Have you ever felt like you’ve been snowed under? I had a moment like that this summer. For years I have used the famous Civil Rights movement photograph taken by Bill Hudson and used it as a teaching point. This picture, I said, showed how the Birmingham police fell into a trap set by those organizing the civil rights marches. March leaders knew that bad publicity for the police would endear the cause of the blacks to others throughout the country. This iconic photo showed a police officer and his dog purporting an attack a high school aged young man. This front page image provided a wretched sight for many readers and disgust was expressed towards the southern institution of racism. And yet was this image displaying the whole truth?
As kids we’ve all heard Bible stories, listened to sermons, and discussed topics around the dinner table. As we have matured, there are those instances in our lives where we have had to say, “Boy, I really misunderstood that idea as a kid. I always thought…” Thankfully, these misconceptions aren’t because there was or is an error in God’s word. We are reminded of this when we read Article 7 of the Belgic Confession:
We believe that those Holy Scriptures fully contain the will of God, and that whatsoever man ought to believe, unto salvation, is sufficiently taught therein. For, since the whole manner of worship, which God requires of us, is written in them at large, it is unlawful for any one, though an apostle, to teach otherwise than we are now taught in the Holy Scriptures: nay, though it were an angel from heaven, as the apostle Paul saith. For, since it is forbidden, to add unto or take away anything from the word of God, it doth thereby evidently appear, that the doctrine thereof is most perfect and complete in all respects. Neither do we consider of equal value any writing of men, however holy these men may have been, with those divine Scriptures, nor ought we to consider custom, or the great multitude, or antiquity, or succession of times and persons, or councils, decrees or statutes, as of equal value with the truth of God, for the truth is above all; for all men are of themselves liars, and more vain than vanity itself. Therefore, we reject with all our hearts, whatsoever doth not agree with this infallible rule, which the apostles have taught us, saying, Try the spirits whether they are of God. Likewise, if there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house.
God’s word is infallible and is without error. Although written over a great expanse of time, God’s word is one. Although written by men, it is organically inspired. Without a confession of the inspiration of God as the author of the Scriptures, one denies the absolute sovereignty of God.
“A picture is worth a thousand words.” And yet without context, how do we understand what is going on in that iconic picture Hudson took on May 3, 1963? Front page pictures in newspapers don’t end up there by happenstance. Much toil and handwringing took place in the editing room to choose just the right picture. The goal was for that picture to convey a message to the reader. Yet in the case of Mr. Hudson’s photograph, the message was inaccurate and caused the reader to draw the wrong conclusion. They didn’t have the full context. They misinterpreted it.
The words of scripture were not recorded by happenstance. II Timothy 3:16, 17 “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works.” God revealed himself in all of scripture. To deny scripture is to deny Him. Although many agree that scripture is inspired, men debate its infallibility. They twist and turn the scriptures to fit their teachings. They misunderstand and misapply the truths of God’s word. They fail use scripture to interpret scripture. They fail to understand the context. Some even flat out deny aspects of scripture due to the fact that men wrote the words down. The Bible serves as a lamp unto our feet and a light unto our path. Research can reveal the fallacies of history. Careful searching and studying of the scriptures reveals God’s truth; it also reveals the false teachings of men and churches.
My realization came this summer while listening to Revisionist History, a podcast put together by author Malcolm Gladwell. Revisionist History’s tag line is “because sometimes the past deserves a second chance.” In doing research for his episodes, Gladwell looks for events, people, or ideas in which public opinion was strong but some or all aspects of the topic weren’t fully understood or investigated at the time. This is the case Gladwell finds with the photograph taken by Bill Hudson during the march in Birmingham. To most people, it appears the police officer is using the attack capabilities of his dog to instill fear into the young man. It screams of southern police brutality. It enraged many readers across the world that police would use vicious dogs on children. A statue of the iconic photograph was commissioned and placed in Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham. It uses the moment to remind viewers of the racism this young man suffered and serves as a symbol of the “Foot Soldiers” of the Civil Rights era.
Unlike history, the Bible does not need “a second chance”. It is infallible. Just as many Civil War statues in the South have come under attack, so has the infallibility and inspiration of scripture been under great attack for many years. Unlike works of art, God’s word is not up to the interpretation of man to fit his view and serve as a political tool. Although we may not have complete faith in the stories of history, we can have complete faith and a knowledge that scripture is true; it is the inerrant and infallible work of God.
With a bit of digging and after going through interviews, Gladwell learns that the young boy in the photo is Walter Gadsden. Gadsden was skipping school that day with a friend because he was curious about the march but also knew his parents would be upset with him for doing so. Gadsden and his family were never involved in the civil rights movement and as the march started, he realized he better get back to school. The police had set-up roadblocks to keep the general public away from the marchers. While crossing this “no man’s land” between the roadblocks to get away from the oncoming march, Gadsden stumbled into the officer. The officer’s German Shepherd, Leo, began to lunge at the Gadsden so the officer pulled back on the dog’s leash and grabbed the shirt of Gadsden and pushed him away so that the dog wouldn’t bite the young man. Gadsden wasn’t there to protest. In fact quite the opposite. In interviews, Gadsden had opinions about the civil rights movement, its leaders, and the march that were rather unflattering. Even in 1996, Gadsden didn’t feel that there were many benefits gained by the movement. Gadsden still prefers to be called “colored.” He wasn’t a “Foot Soldier” as the statue and photograph seem to indicate. Gladwell ended the podcast with this phrase, “The most famous photograph of the civil rights movement is of a startled cop trying desperately to hold his dog back from biting a bystander who wasn’t that much of a fan of the civil rights movement.”
We can be thankful that God’s word isn’t up for interpretation according to the whim’s of man. Be thankful that God’s word is unchangeable. It is inspired and infallible. Our salvation is secure. To God be the glory.