Today, on the penultimate day of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, we spent some time in the Archives at the University of Mississippi library. We’re here in Oxford because of the James Meredith story. He was the first African American to attend Ole Miss (1962) and it took a federal court order and military support to make it happen. Since those days, Ole Miss has made significant strides in leading for racial reconciliation.
The director of the archives gave an informative presentation, using lots of primary source documents from the archives. One piece particularly caught my attention. A mimeographed biblical “exposition” from the Klan about why races should be segregated, i.e. “what the Bible says” about race.” The paper listed several scriptures from the Old Testament. As I scanned the verses, I thought about how it is possible for people so badly to misread scripture. The history of the use of the Bible in antebellum arguments is a complex one in itself. Mark Noll, well-known historian of Christianity, has written has written extensively on this point.
Reading these verses today reminds me of how our own current particular contexts strongly help to shape the way we read scripture. It is no secret that even among Christians who take the most traditional view, there can be wide disagreement on particular passages, even when everyone believes fully that the Bible is God’s Word. I am not engaging in a counsel of despair. I’m simply acknowledging that biblical interpretation is not as straightforward as it sometimes seems.
That point acknowledged, I’m still amazed at how segregationist Christians could read the Bible as they did. Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 10:3 about tearing down strongholds and taking every thought captive to Christ. In 2 Thessalonians 2 he refers to the “mystery of lawlessness,” or, as earlier English versions had it, the “mystery of iniquity.” Off and on I ponder these phrases for what light they shed on the brute fact that sincere people can be sincerely wrong and sometimes in truly chilling ways.
The more distance we have between our own feelings and values and whatever topic of discussion we’re engaging, the more “rational” and objective we can appear to be ab. The more our own feelings and values are caught up in the issue – the more at stake we have – the harder it is to be detached and “rational.” And here the mystery of iniquity enters.
I come to the end of this day of the pilgrimage thinking about the mystery of iniquity that twists otherwise good people into upholding certain ideas and convictions that are truly reprehensible. As I think about what the archivist showed us today, it’s easy for me to put extreme distance between myself and the segregationist Christians who thought the Bible really taught what they thought it taught. And then I remember that that same mystery works in me as well, not on race, but on some other issue on which I perhaps feel vulnerable and threatened. We must always remember this propensity in the human heart. Lord, have mercy on us.