narrative’

Which created an opportunity for the Great Divider. Speaking at a White House Conference on American History in September, Trump threw the full weight of his bully pulpit behind the myth of American exceptionalism:

Our mission is to defend the legacy of America’s founding, the virtue of America’s heroes, and the nobility of the American character. We must clear away the twisted web of lies in our schools and classrooms and teach our children the magnificent truth about our country. We want our sons and daughters to know that they are the citizens of the most exceptional nation in the history of the world. 

The narrative of Heroic America and The Critique define the extreme polls of American opinion. If you are younger than 40 and have a few years of higher education under your belt, you probably understand the general drift of The Critique. To some extent, it probably has influenced your moral outlook. If you are over 60 and didn’t attend college, you were almost certainly exposed to the Heroic Narrative as a child. The Critique has suddenly burst onto the scene unannounced. You feel blindsided.

“The narrative of Heroic America and The Critique define the extreme polls of American opinion.”

The Heroic Narrative of American history is rooted in the assumption that “real” Americans are white and Christian. Nobody makes these claims out loud. Not in public, anyway. But the rapturous celebration of the MAGA revolution leaves little doubt that, for millions of Americans, it is axiomatic that white Christians should hold a privileged place in American society.

People who venerate Donald Trump can be critical of his arrogance, vulgarity and penchant for, shall we say, exaggeration. But Trump celebrates the Heroic Narrative while demonizing The Critique. He’s the self-appointed defender of white Christianity. He celebrates American exceptionalism. And, like the BLM people, he won’t give an inch.

For the past quarter century, self-taught Christian historians like David Barton have been assuring white evangelicals that Christian America is the apple of God’s eye. If trained historians are anything to judge by, Barton is wrong about practically everything. But it doesn’t matter. There’s a market for this stuff. And now the president of the United States is leading the cheers for Christian America.

Which way will we go?

In 2016, only 23% of white evangelicals felt the country was “going their way”; now 63% feels that way.

But white Christian America has hitched its wagon to a falling star. White Christians shouldn’t embrace The Critique (or any other ideology) with naive zeal, but it must be taken seriously. Are we complicit in radical evil? Have we been unfaithful servants? Have we borne false witness?

If the shoe fits, we dare not acquit.

Like the first disciples, we must rebuild our religion from the ground up. 2 Corinthians 5:17 points the way forward: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas.




Is the Kentucky attorney general a sell-out?

“There is always a place for posers who are willing to sell out their own people,” my Facebook post read. “Gain the world, and lose your soul.”

The reference was to Daniel Cameron, the Kentucky attorney general, who had just announced that no one would be indicted in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor. The ABC News article referenced Cameron’s address to the Republican National Convention: Kentucky AG Daniel Cameron pitches President Trump as ‘best for this country’ amid racial strife. If Cameron, a Black Republican, wanted to maintain his hold on Donald Trump’s coattails, I was suggesting, he had to place his imprimatur on Breonna’s violent death.

Alan Bean

Alan Bean

My cynical take was endorsed by my Facebook friends, with one adamant exception. “Being an individual thinker with his own thoughts doesn’t mean (Cameron) is selling out his race or his people,” my lone critic said. “I was under the impression Black people could think for themselves. Democrats don’t own Black people; they are free to be conservative if they choose.”

The man had a point. I had labeled a man I knew hardly anything about. I saw a Black protégé of Mitch McConnell who says nice things about the president and assumed he was a sell-out.

Some would insist that Cameron’s soulful embrace of Trump and McConnell has nothing to do with race. In elite evangelical circles, it is often argued that our conclusions are determined by our preconceptions. Those who begin from “a biblical worldview” will see people like the president and the senior senator from Kentucky as defenders of Christian culture. We may not agree with everything they do or say, the argument goes, but we celebrate the end result.

This outlook comes with a flipside. Those who see Cameron as a race traitor are enslaved to a secular (and unbiblical) worldview.

Cameron’s background

My research indicates that Cameron came of age in a cultural bubble in which conservative Christianity dovetailed seamlessly with conservative politics. None of the thirty-something articles I have read about Cameron’s meteoric rise to power betray his religious affiliation. But he talks a lot about his “faith story,” and “pro-life” politics are clearly front and center in whatever religious world he inhabits.

Cameron comes by his political conservatism honestly; his mother was a major player in Kentucky Republican politics long before Daniel was born.

After graduating from high school, Cameron attended the University of Louisville as a McConnell Scholar. This brought him into contact with Kentucky’s senior senator, after whom the scholarship was named, and a parade of conservative luminaries who spoke at the university. By his senior year, Cameron was being touted as a rising legal or political star.

After graduating with a degree in political science, Cameron enrolled in the Brandeis School of Law at the University of Louisville, where he was recognized as most outstanding law student. After clerking for two years with a conservative federal judge, Cameron moved to Washington, D.C., to serve as legal counsel for McConnell.

With Trump in the White House, and Republicans in control of the Senate, the Kentucky senator was eager to appoint as many conservative judges as possible before the window of opportunity slammed shut. Working in lockstep with the conservative Federalist Society, Cameron’s role was to identify likely prospects for judicial appointments.

When Cameron showed an interest in running for Kentucky attorney general in 2018, McConnell placed his contact and donor lists at his protégé’s disposal.

“Cameron’s victory won effusive praise from the president, a favor the Kentucky AG returns at every opportunity.”

Cameron’s victory won effusive praise from the president, a favor the Kentucky AG returns at every opportunity. In his August speech to the Republican National Convention, Cameron identified himself as a “proud supporter of Donald Trump.”

Cameron’s speech was a hit. Two weeks later, Cameron made Trump’s list of 20 potential Supreme Court nominees.

Then, exactly two weeks after being touted by the president as a possible Supreme Court justice, Cameron announced that a grand jury had failed to indict anyone in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor.

The Kentucky grand jury

The attorney general’s press conference, although widely panned, was a huge hit with Trump and McConnell.

To be fair to Cameron, it would have been difficult for the most aggressive prosecutor to secure an indictment in connection with Taylor’s death. Kenneth Walker, Breonna’s boyfriend, fired the first shot at Sgt. Jonathan Mattingly, wounding him in the thigh. Mattingly and his partner, Myles Cosgrove, then returned fire, missing Walker but killing Taylor.

“America’s gun laws are so lax that the bullet fired at Mattingly, and the 32 bullets fired by Mattingly and Cosgrove, fall into the ‘justified’ category.”

America’s gun laws are so lax that the bullet fired at Mattingly, and the 32 bullets fired by Mattingly and Cosgrove, fall into the “justified” category.

All Walker knew was that someone had rapped loudly on the front door in the middle of the night before smashing through the door with a battering ram. His first thought was that the intruders were associated with Breonna’s jealous ex-boyfriend. Since Mattingly and Cosgrove were in plain clothes, Walker didn’t realize they were police officers.

Which is why the attempted murder charges initially filed against Walker were later dropped.

The New York Times interviewed 12 neighbors, 11 of whom insist they never heard the noisy intruders identify themselves as police officers. One neighbor did corroborate the officers’ story, but only after being grilled on three separate occasions by investigators. It appears that Cameron used the testimony of this single witness in his presentation of the case to the grand jury without mentioning the other 11.

None of this ultimately mattered. Since the officers arrived with a no-knock warrant, they could have broken into Taylor’s apartment without a warning of any kind. Narcotics cops like no-knock warrants because they preserve the element of surprise while reducing the chances that evidence will be destroyed. But in a nation bristling with guns, the tactic is dangerous, especially when you are entering the wrong home.

In June of this year, the Louisville Metro Council banned the use of no-knock warrants, but they were perfectly legal when Taylor’s home was raided.

A symptom of the true problem

No-knock warrants are just a symptom of the true cause for Breonna Taylor’s tragic death: America’s war on drugs. Cameron has always identified himself as the friend of law enforcement and the enemy of illegal drugs. Constitutionally, attorneys general aren’t on the side of any individual or group; they’re supposed to be on the side of justice. The drug war encourages an aggressive, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later approach that places innocent civilians like Taylor in harm’s way.

“They were just doing what narcotics cops do because politicians like Cameron use drug war rhetoric to get elected.”

In candid moments, police officers will tell you that America’s drug war will never stanch the flow of illicit substances. The potential profits are so great that, when you arrest one dealer, somebody steps in to take his place in a matter of hours. It is likely that none of the officers who showed up at Breonna Taylor’s doorstep at 1:00 in the morning believed they were making a difference. They were just doing what narcotics cops do because politicians like Cameron use drug war rhetoric to get elected.

Here’s the bottom line: The Louisville police had no business showing up at the door of an innocent woman in the dead of night. In a technical sense, their behavior was legally justified; but it was also sloppy, unprofessional and reckless. The Kentucky AG could have used his press conference to say as much. But that was never going to happen.

Cameron’s allegiances

Cameron is a smart guy, a gifted speaker and a savvy politician. But he would never have advanced so far, so fast, if he didn’t understand his role: The Black Guy Who Loves Donald Trump. To be persuasive, Kentucky’s first Black attorney general has to remain in character at all times. A sweeping criticism of the Louisville police department probably wouldn’t have mollified Breonna’s supporters, and it would have horrified Trump, McConnell and the white electorate that placed the AG in office. Cameron did what he had to do.

In his remarks to the RNC, Cameron excoriated Black Lives Matter protesters as “anarchists” making “an all-out assault on western civilization” by seeking to “tear down the statues of people like Ulysses S. Grant, Frederick Douglas and even Mr. Lincoln himself.”

When a Black Southerner employs this kind of rhetoric, there are only two explanations.

Maybe Cameron never was introduced to the ugly details of Black chattel slavery, the gruesome legacy of lynch law or the unsavory relationship between Confederate statuary and the canons of white supremacy.

Alternatively, Cameron is fully briefed on these abominations, but has decided to play to the sensitivities of his white constituency.

The first option is the most charitable. And the most appalling. You can’t be a sell-out if you have nothing to sell.

Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas.

 

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Tower of Babel or Pentecost? The Church must not turn a deaf ear to cries for justice

In Louisville, learning as a white witness in Black space




After 23 years in prison, Curtis Flowers is free

I have been working to free Curtis Flowers for 12 years. He’s been locked up twice that long.

Yesterday, Sept. 4, after six flawed murder trials, Lynn Fitch, attorney general of Mississippi, dismissed the charges against Curtis with prejudice. That means the state can’t indict him a seventh time.

Alan Bean

Alan Bean

Twenty-three years after being wrongly arrested for a brutal quadruple murder, Curtis Flowers is free.

Viewed through a lens of justice, we may wonder why it took so long for a case this weak to unravel. But when you understand how hard it is to vacate a death sentence, the attorney general’s decision feels like a miracle.

I was speaking to a legal conference in New Orleans about my advocacy work with Friends of Justice when I first learned of the Flowers saga. Ray Carter, Flowers’ lead attorney, told me his client had been to trial five times on the same charges. The crime took place in Winona, Miss., the town where Fannie Lou Hamer, the civil rights icon, was beaten half to death in 1963. A sixth trial, Carter told me, was scheduled for June 2010.

A week later, I was in Winona, visiting with Curtis’ parents, Archie and Lola Flowers. They introduced me to friends and family members, who told me all the reasons why Curtis was an innocent man.

They showed me the furniture store where four innocent people had been murdered execution-style early one June morning in 1996.

I talked to two people who had been questioned by the local police. They were shown a handbill offering a $30,000 reward for information leading to a final conviction. Then they were shown a picture of Curtis Flowers. All they had to do was say they saw Curtis, at a particular place and time, on the morning of the crime.

The folks I talked to refused to take the bait. Others were not so principled. Once they signed a statement, they were informed that they would be subpoenaed to testify and that the penalty for perjury was severe.

“No one personally acquainted with the soft-spoken gospel singer believed he was capable of murder.”

District Attorney Doug Evans transformed these isolated bits of testimony into the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. No single witness saw Curtis do the deed, but the state used the words of these supposed witnesses to trace the suspect’s journey from his duplex apartment to the scene of the crime and back again.

In Winona’s Black community, these witnesses never were taken seriously. No one personally acquainted with the soft-spoken gospel singer believed he was capable of murder.

“I’ve worked in this jail a long time,” a prison guard told me, “and I can tell you one thing: Curtis doesn’t belong in here. He is kind, compassionate, helpful and always respectful. Curtis Flowers,” the man told me, “is the finest young man that ever put on a pair of pants.”

White residents didn’t think Curtis was guilty; they knew he was guilty. Sure, the case was circumstantial, but they believed the witnesses DA Evans assembled. Curtis had to be guilty, the reasoning went, because the crime was so heinous. If Curtis wasn’t the killer, it was likely that the crime never would be solved. That was unthinkable. Somebody had to pay.

When I arrived in Winona for trial number six, the atmosphere was electric. I was accompanied by my daughter, Lydia Bean, and Liliana Ibarra, a young woman from Boston who had participated in our fight for justice in Tulia, Texas, a decade earlier. Once white residents saw us sitting on the Black side of the courtroom, they immediately became suspicious. The father of one of the victims confronted me in front of the courthouse and suggested I was having improper relations with Lydia and Liliana. Anybody who believed that Flowers was innocent, he said, was either drunk or stupid, and he didn’t think I had been drinking.

Evans always had been able to get easy guilty verdicts from all-white juries. But since Winona is half Black, Evans couldn’t get a monochrome jury without revealing his racial bias. When racially diverse juries were selected, they split along racial lines.

Over the years, I have dedicated more than 40 blog posts to the Flower case, paying particular attention to the fraught racial history of the region.

“Whites were afraid their “Southern way of life” was under assault. Blacks learned that challenging the Southern way of life could get you fired or even land you in an early grave.”

Gradually, I began to understand the fear. Whites were afraid their “Southern way of life” was under assault. Blacks learned that challenging the Southern way of life could get you fired or even land you in an early grave.

Every time Curtis went to trial, the fear in Winona was palpable. Everyone in the white community was close to one or more of the murder victims, and every new trial forced them to relive the horror.

Black residents lived in fear that an innocent man would be condemned to death.

We stayed with Archie and Lola through a trial that stretched over a week and a half. When the death sentence was announced, Archie and Lola left the courtroom with quiet dignity. This wasn’t their first rodeo.

We all believed justice was coming. We didn’t realize it would take another 10 years.

When Mississippi’s highest court upheld the conviction, the case moved to the federal level. It is almost impossible to get a case before the Supreme Court, but this was not a typical case. And Curtis had excellent legal representation.

The big break came on May 3, 2017, when I got an email from Madeleine Baran with the In the Dark podcast. “I came across your website while researching,” Madeleine told me, “and I’d like to learn more about the Flowers case.” Two weeks later, Baran arrived at my doorstep accompanied by her producer, Samara Freemark. They had read every word I had written and spent two full days peppering me with questions.

In the Dark planned to spend a full year in Winona doing interviews, sifting through documentary evidence and asking hard questions.

Over the past three years, they have produced 19 episodes dedicated exclusively to the Flowers case. Working from my blueprint, they took the inquiry to the next level. Soon they had millions of devoted listeners. Witnesses began recanting. DA Evans was being deluged with letters demanding that he drop the charges against Curtis.

Nine years after the somber conclusion to trial six, the Supreme Court vacated the conviction due to racial bias in jury selection. But the 7-2 ruling suggested that the justices had been listening to In the Dark and reading my posts. The case was sent back to the court in Winona. Judge Joseph Loper, who had experienced a surprising change of heart, released Curtis on bail.

Finally, nine months later, we received the joyous news.

It is easy to blame this travesty on a single prosecutor from Mississippi. That would be a mistake. The brand of racism at work in this case is systemic. People believed Flowers was guilty for the same reason they believe in conspiracy theories like QAnon. Those who fear their cherished way of life is in jeopardy are predisposed to trust authority figures who embody their fear.

Curtis Flowers is in no mood to give interviews. Not yet. But in a brief statement released the day of his liberation, he said that what happened to him is happening throughout Mississippi and across America.

Tragically, he’s right.

Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas.

 

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Curtis Flowers was tried 6 times for the same crime. His story reveals 3 kinds of Christians

In ministry to exonerate the wrongly convicted, criminal justice advocate emphasizes power of ‘story’