An Open Letter to Beth Moore


Dear Beth,

A few weeks ago several friends sent me the link to your letter to “Brothers in Christ” that you posted on your blog in early May. I read what you said with great interest and was encouraged to know you had taken this step; I know it couldn’t have been easy for you. After reading it, I felt the need to write to you, to respond to some of the things you said. No, we have never met. But something happened over 20 years ago, in the 1990s, that set the course for the directions both our lives would take. That something was our separate meetings with Lifeway.

I have to confess I know nothing about how your journey to becoming a women’s Bible teacher began. My journey began with classes in my church, then in my community, then at the urging of others, a conference or two. You said in your letter that your “unwavering passion was to teach and to serve women.” Mine wasn’t. I was driven to learn, to share what I learned, to “do life” with people, both male and female, in community in a church. But when in 1994 I came across a small out-of-print book and something about it captured my attention, I found myself suddenly propelled in a different direction.

The book had been written by Dr. John Hunter. I learned of Dr. John’s years of ministry, of how many people his teaching had influenced, that all of his books were out of print. I had a strong sense I needed to meet him and talk with him, so I phoned him in England. A story about my trip to meet him at his home there and what resulted appeared in the Baptist & Reflector in March 1995, a couple of articles I wrote were published that same year in Experiencing God Magazine, and suddenly I found myself overwhelmed with phone calls from across the country, asking me to come speak or teach. To say it was a bit much would be an understatement.

The stir all of this created, along with a 12-week biblical study course I had written, led to a phone call from Lifeway and an invitation to come to Nashville to meet with them to discuss becoming one of their authors. At the urging of others, I agreed to go. I listened to what they said, asked some pointed questions, then thanked them for their interest but told them I wasn’t interested. I knew they were going to be meeting with someone else as well and making a decision, and that “someone else” was named Beth Moore. Several months later, I was again talking to one of the people I had met with, expressing my appreciation for their interest, telling him I realized my response had been a bit abrupt. He replied, “That’s fine. We’ve decided to go another direction, and we’re very excited about it.” I said, “You’ve signed Beth Moore?” He said yes.

They made the right decision; this journey was yours, Beth, not mine. I’ve never regretted the decision I made, never second-guessed it. I knew I couldn’t take that path for many reasons, and in your letter you touched on one of the most significant reasons why. I had already realized that becoming a woman leader in that world, in that day, would require me to put on that attitude of “constant pronounced deference,” to speak and teach with apology, to tolerate the disclaimers issued by men when I was “allowed” to speak in their churches. This I would not do, could not do, for I believed it to be demeaning to me as a fellow heir with Christ. I had yet to have the knowledge I have now and the words to express why I felt that so deeply; I just knew in my spirit this wasn’t right.

So if I had liked to wear heels (which I don’t), I would have worn the heels. On those occasions when I did find myself waiting in a silent room with the other “platform people” who were all men, I broke the tension with a comment laced with sarcastic humor, usually something like, “Wow, this is a cheerful group!” I would get the shocked, disapproving stares, of course—I have to admit I enjoyed that part. Sometimes that alone was enough to break the ice with at least one man. If not, I would push a little harder with something like: “Being around you guys would sure make me want to become a Christian, yes it would. The joy in here is palpable!” Usually that was enough to get at least one of them laughing, and others would follow and start talking. Some never altered their stern disapproving expressions, no matter what I said.

My life experience has given me a different perspective, and while that gave me an advantage in dealing with the superior attitude exhibited by many men, it also made it impossible for me to accept being treated as less than simply because I am a woman. Being the only female in an all-male group was not unfamiliar to or uncomfortable for me. Since my undergraduate degree was in chemistry, most of the time I had been one of the few, if not the only, women in my college classes. And since I held the place of top student in most of those classes, being dismissed or ridiculed was never a problem. Some tried, most knew better. I never had someone say to me what that theologian said to you, but when I read what you wrote, I knew what my immediate response would have been: “And you’re not nearly as good looking as ____”, filling in the name of someone I knew he would not admire. I wouldn’t have been able to hold back, wouldn’t have even tried to if I could have. He was out of line; I would not have given him a pass because of his status in the theological community.

Let me be clear that I, like you, never experienced this attitude from those I encountered at Lifeway. Henry Blackaby and those who served with him at the Office of Prayer and Spiritual Awakening at NAMB treated me as a fellow servant of Christ and always encouraged me, as did Bob Dixon and those involved with Texas Baptist Men. Claude King treated me like a true sister in Christ; I am deeply grateful to him for the time he spent with me in discussion. Dr. John Hunter was one of my greatest supporters, always pushing me on. He would say I was a Bible teacher of the type of Henrietta Mears, that I possessed the same fire, that I must stand strong and speak to all who would listen, that I must not let anyone “clip your wings.”

I had no idea who Henrietta Mears was, so I did some research and learned of her far-reaching teaching ministry in California to both men and women. Those who attended her classes in the 1940s and 50s and learned from her included Bill Bright and Billy Graham. I was stunned to learn she had begun her career as a high school chemistry teacher; we did have that in common. Then I read that she had no children and had never married; as a mother of four with all the responsibilities that brings, I knew I was in a very different place and time. Besides that, much had happened in the Evangelical world since the time of Henrietta Mears; the pendulum had swung back to an emphasis on hierarchy, on women having an assigned, God-ordained “place,” a subordinate place. Dr. John was then in his mid-80s and had not been involved enough in recent years to observe the shift, so he couldn’t understand when I attempted to explain to him the opposition I now, as a woman gifted and called to teach, faced. He would say, “Don’t let anything hold you back. Being a woman does not in any way limit the ways in which God can use you. You must let go, take flight and soar.” I would think, “Yeah, right, and fly right into a wall of silence and go splat… You have no idea, Dr. John,” but I didn’t say anything. I just let him talk while I pretended to listen.

The shift, the pendulum swing. The attitudes you noticed surfacing in October 2016 are nothing new. These attitudes have been around for centuries, since the time of Aristotle and the ancient Greek philosophers, influencing both culture and Christianity. This most recent swing in the conservative Evangelical world toward misogyny, objectification, and disesteem of women began decades ago, in the 1970s. There are many reasons these attitudes have been able to gain strength this time, but there is one person and his teachings I want to mention here because he stands out as being a principal driving force. He began teaching his seminars in the 1960s. He started small, but his rise was meteoric. By 1971 his week-long seminars consistently filled stadiums. His name was Bill Gothard. His message centered around what became known as chain of command, or umbrella of protection, or authority teaching. He confidently and charismatically proclaimed this hierarchical teaching as God’s ordained way, as the authoritative teaching of the Bible, and people bought it.

My first introduction to Gothard was in 1981, when he brought his Institute in Basic Youth Conflicts seminar to Memphis, TN. The pastor at my small Southern Baptist church strongly urged his congregation to attend, and that included me. I was about seven months pregnant with my second child at the time and was appropriately miserable, but I complied and attended, as did my husband. I endured it for two nights, then bowed out; my husband attended every night. I remember my pastor asking me afterward what I thought about Gothard’s teaching. I told him I thought what he was teaching was unbiblical, maybe even dangerous, and that I really thought he was kind of off his gourd. I could tell by my pastor’s disapproving expression that wasn’t the response he was looking for, and that I was now labelled a troublemaker—truthtellers usually are.

Fast forward now to a little over a decade later, the early 1990s, in Kingsport, TN. I had run head on into Gothard’s chain of command teaching again with my pastor there, and met with the director of a local counseling center to discuss it. To my surprise, he opened a deep wound in his own life and told me a story of the early years of Gothard’s ministry, a story from the 1970s when he personally had been deeply involved as a member of the staff of what was then called the Institute of Basic Life Principles. His story was one of the sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior of the Gothards, of his attempts as well as the attempts of others to confront and expose the behavior of both Bill and his brother Steve, of the refusal of the Board to respond, of what happened in 1980 when “the Scandal” finally broke. The result had been a reorganization of the ministry in January, 1981, with a new untainted name: the Institute of Basic Youth Conflicts. Bill was still firmly at the helm, nothing changed, and on they went. This counselor and others who had tried to hold the Gothards accountable for their behavior were fired; they, the ones who broke the silence and attempted to expose the truth, were the ones who were disgraced. One member of the staff during those days explained, “Those who questioned his authority were asked to leave and were labeled as failures. Bill would explain that they had failed God and were resistant to God’s chain of command.”

I realized it had been only a few months later that same year that I attended the seminar in Memphis. I had been completely unaware of any of this. Now I knew why I had been so bothered by this teaching, and I knew where following this chain of command/authority teaching could, and often did, lead. I knew this was the exact opposite of the teachings of Jesus. I saw, I knew, and I didn’t know what to do with what I knew. I agonized in my knowledge. I could say nothing to those I saw following the Gothard way because all I had was hearsay, the story of another, and what I knew in my own heart to be true.

The truth about Gothard was not to come out until 2014, just four years ago. Finally, after 34 more years of continuing his abusive behavior toward young women, he was exposed and forced to resign. Many of those who had been victims over the years came together to gather documents and stories in an attempt to understand what had been allowed to happen, and why. When I found the website they developed to publish their documented stories ( and read a timeline of notes detailing what had happened, I saw the name of the counselor who told me his story 27 years ago featured prominently. The story he told me was confirmed and had become a matter of public record, and I knew the time had come for me to speak out.

I shudder when I think about how Gothard’s authority teaching has permeated Evangelical thinking, and how many have been damaged or destroyed by its influence. By 1980, before the scandal and name change, over two million people had attended at least one of his seminars. Since then, untold numbers have been led to believe that chain of command teaching is the teaching of scripture. This teaching is a setup for abuse of power, for those at the top of the chain tend to see themselves as above the law. Evangelical women have borne the brunt of much of this teaching; now they are seeing the truth, and are saying, “No more!”

Many times in years past, when I have raised a question or expressed disagreement with a pastor, I have been told my “problem” is that I “won’t come under authority.” I know I’m not the only woman who has met with this attempt to shame them into silence and compliance. In early 1999 I was asked by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board to participate in a conference for their workers in Arabic-speaking countries, a conference held on the island of Cyprus with over 500 people in attendance. I was to speak at a few breakout sessions, but my main purpose for being there was to minister to the women, to give them counsel and provide a safe space for them to open up and speak honestly about their struggles. For several days, I listened. What I heard made me angry, and at the same time, broke my heart.

Hour after hour, day after day I was to hear that the hardest part of their lives was not the culture or the people or the work; it was the attitude of many of the men in leadership toward them as women. Often that same attitude had begun to be reflected by their husbands. Some talked about the jobs or positions they had held before coming to this work. They spoke of having felt valued and treated as equals in those jobs. They talked about how they had worked with their husbands as a team then. Now their voices were ignored, their ideas and suggestions were not acknowledged. In many cases, even their presence in a room went unacknowledged. In essence, they had become invisible, and invisibility crushes the human spirit. They were crushed.

I listened as they wept, I wept with them, I comforted where I could. Again and again I heard them say that when they raised objections or concerns, they were told they needed to “come under authority” and do what they were told, to submit in silence. I was angry, I ached for them and with them. Usually I was able to keep an emotional distance when counseling, to let the person’s pain remain their pain and not take it on myself. But this time was different; this time I could not distance myself because their pain was my pain. I knew what they were feeling, I too had felt it and continued to feel it. I knew the attitude and actions of these men didn’t reflect the heart of Christ, but I was helpless to intervene or move to counter them. The weapon being used against these precious women was silence, and it is truly a powerful weapon. It can and is used to control, it is almost impossible to confront and counter. A weapon that destroys a person’s sense of worth—certainly not consistent with the way of Christ, which is the Way of Love.

I went home from that conference weighted down with sadness and pain, so much so that I could barely function. Those dear women…and though I knew what was needed, I was powerless to do anything to relieve their pain. No matter how loud I might make my voice, it would not be heard. I knew I was on the road to despair, to hopelessness. I was headed into the darkness of the wilderness. What I didn’t fully grasp then was that the wilderness was to be an essential part of my journey, for it is in walking through that darkness, through that wilderness, that our greatest insights may come.

Now the time has come: voices are finally being raised, and this time they are being heard. We are once again in the midst of an awakening to gross injustice. My concern is for those who have been injured in any way. As awareness comes, as their freedom to express and be heard is realized, they will feel anger or outrage or confusion, or any number of related emotions. These feelings are to be expected and need to be taken seriously. They will need help and support from others in the body of Christ to move forward in the hard work of healing. And there will be many questions that need to be asked and explored honestly, questions about how this could have happened, about what conditions led to its being perpetuated, about what scripture really says about the way believers, both male and female, are to live and work together in community with respect and unity. Some are asking if this is possible. On several occasions I have heard young women ask, “Why would I want to be a part of a patriarchal religion that suppresses women?” A hard question, but an important question, a valid question. And it is a question about which I would welcome the chance to have an honest conversation.

I think something pastor, dissident, and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said is extremely relevant to us in this day in which we now live: “We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” While it is true that both of us are closer to the end than the beginning, we still have vital work to do. Simply bandaging wounds will not be enough; identifying and exposing the root causes of this injustice, the forces that in the name of God crush those who have been drawn to his promise of life, is essential. I for one am ready to pick up my hammer and start driving spokes—but not blindly pounding away. My blows to that wheel of injustice need to be intentional, carefully placed, delivered with skill and expansive knowledge. That takes a massive amount of work, and prayer, and sensitivity to the voice of the Spirit as he guides, and truly listening to one another. Hard work, time-consuming work. But I believe it is work we must do, for the love of Jesus Christ demands no less from us.

Thank you for so faithfully serving the Lord, for fulfilling the call He placed on your life those many years ago. Now, let’s keep going.

Your Sister In Christ,


Course Corrections

“Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity, nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”                                                                                                  —Herman Melville


A few weeks ago, on April 4, 2018, our nation paused to remember an event that impacted the world. Fifty years earlier, on Thursday, April 4, 1968, a young minister was shot while standing on the balcony outside his room in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr.

The days leading up to the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination were filled with radio and television and Internet broadcasts of voices from the past and remembrances of those who had known him. I listened and watched many of these with intense interest, hearing stories and perspectives I’d never heard, gaining insights I’d never had, making sense of the events of that time as I continue my ongoing quest to understand backwards, to go deeper.

I read that the single rifle shot found its mark at 6:01 p.m., so I suppose I must have been at my house in the small town of Prentiss, Mississippi. I would have been twelve years old, but I have no actual memories of that day. When I try to remember, my only impression of that time in my life is a strong sense of being overwhelmed by fear. And I remember trying desperately to appear brave and confident while I struggled to survive, and from all indications, doing a superb job of pretending.

For some reason, or for many reasons, the events of those days looked different to me this year. Maybe it was because I listened to so many tell their own personal stories, or the stories of members of their families. Maybe I listened more carefully to those stories than I have before; maybe I heard differently because of someone I had a few months earlier gotten to “know” through his writings, someone who had been there, someone who spoke with the authority of one who had experienced what it’s like to be Black, but was White like me.

John Howard Griffin—medical student, soldier, author, musician, and so much more. Blind for ten years due to a war injury, he regained his sight after he had married and had a child. So much about Griffin intrigues me, captivates me, resonates with me, not the least his desire to understand the world of others. His need to understand the world of the Black man was a compelling force in his life, and he realized that the only way he could do that was to become a Black man, to live in his world, to experience what he experienced, if only for a short time. And so, on October 28, 1959, Griffin did just that: he became a Black man. For six weeks, he travelled across the Deep South, from Louisiana to Georgia, as a Black man. He recounted his experiences in his book, Black Like Me. Maybe some of you read Griffin’s story in school as required reading. Not surprisingly, given the place and time of my childhood, this was not the case for me. If you’ve not read this book, I strongly recommend you do, that you allow him to take you into “feeling tone” of what it’s like to be Black.

Griffin darkened his skin by using a combination of medication, a sun lamp, and skin dye. He changed nothing else: the same name, same speech pattern and vocabulary, same clothing, same shoes. To make his experiment valid he changed only one thing: the color of his skin. The result was astonishing, even to him. Having completed his transformation on that late October day by shaving his head, he looked in a mirror. He was shocked at his appearance, and the feelings seeing his image produced in him. Describing that moment he wrote, “I had tampered with the mystery of existence and I had lost the sense of my own being. This is what devastated me. The Griffin that was had become invisible. The worst of it was that I could feel no companionship with this new person. I did not like the way he looked. Perhaps, I thought, this was only the shock of a first reaction. But the thing was done and there was no possibility of turning back. For a few weeks I must be this aging, bald Negro; I must walk through a land hostile to my color, hostile to my skin.”

In that moment, Griffin came face to face with the reality of his own implicit bias. The term mindbugs had yet to be coined, but being human, he was “infected.” I was captivated as I read the story of how his bias disappeared as he walked among people in the Black community, became familiar with their ways, was embraced by them as “one of us.” The mindbug cure—familiarity. Watching the story unfold was fascinating to me.

Griffin summed up what he learned in his weeks as a Black man by saying, “When all the talk, all the propaganda has been cut away, the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. They judged me by no other quality. My skin was dark. That was sufficient reason for them to deny me those rights and freedoms without which life loses its significance and becomes a matter of little more than animal survival.”

As a result of his experience, Griffin gained international recognition as a human rights activist and worked closely with Dr. King. Although he was vilified by many in the White community because of Black Like Me, others saw him as a spokesperson for the Black community. Griffin resisted this idea. From the beginning of his numerous lecture tours, he insisted: “I don’t stand up here and represent myself as a spokesman for Black people.” In later years he explained further: “I have become far less visible as a public figure involved in racial reconciliation. Once a few whites had to speak out for justice and interracial dialogue at a time when whites would not listen to blacks. But those days are over and it is absurd for a white man to presume to speak for black people when they have superlative voices of their own.”[1]

Those words pierced my heart when I read them for the first time a few months ago. I recalled what I had written in the beginning of my story: “What was an integral part of my culture at that time was racism. Having grown up in Mississippi in the 1960s, that I know all too well,” I had asserted with certainty, as if I knew firsthand the experience of racism, of being treated as “less than” simply because of the color of my skin. I know nothing of that pain, of the damage that is done to the human soul. I made that statement in ignorance; reading it now I feel ashamed of my “preposterous assumptions.” It is true that I know about racism; I have lived in a culture and a time that embraced racism as “normal.” But I have not been touched personally by that experience, my humanity has not been questioned in that way. It is not my voice that needs to be heard, but the voices of those who have lived in and through the pain. Their voices are ringing out strong and clear, and are truly “superlative;” those are the voices we must still ourselves to hear.

A few weeks ago, on April 26, three weeks after the anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice was opened to the public in Montgomery, Alabama. A “Lynching Memorial,” it is called. It is described as “the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow…”[2] Over 800 steel monuments hang there, each engraved with the names of Black people who were lynched in American between 1877 and 1950. Over 4,400 names, and the list keeps growing, with more monuments waiting to be claimed and engraved and hung. Stories are told, voices speaking from the past. Superlative voices, voices that speak the truth with authority and power, voices we all need to hear and acknowledge. When my grandchildren are old enough, I hope to have the opportunity to walk through this memorial with them, to learn and remember together.

I believe it is important for me to stand solidly with Black people as they continue their struggle for justice and equality, but the reality is they have no need of me to speak for them. That would be absurd, as Griffin pointed out. Their experience of being considered “less than” simply because of the color of their skin is not my experience, and that is not my story to tell.

But I do have a story to tell. In many ways it parallels their story, for at its heart is the issue of justice and equality. I know what it’s like to be treated as inferior, as having a “place” I must be sure to stay in, a role in society and in the church that is subordinate, a deference and demeanor I must don, simply because of what I am—a woman. I know the damage this does to the soul, that it did to my soul. This is my own experience. This is my story to tell, and the time to tell it has come.

There’s so much to tell, so many interconnecting pieces to weave together to bring coherence to the story, to make it make sense to you as it does to me. I struggle with where to begin. I’ll start by using something written by someone who has extensive knowledge of the much larger story to put what I’m going to say in perspective and connect it to what I’ve said so far.

In his article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, professor Paul Harvey had this to say: “By the 1970s, many white southern believers accommodated themselves with remarkable ease to the demise of white supremacy as fundamentally constitutive of their society. Thus, in the recent controversies within southern church organizations, race has been one of the very few items on the agenda not in dispute. Today’s conservatives, for the most part, have repudiated the white supremacist views of their predecessors. Since the 1960s the standard biblical arguments against racial equality have become relics, embarrassments from a bygone age. But their philosophical premises have not. Indeed, they have found their way rather easily into the contemporary religious conservative stance on gender. For religious conservatives generally, patriarchy has supplanted race as the defining first principle of God-ordained inequality.”[3]

That passage from Harvey’s article sparks so many thoughts, is so tightly packed with ideas to explore, yet I can only touch on a few right now. The 1970s—my experience at the little mission church in Jackson, my confrontation with the pastor that led to my resignation. Getting to know Sams in Switzerland, the words of the WMU woman, my challenge to her, the delayed response of others who were present. Yes, this had been a time of change. During those years, the “standard biblical arguments against racial equality” did fall into disfavor in southern churches—well, most of them anyway. In some cases, I think that instead of becoming “relics” and being abandoned, these arguments simply went to ground and were (still are) hidden, lying dormant, waiting to resurface when the cultural climate might become more favorable. The curse of Ham belief is still around today; it’s just not acceptable to speak openly about it. And while it is true that the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, did repudiate and repent of their stance on race, this didn’t happen until 1995[4]—150 years after the denomination was founded, primarily around the stance taken by southern Baptists on the issue of slavery—they believed it to be a biblical mandate, the clear teaching of scripture. To their way of thinking, to question whether the Negro should be enslaved was to question to authority of the Bible. It took a century and a half, but their thinking finally changed.

Harvey refers to “philosophical premises” presented as biblical arguments that have faded away in the context of racial equality but continue to be used to undergird biblical arguments for gender inequality. What was he talking about, and did what he said have substance?

We can take a look at some of those “philosophical premises” in the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer, a German philosopher who lived and wrote in the early 1800s. Those who know tell me his writings on ethics were good and are still studied today. But then there’s his essay titled “On Women” in which he lays out clearly his thinking about what he refers to as the “Number Two of the human race.” Here are some of the things he wrote:

“It is because women’s reasoning powers are weaker that they show more sympathy for the unfortunate than men, and consequently take a kindlier interest in them. On the other hand, women are inferior to men in matters of justice, honesty, and conscientiousness.”

“…it will be found that the fundamental fault in the character of women is that they have no ‘sense of justice.’ This arises from their deficiency in the power of reasoning already referred to, and reflection, but is also partly due to the fact that Nature has not destined them, as the weaker sex, to be dependent on strength but on cunning; this is why they are instinctively crafty, and have an ineradicable tendency to lie.”

“[women are] intellectually short-sighted” “…hers [woman’s] is reason of very narrow limitations. This is why women remain children all their lives…”

“Women should never have the free disposition of wealth, strictly so-called, which they may inherit, such as capital, houses, and estates. They need a guardian always; therefore they should not have the guardianship of their children under any circumstances whatever.”

“When nature divided the human race into two parts, she did not cut it exactly through the middle!”[5]

Talk about stereotyping and sexism! That’s enough of that; I’m sure you get the idea. Schopenhauer certainly didn’t mince words. But his thinking wasn’t new; his ideas can be traced all the way back to the writings of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. In his time, Schopenhauer’s thinking wasn’t offensive. In fact, just as was Reverend Charles Carroll’s book pronouncing that the Negro is not human but is in fact a beast, Schopenhauer’s “philosophical premises” were influential, and persuasive, and persistent, especially when they were proclaimed as sanctioned and mandated by God as his “created order.” From what I have seen and know and have experienced, I have no doubt that Harvey is on target in his assessment of the conservative religious community’s stance on gender, especially since the 1980s. But maybe there’s some rethinking taking place. Maybe we’re heading for a long overdue course correction. I for one pray that we are.

A few weeks ago, on May 3, Bible teacher Beth Moore posted “A Letter To My Brothers” on her blog that created quite a stir in the Evangelical Christian community.[6] I read her letter carefully, listening for what she said and what she didn’t say. It was a start; I’d wondered several times over the past few years if she would ever speak up, and what she would say. She said what she could, and I’m sure it must have been hard for her to write that letter. But it needed to be written, and she did it. Good for you, Beth.

When I heard the news two days ago that Paige Patterson has been removed from his position as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary,[7] I felt encouraged, and hopeful. I knew Patterson had been one of those who, in the 1990s, led the charge in asserting that assigning women a subordinate position is “God’s way,” and how influential he had been in Evangelical circles. I knew that when asked about his views on women by a news reporter in 1997, Patterson had responded: “I think everybody should own at least one.”[8] He considered that comment to be humorous; I consider it to be revealing of his deeply rooted belief that women are relegated by God to an inferior position. He is not alone. It is this belief, this attitude of heart that must be addressed, and not just the words he spoke or counsel he gave, that must be exposed and denounced, for this kind of thinking is no more consistent with the words and actions of Jesus than is racism.

I have so much more to say, but I think I’ve given you enough to chew on for now. And before I go on, I have a letter I feel the need to write as my next post. There’s much I have to say to Beth Moore.


[1] John Howard Griffin, A Time To Be Human, 1977.

[2] You can learn more about this monument at

[3] Paul Harvey, Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion, “Religion, Race, and Culture in the American South.” Online publication date: March 2015.


[5] Arnold Schopenhauer, “On Women”.

[6] Beth Moore blogpost

[7] “Prominent Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson removed as seminary president after controversial remarks about abused women” – The Washington Post, May 23, 2018.

[8] Barry Hankins, Uneasy In Babylon: Southern Baptist Convention and American Culture (The University of Alabama Press, 2002)


The Wonderful Thing About Sneetches

“Now, the Star-Belly Sneetches Had bellies with stars. The Plain-Belly Sneetches Had none upon thars. Those stars weren’t so big. They were really so small You might think such a thing wouldn’t matter at all.”                                                                  Dr Seuss


Some of you may have found my last post hard to read. I understand; I found it extremely hard to write, for a number of reasons. But I knew it had to be done, and I tried to prepare beforehand by reminding myself and you why: because if we don’t remember what’s gone before, where we’ve been, what’s been done, in some form or fashion we or some future generation are going to repeat it. Because progress depends not simply on change, but on retaining the memory of what has gone before. Because we cannot remember what we have never known. Because our code of silence, among other things, has kept us from telling, and so from knowing. Because continuing in our pattern of “family secrets” can destroy us. Because while the truth may be ugly and dark, it must be exposed, acknowledged, understood; only then can it become a source of strength and make free those who have faced it.

I hope that makes sense to you. But maybe you’re wondering what’s up with all the quotes I used; this isn’t meant to be an academic paper but a story, my story. That’s true. I feel I need to include the quotes because I want to give you just a glimpse what I’ve learned, and am learning, as I’ve wandered around in my quest to “understand backwards,” to make sense of the past and of the present, and to use what I’ve learned to try to impact the future. I could tell you about what I’ve read, but in my telling of what I’ve learned from others, that part of the story would lose some of its clarity, its power. Each time a story goes through another person it loses some of its sharpness, kind of like a copy of a picture. Each time a picture is copied it loses some of its resolution, it becomes fuzzier, less accurate, less reliable, less intense, and so less memorable. In reading the actual words of a writer you can get a clearer picture; I don’t want to deprive you of the opportunity to see for yourself, not just hear from me. Maybe you will see something I don’t see, and will tell me (if you don’t have my email address, you can use the Contact link in the Menu), and we will both learn.

Now, on to Sneetches. Those of you who know the work of Dr Seuss are probably familiar with this story and know that Sneetches are docile creatures who live on beaches and apparently have nothing to do except spend their days playing ball, having picnics, thoroughly enjoying themselves—well, part of them that is, at least in the beginning of the story. It seems there are two kinds of Sneetches: those with stars on their bellies, and those without. That appears to be the only distinguishing mark of the two groups, but having or not having the star was a BIG DEAL. The belief that those with stars were superior went unchallenged by both groups. As illustrator of the book as well as author, Seuss (Geisel) did a wonderful job of capturing in their expressions the way each group viewed themselves. The “best kind of Sneetch,” the ones with “stars on thars,” walked around “with their snoots in the air,” while those without stars just sat watching with downcast expressions, “moping and doping alone on the beaches” as those superior Sneetches enjoyed themselves. There were no clashes, no violent acts, no demonstrations; the use of ostracism as a passive weapon to keep the no-star Sneetches in their place proved highly effective, as it usually does. Separation of the two groups was accepted as the natural order of things. But one day, something happened that was to change everything.

A strange vehicle arrived, driven by an odd being by the name of Sylvester McMonkey McBean. McBean had seen an opportunity to make some money and approached those Sneetches without stars with a solution to their problem. He had a machine that could put stars on their bellies, making them indistinguishable from those who naturally had stars—for a fee, of course. Satisfaction guaranteed. The no-stars Sneetches were elated, and lined up. The machine worked like a charm, and soon all Sneetches had stars. This situation was intolerable for those who had held the original superior position; now there was no way to tell the two groups apart. Being the opportunist, McBean had foreseen this and had come prepared with a solution: his Star-Off machine could remove stars (for a larger fee, of course), and not having a star could become the new mark of superiority. The quiet beach property of the Sneetches became abuzz with activity as Sneetches lined up to go through the machines, having stars put on and taken off until no one knew who was who, and McBean had all their money. At this point he made his exit, laughing, saying to himself that Sneetches will never learn because “you can’t teach a Sneetch!”

But it turned out McBean was wrong. Since everyone was all mixed up and they saw no way to restore the lines of superiority and inferiority, Sneetches got smart and came to the realization that “Sneetches are Sneetches,” that “no kind of Sneetch is the best on the beaches.” And that’s the wonderful thing about Sneetches: they’re not human. Their existence began in the imagination of Dr Seuss, and they live on in the imaginations of those who read the story. They exist in the world of “happily ever after,” where all can be made well and everyone can finally just learn to get along. We humans don’t live in that world, and the reality is, we aren’t so smart—at least not in the wonderful way of Sneetches.

For more than thirty years, Harvard professor and social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji has been among those in the forefront of research in the area of unconscious bias, also known as implicit bias. I was first introduced to her when I came across an “On Being” podcast over a year ago. Her description of the human mind as “a difference-seeking machine”[1] grabbed my attention, and I wanted to know more. I was fascinated and enlightened as I read her account of her work in the 2013 book (coauthored by fellow psychologist Anthony Greenwald) titled Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People.

I knew that human babies are not born with the ability to distinguish differences between people; what I didn’t know was that by the age of three months, babies have begun to make distinctions and have developed preferences for faces of people belonging to their own race. This ability to make distinctions is a valuable skill and serves all of us well in terms of survival, equipping us to recognize threats and take the necessary steps to protect ourselves. For babies, the basis for the distinctions made has to do with familiarity. What is familiar is deemed safe, as “us”; what is different is seen as “them”, as “other”, as “not like us,” as “not safe.” Definite preferences develop, and they remain unless something or someone intervenes, making that which is seen as “not like us” become seen as familiar, as safe. Preferences aren’t limited to race; there’s gender, religion, nationality, the area of the country we live in, accents, and on and on. Preferences can be and are formed, in both children and adults, based on even the slightest differences.

Benaji and Greenwald show how this inherent ability of the human mind to notice and value differences is what causes us to stereotype: “stereotyping is inseparable from this remarkably refined human ability to recognize and categorize human diversity.” And then came this defining statement: “It is not possible to be human and to avoid making use of stereotypes.” [2] So you see, humans are not like Sneetches, and being a Sneetch is better—there you have it, proof that I am human! Seems it didn’t take much for me to notice a difference and develop a preference for Sneetches!

The important thing to know in all this is that a great many of the preferences we develop reside below our level of awareness, in our unconscious or implicit minds. We all have hidden-bias blindspots that cause discrepancies between what we think we think, how we think we feel, and what we really unconsciously think and feel. How we act often springs from these implicit biases, and not from our conscious thoughts. If we are challenged about these biases, we protest and deny, avowing that we know it cannot possibly be true that we are biased: we are good people. Banaji and her colleagues have given these hidden biases a name: mindbugs.

In 1995, a test was developed by psychologists that continues to be used to reveal implicit biases, or mindbugs. The Implicit Association Test, known as the IAT, includes several different areas, is designed to be self-administered, and can now be accessed online at the Project Implicit website.[3] Banaji and Greenwald offer a word of caution to those who are brave enough to identify and face their own personal mindbugs using these tests. Finding out what you think you think isn’t actually the thinking that drives your behavior can be mentally and emotionally distressing.

Up for the challenge, I went to the website and took some of tests (the link is below if you’re interested). I have to confess I was surprised by some of my results, as countless others have been. When my results on the RACE IAT came up, I couldn’t believe it. But when I read that writer Malcolm Gladwell’s results revealed a moderate preference for white people, I found it easier to accept my results. In an interview about what he learned, Gladwell said, “I was biased—slightly biased—against Black people, toward White people, which horrified me because my mom’s Jamaican…The person in my life who I love more than almost anyone else is Black, and here I was taking a test, which said, frankly, I wasn’t too crazy about Black people, you know? So, I did what anyone else would do: I took the test again! Maybe it was an error, right? Same result. Again, same result, and it was this creepy, dispiriting, devastating moment.” I did the same thing, except I took the test four times, determined to learn to beat it. I was finally forced to accept my results and move on (for now—I have no doubt I’ll go back and keep trying), now aware of the split in my mind that could potentially cause me to act in ways that discriminate while I think I’m being totally fair. And that’s the point: I’m now aware that I have mindbugs, and know that I need to take measures to counteract them to make sure they don’t develop into something bad. Unfortunately, they can’t be cured, because I am human. But knowing I have them helps a lot; becoming aware of and learning to manage them will help even more.

Mindbugs are simply our naturally developed preferences that are below our level of awareness; in themselves they’re neither good nor bad. The IAT reveals mindbugs, not prejudice or racism; there’s a difference. Prejudice involves negativity or hostility, and leads to unjust behavior. When prejudice is directed against a different race of people based on the belief that one’s own race is superior, that is racism. With racism comes racial slurs, statements of disrespect, aggressive or violent actions.

We are not all prejudiced or racist, but we all have mindbugs because we are human and as such, we develop preferences, we prejudge, we seek differences, we stereotype. Even though it was written as long ago as 1954, Gordon Allport’s book The Nature of Prejudice continues to be foundational work on the scientific understanding of stereotypes. In this book, Allport says, “The human mind must think with the aid of categories.… Once formed, categories are the basis for normal prejudgment. We cannot possibly avoid this process. Orderly living depends on it.”

Here’s an example of how knowing about implicit bias can help us. Prior to 1970, less than ten percent of the members of the major symphony orchestras in America were women. Most people weren’t concerned about this because, to them, it made sense, since it was generally accepted that men were better musicians than women. It never occurred to them that maybe this male dominance of instrumentalists was “less a gift of nature to men than a gift of culture that recognizes, encourages, and promotes male talent.”[4]

Things began to change when a group of musicians protested that students of certain prominent teachers were being hired at a greater rate than those of others. In an attempt to prevent bias, a curtain was erected between the audition committee and the auditioning instrumentalists. This action prevented any accusations of bias based on teachers, but something else significant happened as a result: the number of women hired increased dramatically, as did the number of non-White orchestra members. Susan Slaughter, former principal trumpet for the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, described what happened: “There was a dramatic change. Once the curtain went up, more and more women were making the finals. We just had to choose the best from the people who came out from behind the curtain.”

Even though she was the founder of the International Women’s Brass Conference, Slaughter herself admitted her surprise at the number of excellent women tuba players she encountered: “Even in my own mind, I did not think I would hear many women tuba players that were that far along. I was wrong. We all have prejudices and preconceived ideas.”[5]

By 2013, about 50 percent of the members of the nation’s top orchestras were women. To prevent bias, even implicit bias, the curtain remains up and should continue to remain up for auditions. In addition, those auditioning walk on a long strip of carpet so the committee can’t hear the sound of their shoes. Women instrumentalists are often coached on how to breathe, because the sound of an inhale differs between men and women. These steps have become an accepted way to counteract biases in order to ensure there is no discrimination in hiring. They will continue to remain in place, because the world of the orchestra (in America; the same can’t be said for Europe) has recognized and has worked to counteract the impact of what we all do and always will do as humans: we stereotype.

In the early 1970s, Slaughter again auditioned, this time for the position of principal trumpet for the New York Philharmonic. She didn’t get the job because director Zubin Mehta “told the committee he was not going to have a woman in the brass section.” Mehta’s comment indicates he had moved beyond preference into prejudice. This is but one example of the kind of prejudice women faced in those days, and in many areas still face today. Slaughter’s story, and many others like it, strikes a chord in me because in the late 1960s, I became a trumpet player, then a French horn player with a great deal of promise. As a girl in the brass section of the band, I endured three years of intense bullying. This experience had a lasting effect on me, one it took me many years to understand and overcome.

Having preferences is normal; mindbugs are normal. They are not the problem. The problem is that they can cause us to act in ways that discriminate, often without our even being aware of it. And, left unchecked and given the right conditions (economic uncertainty, changes in society, an atmosphere of fear, negative experiences, to name a few), they can lead to prejudice and racism, and so to injustice. And when prejudice and racism are proclaimed by a group of people or an entire society as supported, even mandated, by God or by science, the resulting injustice can be remarkably persistent, resistant, resilient. It’s an on-going battle, passed on from generation to generation.

Several years ago, my oldest daughter, then a graduate student in Illinois, and I took a road trip to Mississippi to help my mother with a problem she was having—her cat population had gotten out of control. That story needs to be told, but it’s part of the larger story about her emotional instability and hoarding and how it impacted me that will come later. As we neared the small town of Petal, we stopped for gas. We went into the Shell station to use the restroom. A mother and her young daughter, who I guessed to be around seven or eight years old, were already waiting in line, so we took our place behind them. The mother turned around and saw us standing there. Immediately she grabbed her daughter’s arm, jerked her out of the way and said to her, “Get out of the way and let those white ladies go first!” That took me by surprise and I protested, saying we would wait, telling her she should keep her place in line. She kept shaking her head, gesturing, pulling her little girl back and saying, “Go on, go on,” adamant that we should go ahead of them. I saw I wasn’t going to change her mind, so I said, “That’s not necessary, but it’s kind of you. Thank you.” The little girl just stared. So did my daughter.

As we walked toward the car a short time later, I asked my daughter, “Did you see what just happened?” She looked at me with an incredulous expression and said, “Did I see it??!! How could I miss it? Where are we, and what year is this?” The year was 2009; we were in southern Mississippi. I told her what she knew already but I needed to say: what we had just witnessed was a black mother teaching her young daughter her “place” in a society in which being white was superior. The knowledge of racism and how to live in this reality was being passed on to the next generation.

My father had tried a more direct approach in attempting to teach me “the truths about life” as he saw them. Knowing what I know now about what he believed helps me realize how my resistance and refusal to accept what he tried to convince me of must have struck terror in his heart. I feel sure that to his way of thinking, he failed miserably in his duty. This certainly wasn’t the only time the subject of his overtly racist attitudes and comments came up over the years. I made it clear this was something he must curb if he wanted to be around my children, and he really tried. How he developed his racist beliefs remains a mystery and, since he’s been gone for a number of years, is likely to remain so. I’ve talked to other members of his family and have learned this teaching didn’t come from there. I can only speculate about where he learned what he attempted to pass on directly to me; I’ll never know for sure. I do know he was doing what he believed was right; thankfully, for whatever reason, I recognized it was very wrong. I am under no illusions that my clarity of mind on this issue was a result of my own awareness. I know it was a gift.

When I think about the injustices that have been done and see the injustices that continue to be done under the guise of “God’s ordered way,” I feel the anger, the outrage flare up in me. Sometimes I find myself overwhelmed by the desire to pronounce woes, to declare that under no circumstances will I ever sink so low as to allow injustice to be done through me, to become like “them.” I am learning I need to let that flame of emotion run its course, to allow its blaze to awaken and stir me, then to wait for fire within to settle into white-hot coals before I speak or act. For in this high level of indignation, however righteous, I face the danger of acting in the same manner as those whose attitudes and behavior I denounce. I think we all face that danger. We are all human, complete with inherent biases that can quickly shift to prejudice, causing us to label people whose ideas with which we disagree, maybe even find abhorrent as “other.”

Recently I stumbled upon the movie “Freedom Song,” a movie that tells the story of the opposition Black people in Mississippi encountered when they attempted to register to vote in the 1960s. Many scenes stuck with me, but I found one especially impacting. A White woman was explaining to a group of Black people why she thought they shouldn’t be trying to vote. I wrote down her words: “God created us to be separate and to stay in our place. He must have had his reason. His reason is that he wants us to have order. Otherwise we’d have disorder. And God doesn’t want disorder.” I could only groan and shake my head. There it was again: the appeal to a God-established order as the reason separation and subordination of entire people groups must be maintained. That appears to be a recurring theme, a persistent theme, one that I still hear playing today, though less overtly about racial order. It seems that there are those who call themselves followers of Jesus, who may sincerely believe they are following his way, that have become disoriented and are stuck in a pattern, going in circles, following the principle of order instead of the person of Jesus Christ.

I’ve wondered: what did Jesus actually say about what’s important? What did he consider to be guiding principles for life? I’ve looked for the answer to those questions, and will continue to look and to listen. When Jesus was asked what is most important in life, his answer was clear: we are to love God, and we are to love people, all people, as ourselves.[6] But there are other things Jesus considered important matters. Among them are justice, mercy, and faithfulness.[7] I’ve looked carefully, and what I don’t see is Jesus ranking people in a hierarchical order. Instead, I see him doing just the opposite: I see him reversing what had been the established order again and again. And I hear him praying for unity and oneness of all of his people.

I’ve been thinking—maybe by making a conscious effort to reorient our thinking, to develop guiding principles that actually line up with what Jesus told us is important, we could get out of this persistent pattern that fosters injustice. What would that look like? Well, something about acting in love for both God and all people would be at the top. Then maybe something like this:

Faithfully pursue justice while extending mercy.

Now that’s a guiding principle I think just might land us squarely in the path behind Jesus. It’s something to think about. I’ll keep thinking; I hope you will too. In the scope of life, this stuff matters. Justice matters.


[1] Banaji, Mahzarin. The program aired June 9, 2016.

[2] Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald, Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Delacorte Press, 2013). This book is worth reading in its entirety, but if you don’t have time to read it all, I highly recommend getting it to read the two Appendixes. Their titles will give an idea of the content.

Appendix 1: Are Americans Racist?

Appendix 2: Race, Disadvantage, and Discrimination

[3] Project Implicit (

[4] Banaji and Greenwald, p. 146

[5] Sarah Bryan Miller, “In orchestras, a sea change in gender proportions,” Arts and Theater, March 30, 2014.

[6] Matthew 22:37-40

[7] Matthew 23:23el

“…let it not be done through you”


“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”                                                       ― Aleksandr  Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago


When I was ten years old, my family made the sixteen-mile move from the small town of New Hebron (pop.≈325) to the neighboring slightly larger small town of Prentiss (pop.≈2000). Going from a school where my class had only about twenty students (most of them related to me in one way or another, often in many) to a school that had three sections of fifth grade was a big change for me. This was only one of the big changes that were part of my life during those years.

It had been eleven years since the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision had ruled “separate but equal” schools segregating children in public schools unconstitutional. That ruling made no provision for enforcement, and so had little impact on schools. The passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which specifically outlawed segregation in schools, did have an effect in that it authorized the federal government to file cases and withhold funding from schools that did not integrate. In an attempt to avoid complying with this law, Mississippi established a “Freedom of Choice” plan. Black parents could legally “choose” to send their children to white schools; most of those who did faced intense opposition and intimidation.

Violence erupted across Mississippi. News of the bombings of black churches became commonplace; that year McComb became known as “the bombing capital of the world” because of all the bombings there. In Hattiesburg, a forty-five minute drive from Prentiss, Vernon Dahmer, the local NAACP president, was killed in a dynamite blast to his home in January, 1966. That same year James Meredith was shot. In 1967 National Guardsmen fired on a black student protest at Jackson State University in which a civil rights worker was killed. Early 1969 saw a number of church burnings and bombings in Meridian. And the list goes on and on. An atmosphere of fear that extended far beyond the doors of my home—that’s what permeates my memory of those days. Or maybe it’s more of a visceral feeling than a memory. I try to imagine how black children must have felt; I can’t, not yet anyway. I have much work to do before I can even begin to.

Freedom-of-choice integration of the Prentiss school system finally took place my second year there, in 1966, when I was in the sixth grade. Three black students—Eural, Paul, and a girl whose name I don’t remember—joined our class. I remember a student assembly in which we were coached on how to treat the new students. I don’t remember any specific incidents, but I do remember the demeaning comments, the disdainful looks, the ostracism these three amazingly brave students faced. Eural was an especially gifted boy, a top student, courteous, very articulate. By the time I was in the ninth grade, three years later, the presence of these few black students had ceased to be a novelty. They weren’t fully accepted, but they were no longer singled out. Still they kept to themselves, the color line held firm.

Prentiss was like most small towns; there wasn’t much to do other than go to town, mostly for the purpose of walking the streets to see and be seen. For most white people, this was done during weekdays because Saturday was the day black people went to town. I wasn’t usually allowed to go then (someone would have to take me since I was only 14) because there were so many black people there. One Saturday I needed to get something that couldn’t wait, so my father reluctantly agreed to take me.

As I was making my way down the crowded walkway in front of the stores, I saw my classmate Paul coming toward me. When we passed I said, “Hi, Paul,” and he responded with a slight smile and a “Hi.” Suddenly I felt a grip on my arm and heard my father’s voice in my ear: “Go to the car! Now!” I wasn’t sure what had happened, but the anger in his voice was unmistakable. I felt something terrible must have happened and I had missed it. We backed out of the parking place in tense silence and turned the car toward home. Breaking the silence, I asked the question: what’s wrong. And the barrage began: I had spoken to a black person, a black boy no less. My father was enraged. Thankfully, the drive home only took five minutes. That was enough. I was forced to listen as he chastised me, telling me I was never to speak to blacks unless they were working for me. My response to him was that I would not refuse to speak to a person because of the color of their skin. From that position I would not be moved.

The confrontation continued when we got home, then he shifted into an instructive mode. He pulled out a book and attempted to explain to me that blacks were not human, that they had no souls, that this is what the Bible teaches. He wanted me to read the book; I refused to look at it, to even touch it. I was stunned by what I was hearing, felt disgusted and angry, told him he was wrong, that what he was saying went against the teachings of Jesus. This went on for quite a while. When he finally realized he wasn’t going to make any headway with me, his anger returned, and he told me if I wouldn’t accept what he was saying, I wouldn’t be going anywhere in the future. My response to his threat was, “You can keep me from going anywhere, you can confine me to the house; that wouldn’t be much of a change for me anyway. What you cannot do is force me to be rude to a person based on the color of their skin. That I will not do, and there’s no way you can make me.” I would guess my eyes were blazing then; I felt the fire against injustice burning intensely in my spirit. That wasn’t the first time and, as you know, it wouldn’t be the last. I watched as he slowly deflated, beaten, and he finally said quietly, “Okay…” He never brought the subject up again, I never saw that book again, but over the years, I’ve wondered what it was and where it came from. Not long ago, seeing what is rising again in our nation after all these years, I decided it was time to find out.

When you want to deeply understand something, you must begin by trying to get to the moment of its origin, to find out where it began. This is the idea behind the search for Patient Zero when dealing with a disease epidemic. Knowing this, I began my search by stepping into my science mode to answer the question: Did this teaching originate from scientific racism? I’m well-aware that labeling something “scientific” gives it a level of credibility and can cause it to be incredibly persistent. Maybe this could be its source.

To those of you reading this who don’t have a science mode (that’s probably most of you): stay with me and don’t panic. I’ll keep it painless and not go too deeply. I assure you this is extremely important to know. First, let’s talk about what scientific racism is. Wikipedia defines it this way, and I think this is an accurate description:

“the pseudoscientific belief that empirical evidence exists to support or justify racism (racial discrimination), racial inferiority, or racial superiority; alternatively, it is the practice of classifying individuals of different phenotypes or genotypes into discrete races. Historically it received credence in the scientific community, but is no longer considered scientific. Scientific racism employs anthropology…and other disciplines or pseudo-disciplines, in proposing…the classification of human populations in physically discrete human races, that might be asserted to be superior or inferior.”

Let’s break that definition down and examine it a little. A pseudoscientific belief—not true science. Its purpose—to justify racism, racial inferiority, or racial superiority. Its methodology—finding different methods of classifying humans so as to order them, to rank them, to assign some a position of superiority while relegating others to an inferior status, all in the guise of science. Although this kind of thinking has its origins as far back as the 5th century BC in ancient Greece, I focused on its strongest period, from the 1600s to the end of WWI. I read the words of men whose names were familiar to me—Robert Boyle, Voltaire, Carl Linnaeus, Benjamin Rush, to name a few—as they detailed their methods for ranking people, and was amazed by the approaches they used—the width of the nose, the ratio of the leg bones, the shape of the toes and fingers, the shape and size of the cranium, and on and on. One proposed that being black was “a heredity skin disease,” and that it could be cured. I was surprised to learn that intelligence testing was developed in the early 1900s because “social scientists agreed that whites were superior to blacks, but they needed a way to prove this in order to back social policy in favor of whites.” I felt as if I were reading “evidence” from the past on the flatness of the earth, or medical practices that involved leeches or bleeding or other practices that seem so foreign to us now. To be honest, I was dismayed by what I read. In spite of the fact that scientific racism has been thoroughly discredited and was formally denounced by UNESCO in 1950[1], its ideas continue to be promoted as “scientific proof” in the literature of white supremacy. That was something important to know.

All my readings about scientific racism involved the ordering, the ranking of humans according to race. Nothing I found spoke of blacks as having no souls. I knew it was there somewhere since Haynes had mentioned the “scientifically fashionable hypothesis that blacks were actually pre-adamite humans or soulless beasts” in his book Noah’s Curse.[2] But since what I was really interested in was this teaching with a biblical justification, I refocused my search. It didn’t take me long to find what I was looking for. A book published in 1900 with the title The Negro A Beast, by a man named Charles Carroll. The description in Google Books read, “This work has been selected by scholars as being culturally important, and is part of the knowledge base of civilization as we know it. This work was reproduced from the original artifact, and remains as true to the original work as possible.” I had a feeling this was it; I downloaded the book immediately, turned to the title page, and began to read.


. . . OR . . .


The Reasoner of the Age, the Revelator of the Century!

The Bible as it is!

The Negro and His Relation to the Human Family!

The Negro a beast, but created with articulate speech,

and hands, that he may be of service to his master—the White man.

The Negro not the Son of Ham,

Neither can it be proven by the Bible, and the argument of the theologian who would claim such, melts to mist before the thunderous and convincing arguments of this masterful book.

. . . BY . . .


Who has spent fifteen years of this life, and $20,000.00 in its compilation. 



I went on, reading the publishers’ announcement about the book, noting their declaration that “we are…convinced that when this book is read and its contents duly weighed and considered in an intelligent and prayerful manner, that it will be to the minds of the American people like unto the voice of God from the clouds appealing unto Paul on his way to Damascus.”

I’ve read these words numerous times, yet reading them again even now causes me to flinch, produces a revulsive reaction in me. I recoil in disgust. I hurt for those of African-American heritage who have been subjected to this kind of thinking and the actions it has produced. While I haven’t read every word of the book, I’ve read as much as I could endure, enough to see what I needed to see. The chapter titles alone told me enough. In the final chapter, I found exactly what I was looking for:

“Chapter X. The Bible and Divine Revelation, as well as Reason, all Teach that the Negro is not Human.

“In A. D. 1867, there appeared in the United States a work entitled, ‘The Negro, What is His Ethnological Status?’ by the Rev. B. H. Payne, who wrote under the nom de plume of ‘Ariel.’ He asserted that the negro is ‘not the son of Ham,’ that he was ‘not a descendant of Adam and Eve,’ that he is simply ‘a beast,’ and that he has ‘no soul.’ The work produced a marked sensation, especially in ‘Church circles,’…History will yet accord to ‘Ariel’ the proud distinction of being the first man of modern times to openly and fearlessly declare the negro ‘a beast,’ and support his declaration with scriptural proof.[3]

So there it was: the point of origin (for “modern times,” that is) for the monstrous, perverted teaching I’d first heard from my father. The words of a “Reverend” who wrote under the pseudonym “Ariel” (I don’t wonder why he used a false name), published in 1867, two years after the end of the Civil War, when the structure of a society had changed, when people were afraid. Payne broke into the chaos of that time with a message that allowed them to maintain their position of superiority and control, and “supported his declaration with scriptural proof,” in effect legitimizing his position by avowing, “This is God’s Way!” Every time I read his words I have the strong desire to stand before him and shout, Woe to you, ‘Reverend’ Payne! “You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourself do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”[4] He is long dead; tragically, his words live on.

In reading further in Carroll’s book, I was to learn that not only did he proclaim that the Negro has no soul; it was also his assertion that any offspring are also soulless. He makes that clear in this imagined Q&A with one he dubs an “enlightened Christian”:

“‘But,’ says the enlightened Christian, ‘If a man is married to a negress, will not their offspring have a soul?’ No; it is simply the product resulting from God’s violated law, and inherits none of the Divine nature of the man, but, like its parent, the ape, it is merely a combination of matter and mind. ‘Then, if the half-breed marries a man, will not their offspring have a soul?’ No! ‘Then if the three-quarter white marries a man will not their offspring have a soul?’ No. ‘If the offspring of man and the Negro was mated with pure whites for generations, would not their ultimate offspring have a soul?’ No!”[5]

As you can imagine, this book caused quite a stir in Christian circles in its time. Carroll’s arguments proved very persuasive to a society in which white people were searching for ways to retain their superior status after the demise of slavery. Thankfully, Carroll’s writings did not go unchallenged. In 1901, William G. Schell published a 238-page reply, stating that his work was intended to prove “That the Negro Is Human from Biblical, Scientific, and Historical Standpoints.” I’ve read most of this book and found it much more useful than another 1903 reply by W. S. Armistead. Armistead spent most of his 542-pages venting his outrage; he set the tone in his Preface by calling Carroll’s theories “a damnable heresy!” On that point, I wholeheartedly agree with him. What I find disturbing is that in both replies to Carroll, the authors continue to hold the position that the Negro is indeed human, but an inferior human whose place is in servitude because of the Curse of Ham.

Unfortunately, Carroll found ears eager to accept his teachings. They found their way into the literature of the growing Nazi movement of that time, into the teachings of white supremacist groups, into the teaching of churches. And they proved prolific, persistent, resilient. The WMU woman of the 1970s had obviously embraced them as truth; so had my father. They certainly weren’t alone.

Not long ago I was talking to a friend from long-ago college days. He told me he had worked for a short time in a Christian bookstore in the 70s, something I hadn’t known. He said he had once been tasked with throwing out a large amount of old literature, and had been shocked when he read some of the books and booklets he was throwing out. They were filled with the kind of teaching promoted by Carroll, as well as the “Curse of Ham” theology. Those ideas had fallen out of favor by that time, as we know, so literature promoting them had quietly been tossed out, not to be spoken of again. The rule of silence held, the truth was buried.

A couple of years ago I was telling a friend the story of the WMU woman in Switzerland. When I got to the part where she stated, “Blacks have no souls,” he interrupted me and said, “Yeah, that teaching was around when I was a kid.” I couldn’t have been more surprised, since he was in his late 30s and had grown up in a Mormon family. I asked him where he had heard it. His answer was, “In Georgia, when I visited the Baptist church.” That would have been in the mid-80s. The teaching was still around even then. And it’s still around now.

A few weeks ago I was watching some footage from a recent white supremacy rally and saw a sign that read: “Go Back To The Trees!” Now I know where that kind of thinking comes from, and that it purports to be supported, even mandated, by the Bible. This is but one of the lies that must be exposed.

So now we know, the source of this injustice has begun to come into focus. What now? What do we do with what we know? That’s something we still have to explore; the story has only begun. For now, I’d like those of you who are reading this and have no African American heritage to do this: Try to imagine what it would be like to have come from generations of people who have not only had to fight not be considered inferior, but have had to fight to be seen as human. Imagine what you might feel: frustration, anger, resentment, discouragement, despair. Think deeply, and allow yourself to begin to understand.

I began this post with a quote from Russian novelist and historian Alexandr Solzhenitsyn in which he warns about the dangers of keeping silent about evil. I want to end with something else he said, words that resonate in my spirit, words I think we all need to ponder, then to embrace and to allow to take root in our hearts:

“What is the most precious thing in the world? I see now that it is the knowledge that you have no part in injustice. Injustice is stronger than you, it always was and always will be, but let it not be done through you.[6]


[1] “The Race Question”, UNESCO statement, 1950.

[2] Haynes, Stephen R. Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, p. 202.

[3] Carroll, Chas. The Negro A Beast, p. 148.

[4] Jesus, Matthew 23:13

[5] Carroll, p. 58

[6] Solzhenitsyn, The First Circle

“We Hold This Trust From God”

“When will Southern Baptists become outraged enough over the oppression taking place in [the United States] that they will correct this thing which has now become an actual hindrance to the work of the Lord around the world?”                  Sydney Pierce, missionary to Kenya, 1963


How could a person who was a leader in a mission organization hold views like those expressed by the woman I met in the hotel in Switzerland that summer of 1974? That question has come to mind repeatedly over the years since my encounter with her. I suppose you could say it was one of those unsettled and unsettling stories of my past.

Several months ago, when I was reading Conroy’s novel, his character Tom made these statements that raised that question in my mind and heart once again: ” ‘Why is it that there are times in history when it’s all right to hate Jews or Americans or blacks or gypsies. There’s always a group deserving of contempt in every generation. You’re even suspect if you don’t hate them. I was taught to hate Communists when I was growing up. I never sighted one, but I hated the sons of bitches. I hated blacks when I was growing up because it was a religious belief in my part of the world to consider them inferior to whites. It’s been interesting to come to New York…, and to be hated because I am a white southerner. It’s rather bracing and refreshing, but odd.’”[1]

Conroy’s words struck me: through his character Tom, he described considering blacks as inferior to whites “a religious belief” where he had grown up, in the South. I knew from the story that when Conroy said religious belief, what he actually meant was Christian belief. I thought about my experiences, the experiences of others I knew, and wondered: is this true? If so, why? That message is so inconsistent with, so far removed from the teachings of Christ; could what he said be true, and if so, could this be a reason why racism has been so persistent? I made a decision: it was time to find answers to my questions. I suppose you could say the time had come for me to look backwards and understand, and in the process, to come to a better understanding of the present. I started digging, and found what I was looking for. Walk with me now, and I will tell you a story, one we all need to hear and to understand, one that should cause us all to raise our voices “for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice,” and to raise them with knowledge, in a manner that can make a difference.

I would like to be able to say what Conroy wrote was wrong, but I can’t. I have traced the extensive research of historians, have read the words of leaders who wrote from the time of slavery through the 1970s, and have learned he was right. I can’t say I’m surprised, but I am saddened—no, I think grieved more accurately expresses my response. I’ll not take you through all I have read (that would take a book—maybe several—and isn’t the story I’m telling here), but I do want to show you a little so you can get an idea of the conflict, the struggle that has gone on, a struggle that had its beginnings long before there was a South, a struggle that continues even now.

From the beginning, slavery was an accepted part of early colonial life. The writings of that time show that since slavery was believed to be sanctioned by scripture, ordained and approved by God, its existence went virtually unchallenged. The first printed challenge to slavery as Christian came from a Massachusetts judge by the name of Samuel Sewall. Judge Sewall was noted for the part he played in the Salem witchcraft trials, and for his courage in being the only judge from those trials to admit guilt for his actions. At that time in history, debates and arguments were commonplace (as they are now); ideas were put before the public in the form of pamphlets, and as you can imagine, that took time, and a lot of thought—totally unlike the mindless Twitter and text and Facebook wars we have today in which people shoot-with-a-click and never think.

In 1700, Judge Sewall shocked the public by publishing a pamphlet titled “The Selling of Joseph.” In this publication Sewall both condemned slavery and refuted the arguments that scripture supported and endorsed it. People were outraged; that Sewall would dare to question the morality of slavery was unthinkable. In their minds, to do so was to deny the authority and inspiration of scripture, and was the equivalent of blasphemy. A year later, in 1701, Sewall’s challenge was answered by a response in the form of another pamphlet from another judge, John Saffin. So began the pamphlet debate in Boston on the subject, “Is Slavery Christian?”, a debate that lasted from 1700-1706.[2] In the end, for the most part, Sewall’s arguments fell on deaf ears. There was no question in the minds of the vast majority of people that slavery was indeed Christian.

Challenges to that belief became stronger and more frequent over the next hundred years or so. Many in the North were being persuaded that slavery was not consistent with the Christian message, and some in the South were beginning to question as well. But progress in the South was slowed, then halted, greatly impacted by preachers who proclaimed loudly that to refuse to accept slavery was to deny the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. Doing away with slavery would lead to the breakdown of morality, and ultimately, the destruction of society, they shouted. People became afraid. “By the 1830s, especially after Nat Turner’s uprising in 1831, white evangelicals who previously had questioned slavery were defending it as a divinely sanctioned social order. By the 1850s such a view reigned as a virtually unchallenged orthodoxy among white southern evangelicals, be they elite divines or folk exhorters.”[3]

On November 29, 1860, a Thanksgiving sermon was preached by Rev. Dr. Benjamin Morgan Palmer, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in New Orleans, a sermon that would be reprinted in pamphlets and published in newspapers across the South. As a noted preacher, Dr. Palmer’s words had a powerful impact on those who read them. A fellow minister is recorded to have described Palmer’s sermon as having “…confirmed and strengthened those who were in doubt; it gave directness and energy to public sentiment—so that perhaps no other public utterance during that trying period of anxiety and hesitancy did so much to bring New Orleans and the entire state of Louisiana squarely and fully to the side of secession and the Confederacy.” I’ve included a link to entire text of the sermon below, but I think it’s important to call attention to what he considers the duty of Christians (us):

“It is just this impertinence of human legislation, setting bounds to what God alone can regulate, that the South is called this day to resent and resist. The country is convulsed simply because ‘the throne of iniquity frameth mischief by a law.’ Without, therefore, determining the question of duty for future generations, I simply say, that for us, as now situated, the duty is plain of conserving and transmitting the system of slavery, with the freest scope for its natural development and extension. Let us, my brethren, look our duty in the face. With this institution assigned to our keeping, what reply shall we make to those who say that its days are numbered? My own conviction is, that we should at once lift ourselves, intelligently, to the highest moral ground and proclaim to all the world that we hold this trust from God, and in its occupancy we are prepared to stand or fall as God may appoint. If the critical moment has arrived at which the great issue is joined, let us say that, in the sight of all perils, we will stand by our trust; and God be with the right!”[4]

I do not doubt Dr. Palmer’s sincerity in speaking these words. But, in light of what I know about the Gospel and the life and teachings of Jesus, I do not doubt that he was sincerely wrong. His words proved to be persuasive, as would be expected. Just a few months later the country would be at war. And we know how that story played out. Slavery as a system in our country was ended. But sadly, the belief that God’s created order relegated the Negro race to a “place” of subordination did not. The arguments shifted from the legitimacy of slavery to the necessity of “separate but equal,” also considered “God-ordained.” Justifications of this belief took many forms; most common continued to be the Son of Ham stories which involved twisting the scriptures to “prove” Noah had condemned the sons of Ham to servitude (Genesis 9:18-27). As in the time of slavery, these arguments continued to be the “stock weapons” used in publications.

There’s much I could say here, but I won’t. If you’re interested in learning more about this teaching, Stephen R. Haynes, Professor of Religious Studies at Rhodes College in Memphis, is the man to read.[5] Be ready to go deep! For now I need to move on in the story to answer my original questions: how could “the WMU woman” believe what she did, and where did that idea come from? More importantly, is it still around today? So far, we haven’t found the source of the “no souls” teaching. Let’s move on for now, to the second World War.

Many consider World War II to have been a watershed event in the history of race relations. Seeing the effects of Naziism and eugenics, learning of the reality of the systematic murder of millions of Jews brought racism to the front of social consciousness. While segregation of the races had been and continued to be the predominant belief in southern churches, post-war the thinking of missionaries began to change. This was especially true of those in leadership. They realized they had work to do since “…many southern Christians felt that God had mandated segregation and that integration went against God’s plan. Progressive Baptists and missionaries, however, spoke through one of the South’s most influential cultural institutions and announced, quite to the contrary, that God’s plan was one of racial unity. Segregation and racism were the sins. Unwilling to be silenced, progressive Baptists, missionaries, and mission organization leaders questioned the grounds upon which the southern racial system rested. Animated by their belief that racism undermined their mission efforts, they demonstrated that segregation, white supremacy, and racial discrimination were unchristian. In doing so, Southern Baptist progressives presented a forceful argument against racism and contributed to real change in the South.”[6]

Knowing the opposition they would face, leaders of the mission organizations formed a plan: they would use the printed word in the form of their mission publications. Beginning in 1945, they wrote, and wrote, and wrote; letters and articles promoting racial unity filled the pages of the mission magazines sent to Southern Baptist churches. They made their voices heard. “Had Baptist leaders and missionaries discussed their progressive views in private but not expressed them publicly, their history would be one more, perhaps tragic, example of moderate southerners being silenced by the culture of segregation. Instead, progressive Baptists refused to be silent. They put their thoughts in print for anyone to read, debate, and even refute.”

Missionaries’ refusal to be silent proved effective, and by the 1970s, their persistence had brought change. Race virtually disappeared as an open topic of debate in churches. Many still believed in biblically mandated segregation, but they went silent, with many confused as to how what had been proclaimed for hundreds of years as sanctioned by scripture was now being denounced as against scripture, since scripture itself had not changed. Their best course of action seemed to be silence. In practice, churches went on as usual for the most part, but the rhetoric changed.

Now we know that “the WMU woman” was completely out-of-step at that time with the organization she represented—that’s a relief! But her belief that “blacks don’t have souls”—where did that come from? The Son of Ham stories were used to justify a God-ordained hierarchy of humans based on race. Contending that an entire race of people does not have souls is essentially saying they are not human. This is something entirely different from saying they are inferior as humans. As I said before, this wasn’t the first time I had heard this kind of teaching.

Telling the next part of the story will be challenging for me, but it must be told, because this kind of thinking is still around. So I’ll face the issue of family loyalty and break the silence. As I said, it won’t be easy to tell, since the first time I heard this idea, I had been a young teenager, and the words had come from my father.



[1] The Prince of Tides: A Novel; Pat Conroy (Open Road Integrated Media, 2010)

[2] “Is Slavery Christian? A pamphlet debate in Boston, 1700-1706.”

[3] “Race, Culture, and Religion in the American South”; Paul Harvey. Oxford Research Encyclopedias, Online Publication Date: Mar 2015

[4] “Thanksgiving Sermon”, Benjamin Morgan Palmer, November 29, 1860

[5] “Original Dishonor: Noah’s Curse and the Southern Defense of Slavery”, Stephen R. Haynes. Journal of Southern Religion.

Noah’s Curse: The Biblical Justification of American Slavery, Stephen R. Haynes (Oxford University Press, 2002).

[6] All According To God’s Plan: Southern Baptist Missions and Race, 1945-1970, Alan Scot Willis (The University Press of Kentucky, 2005).

Understanding Backwards

“We are a family of well-kept secrets and they all nearly end up killing us.”                       Tom, in The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy


Telling our stories can be extremely difficult, especially when those stories include the ugly truth of abuse or neglect. Noted author Pat Conroy spoke and wrote openly about the physical and emotional abuse of his childhood and its devastating effects on him and on his siblings. In his novel The Prince of Tides (made into a movie with the same name), Conroy takes us inside his own family dynamics through the words of the main character, Tom: “My mother forbade us to tell anyone outside the family that my father hit any of us. She put the highest premium on what she called ‘family loyalty’ and would tolerate no behavior that struck her as betrayal or sedition. We were not allowed to criticize our father or to complain about his treatment of us…I lived out my childhood thinking my father would one day kill me. But I dwelt in a world where nothing was explained to children except the supremacy of the concept of loyalty. I learned from my mother that loyalty was the pretty face one wore when you based your whole life on a series of egregious lies.”[1]

Family loyalty. The cardinal rule of the household of abuse: don’t tell. I’ve witnessed this again and again in my position as a child advocate for the courts (CASA) over the past few years; I’ve experienced it myself as a child. An overwhelming atmosphere of fear reigns, enforcing silence. The message comes through loud and clear: “Straighten your face up and smile. Don’t let anyone know. If you do, they won’t believe you anyway. You will be dishonoring your family. So don’t talk. If you do, I’ll find out, and then you’ll be in for it.” Being constantly hammered with this threat makes opening up, telling the truth, interrupting the cycle almost impossible. Yet breaking the silence is essential for progress to be made and healing to occur.

Pat Conroy (through Tom) continues: “My mother taught us that it was the highest form of loyalty to cover our wounds and smile at the blood we saw in our mirrors. She taught me to hate the words family loyalty more than any two words in the language. If your parents disapprove of you and are cunning with their disapproval, there will never come a new dawn when you can become convinced of your own value. There is no fixing a damaged childhood. The best you can hope for is to make the sucker float.”

There’s the picture: cover your wounds, smile, keep your mouth shut in the name of family loyalty, of family honor. Conroy’s words, again through the voice of Tom, reveal his life experience of never being able to heal, to become convinced of his own value. Conroy was expressing what was believed during his lifetime. What has been learned in recent years about traumatic childhood experiences, however, shows us that healing is possible. True, there will always be scars, but those scars can become a source of strength and healing for many.

Last year, J. D. Vance raised his voice to tell his story of how the culture he grew up in impacted and shaped his life in his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. In the introduction, he wrote: “That is the real story of my life, and that is why I wrote this book. I want people to know what it feels like to nearly give up on yourself and why you might do it. I want people to understand what happens in the lives of the poor and the psychological impact that spiritual and material poverty has on their children. I want people to understand the American Dream as my family and I encountered it. I want people to understand how upward mobility really feels. And I want people to understand something I learned only recently: that for those of us lucky enough to live the American Dream, the demons of the life we left behind continue to chase us.”[2]

Vance talks candidly about his own life experiences and the difficulties faced by so many in the culture of Appalachia. I’m especially fascinated by his interpretation of his life events at this point in his life, since he was 31 years old when he wrote this book. I think of how I made sense of my life events when I was his age; I’ve lived another lifetime (of his, that is) since then. Vance presents a compelling picture, yet I wonder how his understanding will change with time. I’m in no way diminishing the power of his story, but I know from experience that the way he makes sense of it will change. As Kierkegaard once wrote: “It is perfectly true, as the philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other proposition, that it must be lived forwards.” Right now Vance is living forwards; as the years pass, he will be farther down the road, there will be more to see when he looks backwards, his view will change, and so his understanding should be different, more comprehensive. At least, that’s how it’s been for me. Even so, the picture he paints at this point in his life is powerful and telling. I have to admit that reading his story was difficult for me because it triggered so many memories, so many deep emotions. I was drawn back into a time I had no desire to relive. Others have told me they read his story and thought, ‘Wow! Do people really experience things like that?’ I read thinking how well he told my story—a part of it, at least. Many times I had to stop reading. Emotional triggers—another reason telling our story, lifting our voices proves challenging.

As I said, there are many reasons it can be difficult talk openly about the truth, but there’s one more I’d like to focus on before I move on with my story. It has less to do with bravery than with shame and a sense of failure; it too has caused me a lot of inner turmoil, made me want to hide, caused me to remain silent. As I did before, I’ll turn to the words of another who went through this struggle to help me express it: Henri Nouwen. For you readers who have not heard of him, Nouwen was a Dutch Catholic priest, professor, and theologian. He was also a writer whose books on social justice, spiritual life, and living in community have touched, and continue to touch, the lives of countless people. In the introduction to his deeply personal book, The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom, Nouwen wrote:

“This book is my secret journal. It was written during the most difficult period of my life, from December 1987 to June 1988. That was a time of extreme anguish, during which I wondered whether I would be able to hold on to my life. Everything came crashing down—my self-esteem, my energy to live and work, my sense of being loved, my hope for healing, my trust in God…everything. Here I was, a writer about the spiritual life, known as someone who loves God and gives hope to people, flat on the ground and in total darkness. What had happened? I had come face to face with my own nothingness. It was as if all that had given my life meaning was pulled away and I could see nothing in front of me but a bottomless abyss.”[3]

When I read these words, I connected immediately, and my spirit breathed the words, ‘Yes! That’s it! He sees…he knows…I’m not alone in this.” I read on, watching to see how he came through this “time of extreme anguish.” I took note as he spoke about how long it took him to be able to share this experience with others after he emerged into the light. Friends encouraged him to share his struggle through his writings in the journal, but he couldn’t, not for a while. Not for eight years:

“…when, eight years later,…I read my secret journal again, I was able to look back at that period of my life and see it as a time of intense purification that had led me gradually to a new inner freedom, a new hope, and a new creativity. The ‘spiritual imperatives’ I had put down now seemed less private and even possibly of some value to others…friends encouraged me not to hide this painful experience from those who have come to know me through my various books on the spiritual life. They reminded me that the books I had written since my period of anguish could not have been written without the experience I had gained by living through that time. They asked, ‘Why keep this away from those who have been nurtured by your spiritual insights? Isn’t it important for your friends close by and far away to know the high cost of these insights? Wouldn’t they find it a source of consolation to see that light and darkness, hope and despair, love and fear are never very far from each other, and that spiritual freedom often requires a fierce spiritual battle?’”

There it is, in that last statement: the truth that a fierce spiritual battle is not something to be avoided, not a sign of lack of faith or failure. Instead, walking into and through this kind of struggle can lead us farther and deeper into hope, and love, and spiritual freedom. Sharing our experiences can be “a source of consolation” for others. I have so much more to say about this, but later.

I’ve enlisted the help of other voices to help me bring to light these reasons that I, for one, retreated into silence. Reading their words, seeing their willingness to speak gives me courage and comfort, lets me know I’m not alone. But now it’s time for me to lift up my own voice once again as I move forward in my story.


[1] The Prince of Tides: A Novel; Pat Conroy (Open Road Integrated Media, 2010)

[2] Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis; J. D. Vance (HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2016)

[3] The Inner Voice of Love: A Journey Through Anguish To Freedom; Henri Nouwen (Image Books, Doubleday Publishers, 1996).



“Never be afraid to raise your voice for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed. If people all over the world…would do this,  it would change the earth.”                                                           –William Faulkner


It wasn’t until I learned Ron had left the hotel with the tour group that I breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing had been said. As far as I knew only Nigel, my immediate supervisor in the dining room and friend, knew about the confrontation in the dining room. He had laughed when I told him about it, saying he felt I was right to say what I did and didn’t think Ron would be upset if he heard about it. I felt slightly reassured, but was still prepared for the fallout in case he was wrong. No matter what happened, I would stand by what I had done and said.

After that summer I kept in touch with the Owens for a few years, then lost contact with them only to reconnect some years later. Almost twenty years had passed when Ron brought up the hotel and the tour groups, and I mentioned I had a story about that group from Mississippi he had never heard. He looked surprised and responded, “You mean what you said to the woman who said, ‘Blacks don’t have souls’?” I stared at him, incredulous. “You knew about that?” I asked. Laughing, he replied, “Oh, I heard about it; everybody heard about it! People in churches we ministered in talked about it for years. You were renowned in the Baptist churches in Mississippi!” I was shocked; he had known all those years! I was curious, too.

I asked him what people had said when they talked about that encounter. He explained that the woman had been a problem on the tour because of her negative attitude and constant complaining. It seems she had been in state leadership in the Mississippi WMU and felt her “status” entitled her to special treatment. The other members of the group had run out of patience with her. When I challenged her comments at the dinner table that evening in the hotel, the others had been thrilled and couldn’t wait to tell Ron about it. He told me he had been delighted and proud of me for speaking up. I was a little disappointed when I heard what stuck in their memory about that encounter. I felt I would rather have been “renowned” for what I had said, for taking a stand against injustice, than for who I had said it to. Looking back, I now think both are important, for different reasons.

As for the argument from the Moses/Miriam story I used to refute her—this wasn’t something I’d read or heard before. As I mentioned earlier, I had run into this God-ordained subordination and separation of the races teaching before, in my early teens. I’d not known anyone to talk with about it, so I had gone to the Bible to see if I could figure it out myself (which, you will come to see, was my norm). I came across this story in Numbers about Moses’ Cushite (African) wife while searching; my argument in the dining room shows how I made sense of it. When I had been confronting the pastor at the church in Jackson a few months earlier, this story had come to mind, so it was fresh. What I didn’t realize was that there was a serious problem with my reasoning.

Now I know what I was using is what is known as an argument from silence, and this kind of argument can be very weak. Some view it as a fallacy. This is the same kind of reasoning that comes from the child who defends his/her actions by saying, “But you didn’t tell me not to color on the wall!” Fact is, it was an argument from silence that the proslavery camp used repeatedly to offer “proof” that God sanctions slavery: since God never came straight out and said, “Slavery is a sin” or “Thou shalt not own slaves” in the Bible, that means he approves of it, so long as the master is kind and benevolent. I knew enough to mount a challenge to that argument (the Bible is not a book of exhaustive regulations about life, but a book of revelation of life, a narrative), but didn’t realize I was using their same logic in my interpretation of that story in Numbers. Since I had never been exposed to the study of logic, didn’t even know there was such a thing, my 18-year-old mind had no concept of the logical “thin ice” I was barreling across; I just saw injustice and charged! Apparently no one in the group knew either since they let me get by with it, or maybe they were all too stunned to call me on it. I tell you this so you won’t use that biblical story by itself to make this point. Hopefully, you’ll steer clear of arguments from silence in general, and call others on it when they try to pull it on you—like your children.

Over the years I’ve often thought about what “the WMU woman” had said. I couldn’t understand how she could exhibit that attitude toward Black people yet profess her concern for missions. In my mind, the two were opposites, yet somehow she held both positions with no apparent conflict. I was bewildered. As I remembered these incidents all these years later, I was still bewildered. So I decided to do some digging, to try to make sense of it.

By now you might be asking yourself why I’m talking about all this, telling these stories, delving into an ugly history we’d just as soon forget. This was the past; can’t we just put it behind us and move on? Why revisit it? Good questions, ones that need to be asked and answered.

We would like to believe the days of racism and injustice are behind us; we have only to read or hear or watch the news to know this simply isn’t true. The truth is, the racial unrest of past generations is surfacing again. I’ve questioned why: what were the reasons then; do they still impact our attitudes and actions today; what part, if any, has the Church played in undergirding and adding fuel to this conflict? My quest to find answers to those questions and to make sense of my past experiences makes up a significant part of my story.

Philosopher, poet, and novelist George Santayana wrote: “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentivenessThose who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Have those of us who experienced the past failed to remember, or failed to pass on what we know? Several months ago I was talking with a young couple in their mid-20s about the violence and racial unrest of the 1960s. They listened wide-eyed, wanting to know more, saying they had little knowledge of this part of our history as a nation and the part the Church played in it. They were hungry to learn, to try to understand. A few weeks later I was talking with another young man in the same age range about the same topic. He commented that he was amazed to learn that race was still an issue in churches in the 1970s. I was astonished; then I realized, he didn’t know. Those of us who know have not told our stories, have not remembered, or maybe we have kept silent, not wanting to remember. And so we are condemned to repeat the past; unless, that is, we become brave enough to tell our stories, to, in the words of Faulkner, “raise [our voices] for honesty and truth and compassion against injustice and lying and greed.”

But maybe it’s not simply a matter of being brave enough. There are other reasons we find it hard to open up, to talk about the past in a way that brings healing and leads to progress. Before I move on in the story, I feel the need take a little time to look at some of these reasons, for some of them have been mine.




“No Souls”?

Resigning from the church that Sunday morning created a pressing problem for me: now I had no reason to stay at Mississippi College in Clinton for the summer, and I couldn’t face the prospect of going back to my parents’ house in Prentiss. I had “escaped” from that atmosphere of violence and abuse two years earlier, and had gone back only for short periods during holidays, when the college dorm was closed and I couldn’t find somewhere else to go. I’d taken classes the past two summers, but no classes I needed or thought would be interesting to take were to be offered that summer. I had to find some other option.

I decided to talk to the music minister at my church, Tanner Riley, about my problem. I met with him in his office, explained my dilemma, and asked him if he had any ideas about what I could do for the summer. He responded that a music evangelist friend of his, Ron Owens, owned a hotel in Chateau d’Oex, Switzerland, and had decided to start a summer work/study program at the hotel. Students who were accepted into the program would staff the hotel, spend a specified amount of time in Bible study each week, and receive a small monthly stipend. Tanner said that Ron and his wife Patricia lived in Texas, but that they “just happened” to be in town that week visiting Patricia’s father. He made a phone call, and suddenly we were on our way to meet them. The informal interview went well, and several days afterward I received word that I had been accepted to the program. I couldn’t believe it—I would be going to Switzerland for three months!

A few weeks later I found myself on a plane for the first time, a naïve 18-year-old girl from Mississippi flying alone to Switzerland to connect with people I’d yet to meet from different states and countries. My world-traveling paternal grandmother, known by all simply as Nunna, was proud but concerned; I think she was afraid I would get sidetracked by some exciting possibility or someone I met along the way and never make it to Switzerland. I have to admit her concerns were probably valid. So she rerouted her flight plans for a trip she had been planning take to St. Louis, MO, and flew with me to Atlanta. We spent the night in a hotel, then took a taxi back to the airport the next morning to go our separate ways—she heading west to Missouri, I heading north to Montreal to catch a direct flight to Zurich. I was elated by the prospect of adventure, and I was not to be disappointed.

My layover in Montreal was long—over eight hours. I wandered around the airport, talking to people, trying to find someone who was part of the group I was to meet. By the time we boarded the flight for Zurich, I had met up with several of them. It was comforting not to be leaving the country alone.

The group working at the hotel that summer was composed mainly of college students from various states, mostly Texas, with a few notable exceptions. One of these was an amazing man named Sams Kironde Kigozi. Sams had been a teacher in Uganda and, as were so many capable, educated individuals in those days, he had been targeted for death by Idi Amin. Having been warned that his life was in danger, he had been able to escape with little time to spare. In time he had made his way to L’Abri, the biblical study center established by Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland. After spending a year or so there, he had come to the hotel as part of our work/study group. I spent many hours talking with Sams that summer, listening intently as he answered my countless questions. Talking with him opened my mind and heart to a different understanding of Scripture and of the reality of the Christian life.

My job assignment for the summer was in the hotel dining room as a waitress. The hotel had a steady flow of guests, many of whom were in tour groups from the States. My interactions with one group from Jackson, Mississippi, led to an unforgettable encounter. The conversation began with light talk of who we knew in common, then moved to how I had come to the hotel, what I was doing, and so on. I mentioned that I was learning so much from the Bible studies and from the people I had met, especially from Sams. One woman in the group, who had identified herself as being in the Southern Baptist WMU (Women’s Missionary Union), commented that while that might be okay in this situation, as a general rule “they need to worship with their own kind.” Others in the group, including a pastor, agreed.

There it was again: the belief that the subordination and separation of the races is clearly taught by the Bible and is thus God-ordained. I responded with an immediate challenge, calmly asking her to explain what she meant and why. A lengthy discussion followed, with other members of the group adding their thoughts and responding to my arguments and questions. This went on until the WMU woman made the assertion that “Blacks don’t have souls.” I listened carefully, trying to contain my growing outrage, as she laid out the ideas I’d heard before. I asked her why the WMU spent so many resources supporting missionary work in African countries if the people there don’t have souls. Her response was, “There is value and benefit to us in doing good; we are fulfilling the Great Commission.” Upon hearing those words, I could contain myself no longer. I don’t remember the exact words I used, but my response went something like this:

“You know, you say this separation of the races is what the Bible teaches, but God doesn’t seem to have seen it that way. Moses was the man chosen by God to lead His people to freedom, to speak for Him. Moses’s wife was black; did you know that? You can read about it in Numbers 12 if you want to check out what I’m saying. There’s a story there about Miriam and Aaron making fun of Moses because he had an African wife. Seems God had nothing to say to Moses about his choice of a wife, but He had plenty to say to Miriam. For ridiculing Moses about his black wife, God struck Miriam with leprosy. I think the verse says her skin became white as snow. It was kind of like God said to her, ‘Miriam, you like white so much, I’ll give you white.’ And she would have stayed that way if Moses hadn’t stepped in and pled with God to heal her. Now, if I were you, I’d take a lesson from that story, and I’d be very careful about looking down on people based on the color of their skin or their race.”

I stopped speaking and stared intently at the woman, waiting to see if there would be any response or challenge to what I’d said from anyone in the group. There was only silence, all I saw were wide eyes and open mouths (not surprising since I’m pretty sure my eyes were blazing). So I turned and began walking across the large dining room to the door, feeling their eyes on my back, following me as I went. It seemed like the walk took forever, and I remember thinking to myself as I walked: “That’s it. When Ron hears about this, I’ll be fired and sent home. But I don’t care. I’d say it again; what they were saying isn’t true, it’s not God’s heart. It’s wrong, and I couldn’t keep silent. Now I’ll take whatever comes.” I spent the next few days on edge, but I went on with my work and studies, and waited to see what would happen.

Being Unreasonable

I was born in 1955. I share my birthyear with men like Steve Jobs, cofounder of Apple Computer; Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft; Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google; Vinod Khosla and Andy Bechtolsheim, cofounders of Sun Microsystems. According to Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers, 1955 was a magical year in which to be born—if you were born in the right place (Silicon Valley), with the right opportunities, with a bent toward computer programming. And, since all the examples Gladwell provided were white men, I would add if you were the right gender, and the right race. So while I was born white in 1955, my place of birth was southcentral Mississippi. My culture knew nothing of computers and computer software; these weren’t even a topic for consideration, certainly not for a woman. What was an integral part of my culture at that time was racism. Having grown up in Mississippi in the 1960s, that I know all too well. And to me, even as a child, treating people as “less than” based on the color of their skin felt terribly wrong.

I’ve since learned that different areas of Mississippi had very different views on race, even at that time in history. I would venture to say it’s like that all across the South, with some areas being deeply entrenched in patterns of behavior and attitudes that can be traced back many generations while others exhibit very different attitudes. I was from the small town of New Hebron, a town that was founded by my great-great grandfather in the early 1900s. New Hebron was also the hometown of John Perkins, international speaker and teacher on issues of racial reconciliation; he tells his powerful story in his book, Let Justice Roll Down. There is much that needs to be told about these early years of my life, and it will be told—later, when I can fully explore and explain how those days shaped my future. At this point it is enough to say that when I read about the Grimké sisters’ struggle to obtain freedom for slaves, I understood. And in my day, just as in their day, nowhere was the subordination of the “Negro race” proclaimed more loudly than from the pulpits of southern churches. Many pastors asserted emphatically that the “plain meaning of biblical texts” made it clear that slavery had been ordained by God, as had the subservient role of the Negro. Not to accept this teaching was to deny the authority of the Scripture, or so it was proclaimed.

In the fall of 1973, I accepted a position as Minister of Music at a little church in Jackson, MS. I was an 18-yr-old college junior at the time, and this would be my first job. I had always wanted to have some sort of job, even a summer job, but my father was adamant that neither his wife nor his daughter would work outside the home. Like so many men of that time, he saw a working female in his family as a personal affront to his manhood. My arguments and pleas had gone unheeded, however; his only response had been that he would pay me to stay home if it was a matter of money. I couldn’t make him understand that wasn’t the issue; I wanted to use my abilities, to develop skills, to learn. Finally, at 18, I had reached an age where I could begin to fulfill this desire, though not without ongoing opposition and disapproval from my father.

Since the church was actually a mission outreach of Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, the position was Sundays only. The church was located in a mostly black area of Jackson, yet all the members were white. I wondered about this at first, but decided that maybe people who lived in the area were hesitant to come, since blacks and whites generally didn’t worship together. I hoped that would change in time; it was the 1970s, after all, and much was changing in Mississippi in the ‘70s—that’s another story that should and will be told, but later. I soon noticed that every Sunday morning two men sat beside the entry door throughout the service. I guessed this was a security precaution since this part of town wasn’t exactly known for its safety. Then one Sunday morning, something happened that showed how wrong I was. Not long after the service started, the door opened and a black man walked into the sanctuary. The two men beside the door immediately rose, took him by the arms, turned, and escorted him back out. I was stunned, scarcely believing what I’d witnessed. The men weren’t stationed there for protection; they were there to make sure no black person entered the sanctuary.

As soon as the service ended, I approached the pastor and told him I needed to talk to him in private. I needed to be sure I was interpreting what I had seen correctly. I asked the question, then listened as he explained that this was indeed the reason the men sat by the entry door each week, that to allow black people into the church would be “disruptive,” that they really didn’t want to come to worship but to “cause trouble,” that the races needed to worship “with their own kind,” that this separation of the races was “ordained by God.” Since this wasn’t the first time I’d heard this kind of teaching, I was ready with a challenge. We debated the issue briefly, respectfully but with intensity, then I told him I would not be part of a church that excluded people on the basis of their race. He pled with me to “be reasonable,” to accept the “clear teachings” of the Bible; I responded that the teachings he was promoting were perversions of biblical teachings and did not express the heart of Christ. Not surprisingly, my words fell on deaf ears. I resigned my position in the church on the spot, and never went back.

This happened in the spring of 1974. Little did I know then that just a few months later I would be in Switzerland, and would again be confronting this belief that the Bible clearly teaches the subordination of races in an unexpected way, on an even deeper level.