This article was written by Reverend CJ Rhodes and was first published here on the Clarion-Ledger site. It has been reposted with permission.
I was introduced to Mississippi’s complicated relationship between race and religion in the first grade. It was nearing Christmas and my teacher gave us a coloring assignment that portrayed the nativity scene. After retrieving a few crayons, I colored the Hallmark-styled cherubic faces of Joseph, Mary, and Jesus different shades of brown. Proud of my artwork, I smiled as I handed my teacher the finished portrait.
“You have to do this over,” my teacher scolded. My smile soon diminished. “Jesus is my color,” she said as she pointed to her face.
I protested, contending that everyone in the classroom, excluding her, was brown and that I colored Jesus and his family based on that fact alone. She was not convinced and insisted that my depiction was historically inaccurate. Following a call to the principal, my mother was requested to come to the school.
Thankfully, my mother stood up for my artistic decision and dared the principal to make me change it. Needless to say, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus remained brown.
Little did I know then that race and religion would shape the rest of my life. Probing questions about the two have challenged me and helped me to challenge the church and society in turn.
I was called into ministry at age 18, just a month before heading to Oxford to attend The University of Mississippi. The lessons I learned in Hazlehurst were deepened during my college days as the lingering racial strife of the 1960s made its presence felt. The fight to change our state flag and to remove Colonel Reb placed me on the right side of history but many times on the wrong side of the status quo.
People who say that black Mississippians must get over the past do not know our story and pain. As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” I am a ’80s baby and what I experienced in Mississippi as an old millennial has taught me that racism, often enabled by religion, is still very much alive.
Our present age is full of racial and class strife much akin to what my grandparents and parents experienced during the Mississippi civil rights movement. The presence of Donald Trump at the bicentennial grand opening of the two Mississippi museums is a major example of this.
Several veterans of the movement and other persons of good will elected not to attend the event due to Trump’s visit, seeing him and his attendance as inflammatory given his xenophobic rhetoric, cover for organized white supremacist terrorists, and regressive policy agenda and federal appointments. One veteran with whom I spoke compares Trump to Woodrow Wilson, who showed “The Birth of a Nation” at the White House. There are very real traumas and terrors that many of my people endured and which are reinvigorated by this president’s nationalism.
Personally, these days take me back to my youth, when the complicated issues of race and religion haunted me. On one August Sunday decades ago, I sat on a wooden pew at the rear of my family’s Missionary Baptist church and I thought, as the ceiling fans slow churned the hot and humid air, why there was a black church and a white church.
To this day, I have never stepped foot into Hazlehurst’s white churches. I am not sure, still, if I am welcome there. But my journey from Ole Miss to Duke University and back to Mississippi has made me more discerning about the ways in which racialized Christianity, which is vastly different from the way of Jesus of Nazareth, shapes everything about our state’s politics, economics, and even religious sensibilities.
Too many have replaced the Palestinian Jewish Son of God with a wealthy Santa Claus-like figure with a Nordic phenotype. We have remixed Mary’s Magnificat to say God has filled the rich with good things and the poor he was sent away empty (see Luke 1:46-55). But that is not the Good News of the kingdom, wherein the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted are blessed and not cursed.
Our heartless and spineless political and religious leaders would rather disinherit the “least of these among us” than to “act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God” (Micah 6:8).
I am burdened by both the national and statewide state of things but have a blue-noted hope that God is up to something radical in our day. Ours is a time in which a Spirit-anointed vanguard of disciples are rising to be heralds of salvation and liberation. The spiritual warfare that is before us will confront afresh the idol of white supremacy that has limited the possibilities of all Mississippians over the last 200 years.
In this season, the last shall be first and the proud will be scattered, and all of us will see it together. A moral revival is sweeping across this state, without our permission. In the name of Jesus — a poor, brown-skinned Jew from an insignificant town — Mississippi will rise to the occasion because ordinary people, filled with the Holy Spirit, will revolutionize this place for God’s glory and our good.
I know I am not the only one who senses this shifting in the atmosphere. Thus, I call upon those who make up what Martin Luther King Jr., deemed the “creative dedicated minority” to keep the faith. Our time is now. Our change has come.