How does reading the Bible change a man from a convicted KKK terrorist to a devoted follower of Jesus Christ? How does the dramatic power of Scripture bring liberation from the grip of racial hatred and violence and cause a man to become co-pastor of a racially mixed church and the president of the C.S. Lewis Institute?
Bible Gateway interviewed Thomas A. Tarrants about his book, Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love: How a Violent Klansman Became a Champion of Racial Reconciliation (Thomas Nelson, 2019).
What led you down the path of hate?
Thomas A. Tarrants: I was not raised to be racist or anti-Semite. Growing up, my family had a black maid and we all loved her. A black man who worked for my dad also did some work on our cars from time to time. He was an honest, hardworking man and we thought highly of him.
I don’t recall the subject of race being discussed much in our home until the desegregation of the public schools began in Alabama in the summer of 1963. This triggered a time of social upheaval in which what I had known as “normal” was suddenly turned upside down. It was disorienting for me and many others and provoked a concern about where the country was headed. My high school was one of the first in town to be desegregated, and I became angry at the federal government, the civil rights movement, and Black people. After reading some of the racist, anti-Semitic literature that was being circulated, and attending some meetings, my anger began to grow for Blacks and Jews as enemies of America and the White race.
Briefly describe your involvement with the KKK and the attempted bombing for which you were convicted.
Thomas A. Tarrants: As I read more deeply in extremist literature and talked with racists, I became more fully indoctrinated into far-right ideology, hatred grew, and I became radicalized. Later, I got involved with the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi, the most violent right-wing terrorist group in America, according to the FBI. One night, an accomplice and I were ambushed by a SWAT team while attempting to bomb the home of a Jewish businessman. My accomplice was killed and I was shot four times at close range with shotgun fire. At the hospital doctors said if I lived 45 minutes it would be a miracle. And it was a miracle—a miracle of God’s grace and mercy, for I certainly deserved to die.
How old were you when your grandmother gave you a Bible and why did reading it then not appeal to you?
Thomas A. Tarrants: My grandmother was a good Christian who loved me and was worried about the direction of my life. I was probably about 15 or 16 years old when she gave me a King James Version Bible with my name embossed on the cover. Unfortunately, the Elizabethan English didn’t connect with me very well, and, sadly, I later used it to find proof texts to support racist and anti-Semitic ideas. But the deeper reason it didn’t appeal to me was that although I had regularly attended church most of my life and even made a profession of faith, I was not born again.
What made you reconsider reading the Bible years later when you were in prison?
Thomas A. Tarrants: I was given a 30-year sentence in prison for the bombing attempt, and six months later I escaped with two other inmates. When we were recaptured, one of them was killed. I was taken back to prison and put in a 6’ x 9’ cell in the maximum-security unit, by myself, 24 hours a day. I was in a desperate situation, “having no hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12 ESV). To keep from going crazy, all I could do was read. Eventually, my reading turned into a search for truth, wherever that might take me. This search started with a study of classical philosophy and eventually shifted to the Gospels. The shift was not because I was trying to find God, because I thought I was already saved.
Little did I know that God was actually at work in all of this. As Jesus said, “no one can some to me unless the father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44 ESV). I would later learn that a group of godly women had been praying weekly for two years that God would draw me to Christ. This was a great example of what James said: “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16, ESV).
Describe how “the lights” went on for you when you finally read the Bible.
Thomas A. Tarrants: What little reading of the Bible I had done in the past had been dry, not very interesting, and didn’t make much sense to me. It was just as Paul had said, “the natural person does not accept the things of the spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 ESV). But this time, reading the Bible was different. My eyes were being opened to spiritual reality. It was as if I had been blind all my life and was now beginning to see. The meaning of the Scriptures and their application to me, personally, was becoming clearer and clearer. I was convicted of my sins and brought to a place of repentance. I thank God that growing up in church I had been taught that, “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16 ESV).
One night, I got on my knees and asked Jesus to forgive me of my sins and take over my life, and something changed deep inside of me. The next day, God was real to me in a way I had never known. I was spiritually alive, and my life began to change. God gave me love, and I publicly renounced the Klan and hatred. Friendships developed with people who were very different from me and this has continued ever since.
What do you mean when you write, “Christ had first led me out of error into truth, then out of darkness into light, and finally out of death into life”?
Thomas A. Tarrants: Even before I came to Christ, he enabled me to see the errors in racist and anti-Semitic ideology which had blinded my mind and to abandon those ideas. I would describe this as a kind of pre-evangelistic liberation of my thinking from demonic deception and blindness. This was essential, for as Paul says, “the God of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4 ESV).
Then Christ began to shine the light of biblical truth into my mind and heart, convicting me of my sins and opening my eyes to the fact that I had never been saved. Finally, he gave repentance, drew me to ask for forgiveness, and answered by bringing me out of death into life. As Jesus put it, “truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment but has passed from death” (John 5:24 ESV).
How do you describe the change in your life before reading the Bible in prison and after?
Thomas A. Tarrants: Before I came to Christ, I was spiritually blind and dead. I had no real interest in God or spiritual things. I lived for myself and enjoyed the sins of the flesh without any concern about doing so. Paul’s description of the Ephesian believers before they found Christ fit me perfectly: “you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among who we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind” (Ephesians 2:1-3 ESV).
After coming to Christ, I was alive to God and had a hunger to read the Bible for hours every day, and to pray, and to live for God. Paul said, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. the old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17 ESV). That had become true for me.
What is a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Thomas A. Tarrants: Here are two:
“For the LORD is good;
his steadfast love endures forever,
and his faithfulness to all generations” (Psalm 100:5 ESV)
“I have been crucified with Christ. it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 ESV).
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App and Bible Audio App?
Thomas A. Tarrants: I love Bible Gateway. It’s a treasure trove of biblical resources that every believer can access easily for free.
Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love is published by HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc., the parent company of Bible Gateway.
Bio: Thomas A. Tarrants is president emeritus of the C.S. Lewis Institute, where he served from 1998 to 2019. Prior to working at the Institute, he was co-pastor of a multi-racial church, in Washington, DC. He is a member of the Evangelical Theological Society and is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Church Alliance. Tom has pursued a ministry of teaching, writing, and spiritual mentoring for many years, with a focus on discipleship, prayer, and devotional life. He holds a master of divinity degree and a doctor of ministry degree in Christian spirituality.
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