A call for gospel audacity: Crucifying the color line in the church one pulpit at a time

January 20, 2014

“I couldn’t face my God much longer knowing that His black creatures are held separate and distinct from His white creatures in the game that has given me all I own.”

Those were the words of Branch Rickey reflecting on his decision to sign Jackie Robinson to play baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers. All of Rickey's advisers, close associates, family and friends advised him against the move. When Rickey petitioned Major League Baseball to allow him to integrate the league, the owners voted unanimously against his request. He did it anyway. On April 15, 1947, when Jackie Robinson, a 28-year-old African-American rookie, courageously ran onto Ebbets Field he trampled the baseball color line under his spikes. Rickey’s commitment to do something about racial segregation began in 1903 when he was the 21-year-old head baseball coach at Ohio Wesleyan University. His Christian conviction collided head on with his love for the great game.

Charles Thomas was recruited by Rickey to play catcher and was the only black player on the team. OWU traveled to South Bend, Ind., for a game against Notre Dame and was checking into a hotel but the hotel clerk said Thomas could not stay due to a whites-only policy. Rickey protested and eventually persuaded the hotel to allow Thomas to stay in his room. That evening he found Thomas sobbing and rubbing his hands and arms convulsively while muttering, “It's my skin. If only I could wipe off the color they could see I am man like everybody else!” A sentiment that would be expressed six decades later by African-American civil rights marchers wearing sandwich board signs that simply read, “I am a man.” Rickey later noted that he never felt so helpless. He vowed at that moment that he would do whatever he could to end such humiliation. 

This vow to end the “odious injustice” of racism in America came 60 years before Martin Luther King's “I Have a Dream” speech, 61 years before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 62 years before the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 1945, Rickey told beloved Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber that he had to act because he had heard Charles Thomas crying for the past 41 years. He asserted, “I may not be able to do something about racism in every field, but I can sure do something about it in baseball.”            

In the 4th century, Athanasius, a Bishop and theologian, fought a battle against the heresy of Arianism. It appeared as if the entire Roman Empire was moving in the direction of the heresy. A concerned colleague exclaimed, “The whole world is against you!” Unfazed, Athanasius is said to have responded, “Then it is Athanasius against the world.”

In early 1900s America, white supremacy and the need for racial segregation were perverse cultural truisms enforced de facto (in effect) in the North and de jure (legally) in the South. In a similar spirit, one young, middle-class, Protestant baseball coach had his Athanasian moment against structural authority of an entire nation. Rickey biographer Jimmy Breslin argues that Rickey committed his life to breaking the color line in baseball simply because “he thought it was God's work.”

I fear the Christian conviction and moral courage of a young baseball coach to audaciously act upon biblical truth, despite the odds, because he thought it was God’s work, serves as an indictment on many pastors in our generation. Pastor, do you consistently and relentlessly apply the gospel of Jesus Christ to issues of race and ethnicity in the church he has called you to shepherd? You may not be able to do something about racial and ethnic prejudice in every church, but you can sure do something in your own church. Can you face your God knowing that his black image bearers are held separate and distinct from his white image bearers in the church, the body of Christ, the Christ who has given you all you have for time and eternity? Is your church as ethnically and racially diverse as your community? If not, are you taking gospel-magnifying risks to bring change?

I teach my pastoral ministry seminary students to ask themselves the question, “What is it, in the church I shepherd, that is most out of line with the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:14)?” The answer to that question will provide them the information needed to strategically prioritize a Christ-centered, gospel-exulting ministry focus. For many pastors, if not most, the answer to that question will be how the congregation views issues of race and ethnic diversity. The pastor who finds himself in an increasingly rare American location with little or no racial and ethnic diversity has no less responsibility to call his congregation to walk in line with the gospel on matters of race and ethnicity. He should consistently note that the biblical storyline asserts that the glory of Christ is demonstrated in the multi-racial and multi-ethnic composition of the body of Christ. He should also go out of his way to celebrate and learn from the contributions to Christianity of those racially and ethnically distinct from the congregation he shepherds.

All leadership is an essentially moral act that demands courage. Managers take a group of people and attempt to instruct and organize them in a way that maximizes productivity based on an agreed upon goal. Management is an essentially protective act. Leaders step away from the crowd, assert a vision and call people to follow a path that they would not ordinarily take. Leadership is risky and the immediate outcome is never sure. Pastoral ministry is a call to lead, not manage, a flock of God. The pastor of a local church is to be a persistent gospel agitator calling the congregation to take every thought captive to obey Christ (1 Cor. 2:2, 2 Cor. 10:5). 

Paul indicates that the triumph of the gospel on display in the church necessarily involves not only the reconciliation of people to God but also to one another (Eph. 2:11-22). The diversity of the church is manifested in the church universally, but that must not be a pastoral excuse for failure to work toward racial and ethnic diversity in the local church. Paul is arguing, not simply for a vertical display of gospel reconciliation (God to man) but also a display of horizontal gospel reconciliation in local churches (man to man). Those normally divided by racial and ethnic differences are now counted as “one new man,” a new race of blood bought brothers of the household of God (Eph. 2:15-17). The church is a subversive cruciform community delivered from the self-destructive satanic idolatry that animates racial and ethnic hostility.

Racial bigotry in the church is the fruit of a spirit—the spirit of antichrist. It is an inadequate justification for inaction to assert that intentionally pursuing a multi-ethnic congregation might disturb the peace of a body that is presently accomplishing many good things. Jesus is at war with that kind of serpentine pseudo-peace and calls pastors to lead congregations to accomplish not simply good things but gospel things. Church managers build consensus and mitigate risk. Faithful pastors lead by constantly beckoning the congregation toward cruciform risk. Is there a color line in your church? If so, what are you doing about it? You already have a pulpit. All you need is to add some gospel audacity. 

Recommended reading about Branch Rickey:

David E. Prince, Baptist Press, The 'ferocious Christian gentleman' behind Jackie Robinson's famous moment, Posted on Apr 8, 2013

Jimmy Breslin, Branch Rickey Books, Penguin Books (2012)

Lee Lowenfish, Branch Rickey: Baseball's Ferocious Gentleman, University of Nebraska Press (2007).

Murray Polner, Branch Rickey: A Biography, McFarland (2007).

David E. Prince

David E. Prince is pastor of preaching and vision at Ashland Avenue Baptist Church in Lexington, Kentucky. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24