What was your first reaction to news reports that Robert Bentley, the new governor of Alabama, publicly declared during an observance of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., that people who have not accepted Jesus Christ as Savior are not his brothers and sisters?
The congregation I serve in Little Rock, Ark., is dually aligned with the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (the largest and oldest black Baptist denomination) and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Our congregation welcomes all people in God’s love and affirms that all creation exists because God is Creator. Because all people are children of the same Creator, we are sisters and brothers. The fact that we live in different religious communities doesn’t lessen my spiritual kinship to the rabbi of the local synagogue, the imam of the local mosque or the leader of the local Universalist Unitarian congregation.
I cringed because Bentley’s remark was profoundly inconsistent with the grace of God that has been revealed by the life of Jesus. As a good friend remarked in an email exchange concerning what Bentley said: “Jesus didn’t say love your neighbor only if they were born again. Nor did he divide the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 based on a profession of faith.”
I cringed because Bentley’s remark amounted to a gratuitous insult of relatives at a family gathering. The event occurred at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, the first congregation that King served as pastor. It occurred during a service to commemorate King’s life and ministry. King ended his “I Have a Dream” speech by naming “Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics” among the group he called “all of God’s children.”
Bentley essentially declared people who aren’t Christians unwelcome at God’s table. Talking with food in your mouth is bad manners during a family meal. Calling your relatives bastards during the meal is an outrageous insult.
I cringed because Bentley’s remark demonstrates why many people draw a distinction between what Howard Thurman called “the religion of Jesus” and Christianity.
The religion of Jesus operates from the great love ethic that Jesus preached and lived (love of God with the entire being and love of neighbor as oneself). Christianity, on the other hand, has often operated and taken pride in promoting disunity. Bentley’s remark is the latest example of that disharmonious arrogance.
The mindset that Bentley’s comment represents may explain why Mohandas Gandhi remarked to Thurman, “This is the greatest enemy that Jesus Christ has in my country [India] – not Hinduism, or Buddhism or any of the indigenous religions – but Christianity itself.”
The universal and redemptive love that God made manifest in Jesus was denounced by Bentley, a Baptist deacon at First Baptist Church of Tuscaloosa, Ala. No wonder so many people who love Jesus are increasingly uncomfortable with Christianity and Christians like Bentley.
Beyond being morally and theologically indefensible, Bentley’s remark will cause people to question whether his administration will treat people from diverse backgrounds fairly. Yes, Bentley apologized on Jan. 19. However, there is no reason to believe he misrepresented his core moral, religious, social and political values on Jan. 18 when he said that people who do not claim Jesus as their personal Savior are not his brothers and sisters. Serious people do not change their core values overnight like they change clothes.
Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'” (Matthew 7:21-23).
And my friend was accurate when he remarked that Jesus didn’t predict the moral destiny of humanity in Matthew 25 based on a profession of faith. Instead, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it [or did not do it] to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it [or did not do it] to me.” (Matthew 25:40 and 25:45).
I pray that Bentley becomes better acquainted with that Jesus.
Wendell L. Griffen is pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Ark.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.