Syracuse Journalism Prof: Sherrod's NAACP Was Testimony of God's 'Amazing Grace'

July 27th, 2010 1:00 PM

Shirley Sherrod's now-infamous March speech before an NAACP audience is recognizable to practicing Christians as a "testimony." That's the spin that Syracuse journalism professor and former Washington Post staff writer R. Gustav Niebuhr brought to Newsweek/Washington Post's On Faith feature in a July 26 Under God blog post:

As she said to members of the Georgia NAACP back on that March day, she spoke as the daughter of a murdered black farmer, victim of a racial crime whose author was never convicted. That allowed her to talk about how, through her experiences with the financially hard-pressed white farmer in 1986, she came to believe a divine agency was at work in her life, teaching her.

"God helped me to see that it's not just about black people--it's about poor people. And I've come a long way. I knew that I couldn't live with hate, you know."

That's the key statement in her speech. In traditional Christian terminology, it's called a testimony.

In her speech, Sherrod singled out young people, asking them to hear her story of moral transformation. The daughter of a murdered man, she credited God with goodness and showing her a way helpful to others.

In reporting on Shirley Sherrod's case, commentators have focused on the high-pressure dysfunctions of the 24-hour news cycle, the embarrassing, knee-jerk, rush to judgment of high administration officials, and the way race as a subject continues to bedevil many Americans into saying and doing stupid things.

But not to be ignored is one woman's recounting of how she experienced an amazing grace. That's not a singular narrative. Americans have been telling those stories about themselves for centuries. The details vary, but the essential storyline remains the same: I was lost, now I'm found. Too bad a lot of the news media are tone deaf when it comes to recognizing the story and the tradition to which it belongs.

Yes, Sherrod acknowledged a shift in her viewpoint, but the testimony seems to lack two elements of traditional Christian redemption testimonies: acknowledgment of and remorse for sin and reliance of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness thereof.

In Sherrod's telling, her previous racist inclinations are not portrayed as personal sins to be repented of as much as they are errors in political calculation to be corrected. According to Sherrod's "testimony," the real political struggle worth engaging in is not black vs. white, but the poor vs. the rich.

Of course, it's hard for a Christian to reconcile such class warfare with one's service as a public official, especially given Scripture passages like:

  • You shall do no injustice in court. You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbor. [Leviticus 19:15]
  • You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit.  [Exodus 23:2-3]
  • The rich and the poor meet together; the LORD is the maker of them all. [Prov. 22:2]

By seeing Sherrod's statement as a testimony of "amazing grace," Niebuhr seems to confuse leftist liberation theology with the "amazing grace" evangelical Christians recognize as salvation from God's just wrath against their sins.

Finally, while no Christian's path of repentance is perfect, it is instructive that in a recent interview, Sherrod fleshed out her outrageous allegations that Fox News:

...would love to take us back to where we were many years ago. Back to where black people were looking down, not looking white folks in the face, not being able to compete for a job out there and not be a whole person.

Niebuhr, however, left that incriminating nugget unmentioned in his blog post.