. . . . . . .
generations ago, the white church in the Deep South launched the Confederacy with prayer and fasting. Faithful Christians
cried out to God, certain their cause was righteous; their war, holy. As the Civil War progressed, Southerners were bombarded
with distressing political news, distressing economic news and tragic news from the battlefields. They prayed and fasted with
increasing frequency and fervency. Prostrate before God, they confessed the sins of the Yankees - and such things
in their own lives as drinking, swearing and card-playing.
In the end, with the South in ruins and the death toll on both sides numbering well into the hundreds of thousands, the
church collectively still did not see or uproot the tangle of strongholds that held them. Utterly desolate, they
"Why have we fasted ... and you have not seen it?
have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?" (Isa. 58:3)
Today, US Christians in record numbers are crying out to God on behalf of our nation. Bombarded with distressing
political news, distressing economic news and distressing world news, we're praying with increasing frequency and fervency.
We've even fasted! Indeed, every time we turn around, someone is calling us to fast and pray. Already, we too have begun to
ask the Lord:
"Why have we fasted ... and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves and you have not noticed?"
In Isaiah 58, God answered those questions. He said he had not responded because his people were fasting for
the wrong reasons and in the wrong way. They had not entered into the fast he had chosen.
Today, our Lord who loves us deeply is giving the same answer. Collectively, we've
often fasted over their sins - confessing the wrongs of people with whom we do not identify or associate, people
we consider unrighteous and may even count "the enemy." Repeatedly, we've tried to address the corporate sins of
the nation without first addressing the corporate sins of the church.
Further, we've prayed to "take back our culture." We're quite sure that if Christians
who think like us can get into places of influence in all realms of our society, everything will change for good.
For a century after the Civil War, Christians in the South held the places of
influence in pretty much every area of culture. They even called the region, "Our Southern Zion."
Certainly, a significant percentage of the population went to church. Many openly
acknowledged Jesus as their Savior. More than a few sought to live truly godly lives. But corporately, did the church in the
South in 1890 and 1920 and 1960 look like Jesus? Did its influence produce ... widespread awakening? A region characterized
by justice, mercy and genuine godliness? Congregations filled with God's life and power? Communities known for selfless love?
When we try to "take the land" without first dealing with our corporate
sins, we simply transpose our sins into new settings. If we would cooperate with God in changing cultures and nations, we
must first cooperate with him in removing the oppressive yokes from around our own necks.
Revelation from the past
In the mid-1700s, the colonies experienced a massive God-sent revival: the Great Awakening. From the 1790s to the 1830s,
the new nation experienced an equally powerful Second Great Awakening. The Second Awakening started in New England. In 1801,
it hit Kentucky. At the very time pioneers thronged across the Appalachian Mountains and settled lands that would become the
Southern states, awakening swept like wildfire through those lands. The three major denominations - Methodist, Baptist and
Presbyterian - participated together in lively revival meetings filled with visible manifestations of the Holy Spirit and
producing radically changed lives. In particular, the Methodist and Baptist denominations - the "holy rollers" of
the day - grew exponentially. Spiritual awakening lasted nearly 40 years!
So what ultimately snuffed that Awakening - and has aborted or sabotaged every revival in the US since?
Part of the church moved away from the bedrock truths of the faith and began
to embrace an "anything goes" message. In so doing, that segment of the church corporately quenched and grieved
the Spirit. That movement grew out of New England.
Ah, but I'm not
the one to identify and confess those sins. God is raising voices from that region to repent for the strongholds there.
Part of the church held fast to Jesus and to salvation
through his blood alone. This movement grew out of the South, where the church of my ancestors prided itself on its dedication
to Christ, its faithfulness to Scripture, its love for missions and its label, "The Bible Belt."
From a Christian perspective, we see the profound implications of abandoning the
essentials of the faith. We see the necessity of building on one foundation: the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus
Christ. However, we have not seen the profound implications of wedding cultural biases to the bedrock beliefs of
the faith. We have not seen where the church that clung to Jesus missed him.
"Yes, yes" and "No, no"
In the first three decades of the 1800s, the awakened white Southern church culture said a resounding "yes, yes"
to Christ on matters of personal salvation. But by the 1830s, this same church culture - speaking in a concerted, persistent
and increasingly resolute voice - said "no, no" to Christ on other issues, issues that reflected their cultural
Strong historical evidence shows that Christians across the
South heard the voice of the Spirit on these key issues and struggled deeply and at length with the conviction he brought
- yet regarding the treatment of whole groups of people, the church ultimately chose to follow the culture, rather
than to obey the Spirit of God.
The Indian problem.
Awakened by the Spirit, white settlers across the South recognized as wrong the mistreatment of native peoples. Responding
to their culture, the settlers petitioned the US government for Indian removal from lands they wanted to own. Actively
or passively, the settlers abetted the evils leading to and fostered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 - including theft of
property, breaking all covenants made with Native American tribes, murder and wrongful death.
The slave problem. Awakened by the Spirit, Southerners recognized slavery
as "an evil, the curse of which is felt and acknowledged by every enlightened man in the Slave-holding States."*
Responding to their culture, Southern Christians ultimately reversed their stand, declared that slavery was God's
plan and insisted that anyone who taught otherwise was both contradicting Scripture and anti-Christian.
The woman problem. Awakened by the Spirit, the Southern church
began to recognize women as partners in ministry: "Advocates of the Awakening encouraged women to take an active part
in the work of God. Some new groups ... allowed women to lead as well as to support."** Responding to their culture,
the Christians of the South adopted a beguiling code of "chivalry" drawn from the ancient Greeks and from fictional
accounts of the Dark Ages. They promoted as biblical a view of women heavily influenced by Arthurian romance novels
and pagan Greek thinking.
Without seeing what they were doing, this
segment of the church normalized the cohabitation of what God adores and what he abhors. While lifting high
the name of Christ, the church grieved and quenched the Spirit. While preaching the gospel, the church opened itself to be
taken captive by the sin strongholds of the region.
Indeed, the churches
of the Bible Belt became so committed to slavery and all the mindsets linked with it that all three main denominations
split from their Northern brethren over that issue. Fifteen years before the Southern states seceded from the
Union, the Methodists and Baptists of the South left their national denominational organizations and formed regional ones.
Because the church had tried the strategy first - and seemingly so successfully - the ministers were among the loudest voices
calling for secession in 1860. Thus, the two denominations that had led in embracing the Spirit during the Second Great Awakening
led the way into secession only a decade after awakening ended.
Sticks and bones
So has the church in the
South done everything wrong? No, it has not. What our Southern church culture has done, collectively, generationally,
is to insist we've done everything right.
the past, our Lord is not identifying any one region as more sinful than others. Rather, he is seeking to rescue
his Bride from all the ways we've compromised covenant with one another and with him. He is not fostering division,
but rather establishing true unity. He is not beating us down, but rather raising us up.
He invites us to join him, as Ezekiel joined him, in the two stunning miracles Ezekiel 37 describes:
raising dry bones to form an army, making two sticks into one.
before Ezekiel's day, Israel had divided, north from south. At God's command, Ezekiel joined two sticks into one. Dramatizing
the impossible, Ezekiel announced God's promise to his people: "I will form them into one nation in the land.... One
king will rule all of them. They will no longer be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. They will no longer dishonor
themselves with their idols, with their detestable things, or with their rebellious acts. I will forgive them for all the
times they turned away from me and sinned. I will cleanse them so that they will be my people, and I will be their God"
(Ezek. 37:22-23 God's Word).
In Ezekiel's day, the people God had
destined for wholeness and holiness lay decimated and defeated. Conquerors had overrun both nations, taking the inhabitants
into captivity and exile. Ezekiel saw them lying, like dry bones littered across a major battlefield. When God asked him,
"Can these bones live?" Ezekiel answered, "Sovereign LORD, you alone know" (Ezek. 37:3).
The Lord exposed those dry bones, not to bury them, but to raise up an army from them.
God told Ezekiel, "Speak to the bones": Call for fragmented people, who don't appear to have one bit of life left,
to come together and become whole. When that miracle happened, God told Ezekiel, "Speak to the breath": Call for
the breath of God to enter and mobilize the bodies the dry bones formed.
the sticks and the bones were God's people. Ezekiel cooperated with God to see his people Israel restored.
We cooperate with God to see his church awakened and re-formed. We say "Yes!" to the cry of Acts 3:19-20
and its accompanying promise: "Now repent of your sins and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped away.
Then times of refreshment will come from the presence of the Lord, and he will again send you Jesus, your appointed Messiah"
different kind of fasting
As a critical component of this repentance, the Lord calls us to a different
kind of fasting than we've known. A fast requires us to deny ourselves and humble ourselves. In Isaiah 58, those
who fasted abstained from food, but continued to treat one another terribly. God rejected that kind of fasting then, and he
rejects it now.
He asks, "Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to
loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?"
Entering the fast God has chosen, we will deny ourselves
and humble ourselves in a way we have not done since the Second Great Awakening. Raised by his life and filled with his breath,
we'll treat others the way the Spirit says to treat them, regardless the cost. Then we will call, and the Lord will
answer. We'll cry for help, and he will say, "Here I am."
. . . . . . .* Edwin Holland, 1822, quoted in William W. Freehling, Prelude
to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965), p. 80.
** David T. Morgan, Southern Baptist Sisters: In Search of Status, 1845-2000
(Macon, GA: Mercer University Press), p. 10.