LET'S ADMIT WE ARE IN TROUBLE. We have been in trouble for a long time. We will be in trouble tomorrow and for some time to come unless we who call ourselves Christians face up to our responsibilities.
No religion is worth a flip unless expressed in our life with others. Edmund Burke, an Englishman, said two hundred years ago: "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil in the world is that good men do nothing." It happened in Grenada last fall, when my two youngest girls went off to OUT newly desegregated school nearby.
My wife teaches across town, and I followed her there because tension was already building in the streets. When I got back home, I saw the violence that would embarrass Grenada before the world. Negro children were running across the intersection, frightened and crying. And grown men with clubs were chasing them.
Four churches—Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, and my own Methodist—stood in sight of the school. Almost in their shadows, mobs roamed like mad dogs all day, looking for someone to hurt.
I looked out my church study window and I thought, "My God, what has the church been doing that this could happen?"
Where was the church when these seeds of prejudice were sown? Such acts were born of attitudes. How could prejudice and stubborn resistance to change have been allowed to grow until they could burst into violence? The condemnation of the church was not on that Monday morning, but on all the mornings of the years gone by.
I am not easily shocked by inhumanity. As an Army chaplain, I entered Buchenwald within a few hours after our infantry had taken it. I saw skeletons that still lived, corpses tossed like kindling onto the wagons. I had little compassion for the Germans then. Yet I never saw an American soldier mistreat a German child.
Jesus said: "Whoever causes one of these little ones to stumble, it were better that a millstone were hanged around his neck and he were cast into the middle of the sea." As I looked out my window in Grenada, little children stumbled and fell in terror before grown men with clubs and chains. Their offense was that their skin was black.
I do not think it the business of the church to tell city hall how to run its business. But if the church has nothing to say under these circumstances, what does the church ever have to say? We have been so busy growing and taking in new members and submerging ourselves in activities that we have lost sight of our individual responsibilities to witness every day with our lives to the faith that is in us.
Nowhere do the Gospels measure a man's religion by how much he pays the preacher or apes to church or serves on a committee. I have only contempt for Sunday religion. If a preacher has nothing to say to the problems people have, to their frustrations and cares, then he's got nothing to say. He can quote Scripture from one side to the other, and he might as well be reciting from a mail-order catalogue.
There are good people in Grenada. My own congregation was as upset and ashamed over what happened as I was. I knew they were not involved in the violence, but on the Sunday after it happened, I stood before them. I told them our problems would not be solved by Federal court orders, but by the Christians who were ready to stand and be counted. I invited them to the altar to pray for forgiveness and guidance. More than two hundred of them came forward and knelt.
Some reporters were in the congregation, though I did not know it. The next day, my sermon was quoted in the New York and Los Angeles newspapers. I began receiving hundreds of letters and phone calls from people across the country. Most, instead of condemning us, knew that, but for the grace of God, what happened in Grenada might have happened in their own towns. A seminary friend in Oklahoma told me: "I felt with tears in my eyes that I was kneeling at my altar with you." An Episcopal nun wrote: "God smiled on you today."
I deserve no laurels for Christian courage. I'd hate to be the man who wouldn't say anything under these circumstances.
Someone in New York wrote me: "You preachers should have done this a long time ago." Perhaps so, but I answered him: "It would be easier to stand up if we had a few more laymen to stand up with us."
My congregation is like the congregation in any church. It can be divided into three groups. There are the people who want to grow, who realize Christian faith has to be lived. There are those who think the church has no business involving herself in anything. To them, religion is a tidy compartment of life, to be kept by itself. And there are those who want the church as a place to escape the confusion, to shut the world out for a while.
All these people can be honest. My role as minister is to take them where I find them and try to help them grow in their faith.
Anyone with any intelligence knows that the Civil Rights Act has been the law of the land since 1964. With laws, you can make children sit together in school. You can let a man eat in any restaurant, ride any seat in a train or bus, or buy a home anywhere in town. But this is only de facto integration. It doesn't mean people are integrated.
So many people in Grenada say, "We had a good relationship with our Negroes," and from their point of view, it is true. Negroes and whites here have had abiding friendships, but always within a framework of each "knowing his place." If we could have such relationships as person to person rather than as white to Negro, if we could see someone as Christ would, we'd have something going.
The blame for the violence here in Grenada has been pinned on the Communists, on "outside agitators," on the Federal Government. A Christian cannot wriggle out so easily. The Bible clearly states that "to him that knoweth to do good, and doeth it not, to him it is sin." I wish I could stand before God and say, "I've done all I could." I can't. I know I could have done more, could have spoken out more. I know that if we share even an infinitesimal part of the guilt of the mob, we stand convicted of sin against God.
It has become fashionable to point at the South. I cannot help but feel that if the North was really concerned about breaking the shackles of the Negro in the South, it would have begun cleaning up the slums festering in its own backyard. The letters I have received tell me that if we in Grenada are guilty, we are not alone.
I know there are racial troubles in Los Angeles. But God is not going to ask me: "What about the mess in Los Angeles?" He's going to say: "Brother Burt, what did you do in Grenada?" Every man walks into that river Jordan someday, and he walks in single file.
We are confronted all over this land with a great social issue. Hardly a city or hamlet can escape some racial pain. Recognizing the worth of many vast programs, recognizing that the church has not been unconcerned, I think the issue must be resolved ultimately in our hearts. My church and my town will emerge from our experience and will be something new, something different, something better than they have ever been. I don't know how long it will take. My church may end up with fewer members, but I believe we're going to make some decisions about what is really worth while.
On Christmas, everybody loves the baby Jesus. It's no problem to love the baby Jesus. But the Baby grew up, and we don't want to go with Him the rest of the way, to the Upper Room, or Gethsemane, or a crucifixion on Calvary. Yet Jesus Himself said it: "If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me." We answer: "Who, me? You must be kidding." I think the next great revival in the church may come not by numerical growth but by subtraction. The issues will have to be faced. The church must stand for the Christ who died on a cross, not just the baby Jesus. The people looking for peace and quiet, wanting the church kept unrelated to life, will have to fall away or change.
At her best, the church has been a minority. When the church has most truly represented Christ and His gospel, she has been purified by oppression. The Christian church was built on the blood of the martyrs. When she is great, she is willing to pay the price.
We can no longer be comfortable in the face of the tremendous evil in the world. Christians are going to have to make a choice: stand up for what you profess or get out. There is no real choice. If you can't make the teaching of Jesus relevant, you are already out.
It's difficult to tell a professing Christian from anyone else today. Too many people join their churches not on faith but on status. But sooner or later, you must decide if you are going to follow Christ in compassion and concern. If you can't do it, say, "This Christianity business is too hard for me." God will love you more for your honesty.
I am just a country preacher, caught up not in my doings but in God's doings. Speaking as a preacher to believers, this is my theology: I cannot cleanse my own soul from hate or from prejudice. But if I know these things to be wrong, God will help me in my need. When we confront ourselves and say, "Lord, I can't go any farther; you've got to help me," He will. But we must have done all we could.
I'm not a controversial man. At fifty-three, I can't change the world, but, under God, I might change one or two attitudes right here. I hope to stay in Grenada. I love these people. I don't have any illusions about the future. I think there will be some rough days ahead, but I sincerely believe my people will respond to their commitment.
On Christmas, it's easy enough to give a little money and then take it off your income tax. It is something else again to put your hand on what your faith offers. If everyone could get hold of the handle that fits his hand, peace on earth would become a reality.
* After Negro schoolchildren were beaten by mobs in Grenada, Mississippi, last fall, a local minister stood up alone to demand penance be paid. The Reverend C. B. Burt, fifty-three, is pastor of the First Methodist church in Grenada. A native Mississippian, he was called to the ministry after four enlisted years in the Army. He returned to see action in World War II as a combat chaplain. During the Korean war, he signed up for a third hitch. A soldier's bluntness has stayed with him. Here, he has words for the good people who look away when hate floods in.