24 Jun 2020

Encountering Malcolm X: Challenge to White Christianity

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Black History, Bobby's World, Church, Contemporary Ethics, Discipleship, Race Relations

Over the years I have learned the value of listening to critics. Of finding someone who has a significantly different point of view than me.

I do not enjoy it, I confess.

I do not always agree with these people. But I can truthfully say I have had significant areas of my life that I was blind to opened up by those who challenge my own beliefs.

For example, I have learned a great deal about “Christianity,” and Jesus himself, from several Jews. In fact I have, at times, had to revise my own view(s) as a result of such encounters. I learned about the content and the serious matter of living “Christianly.”

When I have talked to nonbelievers, I have even learned how Christianity often “comes across” to others … and not in good ways. To use a very personal example, I never understood how unloving, ungracious and simply unChristian we sound toward the divorced until I went through it myself. Suddenly I was painfully aware of just how unlike Jesus much of the stuff we have said actually is. This learning process is Spiritual growth.

I recall the first time I encountered members of the “Nation of Islam” in the city of New Orleans many years ago. I did not know anything about it honestly. All I knew was the word “Islam” was attached to it.

I had no clue who Malcolm X was (I barely knew who Martin Luther King Jr was at the time!). I did not understand. But I knew he was a “Muslim” and so that was inherently bad. In the congregation I preached for, and from some of the brothers in the “inner city,” I learned some could speak favorably about Malcolm. I was extremely confused. I did some superficial investigation and my worst fears were confirmed. I just thought, Malcolm X how could anyone be a fan (much less a Christian). As I said, I honestly knew nothing about Malcolm except that he was called Malcolm X.

A few years later, I read Spencer Perkins and Chris Rice’s book, More than Equals: Racial Healing for the Sake of the Gospel in 1998. In that book, Spencer relates how his minister father, John Perkins, had been beaten and nearly killed by the police in Brandon, Mississippi. Spencer was only 16 at the time. He testified how angry he got with his father who was having a “crises in his faith. Frankly, I hoped he would conclude that the gospel and Christianity were for white folks. I hoped he would finally see the light and agree with Malcolm X” (p. 43).

There was that name.

So in 1998, I decided to step outside my comfort zone and read The Autobiography of Malcolm X with Alex Haley. Suddenly, I was in a world in which I was an alien. I confess Malcolm made me mad more than once. Not as mad as James Cone did however when I first read him. But I was mad and convicted at the same time.

Malcolm convinced me that, most of the time, I had no clue what I was talking about. But I thought I did. He gave me a window, a narrative, a life that allowed me to see, literally in black and white, how radically different America has been for people different than me.

Not just America, but Christianity. I have since come to believe that Malcolm is a massive “God sent” rebuke to Christianity as it has often functioned in America. I have since learned that Frederick Douglass, long before Malcolm can function in the same capacity. And before Douglass there was David Walker and his Appeal. Malcolm certainly is not friendly to white Christianity. But this is what I needed to hear, Malcolm was in fact reacting to his experience of Christianity as it was expressed among a group of people in North America.

I could denounce Malcolm, I could say Islam is wrong (and I think it is). But making such assertions does not deal with the reason Malcolm embraced Islam over Christianity. It was “that” that not only I but so many believers simply did not want to face.

Malcolm forces us to listen to the critic. To have ears to hear. To look in the mirror. To examine ourselves and ask how do we come across. Like my Jewish teacher, Malcolm made me ask just what is Christianity and why do we do what we do if we claim a Crucified Jew as our King?

Back to the book.

It took only three pages of the Autobiography for me to have my first Muhammad Ali face punch. Here I was confronted with a black man’s reason for rejecting Christianity as it is found in America. We read on p.3:

when my mother was pregnant with me, she told me later a party of hooded Ku Klux Klan riders galloped up to our home in Omaha, Nebraska, one night. Surrounding the house the Klansman shouted threats to my pregnant mother warning her we better get out of town because ‘the good Christian white people’ were not going to stand for my fathers spreading trouble among the good niggers.

At the time I read this, I still had virtually no idea of the bloody history of surrounding me in Grenada, MS. I still had not heard of the White Citizens Council, Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, the bashing of elementary school children with bats, chains and bricks in Grenada. I would learn all that though after.

Back to Malcolm. We can protest this, and I do. I want to say “but that is not Christianity.”

And yet Christianity’s apologetic is the lives of those claiming to be disciples. Here, Christianity is blatantly intertwined with white supremacy. Malcolm testifies just a short time later on p. 46,

all praise is due to Allah that I went to Boston when I did. If I hadn’t I’d probably still be a brainwashed black Christian.”

Boston is where Malcolm was arrested, spent time in prison and was converted. Christianity was, forevermore in his mind, a white man’s religion.

In 1891 there was an average of 20 brutal lynching’s per month across the Bible Belt of the United States. But for every lynching there were dozens and dozens of brutal beatings, tens of thousands of rapes of black women (most white Americans have no idea that Rosa Parks long before she refused to give up a seat on a bus had been an anti-rape crusader in Alabama), churches bombed and burned to the ground … I confess to you I grew up in Alabama and thought I was at least conversant with our history. But I was, in the epic words of Jethro Tull, “thick as a brick.”

“Good Christian” white people doing what they threatened Malcolm’s mother with. The Lynching Tree is where white Christians were crucifying Jesus … aka black men, women and children … Botham Jean, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd.

Malcolm has done something for me over the years. He helped me see something I did not understand and still don’t from an existential pov. That is anger and rage. The anger that Spencer Perkins had.

So many times what people call “black racism” is more likely simply long submerged, unresolved, frustrated anger over decades and centuries of injustice … typically done in the name of Christianity.

I think Malcolm has something to say to us. The only question is will we be brave enough enough to have ears to hear.

I believe I am a more faithful Christian because I have attempted to listen (however successfully is open to debate) Malcolm X. Malcolm forces me as a white Christian to ask myself,

“Bobby are you getting pissed off over the right stuff?”

But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream” (Amos 5.24)

He has told you, O Human, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love HESED and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6.8).

Let me recommend encountering Malcolm. Several years ago Denzel Washington captured the spirit of Malcolm X powerfully in Spike Lee’s film. Make a decision to watch it and perhaps even discuss it in a church group.

Leave a Reply