Commentary

The Southern Baptist Convention may change its name, but it can’t repeal a history of oppression

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At the current inflection point of heightened tensions in the United States, mass movements are demanding a reckoning by pressuring the nation to reflect its longstanding legacy of racism. This has already resulted with several monuments to slavery and Jim Crow coming down. People are calling for real and lasting reforms in policing, in the justice system, and in all our social institutions.

Several leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention – composed of approximately 50,000 member churches – are attempting to separate from the denomination’s racist roots and legacy by unofficially renaming their religion the “Great Commission Baptists.”

Related: The Southern Baptists’ #MeToo moment was really, really short

“Our Lord Jesus was not a white Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee,” said SBC President J. D. Greear, who earlier this summer used the phrase “Black lives matter” in a presidential address when he announced that he would retire a historic gavel named for an enslaver.

Trying to emphasize the global reach of the denomination, Greear said: “Every week we gather to worship a savior who died for the whole world, not one part of it. What we call ourselves should make that clear.”

The issue of slavery became a lightning rod in the 1840s among members of the Baptist General Convention, and in May 1845, 310 delegates from the Southern states convened in Augusta, Georgia to organize a separate Southern Baptist Convention on a pro-slavery plank.

Delegates asserted as one of their religious “values” that God had condoned the institution of slavery, and to be a good Christian, one must support slavery and not work for its abolition. They cited scripture to justify their position, such as these passages.

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. — Ephesians 6:5-6.

Let all who are under the yoke of slavery regard their masters as worthy of all honor, so that the name of God and the teaching may not be blasphemed. Those who have believing masters must not be disrespectful to them on the ground that they are members of the church; rather they must serve them all the more, since those who benefit by their service are believers and beloved. — 1 Timothy 6:1-2.

Well, either due to divine inspiration or political pressure, 150 years later in June 1995 the SBC reversed its position and officially apologized to African Americans for its support of and collusion in the institution of slavery. The SBC also apologized for backing of Jim Crow laws and rejecting the civil rights initiatives of the 1950s and 1960s.

At the 2017 annual Southern Baptist Convention held in Phoenix, Arizona, leaders in the Resolutions Committee initially voted not to permit the general body to consider a resolution submitted by well-known black Texas pastor, Dwight McKissic, condemning white nationalism, white supremacy, and the alt-right.

As written, the proposal in part affirmed that “there has arisen in the United States a growing menace to political order and justice that seeks to reignite social animosities, reverse improvements in race relations, divide our people, and foment hatred, classism, and ethnic cleansing.”

It identified this “toxic menace” as white nationalism and the alt-right and urged the denomination to oppose its “totalitarian impulses, xenophobic biases, and bigoted ideologies that infect the minds and actions of its violent disciples.”

It claimed that the development of white supremacy in Christian communities was contained within the theory known as the “curse of Ham,” which said that “God through Noah ordained descendants of Africa to be subservient to Anglos” and was used to justify slavery and segregation.

McKissic’s resolution asked the Southern Baptist Convention to condemn nationalism and “reject the retrograde ideologies, xenophobic biases, and racial bigotries of the so-called ‘alt-right’ that seek to subvert our government, destabilize society, and infect our political system.”

Following a movement by several SBC members in pressuring the Resolutions Committee, the general body passed a revised and somewhat watered-down resolution denouncing the alt-right.

While the Southern Baptist Convention’s reluctance, at best, to rebuke racism and other forms of oppression is reprehensible, it is by no means surprising when placed in historical context.

Delegates to the annual SBC session in New Orleans in 1996 passed their “Resolution on Jewish Evangelism” committing to put more energy and resources into converting Jews to Christianity. The resolution read, in part:

WHEREAS, There has been an organized effort on the part of some either to deny that Jewish people need to come to their Messiah, Jesus, to be saved:…BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, That we direct our energies and resources toward the proclamation of the gospel 6 [of Jesus] to the Jewish people.

The SBC continues to believe, as do some other Christian denominations, that Judaism remains an inadequate or immature religion without Jesus as its central figure.

At their 1997 annual session, SBC delegates overwhelmingly voted to boycott Walt Disney theme parks, movies, and products for extending benefits to partners of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender employees, for the “hosting of homosexual and lesbian theme nights at its parks…,” and for producing films and books with lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender characters thereby “connecting Disney to the promotion of the homosexual agenda.”

The resolution continued: “That we encourage Southern Baptists to give serious and prayerful reconsideration to their purchase and support of Disney products and to boycott the Disney theme parks and stores if they continue this anti-Christian and anti-family trend.”

Regarding their stands on women in the Church, at their 1998 session, the SBC declared that a wife should “submit herself graciously” to her husband’s guidance, and the denomination has since removed women from top executive posts.

According to the 1998 resolution:

The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ….[She] has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.

Later, in 2000, the SBC declared that women should no longer serve as pastors.

Then in 2010, the SBC passed its “Resolution on Homosexuality and the United States Military,” which stated in part:

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention…affirm the Bible’s declaration that homosexual behavior is intrinsically disordered and sinful, and we also affirm the Bible’s promise of forgiveness, change, and eternal life to all sinners (including those engaged in homosexual sin) who repent of sin and trust in the saving power of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).

With religious rights come responsibilities, and with actions come reactions. Whenever clergy pronounce and preach their oppressive dogma, they must take responsibility for the bullying, harassment, violence against and suicides of individuals and groups they degrade and demean.

This critique does not amount to a simple theocratic disagreement. It speaks to issues of power and control; it goes to who has the power to define “the other” and who has the power and control to define “the self”: the individual and members of social identity groups, or rather, the Church with a capital “C.”

The Southern Baptist Convention may attempt to change its name, but its oppressive racist, sexist, antisemitic, and heterosexist legacy will remain for eternity.

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