Racism has been a glaring stain within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) since 1845, the year it was founded in Augusta, GA. And yet, by God’s grace, we are not the convention we once were. The 2017 SBC Annual Meeting showed us we still have more work to do. In the weeks following the SBC Annual Meeting, two different black pastors wrote contrasting articles—Lawrence Ware’s New York Time’s op-ed, “Why I am Leaving the Southern Baptist Convention”, and Dwight McKissic’s response in the Washington Post, “I’m a black pastor. Here’s why I’m staying in the Southern Baptist Convention.” While saddened by Ware’s conclusion, these articles highlight the continuing need to address racial justice and reconciliation within the SBC. I am especially grateful for McKissic’s voice in this conversation. His conclusion is worth repeating:
The SBC has its shortcomings, but churches that focus their attention on the mission of our Lord Jesus will not find a better body to cooperate with than the SBC. Not everything in the SBC is what it should be, but I am called to work within to help it become what it can be.
That’s why I remain.
In this same spirit, Jarvis Williams and Kevin Jones have given Southern Baptists, and any denomination with ears to hear, a great gift in Removing the Stain of Racism From the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African American and White Perspectives. It is the gift of honest reflection and thoughtful responses to the remaining stain of racism within the SBC.
Honest Reflection on Removing the Stain of Racism
Resolutions and Reality
One of the most sobering aspects of this book is reading the various SBC resolutions on race, dating back to its founding in 1845. Some resolutions revealed the calculated indifference of Southern Baptist to address the real issues of the time (cf. pre-1960 resolutions). Other resolutions made strong statements and called Southern Baptists to racial justice and reconciliation. Perhaps most notable is the 1995 Resolution on Race, in which the SBC repented and apologized for condoning and perpetuating individual and systemic racism. However, many of these resolutions have yet to be realized within Southern Baptist churches and across the SBC.
Al Mohler helps clarify the task before the present generation of Southern Baptists:
A new generation of Southern Baptists bears the responsibility to beg God for his abundant mercy and steadfast love in transforming this convention of missionary churches and its people, removing racism stain by stain as a sign to the world of the power of the gospel of Christ. We cannot change the past, but we must learn from it. We have no way to confront the dead with their heresies, but neither can do we have any way to avoid the reckoning we must make and the repentance that must be our own. The legacy of the SBC and its present influence and reach are great. But our commitment to Christ requires that we confess in every generation the sin in which this convention was conceived and the sin that remains, while working relentlessly to see racists within our convention redeemed from the powerful effects of this sin. (5)
Every generation bears this responsibility, lest we forget the roots of our convention and gospel work of restoration and reconciliation.
Telling the truth about the past can serve as a catalyst for change in the present and future.
Remembering Our Past
Honest reflection can be painful and uncomfortable. Mathew J. Hall’s chapter on “Historical Causes of the Stain of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention” is evidence of this point. In addition, most contributors share their personal stories. They share the pain of racism and the fruit of gospel reconciliation.
Historian Edward Baptist reveals why remembering the past can be so difficult. “Whenever we dredge up the past,” he writes, “we find that the rusty old chains we rake from the bottom are connected to some people’s present-day pains and others’ contemporary privilege.” But telling the truth about the past can serve as a catalyst for change in the present and future. Hall concludes:
Telling the truth about our denomination’s past is thus a powerful and constant inoculating force, reminding me that I must test all things by the Scriptures, that I must listen well to my brothers and sisters in Christ—especially those who are the least like me in the eyes of the world—and that I desperately need the humbling grace of the Spirit. (13)
Jarvis Williams and Walter Strickland provide a biblical and theological understanding of race. Frankly, this is far too often neglected within SBC churches. Williams explains:
Thinkers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries basically defined race as a series of fixed, immutable, determined, biological characteristics that made a group superior or inferior to other groups without allow for individual differentiation within a particular group. (23)
Williams further demonstrates how race is used within Bible—apart from any biological inferiority rooted in whiteness or blackness. Alongside Williams’ biblical overview, other authors also point out the flawed logic of the “curse of Ham” that many white Southern Baptists have used to uphold racist and white supremacist ideology. Furthermore, Williams demonstrates how the gospel addresses both our vertical and horizontal relationships. Thus, racial reconciliation is a gospel issue, not merely a social issue. We need to reject the false construct of race and embrace the hard but necessary gospel work of racial reconciliation.
Thoughtful Responses for Removing the Stain of Racism
Taking the Right Steps
In Curtis Woods’ concluding thoughts, he captures what Jarvis Williams and Kevin Jones have sought to accomplish in Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention:
Since the question of race relations in Southern Baptist history is so complex, the editors wisely solicited professors, administrators, and practitioners to discuss and offer some biblical theological, and practical solutions to the stain of racism in the SBC. This work is a composite of church history, systematic theology, biblical theology, practical theology, and educational leadership. (114)
Jarvis Williams not only carefully addresses race and racial reconciliation in the Scriptures, but he provides fifteen sweeping exhortations for removing the stain of racism. These exhortations address individual Christians, local churches and denominational entities. These exhortations are worth the price of the book itself.
Additionally, the editors are to be commended for not only including chapters on ethics (Craig Mitchell), preaching (Kevin Smith) and education (Kevin Jones), but also addressing topics like administration (Mark Croston) and publishing (Toby Jennings).
Confronting Intellectual Racism
Numerous contributors addressed the persistence of intellectual racism. As a white Christian who has degrees from a Christian university (aligned with the SBC) and an SBC seminary, I can attest to the problem myself. Jarvis Williams calls this one of the “most significant instances of racial disparity.” (19)
Kevin Jones addresses this issue even more thoroughly. Jones argues,
Intellectual racism, though often unintentional, is prevalent in the SBC. Reading and encouraging others to read books by and about non-Anglos is one way to help remove the stain of racism from the convention. (92)
And let’s not just do read books by and about non-Anglos during Black History Month. He continues with a bold proposal:
In fact, I suggest that if Southern Baptists want to see the stain or racism removed from seminary to the pew, then the entire denomination must critically and seriously consider a widespread curriculum change that includes more vetted writers/authors, professors, pastors, and leaders from ethnic groups that have been traditionally marginalized. (93)
When we confront intellectual racism and begin to learn from one another, Walter Strickland suggests, “[W]e can help one another see God’s world more clearly together than we can apart, and in the process we will discover we have more in common than we ever anticipated.” (59)
Leadership and Racial Reconciliation
From SBC resolutions to the authors’ exhortations, the pathway to racial reconciliation must include raising up diverse leadership within our local churches and within the SBC entities, committees and conferences. While Southern Baptist can rejoice in the election and leadership of Fred Luter as the first African-American president of the SBC, we still have a long way to go. Nearly every contributor makes this point—Jarvis Williams (47), Walter Strickland (55), Craig Mitchell (70), Mark Croston (84), Curtis Woods (119), Dwight McKissic (132-33) and Daniel Akin (139).
Curtis Woods captures this point most eloquently:
When SBC leaders refuse to relinquish leadership and influence, they invariably enforce the perception of placation in the corridors of marginalized hearts. Perhaps the greatest act of faith within our convention will be when SBC entities hire nonwhites to give primary leadership to our convention. (119)
Daniel Akin presses the issue deeper and makes the call even clearer:
[O]vercoming racism requires humility and sacrifice of the majority race, virtues that do not come easily. You see, welcoming you into my community on my terns is one thing. But to surrender my preferences so that you can feel at home in what is now our community is something more. But let me go further. Even more humility and sacrifice are needed for me to invite you to the table of leadership and to welcome you to sit at the head of the table. Until we can arrive at this God-ordained destination, our convention of churches will struggle to receive the full blessing of God and attain credibility with a cynical and skeptical culture that already questions the authenticity of our faith. (139)
If we are serious about racial reconciliation, our leadership will reflect it. This is not a public relations issue, it’s a gospel witness issue.
Overcoming racism requires humility and sacrifice of the majority race.
Contributors repeatedly emphasize that Christians need to build relationships across racial divides. But we should not seek such relationships merely as a response to a crisis or for the sake of appearance. Kevin Smith brings this home for pastors: “[Personal relationships] mark the difference between approach Christian unity as a theory and approaching it as a matter of discipleship and seeking Christ’s glory.” (75) These must be real friendships—fraternal rather than paternal. Jarvis Williams argues, “White Southern Baptists serious about reconciliation should befriend black and brown people within the SBC who are voiceless and marginalized.” (50)
It’s a Family Affair
To remove the stain of racism within the SBC, we do not need “an African-American savior, an Asian savior, a Latino savior, or a white savior” (46). We do need to work together. Williams writes,
[W]e need a multiracial partnership of churches working together in our convention and our communities to advance the gospel of racial reconciliation and to erase the stain of racism from our denomination. (46)
To see this kind of unity come to fruition, many white Southern Baptist must rise to the occasion and exercise sacrificial leadership. Yet, racial reconciliation is a family affair. Williams argues that it will require all racial groups, preaching reconciliation, living multi-ethnic lives, and fighting against the enduring effects of racism and white supremacy with the gospel of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus. (26)