In my first years at Wheaton College I had a colleague named Julius Scott. (He retired in 2000 and died in 2020. R.I.P.) Julius was a New Testament scholar, but earlier in life, in the 1960s, had been a Presbyterian pastor in Mississippi. He was raised in rural Georgia and loved the South, but he knew a good deal about our native region’s habitual sins also, and as the Civil Rights movement grew stronger and stronger, he understand that he had a reckoning to make. So he did.
After much prayer and study of Scripture, he decided that nothing could be more clear in Scripture, and nothing more foundational to Christian anthropology, than the belief that each and every human being is made in the image of God; that every human being is my neighbor; and that to “love your neighbor as yourself” is required of us all. Julius could not, therefore, avoid the conclusion that the Jim Crow laws common to the Southern states were incompatible with the Christian understanding of what human beings are and who our neighbors are; but even if those laws proved impossible to dislodge, and even if his pastoral colleagues thought them defensible, it was surely, certainly, indubitably necessary for all churches to welcome every one of God’s children who entered their doors, and to welcome them with open arms, making no distinction on the basis of race. When his presbytery — gathering of pastors in his region — next met, Julius felt that he had to speak up and say what he believed about these matters.
He did; and thus he entered into a lengthy season of hellish misery. He was prepared for the condemnation and shunning he received from almost every other member of the presbytery; what he wasn’t prepared for was what happened when word of his speech got out to the general public, I believe through a newspaper article: an ongoing barrage of threats against his life and the lives of his wife and children. For years, he told me, he had to sleep — and sleep came hard — with a loaded gun under his bed; the fear for his family didn’t wholly abate until he left Mississippi. (“I was afraid for my babies,” Julius said, and with those words the tears filled his eyes.) Of course he remained a pariah to most of his colleagues — and even the ones who respected him told him so in private, expressing their agreement with his theological conclusions only on condition that Julius never share their views with anyone else.
Think about that story for a while. Please understand that it’s not an uncommon one; and please understand, further, that Julius escaped with no worse than shunning and terror because he was white. (If you want to know more about Christians in Mississippi in that era, the persecuted and the persecutors alike, I recommend Charles Marsh’s book God’s Long Summer. And if you want to know what life in that era was like in Birmingham, Alabama, where I grew up, read Diane McWhorter’s Carry Me Home.)
Now: the next time you’re tempted to say that American Christians today experience hostility unprecedented in our nation’s history, and can escape condemnation only if they bow their knee to the dominant cultural norms; that it didn’t used to be like that, that decades ago no American Christian had to be hesitant about affirming the most elementary truths of the Christian faith — the next time you’re tempted to say all that, please, before you speak, remember Julius Scott.