Thursday, June 3, 2021
It's Thursday, June 3rd 2021.
I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The Moral Reckoning of History: Looking Back at the Tulsa Race Massacre 100 Years Later
Most days, the headlines refer back to the last several hours, or at least the last several days. Sometimes, the headlines go much further back, and that's the case this week. It has to do with an event that took place on May the 31st and June the 1st of the year 1921. The events took place in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but in reality, they are a mirror of other events that took place in other years throughout the United States.
The event has been known in history as the Tulsa Race Riot, but it has been renamed in more recent history as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Behind all of this, there's a story that demands our attention. And what started at all, at least we are told, is that on May the 30th, a young black man in Tulsa had been seen in an elevator with a young white woman. Back then, that was enough, just proximity, to begin rumors that something had taken place, and often there were allegations of sexual misbehavior that were alleged against the young black man.
The young man in this case was named Dick Roland, and the expanding rumors are an indication themselves that the story had gotten out of hand. By the time evening came on June the 1st, about 39 city blocks in Tulsa had been burned, and they were all basically in areas identified with the black community in Tulsa, an unusually prosperous black community known as Greenwood, sometimes referred to even as the Black Wall Street, but all that came burning to an end by the end of the day on June the 1st 1921. The flames destroyed the central business district there in Greenwood, rightly known as Black Wall Street, and the black community there in Tulsa never recovered.
A century later, there are still lingering effects of what became known as the Tulsa Race Riots, but were renamed as the Tulsa Race Massacre. Why that, by the way? Why the change in name. For about half a century, just about no one talked about it. According to some reports, the cover story or the front page of local newspapers, even in the vault where the bound volumes are kept, had that page removed. It simply disappeared from history. But it didn't, of course, disappear from memory. And it didn't disappear from moral urgency.
Now, a hundred years later, we can look back and understand that the Tulsa Race Riots, later named the Tulsa Race Massacre, even in the nomenclature become very morally important to us. From the vantage point of a hundred years later, we have the moral responsibility to look back. Why, after a half century of denial, were the events often referred to as the Tulsa Race Riots? Well, at least in part, at least it is alleged that the use of the term "riot" gave insurance companies a way out of paying claims that would have been placed by homeowners and business owners there in the Greenwood area of Tulsa. But there's another reason why the word riot was used, and that's because it appears more morally neutral than the word that is now used, which is "massacre."
The state of Oklahoma began looking officially at its own history, the history of what had taken place in Tulsa, and the state of Oklahoma officially changed its nomenclature from riot to massacre. The word "massacre", by the way, points to the human cost, and the most direct human costs were human deaths. At least 36 deaths took place in the events there in Tulsa, and that's why it is now referred to even by the government of Oklahoma as a massacre.
It becomes clear in retrospect that when a city loses 39 blocks of its African-American community, there are lingering effects. 39 blocks, so the core of what had been the financial district and the business strength of an increasingly prosperous community, a community that lost just about all that prosperity in the span of about 48 hours, 100 years ago.
There's been a great deal of national attention to the anniversary of the events in Tulsa. President Joe Biden gave an address memorializing the events, and just about every major political entity in the country has made some kind of comment. One thing to note here, and this is very important, is that there is a bipartisan consensus. You had conservatives and liberals in this country agreeing on the abject moral horror of what had taken place a hundred years ago in Tulsa.
There is no defense, no moral defense whatsoever, for those events, and there is every reason for Americans in the 21st century to look back to these events in the early years of the 20th century, the years right after World War I, to understand the events that took place in America, not only for their meaning then, but for their meaning now. Any kind of violence, any kind of vandalism, any kind of arson, any kind of event, riot or massacre like this is horrifying enough just in itself in the facts, but the facts in this case point to the fact that the great sin of racism is very much at the center of this story. It's inseparable in this story. It's inevitable in this story, because what we saw here was the deliberate targeting of a community.
The whole nation, by the way, was at the stage of being a tinderbox at this time. Race relations in the United States around the year 1921 were particularly fraught, a situation that brings us in mind to the parallels with our own moment. But looking back to 1921, we recognize that there was a violence that took place then which we must, at all costs, make certain is not repeated. Christians should note that no less than 23 churches were destroyed in those 39 blocks that were the object of an incendiary attack, and when it comes to the death toll, the death toll was ranged from about 36 to 300. We may never know. Indeed, honestly, speaking, we probably will never know the exact number of human lives that were lost, were taken, in the midst of those awful days in Tulsa in 1921. About 9,000 black residents actually lost their homes, and a considerable number of the black residents in Tulsa had to spend a very hard winter in tents, because their homes had been consumed by flames.
Those who look at American history will mark the events in Tulsa in 1921 as one of the darkest and most violent moments of our nation's history, especially in its long struggle of dealing with the sin of racism. There's something very important in our moral accountability about the fact that when you have an anniversary like this, there is a moral call to go back and to understand what had taken place, not just in order to come to terms with what happened then, but in order to understand the meaning of those events for our own times in the present.
For one individual, for one dear lady, 107 years old, the events in Tulsa are not only a matter of historical interests. They are a matter of her own personal history. Viola Fletcher was a seven-year-old girl during those horrifying days in Tulsa in 1921. She is now 107, and at age 107, she testified before the United States Congress last month. She made the plea, "I'm asking my country to acknowledge what happened in Tulsa in 1921." Indeed, her country is acknowledging what took place there in Tulsa in 1921.
Racism is a sin that is as old as humanity in terms of the development of diversity among human beings. Partiality is one of the biblical words coming down to the sin of racism. Prejudice, enmity, the denial of a fellow human being or fellow human beings as being equally made in God's image, and of course the idea that one race might be superior to another race, all of these ideologies are completely contrary to scripture. They're contradictory to the gospel, and they are a grave offense to our holy God.
One of the truths that Christians must understand is that in the unfolding of history, sin is always there. We have an explanation for that. Our biblical doctrine of sin includes both Original Sin, explaining why every single human being is a sinner, not just becomes a sinner, but is a sinner, and total depravity, explaining that every dimension of what it means to be human is corrupted by sin, gravely affected and distorted by sin.
Now, expand that human experience, and to combine human experience, add to that time and the distance of history, and we come to understand that we will never look at a moment in human history after the fall, without finding sin in that moment. We will never look at any history, we'll never look at any historical moment, any historical period, any historical event, and say, "We can look at this without reference to sin," because human beings are there; sin is there.
As we think about a biblical understanding of history, we have to understand that at times, when we look at history, we find irony, that ironic combination of human, evil, and goodness, of all kinds of human events and emotions, human intuitions, human decisions, all kinds of irony that is present in history. And it's there for us to see, and we must have the bravery to see it. There's also agony in history. There are horrifying things we discover in history. There are massacres and tragedies. There are murders, there are betrayals. And of course, there are just many very sad moments in history. Sad not just because something happened, but sad because human sin is the issue that is there at stake.
There is also glory in history, but we have to watch that glory. We look to certain moments and we say, "That was a glorious moment," but that glory is never without reference to human finitude and human sin, even in the greatest moments of glory. Just take, for example, the Allied victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. That was a glorious moment, but it was a glorious moment that came at an exceedingly great cost. And even the greatest defenders of the Allies during World War II, and that would include, of course, most Americans and for that matter, most Europeans, most people around the world. There's no moral question that we should be extremely and everlastingly thankful for the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, but it did not take place without things happening that were themselves representative of sin.
In a moral, biblical worldview, since history makes a demand on us. It makes the demand that we want to make certain we get the story right? We want to get the facts right. We want to understand history, insofar as it is possible, as it actually happened. We don't want history to be an endless negotiation of make-believes or political arguments. In today's context, that's very difficult, but again, it is at least a significant achievement we need to recognize in this country that there is general agreement in this country as to what took place over May the 31st and June the 1st of 1921, and, we should be very glad to say, there is a combined consensual horror at those events that took place over those two days.
We All—But Especially Christians—Have a Responsibility to Get History Right, No Matter How Long Ago the History Took Place
History makes demands on us, but history cannot deliver, no historical perspective or historical study can deliver, on the ultimate issues that are at stake. And as evidence of that, I want to point to some of the language taking place in the commemoration and memory of the Tulsa race massacre. Two words have leaped out at me from headlines and from arguments and public comments. Those two words are "redemption" and "atonement" or "atone."
The Los Angeles Times ran an editorial saying that no amount of historical reconsideration of what took place in Tulsa can nationally atone for the horror of what took place there. Consider that word for a moment, "atone," pointing to atonement. But then consider the word "redemption." There are several who have said that what the incident in Tulsa represents is a demand for historical redemption.
Here's the point I want to make. Isn't it interesting that even in our highly secularized, increasingly secularized age, the theological vocabulary is still very much present: a theological vocabulary that comes directly from biblical Christianity; words like "atone" or "atonement" and "redemption." Of course we understand as Christians that those are theological terms that have everything to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ, with God's sovereign, redemptive work through Christ accomplishing atonement for our salvation. Atonement is the biblical word that points to the fact that our relationship with God has been restored. The word redemption means that we have been rescued. We've been bought with a price. We are redeemed by the blood of the lamb.
But you'll notice the secular impulse here to use a word like atone or a word like redemption. What does that point to? Well, of course it does point to the lingering influence of Christianity, even in a secularizing culture. But I think it points to something far deeper than that. At least two things. Number one, it points to the fact that there is still, in the human heart, even in the secular human heart, there is a deep impulse that cries out for atonement and cries out for redemption, not only in looking at the demands of history, but looking at our own hearts.
Secondly, a part of the agony of history is understanding that it is impossible to go back and make atonement for 1921. It is impossible to bring redemption to those who were parties to that conflict then. The exception to that is Viola Fletcher. But other than that, what we are looking at is the distance of history, and that makes atonement and redemption, even in human terms, all the more difficult.
It is extremely important that Tulsa, 1921, not be forgotten. It is even more important that Tulsa, 1921, not be repeated. Americans should be thankful. All Americans should be thankful that we are not the nation now that we were in 1921. I believe that history of the last 100 years points to the fact that societies can and do make progress in moral terms, such as in dealing with the sin of racism. As a nation, we have much further to go. I think we know that. As Christians, we understand we have much further to go, but in order to get there, we're not dependent upon human ideologies. Rather we are dependent upon holy Scripture. And in looking at these events as we have sought to do so today, the guiding issue and authority here is the moral verdict of holy Scripture when it comes to an event like this. And when it comes to history, you only have one 100th anniversary, and in that anniversary, one chance to make the history right.
The Battle Over Yoga Continues: Alabama Once Again Allows Yoga to Be Taught in Public Schools
Next, we shift gears entirely to go from Oklahoma to the state of Alabama. And the issue in the state of Alabama is yoga, and the fact that given action by the state government, yoga is now once again going to be legally taught in the public schools in the state of Alabama. The New York Times reported, "For the first time in nearly three decades, Alabama will allow yoga to be taught in its public schools, but the ancient practice will be missing some of its hallmarks. Teachers will be barred from saying the traditional salutation namaste and using Sanskrit names for poses. Chanting is forbidden and the sound of om, one of the most popular mantras associated with the practice, which combines, we're told, breathing exercises and stretches 'is a no-no.'"
The reports tell us that on Thursday of last week, Governor Kay Ivey, a Republican, overrode a 1993 ban on yoga instruction by the state's Board of Education. She signed the bill against the advice of some conservative groups there in Alabama that had called for the prohibition of yoga to be preserved and continued, "contending that the practice of yoga is inseparable from Hinduism and Buddhism and amounted to a religious activity." Well, as the story continues to unfold, we are told that the measure takes effect on August the 1st and local school boards are going to have the final say over whether or not yoga is taught to their students and the public schools. And the grades covered, by the way, are pretty inclusive, all the way from kindergarten to the 12th grade.
The legislator behind this is Jeremy Gray, a Democrat from Opelika, Alabama, who we are told had been previously certified as a yoga instructor. Gray said, "With the evangelicals and this being a Bible state, they felt it was like a threat to Christianity. Even 30 years later," he said, "you would still have the same sentiments." Well, indeed you could, because you should. I have argued and long documented the fact that yoga is inseparable from its religious roots, and those religious roots are undeniable.
Even as yoga came to the United States in the late 19th century, it came packaged as a part of Hinduism and Buddhism, Hinduism in particular. We don't know exactly when yoga emerged as a physical practice, but we do know that it emerged over 2000 years ago as a spiritual practice. The movement seemed to be added after the meditation practice. We're told that the legislation that will now allow, at least to some extent, yoga to be taught to public school students there in the public schools of Alabama, the bill was amended in order to achieve passage. This was over against the sponsor's intention, but nonetheless, he acknowledged the necessity of the amendments if the bill were to pass.
The New York Times includes this paragraph. "The amendments require parents to sign a permission slip for students to practice yoga. They also bar school personnel from using hypnosis, the induction of disassociative mental state, guided imagery, meditation, or any aspect of Eastern philosophy." Well, here's the problem. You actually can't separate any of yoga from all of yoga. And even as you're looking at people who would claim that hatha yoga, the physical practice, which is most well-known in the West, even as there are those who would claim there is no spirituality, there is no religious content to it, it's inseparable from its Hindu roots.
And by the way, as you're looking at those theological roots of yoga, you need to understand that the very essence of the practice is to achieve a certain kind of meditative emptiness. That's the opposite of Christianity, by the way. The biblical worldview tells us that we are to fill our minds with the knowledge of God. We are to fill our minds with the knowledge of scripture. We are not to try to empty our minds into nothingness.
Yoga as a physical practice is actually inseparable from the meditation practice, and even as you're trying to explain what the poses are supposed to mean, and the state of the body is supposed to imply, all of that is still connected to Hinduism. I've made that argument for many years. I've been in public controversy about that argument for many years. I know there are many Christians who believe that all they're doing is moving the body and they may not be giving themselves in any intentional way to any kind of meditative practice, but in reality, even the poses themselves are saying something.
And as you look at the history of yoga, they're saying something that is not only spiritual, but in many cases, although you're not going to hear people in Alabama talk about this in reference to the public schools, many of them have at least a quasi-sexual background as well. It is interesting that the affirmation of the essentially-religious nature of yoga comes from many within Hinduism and Buddhism, and again, especially Hinduism.
Even as I've been making this case for years, it's very interesting to see that it's often picked up by the media in India. That took place just in recent days in none other than The Times of India, where I was cited, identified as theologian and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the paper there in India pointed to my argument that yoga is innately Hindu and thus it contradicts the teachings of the Christian church. It is at least interesting that many people there in India, including Hindu authorities, are in absolute agreement with conservative Christians about the inherently Hindu nature of yoga. An interesting point of agreement, if coming from two very different directions.
It's also interesting to note the comment made by Douglas Groothuis, Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, who said, "All forms of yoga involve occult assumptions, even hatha yoga, which is often presented as a merely physical discipline." It's interesting that as you look at the history of yoga, particularly in India and in South-East Asia, you're looking at a syncretistic culture, that is to say, it can combine different worldviews into an endlessly-changing mash of ideas, ideologies, worldview, religious philosophy, spiritual practices. You can have a syncretism of Catholicism and Hinduism. You can have a syncretism of a different kind, of Eastern religion with Hinduism and Buddhism. You find much of that throughout the Middle East, and India's religious system is inherently syncretistic.
But what this development in Alabama signals to us, that as America, we are becoming increasingly syncretistic as well. We are simply saying, "You can take this worldview and combine it with that worldview and come up with your own personal idea of what works for you." In the national media coverage, the legislators there in Alabama that forced these amendments and were opposed just to mainstreaming yoga and the public schools for kindergartners through 12th graders, they were basically dismissed as religious extremists and cranks, but I have to tell you they're absolutely right and I'm very thankful for them, and I'm thankful for their courage. That means I'm thankful in this case to legislators Arthur Orr and Dan Roberts there in Alabama.
By the way, the sponsor of the legislation said, despite the amendments, "There's no yoga police going around saying you can and cannot do this." In terms of consistency, you have to wonder, where are all those secularists who are so concerned with what Thomas Jefferson called that wall of separation between church and state? Where's the wall of separation between yoga and state? It's disappearing in the state of Alabama. It disappeared long ago in many other states.
Basically, they're twisting American constitutional principles into the downward dog.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.