Charles Marsh on Racism, Reconciliation, and Redemption

On Sept. 25 and 26, the School of Theology welcomed Dr. Charles Marsh as the 2018 William Porcher DuBose lecturer. Marsh, a graduate of the University of Virginia and Harvard Divinity School, is the Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He is also the director of the Project on Lived Theology, founded in 2000, which seeks to demonstrate the way theology affects public policy and informs the quest for ethical and caring communities within our society.

Marsh has written a number of ground-breaking and award-winning books about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Civil Rights Movement, and the action of theology in society, including Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology (Oxford, 1994), God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights (Princeton, 1997), The Last Days: A Son’s Story of Sin and Segregation at the Dawn of a New South (Basic Books, 2001), The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today (Basic Books, 2006), Wayward Christian Soldiers: Freeing the Gospel from Political Captivity (Oxford, June 2007), Welcoming Justice: God’s Movement Toward Beloved Community (InterVarsity Press, 2009), which he co-authored with John M. Perkins, and Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Knopf, 2014).

The first of Marsh’s three lectures, Aristocrats of Responsibility: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Quest for a New Nobility, focused on the impact of Bonhoeffer’s two years in America. As a visiting scholar at Union Theological Seminary in 1930–31, Bonhoeffer was first exposed to the idea of “lived theology” through fieldwork in and around New York City. He then traveled throughout the United States, visiting numerous African American churches in the South. Bonhoeffer was deeply impressed by the work of the faith communities he visited, where a vision of God’s Kingdom compelled engagement on behalf of the oppressed and disenfranchised.

Returning to Germany, Bonhoeffer grew increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of resistance from the clergy to the policies of the Third Reich. In 1940, he joined a conspiracy effort to oppose the Reich and remove Adolf Hitler from office, but his work was discovered, and in 1943 Bonhoeffer was imprisoned. Before he was hung two years later, Bonhoeffer imagined what he called a “new nobility” for Germany, populated by “aristocrats of responsibility;” learned men and women who would fight against the injustices of oppression, and whose personal characteristics of faith, humility, and sacrifice would serve as examples to all humankind.

Marsh’s second lecture, “Better than Church”: The Civil Rights Movement and Religionless Christianity, explored the idea that the events of the Civil Rights Movement, particularly from 1954 to 1964, form “America’s greatest untapped theological text.” While the theological underpinnings of the Movement have been redacted, for the most part, from the historical record, the quest for the Kingdom of God, Marsh asserted, was at the foundation of the Civil Rights agenda, which looked toward an ultimate goal of redemption and reconciliation.

Pointing towards inspiring citizens such as sharecropper Fannie Lou Hamer, Marsh argued that devotion to Jesus was, for Martin Luther King Jr. and others, what ignited the vision of the Civil Rights Movement by offering an imagined glimpse of a reconciled society. Furthermore, faith in Jesus, and in the possibility of God’s kingdom on earth, provided the energy required to sustain hope in the face of persistent oppression. And while there is much to be learned from the action and events of the Civil Rights effort, Marsh said, there are also profound lessons to be found in the still moments, as well, in which concerned parties from all walks of life came together to talk, to play music, and to engage in the fellowship that inaugurated a new movement of its own, which Marsh terms “Spirit-centered stillness.”

Marsh’s final lecture, Visions of Amen: On the Judgment of God and the Splendor of the World, explored the conundrum of America’s black and white churches, both of whom claimed Christ as the inspiration for vastly different social agendas during the Civil Rights era. As America entered the extreme discord, violence, and social upheaval of the late 1960s, many, including Martin Luther King Jr., wondered what God’s judgment would look like for those who oppressed others. Theologian Paul Tillich wrote that sin was the condition of being estranged from truth, and if that was so, King argued, then segregation was an extreme form of sin. Was it any wonder, then, that many black churches speculated aloud about the hell that was waiting for Southern Christians? Yet still, this tumultuous period in American history also offered hope, Marsh claimed, in people like Hamer, who met the provocation she encountered daily with a steadfast refusal to return hate for hate, and in the light the Civil Rights Movement shone on the disenfranchised and oppressed.

Marsh ended his lecture series by playing Bernice Reagon’s version of “Come and Go with Me (to that Land),” a gospel song from 1930. The lyrics of the song—We’re all together in that land where I’m bound, There’s no more hatred in that land—served as a poignant reminder of the hope Marsh’s work encourages us to find in both the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and in the Civil Rights Movement: the revivification of the spirit that allows us to truly comprehend the shared humanity of all people on earth, and to believe in the possibility of both redemption and reconciliation.

Videos of his lectures are available for viewing here.