Moving Backward on Racial Progress

c. 2013 Religion News Service

SEWANEE, Tenn. (RNS) After passing through the Gothic campus of Sewanee: The University of the South, we came to an enormous cross looking down on a nearby valley.

The vista reminded me of Gettysburg, so I asked my host, “Did Sewanee play a part in the war?”

He knew exactly which war I meant — the Civil War that is never far from the thoughts of Southerners even 150 years later — and he said, “Oh yes.”

It seems the school was founded in 1857 by Episcopal bishops from states that later would form the Confederacy, specifically to “resist and repel a fanatical domination which seeks to rule over us.”

A leading slave trader named John Armfield bankrolled the venture. One founding bishop became a general in the Confederate Army. When Union troops destroyed campus buildings in 1863, loyalists collected fragments and placed them in the wall of the university’s post-war chapel.

But that was yesterday. Also yesterday was the university’s utter dominance of late 19th-century college football, as well as its attempt to be the “Oxford of the South,” offering a full array of graduate schools.

As times changed, Sewanee adapted. It dropped out of the Southeastern Conference to focus on academics, and later scaled back its operations to a college, a writing program and an Episcopal seminary, all highly regarded.

When the university’s head refused to desegregate the seminary in the 1950s, seminarians and half the faculty walked out. When a 1960s segregationist diehard donated a mace in honor of the man who founded the Ku Klux Klan, the mace eventually disappeared.

These dramas of adaptation on “the Domain,” as they call Sewanee’s 13,000 acres of mountaintop land, mirror dramas far beyond Tennessee.

Adaptation is how a bitter and broken South survived its own worst instincts after the war. Progressive pockets emerged in college towns and later in large cities. Hungry for Northern business, the region became less racially polarized. In time, a black man could become mayor of Atlanta and another could become the Episcopal bishop of North Carolina.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream of 50 years ago came to seem possible. Distant, yet possible.

But now the dream has receded. The fact of a black president seems to have reopened a pulsing vein of racism. Operating under cover of fiscal austerity, vengeful state politicians are gutting decades of programs that helped the South move forward by helping blacks and Latinos to have a chance.

No more affirmative action, they say; no more dark-skinned citizens flocking to voting stations; no more voting districts shaped by fairness; no more protections from ground-level aggression against people of color.

Once again, as happened in the 19th century, impoverished whites who should be lining up to resist predatory behavior by the moneyed class are being turned against their own best interests by race politics.

Now we have to ask whether Detroit was allowed to go bankrupt because its population is 80 percent black.

Does the military get parades but low pay and inadequate equipment because front-line troops tend to have deeper pigmentation?

Have public schools been thrown under the bus because urban school districts tend to serve blacks and dark-skinned immigrants?

Are ideological outcries against entitlements targeting all entitlements, or just those that benefit people of color?

Decades of racial tolerance have threatened whites to the point of backlash. Young right-wing politicians who are unschooled in tolerance and adaptation leap to stoke that backlash.

Difficult times are at hand.

(Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of “Just Wondering, Jesus” and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich.)

Copyright 2013 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

Church Fires Pastor for Attending a Rick Ross Concert: The Questions

Church Fires Pastor for Attending a Rick Ross Concert: The Questions

Imagine this…

A pastor attends the concert of a popular rap artist thinking it’s all good until he arrives at church the next day to find his parking sign removed, his name taken off his office door, and someone else officiating worship. He was fired with no warning because he went to a rap concert, fair or unfair?

Rick Ross at Russell Simmon’s Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation 14th Annual Art for Life Benefit held at Fairview Farms (Photo Credit: Rob Rich/

This is not fiction but fact and it happened to Rodney Wills, the now former pastor of Mt. Salem Baptist church in North Carolina. According to a story published on, Wills attended Rick Ross’s Saturday night concert while, unbeknownst to him, the church deacons were voting on whether they needed his services anymore. The next morning, instead of giving him a courtesy call, they removed his parking sign, took his name off the door, and delegated morning worship leadership to someone else. The way that the church handled Wills’s firing seems unethical and ungodly. Why wouldn’t the deacons meet with Wills to discuss their issues with him attending the concert—the Rick Ross concert and the Lil Wayne concert that Mt. Salem youth spotted him at on a previous occasion–before deciding to fire him? (Unless they were just looking for a reason to fire him.) But the big issue here isn’t how Wills was fired–although it deserves some attention–but why he was fired–which requires us to ask some questions.

Miles Langley, one of the deacons at Mt. Salem said, “We cannot have our leader supporting people of this world who are tearing down the kingdom of God.” This issue of categorizing Ross and his ilk as “people of this world who are tearing down the kingdom of God” may give too much power to people who may just be innocent bystanders. People who may be believers and lovers of God who don’t see anything wrong with what they are doing. Rick Ross may be such a person and Rodney Wills is more than likely such a person. One commenter on social media said of this, “The funniest thing to me is that church goers constantly think that the world is out to get them. It’s really not.” There may be some validity to this statement. Rick Ross may not be out to tear down the kingdom of God, he may just be here to tear the club up. And maybe, for one night, Wills wanted to tear the club up too and sing-a-long to his favorite Ross songs–we will hope that he stayed quiet during Ross’s controversial verse on “U.O.E.N.O.” Maybe Wills wanted to keep up with what the youth of the church are listening to so that he could connect with them on a particular level. Maybe Wills, being a 26-year-old man himself, genuinely enjoys rap music and felt strong enough in his faith to listen and not be hindered by it. Wills probably didn’t think this would affect his faith or his job and now that it has affected his job, we should hope that it doesn’t hinder his faith either in God or in the church which he may feel vocationally called to despite Mt. Salem’s swift removal of him.

On the topic of “tearing down the kingdom of God” it is dangerous to claim that the faith of a congregation can be endangered because the pastor attended a rap concert. Rap concerts are not the things that destroy the kingdom of God–especially if you have a particular eschatological vision that sees the kingdom of God as that which is “already and not yet.” This necessitates a theological discussion on how we understand the kingdom of God. What is it that we are asking for in the Lord’s Prayer when we say, “Thy kingdom come” if the kingdom is being torn down? Do we understand what it means to say that someone or something is tearing down God’s kingdom? Do we want to give Rick Ross or any other entertainer that kind of power? Indeed this is a complex issue, but we don’t want to ignore the potential for rap music or any form of entertainment to be a tool of destruction–bracketing talk of the adversary. Rap concerts and/or music, movies, books, et al could destroy the people of God if they lack true knowledge of God and knowledge of self in God. We can’t be glib about the potential of much of this world’s products to destroy us in some way if we don’t first ground ourselves in God. But we should be careful about what we judge as the effect these things have on others before we dismiss them.

This story unearths a lot of questions, so what do you think? Was it fair for Mt. Salem to fire Wills for attending the concert? Is it appropriate for a pastor to attend a rap concert?  How could this situation have been handled differently, on both sides?