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Benjamin Mays

The first post in this series as I read Gary Dorrien's Breaking White Supremacy, on the history of Black Social Gospel Theology, was about Mordecai Johnson.

Mays

In chapter 3 of the book, entitled "Moral Politics and the Soul of the World" Dorrien features Benjamin Mays and Howard Thurman while discussing their interactions and Gandhi and influences upon King.  First Benjamin Mays.

The longtime President of Morehouse College grew up in South Carolina.  He said of this childhood, "The experiences I had in my most impressionable years, hearing and seeing the mob, observing the way my people were treated, noting the way in which they responded to this treatment, never having developed any white friends in the county, and living all my early years in a rented house--all this left me with a feeling of alienation from the country of my birth."  He described growing up in this segregated world that "the wings of ambition were crushed at birth."

Attending Old Mount Zion church where James F. Marshall was pastor, Mays later described Marshall's gospel--"primarily an opiate to enable them to endure and survive the oppressive conditions under which they lived at the hands of the white people in the community."  

Mays determined to pursue an education to have something more out of life.  In college he described feeling at home in the universe.  Inspired by the socialist Eugene Debs, Mays wanted a heroic Jesus, not meek and mild.  In seminary he learned and adopted the latest liberal thinking.  In his dissertation entitled "Pagan Survivals in Christianity," he argued that acknowledging these meant that "Christianity was inevitably bound up with the environmental forces of the Roman world; that it is an evolutionary movement; and must be modified, as all movements are, by its environment."

Dorrien records that Mays was fond of saying that "no person is free who backs away from the truth."

In a landmark early study, Mays criticized the black church for its conservative theology and failure to grapple with social issues.  But this wasn't really their fault as this resulted from oppression.  He did admire it as a "genuinely democratic fellowship."

Mays embraced the black social gospel--"It does not encourage one to wait for justice in the other world.  It does not dissipate itself in mere feeling."  Rather, "It tends to give one poise and balance to struggle for social righteousness here on the earth."

Mays was one of the first scholars to contend that there was a unique theological contribution in the black church where their ideas of God were "chiseled out of the very fabric of the social struggle."

Mays became a leader in the international ecumenical movement, which brought him to India and an important meeting with Gandhi in 1937.  He brought Gandhi's message of nonviolent resistance back to the US and began to write and speak about it.  

He was a part of international efforts of Christians to challenge the rise of Fascism in Europe, but her feared that the movement was too late.  He was discouraged when ecumenical statements of denominations were not embraced by congregations; he wrote "social custom makes cowards of most Christians and I fear the majority of ministers."  He proclaimed that "When the church truly repents, let us not deceive ourselves, it will be a suffering church."

Racism and a problem created by modern Christianity arising from the colonial project of European powers.  He wrote, "It is the modern church that again crucifies the body of Christ on a racial cross."  He authored the Federal Council of the Churches 1946 condemnation of segregation.  

He held out hope for a transformative movement--"If Germany through brutal means can build a kingdom evil in one decade and if Russia, through brutal processes, construct a new order in two decades, we can democratize and Christianize America in one generation."

Dorrien contends that Mays's most important legacy was his mentorship of his student Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dorrien writes that King chose Mays as a model when leadership in the movement was thrust upon him as a young age.

May declared, "I just want to be human and be allowed to walk the earth with dignity."

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