WASHINGTON – A retired pastor and respected evangelical Christian leader, Tom Tarrants, 72, has earned the solace and quiet many envision when considering retirement.
For Tarrants, however, it's hardly a time to slow down.
Lately, he has been fielding interview requests and writing articles about his new book, Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love, released in August.
It's an autobiographical account that documents a dramatic turnaround – a life journey whose present course is worlds away from where his story begins.
Hate Brews Below the Surface
"I heard lots of sermons. I went to Sunday school regularly," Tarrants told CBN News, recalling his Alabama upbringing. "I even made a profession of faith when I was 13 years old."
His calm demeanor and his deliberate, soft-spoken voice obscure a violent past marked by racism and rage that would eventually land him in prison.
"I hated black people. I hated Jews. I hated liberals and on and on," he explained.
Tarrants' racist ideology developed during the turbulent 1960s when the US was wrestling with fundamental questions about equality and the right to vote for black Americans.
"The governor of Alabama, George Wallace, was very strongly opposing federal court orders to desegregate," Tarrants recalled. "My school had been selected for desegregation, and I became very angry about it."
His anger erupted into hatred and eventually drew him to the Ku Klux Klan – an association that placed him on a collision course with the law.
Lethal Clash with the Law
In 1968, Tarrants survived four near-fatal gunshot wounds in a SWAT team shootout during an attempt to plant a bomb at the home of a Jewish civil rights leader in Meridian, Mississippi. His accomplice, Kathy Ainsworth – an elementary school teacher, died getting caught in the crossfire with a bullet in her neck.
He received a 30-year sentence at the Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman Farm) and picked up an additional five years after an attempt to escape.
In prison, Tarrants was forced into close quarters with blacks and other groups he hated. But his physical confinement also caused him to expand his critical thinking. That initiated an intellectual search for truth and deeper meaning.
He started with classical philosophy, poring over the works of Plato and Aristotle. Then he turned to the Bible and encountered what he describes as true Christianity – a theology based on God's love and redemption plan for all. It's a theme he addresses in his book.
"One day I read, 'If anyone says, "I love God," and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.' (1 John 4:20-21) . . . I had seen the errors of racist thinking and realized my hatred was ultimately based on lies and distortions." —From "Consumed by Hate, Redeemed by Love" by Thomas A. Tarrants. (Published by Nelson Books, an imprint of Thomas Nelson both registered trademarks of HarperCollins Christian Publishing, Inc.)
"There's a big difference between not hating somebody and actually loving people," he said. "If you're serious about following Jesus, that demolishes the idea that we could hate or dislike people of any racial or ethnic group."
His transformation also included a reckoning for his sordid past.
"I deserved to go to hell for my sins," Tarrants explained. "But in his great mercy, God spared my life."
A Convert with a Cause
His faith started to flourish as he began rejecting the racist ideology he once espoused. Tarrants' remarkable spiritual journey also includes incredible encounters with prominent Christian leaders like evangelist Billy Graham and Chuck Colson, the former Nixon Watergate aide and founder of Prison Fellowship – a ministry for people caught up in the criminal justice system.
After an early release, Tarrants witnessed a striking change between the person he was when he first entered prison and the man he became when he left eight years later.
He forged relationships with black Christians, worked in urban ministry, and co-pastored an interracial church in Washington, DC.
Earlier this year, he left a top post with a global ministry devoted to spiritual formation and Christian discipleship.
Lessons from the Past
Now, 50 years after his decision to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, Tarrants believes America is at the crossroads of another cultural collision. It's the subject of his new book, which includes a direct message for fellow Christians.
"As strange as it might seem, it's not impossible for people who hold some basic Christian beliefs to embrace this kind of extremist narrative that I did," Tarrants told CBN News. "I saw all of this as a war: fighting for God and country."
With chilling reminders like this week's Jersey City, New Jersey shooting, Charlottesville, or other recent violent attacks inspired by racism, that viewpoint is apparent even today.
Tarrants specifically highlights April's deadly shooting at the Poway synagogue near San Diego as an example of white nationalism growing on the internet. He worries about sinister beliefs and ideologies that have migrated beyond lonely basements and computer chatrooms and instead infiltrated settings like college campuses and church pews.
"A young man raised in a Presbyterian church – Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I should say – fell into this type of thinking and put them together and then shot up a synagogue," he explained, referring to John Timothy Earnest – who was part of a small evangelical denomination created to counter liberalism in the Presbyterian church. Police released a letter he allegedly had written prior to the shooting explaining how killing Jews would honor God.
Tarrants' perspective gives him a platform for which he is uniquely suited, calling on churches and Christians to confront the evils of racism.
He believes the key to real change is found at the core of true Christian values.
"Just teach the Bible," he implored. "Teach what Jesus taught about being totally committed to God: loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your neighbor."
"Your neighbor comes in all flavors," he added. "All the different races and ethnicities and political perspectives. We're called to love one another."
He told CBN News hate is incompatible with biblical Christianity and warned against Christians being drawn into the same "currents of culture" that caused him to hate people based on the color of their skin or their political viewpoints.
"As political polarization continues – [and the] tribalism that's going on – the elements are there for this type of stuff to get worse. And so the churches really need to wake up!"