Redeemed from Racism

Savvas Costi writes: Anything which seeks to build bridges in a world that is already fractured and polarised is worth our attention. This is what is on offer when reading Thomas Tarrants’ gripping autobiography, Consumed By Hate, Redeemed By Love. It’s a page-turner difficult to put down! It could have been made into a blockbuster film had Tarrants not declined the opportunity (given by Billy Graham! p. 169). It’s also a partial revision of an earlier edition published back in the 70s, a courageous move given that ‘the book wasn’t exactly the kind of publicity the Ku Klux Klan appreciated. It was sure to enrage them’ (p. 171). Since the first book was released, Tarrants opted for a quieter life hidden from the limelight as he believed it would lead to a more fruitful ministry (p. 172).

So why did he choose to release another book four decades later? Because Tarrants knows there has been ‘a significant resurgence of the racism, anti-Semitism, and political extremism’ which he was a part of ‘during the turbulent 1960s.’ One only needs to look at the news to see how these issues are still with us today. In the introduction the author writes,

‘The chapters ahead give a vivid and gripping account of how, in a period with similarities to our own, I was seduced by extremist ideology, became a terrorist, and in prison had a life-changing encounter with Jesus Christ that took me in a very different direction’ (p. 14).

It’s a fascinating opening statement worth exploring. Reading the book enables you to gain insight into the mindset of a terrorist, seeing the process one goes through towards violent radicalisation. What compels someone to commit such atrocious crimes? What happened in prison which led to such a drastic transformation? This is striking given that up to two thirds of inmates released from prison end up back in jail within three years or less (p. 150) but in Tarrants’ case he never went on to reoffend. Lastly, what can we learn in terms of how we should respond to many of the social ills prevalent today? Although the author writes from a Christian perspective, much of what is said will be beneficial to people of all faith positions, including sceptics.[1]

What leads someone to become radicalised? At one level the answer is ignorance. The late Nelson Mandela was well acquainted with issues relating to racism in South Africa, and recognised education as ‘the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.’[2] Ideas have consequences and bad ones can be devastating. It’s one of the reasons we value education so highly. What’s striking about Tarrants’ story is how quickly he descends into a nasty ideology;

‘My transition from normal thinking to ideological thinking was surprisingly quick, a result at least in part of my poorly developed critical thinking skills. In addition, I had a limited base of knowledge with which to evaluate what I was hearing’(p. 52)

Thinking done well is never something we just drift into. It takes training and practice to cultivate the habits which help safeguard against dangerous ideas. Much has already been written on this and two excellent resources to commend are Alan Jacobs’ How To Think and Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind for those wishing to delve deeper. But we’re not just brains on a stick and I wouldn’t be so naïve as to claim that education alone solves all our problems. Sometimes the most brilliantly educated amongst us can still go on to do terrible things. The tragic tale of Kathy Ainsworth, who died whilst assisting Tarrants in a bomb raid, was seen by others as ‘the ideal example of a young woman’ (p. 20). She was a primary school teacher, married, well-educated and respected amongst her community. Yet these words are chilling;

‘How could such a kind, genteel schoolteacher also be a secret terrorist? They could not reconcile the Kathy they knew with the person they discovered she was’ (p. 20).

Much could be said about this statement alone, but I wish to focus on what it is that might specifically lead a person towards hateful acts of violence. Tarrants refers to what he calls ‘the Cause’ multiple times throughout his book. It’s here that his bad idea is embedded—to preserve America and white supremacy by fighting the civil rights movement, the liberals, and the Communist-Jewish conspiracy (p. 3). It’s here he found his telos, his purpose for living which he believed would lead to some version of the good life. The reality is that this was an elusive goal which only resulted in leaving pain and devastation in its wake. Like all of us, Tarrants is partially shaped by his environment citing other cultural and family issues which led him to become ‘a walking cauldron of anger and frustration’ (p. 36). I think at a deeper level, our actions are not just shaped by our thoughts but are driven by our desires. You are what you love.[3]

In Tarrants’ case I believe these were misplaced desires. One author elegantly writes, ‘the terrain of our interior life is a wilderness of wants … The hearts hunger is infinite, which is why it will ultimately be disappointed with anything merely finite.’[4] We can see how one can be led to dark places[5] when they come to love the wrong things, and we need to go outside ourselves and beyond to halt our restlessness and find lasting happiness. We read in the Psalms of a God who ‘satisfies the longing soul’ (Ps 107:9). Arguably, this was Tarrants’ discovery because once he had been given a new telos to strive towards that was fulfilling, it became easier to dismiss ‘the Cause.’[6]

One of my favourite lines in the whole book comes from Tarrants’ account of the unexpected transformation in his own life.

‘What an unexpected direction my life had taken! I had developed friendships with an FBI agent, a liberal civil rights leader, a Jewish leader, a militant civil rights lawyer, a hippie drug user, and a radical leftist. The alienation and hostility that once separated us was gone. This was a surprising and strange list of friends for a former Ku Klux Klan terrorist’ (p. 145).

A remarkable testimony indeed! How could somebody be delivered from such intense hatred and so quickly? As mentioned above, Tarrants attributes his sudden change to causes that are supernatural.[7] Sceptics will be quick to assert that what happened to him was simply the result of psychological, social or even physiological causes, particularly given the desperate state of his circumstances in prison.[8] As part of the A-level course that I teach, we spend a topic looking at Religious Experience and Tarrants has provided me with plenty of material to use in the classroom. What is worth noting is that he is not alone in making such claims.[9] At the beginning of the 20th century, William James delivered a series of lectures which were later published as a book documenting these experiences.[10] Attempting to maintain some sense of objectivity, he states that these experiences, ‘are as convincing to those who have them as any direct sensible experiences can be, and they are, as a rule, much more convincing than results established by mere logic ever are.’[11]

To the sceptical onlooker these arguments alone are likely to fail in their attempts to persuade that God really was the cause, but if it is you having this experience then it will mean everything.[12] In addition to the radical change which took place, one also has to explain the remarkable occurrences in Tarrants’ story where quite simply, he is fortunate to walk away alive. ‘I could only conclude that my survival was God’s doing. It was inexplicable on any other grounds’ (p. 128). Could this be explained due to naturalistic causes or did he have Divine help? Whatever your views on what happened to Tarrants, given the large number of cases reporting such experiences and the notable resulting transformation, should leave you wanting to take these claims seriously and investigate them further.

 

Tarrants’ experience in prison was clearly profound but his conversion was also an intellectual one. It is here that we learn some lessons on how to protect ourselves from divisive thinking. After realising the futility of attempting to escape prison life,[13]Tarrants took up the habit of reading. Doing so helped maintain his sanity and offered relief from ‘the oppressive boredom of prison life’ (p. 112; he was able to obtain books by mail order). The benefits of reading widely are well documented and in the digital age, the challenge before us is to keep up healthy reading habits whilst working to mitigate the effects of excessively using our smart phones[14] (obviously this was not an issue for Tarrants back in the 70s). Tarrants began a process of examining his deeply held assumptions, subjecting them to scrutiny by engaging with different views.[15] By reading literature from multiple perspectives his mind was ‘becoming free to think clearly’ (p. 120). We become better thinkers when we graciously engage with different people and one of the most effective ways to dismantle our prejudices is to build genuine friendships with those who do not think like us. This is the best way to get to know what people are really like.[16]

In fact, I would go as far as to argue that what helps to shift our plausibility structures is to be loved. We see a beautiful example of this in the book when Tarrants meets Dr. Luther McCaskill, a black man who was the prison’s physician and a fellow inmate. ‘My friendship with “Dr. Mac” began to alter my racial views. He was the first black person I knew as an adult … As we came to know each other better, my hard attitudes about blacks softened … He certainly didn’t fit the stereotypes in racist literature I had been fed’ (p. 89). Engagement with opposing views is at the heart of academia, or at least it should be,[17]but it should also be part of our civil discourse with one another. Building a cohesive society will partially depend on how well we are able to do this, so long as those views that we most vehemently disagree with are still discussed, ‘with gentleness and respect.’[18] The most secure friendships will more naturally do this[19] as we feel safe to air our opinions no matter how controversial. Of course, we need to engage in reading the literature from various perspectives, perhaps even cultivate the art of steelmanning,[20] but we also need to get to know and love the people coming from different political and philosophical tribes. If we are to see any shifts in thinking, we need a more relational approach to our discussions because ultimately, ‘there is a relationality to plausibility. Illumination depends on trust; enlightenment is communal.’[21] Tarrants relationship to ‘Dr. Mac’ began to erode his racism.

If it takes deeply informed thinking, love and ultimately God to deliver us from racism, then what other lessons can we learn from the remarkable tale of Thomas Tarrants? It’s worth noting the intense but informal season of theological study which Tarrants went through.[22] We clearly see contrasting approaches regarding his Christianity, and particularly his bible reading. Earlier in the book he describes his experiences of reading the New Testament as ‘difficult to understand … so [he] gave it up’ (p. 22). He also made a profession of faith and was baptized when he was thirteen, although he clearly states this had no impact on him (p. 34). He even goes as far as to claim that part of ‘the Cause’ that he was fighting for was aiming to halt the repudiation of Christianity in America (p. 41). Notice what happens to him as he describes his conversion;

‘As I began to read, in the New Testament this time, it was unlike my previous experiences. When I turned the pages, it was like the lights in a darkened theatre being slowly turned up … I was able to understand what I read in a way I never had before … It was becoming clear that my Christianity had been an empty sham … My appetite for Scripture was [now] voracious … by immersing myself in Scripture, I was exposing myself to the Holy Spirit’s renewing influences in my mind’ (pp. 121-2 and 126-7).

What we see here fits the description of one who is a ‘new creation’ to use New Testament language (2 Cor. 5:17). He is the recipient of a fresh revelation which is transformative. He seems to have shifted from ‘an outward form of religion’ to a ‘very real, life changing … faith in Jesus’ (p.137). There’s a caveat and a common misunderstanding worth addressing here. Believers need to beware the dangers of an external religion which never engages the heart. It was particularly challenging to read about how Tarrants moved into a period of ‘spiritual dryness’ during his season of informal theological study. His focus on acquiring theological knowledge was overshadowing his daily personal fellowship with God (p. 132). For those with a tendency to be more cerebral, this is an important challenge to take note of because the study of theology is never meant to be an end in itself. As Paul Tripp has written, ‘it is easier to learn theology than to live it.’[23] Our self-righteous tendencies need to be regularly fought against by remembering that like Tarrants, if you’re a Christian, then you have been saved by grace.[24] It is this radical love which inspires us to not live for ourselves (see 2 Cor 5:14-15).

The misunderstanding I wish to address relates to committing heinous acts in the name of religion. A sophisticated approach recognises the complexity involved when speaking of diverse people groups, be it Christians, Muslims or even Atheists.[25] It is regrettable that there are people, like Tarrants prior to his conversion, who claim to be Christians but are in fact racist with no signs of remorse. This is a misunderstanding of what it means to be a Christian because being racist is antithetical to the Christian gospel. I’ve included some helpful resources which unpack this further in the footnotes below.[26] Tarrants is right to say, ‘any racial or ethnic prejudice in our lives indicates that we are compromising the teachings of Christ’ (p. 192).

The concluding chapter of the book offers practical advice about working towards racial harmony, as well as tackling anti-Semitism and political polarisation. He is speaking specifically to a Christian audience but there is much written here that will benefit all regardless of beliefs. We should all seek to be grace-filled peacemakers (p. 199). Reading Tarrant’s book will leave you with much to reflect upon and discuss with others, as I have done. Let’s keep in mind;

‘No matter how much we may disagree with someone, we must treat that person with courtesy and seek to reason with them, building a respectful relationship and finding common ground where possible … [Doing so] does not require compromising one’s convictions’ (p. 198).

Let us go and do likewise.

[1] I take the view that even atheism is a faith position. Timothy Keller rightly argues, ‘all doubts, however sceptical and cynical they may seem, are really a set of alternative beliefs.’ Read his introduction to The Reason For God (2008) for more or see this short YouTube clip where he discusses this point with Martin Bashir.

[2] For more quotes from Nelson Mandela about education, click here.

[3] See James K.A. Smith’s, You Are What You Love (2016).

[4] James K.A. Smith, On The Road With Saint Augustine, (2019) pp. 12-13.

[5] If time permitted it, we could have explored the role played by the ‘principalities and powers’ mentioned in Ephesians 6:12. Tarrants scarcely mentions this in his book, but I recently read this important sentence on pp. 261-262 of John Stotts’ commentary on Ephesians (2005); ‘Had God through Jesus Christ broken down the walls dividing human beings of different races and cultures from each other? Then the devil through his emissaries will strive to rebuild them.’ For the Christian, it’s an important dynamic to acknowledge.

[6] Thomas Chalmers, The Expulsive Power of a New Affection comes to mind. You can read about it from John Piper’s article here.

[7] ‘When the Holy Spirit is at work, the impossible becomes possible.’ Tarrants, Consumed By Hate, Redeemed By Love (2019), p. 131.

[8] ‘Words like drab, dismal, and depressing cannot begin to describe the severe loneliness of my situation.’ Ibid, p. 115.

[9] Another famous example of someone who went through a drastic transformation is Nicky Cruz. You can read about his story in his book, Run Baby Run, (2003).

[10] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, (1902). He gathers accounts from a range of religious perspectives, not just Christianity.

[11] Ibid, p. 72.

[12] ‘The argument from religious experience means nothing to the non-believer, but it means everything to the believer.’ Gordon Reid. I got hold of this quote from an A-level conference I attended.

[13] Chapter 11 of the book gives details of Tarrants remarkable escape from prison before being recaptured.

[14] Philip Yancey and more recently George F. Will have written about this.

[15] Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

[16] Writing independently, P J Smyth echoed the same sentiment here when he said, ‘made friends – proper friends – with someone of a different ethnic reality to you.’

[17] I am aware of the issues relating to an illiberal liberalism which has eaten itself, as well as the death of healthy debate. Ruth Simmons, a former president of an American university has said, ‘one’s voice grows stronger in encounters with opposing views … The collision of views and ideologies is in the DNA of the academic enterprise.’ This was cited in Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt’s, The Coddling of the American Mind (2018), p. 259.

[18] 1 Peter 3:15 (NIV). There is an urgent need in our society to see this modelled well and Christians should be at the forefront of this as part of their witness to a world in need. The aim is ‘speaking the truth in love’ (Ephesians 4:15, NIV).

[19] Andy Bannister has helpfully said that ‘the deepest friendships are not formed by pretending we all believe the same … but by recognising our differences and talking about them honestly.’ Why We (Still) Believe edited by David J. Randall (2017), p. 27.

[20] Steelmanning involves presenting the opposing argument in the best way possible. Glen Scrivener explains this further and we see this modelled between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris in the first six minutes to this YouTube clip.

[21] James K.A. Smith, On The Road With Saint Augustine, (2019) p. 151.

[22] Tarrants, Consumed By Hate, Redeemed By Love (2019) p. 132. This season lasted about two years.

[23] Paul David Tripp, Dangerous Calling (2012), p. 54. Read his chapter on Big Theological Brains and Heart Disease for more on this. I would also highly recommend this excellent article from Kevin Vanhoozer as well as his book Hearers and Doers (2019).

[24] One of the best books I have read to unpack this is Timothy Keller’s, The Prodigal God (2009). For Christians, it’s a wonderful truth to know that God is ‘the God of the second chance, the third chance, and many more.’ (p. 185 of Tarrants’ book). For the believer, this is not meant to be a licence for antinomianism but an incentive for true worship and holy living (see Titus 2:11-12).

[25] According to John Gray there are Seven Types of Atheism (2018).

[26] See this from P J Smyth and this from Adrian Chatfield. Reading Tarrants book also addresses this. There are many others.


Savvas Costi is a graduate from the London School of Theology who currently leads the Religion and Philosophy department at a secondary school in East Sussex. He did his teacher training at King’s College London. He lives with his wife and daughter.


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3 thoughts on “Redeemed from Racism”

  1. Thank you for this article. To me it’s like breath of fresh air, an outlet from a pond that can become deeply turgid beneath a surface storm.
    It reminds me of recent (within the last ten years) influences on my thinking and Christian walk.
    Keller always contends for the third way, that is the way of grace, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, as opposed to the two ways that is often put forward by Christians, preachers, exemplified in his Prodigal God book, with the sting in the tail for all of us.
    He also brings this into the arenas of race, nationality and politics. While including some wide ranging references and breadth of reading, he draws it all together with the Gospel.
    In the past he has also drawn on Thomas Chalmers sermon, on desire, readily available on line, which is incisive.
    A more recent book of Keller is, The Prodigal Prophet – Jonah and the mercy of God. It considers themes of racism, bringing in some of the writings Dr Martyn Luther King Jr and CS Lewis on nationality and racism from his Four Loves book.
    Maybe it is an exaggeration to say that the book, certainly a body of Keller’s work, concerns “moralistic identity”, in its multiple forms, including race and nationalism.
    The book does not leave out the wrath of God but draws on the deeply offensive mercy of God, in God the Son

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