Featured Reviews, VOLUME 8

Alan Cross – When Heaven and Earth Collide [Feature Review]

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A Feature Review of

When Heaven and Earth Collide: Racism, Southern Evangelicals, and the Better Way of Jesus
Alan Cross

Paperback: New South Books, 2014

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Reviewed by Rafael Rodriguez
How could racism exist in a region where evangelical Christians were in the majority?  This is the question Alan Cross seeks to answer in his recent book When Heaven and Earth Collide  Cross approaches this topic as a “son of the south”, a native of Alabama, a Southern Baptist pastor, and a white male.   Yet this does not cripple him in revealing the repulsive practices and racist teachings of southern evangelicals before and after the Civil War.

Quickly accelerated in the first chapter, one reads with horror as Cross narrates the bloody history of the Freedom Riders, that 1960’s group of young black and white activists seeking to desegregate the interstate busing system by illustratively sitting together on Greyhound buses throughout the south.   Cross re-tells of how this nonviolent gesture of racial justice excited Klu Klux Klan brutality throughout Alabama, such that even President Kennedy was concerned for the Riders’ safety.  However, local police made little to no arrests and much of the blame was placed on the Freedom Riders themselves for being “outside agitators”, trouble makers bent on disrupted civil order and imposing “liberal”, “atheistic” principles from the North (13).  Cross argues that while most southern evangelicals did not actively engage in such ferocity, they were “responsible for creating the environment where Klan violence was acceptable, sanctioned, and protected by those in power” (14).  Indeed, argues Cross, not only were segregationist ‘ideals’ of the Klan left unchallenged by evangelicals (20), men like Dr. Henry Lyon Jr., then president of the Alabama Baptist Convention, went as far as proclaiming segregation as “one of the principle [sic] teachings of the Holy Bible” (139).  The presence of such quotations illustrate the intellectual honesty to which Cross approaches the subject, unafraid of delving into aged arguments that so often play into the hands of so-called liberals; Arguments such as those calling for “states rights” and individual liberty in order to allow for segregation (racism) to continue existing; Arguments like that of Reverend Douglas Hudgins, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jackson, Mississippi (1946-1969), when he concludes that the gospel message does not deal with social reform movements but strictly with personal salvation (133).  Cross admits that this theological understanding of Jesus’ message equating to a strict, individualistic salvation provided a trump card for evangelicals and fundamentalists alike in keeping their foot out of the political and social arena in defence of blacks (unless, of course, it benefited their interests).  Cross quotes Dr. Martin Luther King Jr: “In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard so many ministers say: ‘Those are social issues with which the gospel has no real concern'”(128).
Cross spends a few chapters developing a historical basis for his claim that the racism of many southern evangelicals was due in part to the drawn out history of the “subversion” of Christianity, beginning with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 313 AD which institutionalized Christianity in the Roman Empire, making it the official state religion.  For Cross, this event was the beginning of a long and dark saga in which Church and State were working hand in hand, shedding blood in the name of Jesus through the Crusades, Inquisitions, and Holy Wars.  Following the reformation, several denominations arose that were a-political and rejected the former use of the state by the Church.  Through different sections of the book, Cross reveals what happens when one mixes a religion-sanctioned slave trade culture and an evangelical minority group that is focused on “saving souls”, namely, the assimilation of zealous missionaries that become “all things to all people”, even slave-owners.  “A primary focus on personal evangelism…through means of voluntary, individual conversion,” writes Cross, “leaves white evangelicals in a position of constantly seeking to relate positively to a larger culture in order to gain adherents” (43).  Cross continues, stating that “because of this focus, they have often not called for changes in America’s social and political structures and have actually gone along with the prevailing institutions…almost bind to the injustice…” (42).  Cross documents how southern evangelicalism would ultimately embrace, participate, and even defend slavery upon biblical, moral, social, and economic necessity.  Being an evangelical himself, Cross pulls no punches.

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