My good Christian friends used to tell the story about a young colored man from the little community of Pineville, South Carolina, who was drafted into the Army just after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (“colored” was a progressive term in those days, a giant step up from “nigger”). When he got his notice papers, this colored fellow—a good Baptist—got down on his knees and told God he would not fear going to war so long as Jesus would walk with him, wherever he went. So Jesus agreed to go.
And so the young colored soldier went through some of the fiercest battles of the war—first in North Africa, then the invasion of France, Italy, and finally the storming of the heartland of Germany. He came out with nary a scratch, because Jesus was always at his side. Jesus was with him when he got his discharge papers, and with him, as well, on the long ocean trip by troop ship back to America. Disembarking at Charleston, the soldier was so happy to be home and unharmed, he jumped up, shouting, as soon as his feet hit Carolina soil, saying, “Come on, Jesus, I ain’t catching no bus; I’m fixing to walk myself back home.” And so he did, Jesus still by his side. Going through the little town of Goose Creek on Sunday morning, the soldier came upon a little church by the side of the road, where a congregation of white folks were inside, shouting and singing and praising the Lord.
It was the first church the colored soldier had seen since he got back home, and flushed and full, he decided to go inside and join the good white folks, so he could properly thank God for saving him in the war. But looking back as he walked up the steps, the soldier saw that Jesus was still standing in the middle of the road, hanging back. “What’s wrong, Jesus?” the soldier asked. “This is where we part our ways, my son,” Jesus answered. The soldier could not believe it. “You come with me through hell’s firestorm of war like you promised, every step of the way,” he said. “You come with me through the streets of Berlin, with bombs falling all over like hailstones on a cabbage patch. Why are you abandoning me now, Jesus?” “I’m sorry, son,” Jesus answered, shaking his head and turning back down the road. “They don’t even let me go in there.”
That’s the story my good Christian South Carolina friends used to tell, anyway, and if you got a problem with it, you’ve got to check with them.
I thought about that story just after I read a congratulatory letter allegedly written shortly after the Nov. 2 elections to President George W. Bush by Mr. Bob Jones III, who is the president of Bob Jones University over in Greenville, South Carolina. I say “allegedly” only because the widely-publicized letter was supposed to have been posted on the university’s website. If so, it has since been pulled, and there’s always the possibility that this whole thing was a hoax. But we’ll treat it seriously, at least for now.
Some brief background. I lived in South Carolina for many, many years, and now and then got up to Greenville, which is in the foothills in the northwestern corner of the state. It’s a lovely, lovely place with lots and lots of nice people, and I’d rather be stranded beside the road out there than in some places outside of Benicia or Antioch, or even San Leandro or Hayward. But it does have its downsides.
One of these downsides is that Greenville is one of the centers of what you might call—what’s the best way to put it?—OER (“Or Else Religion,” that is, the kind of religion that says you better believe in what we believe in, or else God gonna do something awful bad to you.) If the Old South is the Bible Belt of America and Mississippi is the buckle, then right around Greenville, you come across the end of the strap that the old folks used to whip you with.
The other downside of Greenville is that it is in that part of the world that used to not take too kindly to niggers who got out of our place—it is, after all, only a state away from Pulaski, Tennessee, where the Ku Klux Klan was formed. Bob Jones University was very much in backward step with the worst sentiments of that region, finally accepting Negroes in its classrooms so long as we stayed in our place, but most famously banning—until March of 2000—interracial dating among its students. James Landrith Jr., editor of The Multiracial Activist journal of Alexandria, Virginia, says that he was denied admission to Bob Jones University in 1998 because he married outside of his race. The Activist has a letter from the Bob Jones community relations coordinator from that time, stating that “Bob Jones University [has] a rule prohibiting interracial dating among its students. God has separated people for His own purpose. ... God has made people different one from another and intends those differences to remain.”
BJU’s website still proclaims that the university “stands without apology for the old-time religion,” which sort of gives me the willies, friends, since I was around when some of that old-time religion was still in place, and I ain’t so anxious for some of it to come back.
Anyhow, on the day after the election, BJU President Bob Jones III is supposed to have written a public letter to President Bush, telling the president, among other things that “In your re-election, God has graciously granted America—though she doesn’t deserve it—a reprieve from the agenda of paganism. You have been given a mandate. … You owe the liberals nothing. They despise you because they despise your Christ. Honor the Lord, and He will honor you. … Undoubtedly, you will have opportunity to appoint many conservative judges and exercise forceful leadership with the Congress in passing legislation that is defined by biblical norm regarding the family, sexuality, sanctity of life, religious freedom, freedom of speech, and limited government. ... If you have weaklings around you who do not share your biblical values, shed yourself of them.”
Mr. Jones’ beliefs are not necessarily Mr. Bush’s beliefs, and the President is not bound by them or answerable to them. Still, I feel as the 18th century Haitian revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture did when he saw, from afar, warships gather in French waters in preparation for sail to Port au Prince. After expressing his concerns, L’Ouverture received a reply from Bonaparte that “we are sailing to Haiti on a mission of peace and goodwill, and you have all of my assurances that we mean you no harm.” To which L’Ouverture answered, “if this is, indeed, a mission of peace, then why are so many of my enemies in its midst?”
There are about as many interpretations of the Bible as there are people who read it. And so, one wonders, what is this “biblical norm” to which Mr. Jones refers, what are its precepts and tenets, and what part will it actually play in the new national government to be established by Mr. Bush?
I suppose we will have a bit more to say on this subject, in coming weeks.