It’s Black History Month, and churches across America are celebrating in various ways. Parents are teaching their children about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other heroes of the civil rights movement. Faith groups are hosting discussions about racial justice in our world today. Book lists are circulating, with titles that can teach us as Christians more about historical racism and how we must do better today.
In the midst of this remembrance and celebration, African-American Keith Tharpe sits on death row in Georgia. Twenty-eight years ago, Mr. Tharpe took the life of Jaquelin Freeman, his sister-in-law. A jury sentenced him to death. What no court has ever considered in Mr. Tharpe’s case is that his death sentence may have been influenced by the racist views of one of the jurors who sentenced him to death.
One of the jurors, a man named Barney Gattie, spewed his racist views about African Americans in a sworn affidavit that he gave several years after the trial. In it, he said, “In my experience, I have observed that there are two types of black people: 1. Black folks and 2. Ni**ers… I felt Tharpe, who wasn’t in the ‘good’ black folks category in my book, should get the electric chair for what he did.” Mr. Gattie added, “After studying the Bible, I have wondered if black people even have souls.”
These statements are appalling. But it’s especially revolting that Mr. Gattie makes a connection between his racist views and the Bible. Of course, this sentiment is nothing new. For centuries, Christians have been using the Bible to justify their support of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and all sorts of other racist practices. How it must break our Father’s heart.
As a Millennial Evangelical, I have watched churches and denominations struggle with racism. I have seen a shift in the way that my fellow followers of Christ understand our role in ending racism. This generation is passionate about justice, and racial justice is at the very center of our desire to live out the call of Jesus here on earth.
How can we atone for the sins of our past? It’s an important question, and I’m glad we’re asking it. But it’s not enough to denounce our past and apologize. It’s not enough to distance ourselves from our ancestors and say that certainly if we had lived back then, we would have stood against racism in all of its forms.
No, that is just speech. Instead, we must act. We must understand the history of the racism that built our country. We must learn how to dismantle racism, how to stand against racist practices that are happening today. We must work toward true racial justice in our world right now, in this moment.
There are reasons to be hopeful, and I remain encouraged by the conversations I’ve seen taking place. I attended the MLK50 Conference last year in Memphis, which was sponsored by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention along with The Gospel Coalition. I was inspired as I watched respected Evangelical leaders, whom I admire, speak passionately about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s life’s work and legacy. I took pages and pages of notes and couldn’t write fast enough, wanting to capture the wisdom in the room. I was (and still am) desperate to find ways to help my white Evangelical brothers and sisters grasp the depth of the colossal sin of racism.
Just this past January, the ERLC and the North American Mission Board sponsored the Evangelicals for Life Conference, which also featured presentations addressing racial justice in our nation. We as Christians cannot see ourselves as right or left, Republican or Democrat. Instead, we must see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Brothers and sisters are deeply involved in the lives of one another. They are empathetic towards and burdened by what troubles the other. This is how we must live.
I was also thrilled to see the National Association of Evangelicals address this issue in a new way. They recently added a section entitled “Pursuing Racial Justice and Reconciliation” in their publication “For the Health of the Nation, An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility.” In it, Revelation 7:9 is cited: “God will ultimately form a new humanity from every nation, tribe, people and language.” The new text goes on to say, “We urge followers of Jesus to engage in serious and sustained efforts to combat racism.”
Indeed, my study of the Bible leads me to a very different conclusion from Mr. Gattie’s. Galatians 3:28 says, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” And, Genesis 1 tells us that mankind is created in the image of God – in the image of God he created us. We worship the God of justice, and he abhors prejudice and racism.
As Christians, we should cry out to God to help us to stand against all forms of racism, and the case of Mr. Tharpe is such an incredibly blatant example. When Mr. Tharpe was facing an execution date in late 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a last-minute stay of execution. The Court noted, “Gattie’s remarkable affidavit – which he never retracted – presents a strong factual basis for the argument that Tharpe’s race affected Gattie’s vote for a death verdict.” But even though the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to the Eleventh Circuit court to take another look, the lower court again denied Mr. Tharpe’s request to appeal the case.
Now Mr. Tharpe’s case is back before the U.S. Supreme Court, which is his last hope. It’s time for them to do what is right and make sure a court considers whether Mr. Tharpe’s death sentence is invalid due to the openly racist views of Mr. Gattie.
Because our heart’s desire is to be like Jesus, we can’t sit idly by when cases of unashamed racial discrimination stare us directly in the face. Racism clearly played a major role in Mr. Tharpe’s case, and this wrong needs to be made right. I urge the U.S. Supreme Court to take action on Mr. Tharpe’s case. The time is now.