MAXWELL:  Arm-twisting religion fuels resistance

5/31/2000 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

As expected, my May 14 column about Palm Beach County residents who returned a Jesus video to its sender, the Jesus Video Project, brought an avalanche of letters and e-mail from irate Christians.

Based on these correspondences, along with others I have received over the years of the same nature, I must conclude that most Christian newspaper readers who write about the issue of faith are arrogant and downright mean and nasty.

Below is an example of this attitude, part of a letter published in the St. Petersburg Times on May 21. Because I think that Palm Beach County residents were justified in returning the tape, the letter writer describes me this way: “Perhaps God will deal with (Maxwell) as he did with another persecutor of Christians, Saul, who became the Apostle Paul.”

I, a “persecutor of Christians”? How absurd! If I remember correctly, the high priest of Jerusalem commissioned Saul to travel north to Antioch and Damascus to arrest any followers of “The Way” he could find. I have no such commission, nor do I want one. Heck, I am no Saul, just a newspaper hack. I do all I can to avoid all contact with evangelical Christians.

The problem is that evangelicals possess the gall to try to ram their dogma down other people’s throats. But they cannot abide rejection. They hate being told to “get lost.” I would never knock on a stranger’s door to proselytize. Nor would I knock on the door of a Christian to persecute him. People who know me know that I mind my own religious business _ until, of course, some overzealous do-gooder invades my space.

Am I to believe that the return of an unsolicited video about Christ condemns a person to hell fire? I humbly suspect that God’s eternal script for humankind is more complex.

Here is an analysis of the second page of my correspondences. Most of the messages that come to me personally _ and not to the editor for publication _ carry a subtext of racism: How dare you, Bill Maxwell _ a black man _ write such words about our Christ!

That message is there, oozing between the lines, revealing the contents of the letter writers’ hearts. Do not forget that I, along with other blacks, was born in “Christian America” _ the same nation that branded us as inferior beasts who lacked a human soul and, therefore, deserving of enslavement.

Christianity as an organized religion has to redeem itself on many fronts. Sure, I trust certain individual Christians, care for them and admire them, but I keep a wary eye on this thing called Christianity. Growing up, I witnessed many atrocities committed by Southern Baptists and some Methodists. I know of white preachers who stood in their pulpits and delivered racist sermons. The Southern Baptist Convention, in fact, was founded before the Civil War by whites who saw no ethical conflict between worshiping Christ, owning slaves and going to heaven no less.

And I have not forgotten that this church opposed the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, had hundreds of thousands of members who supported the Ku Klux Klan’s racial agenda, had hundreds of Klansmen in their pews. How much am I, along with other blacks, expected to trust an organized group with such a long history of discriminating against me?

My grandfather, a presiding elder in his denomination, worried about the messages that came from many white churches. He often wondered aloud if black and white Christians worshiped the same God. Given that bigots, such as George Wallace, Strom Thurmond, Bull Connor, Huey Long and others, professed to be Christians, I was certain that our deities were different.

Like evangelicals today, my grandfather tried to save souls. He and other black preachers would pitch giant tents in cities, vacant lots and fields statewide and hold revivals. I would accompany him. He always told me that those who want to be saved will find their way to a tent. “God will send them here,” he would say. In other words, he and other black preachers provided the venues for salvation _ without offending the very souls they wanted to save. He knew that people resist arm-twisting.

The evangelicals mailing and hand-delivering today’s Jesus video need to learn this simple lesson: Because of their aggressive tactics, they are failing to win over the very people they are trying to rescue.

Anyway, a college chum sent me his copy of the Jesus tape. And I watched it. The story is the same one that I have heard since childhood, that I still read in the Gospels, that I was taught in college religion, that I see in movies at Christmas and Easter, that I experience each time I go to the Old City of Jerusalem and Bethlehem _ the birthplace of Christ.