I was 12 or 13 when I heard the preacher in Good Hope Baptist Church, the one who baptized me, berate his wife from the pulpit. He excoriated her, using biblical passages, making it clear that women did not speak up, talk back, wear the pants, sass their husbands. She jumped up from the front pew and ran down the aisle, hunched over, her hand trying to hold the tears onto her face.
At that church, not far from where my ancestors first settled to join the booming cotton economy, some with slaves in tow, I learned what happens when religion is twisted and distorted into hatefulness.
It was at Good Hope in the early 1970s that I first heard God used to justify hatred of black people, of "homosexuals," of feminism, of anything that fell outside their strict, supposedly Christian norms.
But it was a hypocritical doctrine. One day, a middle-aged woman grabbed my arm and accused me in front of other people of trying to steal her husband (he was my Sunday school teacher and a deacon). As much as that bizarrely false accusation traumatized me—I soon stopped going to Good Hope—I later felt compassion for her when I learned that he was probably an adulterer and realized that he did flirt with minors. In more recent years, I figured out that we descend from the same slaveholding family.
By age 13, I was already a free thinker, but it was my Good Hope experience that really opened my eyes. Going to church every Sunday, and often Sunday and Wednesday nights, and constantly hearing sneering religious people repeat the n-word helped reset my course. Even as a kid, I couldn't understand the connection between the calls for love and forgiveness and the hatred of "the other" interspersed throughout those sermons. I was desperately seeking a different light than the one they showed me, a way out of my own childhood trauma.
I haven't been back to Good Hope in decades, except to visit family graves in their cemetery, but I pray it's different there now, that the church is led by people driven by love, not hate and fear and systemic bigotry.
Mississippi has failed many tests over the years, and most of the big ones. The bad choices—brutal slavery, Black Codes, Jim Crow, laws forcing women to stay with abusive men, laws enabling rape of children, mindless attacks on immigrants, repeated anti-LGBT legislation—are always excused with talk of faith, and assurances that the Good Lord supports those beliefs, or at least will mete out the punishment some day.
Here in Jackson, back in the 1800s and through my childhood, prominent preachers excused segregation and blocking black people from voting, even violence against them, as the Lord's way. They quoted the Bible as they pulled their kids out of integrated public schools, built white academies and Council schools, suddenly becoming adamantly opposed to the "government schools" they had loved when they were all-white.
The Ku Klux Klan quoted the Bible and called themselves "Christian soldiers." The mistreatment of Native Americans—routinely called "drunk Indians" when I was coming up—and theft of their land was the "manifest destiny" of Christian people.
In today's world, too many Christians who inherited the stolen land and the wealth of crops plowed by slaves belittle people living in the generational poverty that these hateful practices created. The people who benefitted most from historic discrimination say the ones who didn't all should just grab those boot straps that God gifted to us all. We all have the same chance in life, they tell us; we all should get to associate, or not associate, with whom we please, only serve people who agree with us, reject those who don't.
It's our God-given right, we're told today, to better fund newer schools with more white kids, and to set up legal shields for people who want to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens.
The hypocrisy runs deep, and counter to the kind of loving acceptance that confused, sassy 12-year-old was seeking at Good Hope: love me despite our differences, don't love me because I'm a carbon copy of you.
The adult me has gone poking and prodding through my ancestors' histories to try to understand; I've found desperate greed that helped launched the slave trade in Virginia; slave-owning Quaker zealots who helped build the abolition movement; and a steady descent from educated, wealthy ancestors to grandfathers and parents who couldn't read or write. And women who were just baby machines, often dying early and painfully after living a compliant life.
Other states share this history, but it is worse here precisely because the riches and the stakes were so high when the seeds went into our fertile ground. It took a lot of callous hate to be the wealthiest state on the backs of slaves—and that depravity landed us on the bottom, where we still struggle.
Tragically, not since Mississippi formed as a cotton outpost for wealthy planters and those who wanted to be, have our leaders led us to higher ground. With the exception of Gov. William Winter and his mentees, really, we haven't had leaders, regardless of party, who helped us turn the corner away from a brutal, traumatized past where people were taught to hate to excuse their selfish desires.
Instead, state officials continually renew that deal with the devil, that "southern strategy" of pandering to bigotry for fearful votes, thereby ensuring that the old beliefs don't disappear. They don't care that their embrace of hate means some kid likely will be motivated to hurt somebody because of it, like Matthew Shepard on that Wyoming fence, the massacred parishioners in Charleston, or three young heroes buried under a dam on Olen Burrage's land near my old church.
We don't have leaders to lead us home, at least not in statewide office (the only Democrat wants firing squads), and our Legislature is dominated by people happy to say hateful things out loud, while proclaiming and tweeting that they're not hateful, wink, wink. In order to pretend to be stalwart Christians, they take actions that run off their own sons and daughters while pretending that God is really blessing this discrimination, this time, and that it's oh-so-different than back in the 1960s when their daddies and granddaddies did the same things to people of color.
But there is hope. This time, in a way I've never seen, the rest of Mississippi is standing together against perverted hatred. The most powerful opposition is coming from black people, older and younger, who see the parallels and know that true faith requires loving people across their differences, who know Jim Crow when they see his ugly face even if wrapped in a different flag.
As the Phil Bryant crowd defiantly keeps the flag of slavery flying, makes us suffer through Confederate Heritage Month and presents us a list of ways to discriminate against those who love differently, Mississippi is growing up and finding collective strength to say that we've been a state built on a foundation of hate long enough.
We get to the promised land together, or not at all.
Follow Editor-in-Chief Donna Ladd on Twitter @donnerkay.
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