Benjamin E. Mays on the Origin and Claims of the Christian Church

Benjamin E. Mays on the Origin and Claims of the Christian Church:

“We turn to the Church first because the Christian Church is a unique institution. It claims for itself what no other institution in America claims. It claims, both Catholic and Protestant, that its origin is not of this world and that God is its author. It asserts that its ultimate allegiance is not to the State, not to the economic order, not to the prejudice of men, not even to the mores and folkways of society; but that its ultimate loyalty is to God.The State makes no such assertion. Colleges and Universities make no such assertion. Our capitalistic society makes no such assertion. The Church is the only institution in America that insists that its origin is from God. It stubbornly proclaimed, centuries before modern science established it as fact, that man has a common origin–and the Church calls that origin God. It stubbornly proclaimed, centuries before modern science discovered the four universal types of blood, that all men are brothers under the skin; and that from one blood God created “all nations of men for to dwell on all the faces of the earth.” The Church also asserts that human life is sacred and that each individual is of intrinsic worth and value. Any institution that has the nerve to make such claims is obligated—if for no other reason than to maintain integrity of soul, to strive with might and main to make good on its pronouncements.”

Moreover, in a Commencement Address delivered at Howard University in June 9, 1945, Prominent Public Theologian and Civil Rights Activist Benjamin E. Mays told his audience that the Christian Church should “christianize” America and be a “prophetic church.” What a powerful claim! What did he mean by this concept? Interestingly, Mays saw a close connection and important parallel between “Christianity” and “American democracy,” as both ideas pertained (pertain) to the American experience and the public function of the Christian Church in the American society. As he explained with precision and clarity:

“The first stand, therefore, that the Church should take, in its effort to Christianize America in this generation, is on the question of Christian fellowship. The Church should be the one spot in America where all men are free and equal. It should be the one spot in America where artificial barriers, whether of group, class, or race , do not count. There should never by any doubt in the mind of any man that the Church is open to him; whether it be located in the bottom of Mississippi or in the upper right hand corner of Maine; and this applies to the Negro Church as well as to the White Church. On the point of segregation, the Church should not be subservient to the State nor to society. But as it stands today the Church is subservient both to the State and to Society. Instead of setting the standard for the secular order, it stands in awe of the secular order and is led by it.

The Church is one of the most segregated institution in the United States. On the question of democracy and Christianity, the Church should go further than night clubs, hotels, theaters, and restaurants. If the Christian forces of this country really wanted to do so, and if they really believed what they preach, they would make the Church Christian within a single decade. Then it would earn the right to speak to the secular order–not only in the area of race but in the area of social and economic affairs. It would be not only a priestly church but a prophetic church.

If the disadvantaged people of America cannot look to the Church and to the Federal Government for protection–their’s is a hopeless case. Not only that but both Democracy and Christianity in America will ultimately perish unless we can trust the Federal Government to be democratic and the Church to be Christian…If we can not do this, we do not believe it. We are what we do and not what we say. We are as democratic as we live and we are as Christian as we act. If we talk brotherhood and segregate human beings, we do not believe in brotherhood. If we talk democracy and deny it to certain groups, we do not believe in democracy. If we preach justice and exploit the weak, we do not believe in justice. If we preach truth and tell lies, we do not believe in truth. We are what we do.”

—Benjamin E. Mays, “Democraticizing and Christianizing America in This Generation” (1945)

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