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Why Language Matters and the Southern Baptist Convention Should Be Ashamed

Full disclosure: I am a White guy who has spent most of his life and ministry in SBC churches and institutions. I am writing this blog from the newfound freedom of my position as the President of the Memphis College of Urban and Theological Studies which serves largely African-American churches in Memphis, Tennessee. My current position, as well as 21 years of marriage to a beautiful, intelligent, and very direct Black woman, who has no problem calling me on my latent racism and self-righteous crusading, has helped put a few things in perspective that I think are important for my White brothers and sisters in the SBC to keep in mind.

For those of you who are unaware of what I am talking about, let me start with a brief synopsis. At the recent SBC national meeting in Phoenix, Arizona, Pastor Dwight McKissic, the pastor of a prominent African-American church in the convention, presented a resolution that called on the SBC to condemn the alt-right and white nationalism and contained very pointed language about past racial tyranny in the U.S., much of which was promulgated by White churches. The SBC resolutions committee, however, deemed the resolution to be too inflammatory and refused to offer it to the convention for consideration. After a long series of parliamentary moves the convention ultimately offered its own version of the resolution but refused to involve McKissic in drafting the new language. With that in mind, let me give you four reasons why I think McKissic’s original language matters and why I think the SBC should be ashamed of its actions and its final resolution.

“As long as White Christians take resolutions that clearly express the anguish, fear, and righteous indignation of our African-American brothers and sisters and decide we know better how to speak on these issues then there can be no true reconciliation.”

1. Anger is a legitimate and necessary emotion in the face of tyranny if our voices are truly to be prophetic.

Racism and particularly racist ideologies that are given political power should make us angry and require direct, impassioned, and condemning language. Mckissic’s anger is palpable in the original resolution but it is that anger that also makes it clear, unyielding in the face of evil, and capable of issuing a call to action that the more generic “we condemn racism and the alt right” does not really convey. It is the difference in saying to the person you are addressing that you mean to take action or saying you are theoretically opposed to what the person is doing. The terms prophetic and conciliatory are never compatible. McKissic offered the SBC the opportunity to be prophetic; the leadership of the SBC decided instead to be denominational statesmen and default to conciliation and diplomacy.

2. Listing all the ways you are not racist while condemning racism is never a good sign.

Pastor McKissic’s original resolution has six statements opposing the rise of alt-right white nationalism and/or addressing specific instances of racial injustice. The final SBC resolution removed these statements and replaced them instead with seven statements defending Southern Baptist’s recent efforts in racial reconciliation. They included:

·        The Baptist Faith and Message Statements’ opposition to racism

·        That Southern Baptists’ understand the history of racism

·        That the SBC repented of its support of slavery

·        That they elected the conventions first African-American President

·        That they have passed resolutions to pray for racial reconciliation

·        That 20 percent of SBC churches are non-White.

·        And that B & H published Removing the Stain of Racism from the SBC.

The SBC spends more time in its edited resolution defending its record on race than it does condemning the alt-right. One wonders why they have to keep defending their record? Wait, could it be that they completely ignored the issue in the first place and tried to use parliamentary procedure to keep from having to deal with it. It seems that the only language that the McKissic resolution seemed to miss was a self-congratulatory tone that distances the SBC from the racial instances that McKissic describes in his resolution.

3. Condemning the alt right should have been part of the agenda of the SBC, not a mad scramble to save face.

Both the resolution and subsequent articles (written) by primarily White Southern Baptist loyalists have been designed to save face and paint the convention in as good a light as possible. (See Ed Stetzer’s blog on his Exchange at Christianity Today). What is forgotten is that the resolutions committee, a convention-appointed group, had no intention of bringing this issue or McKissic’s resolution specifically to the floor. Certainly SBC leadership was not caught off guard by this fact. What they were caught off guard by was the backlash that decision caused. The convention was forced to bring the issue for a vote through a revised resolution outside of normal channels. Keep in mind that the resolutions committee could have taken this step from the beginning had it wished simply to change language.

The issue is broader for the SBC and other Evangelical groups. It was White Evangelicals (who) brought Trump and his alt-right supporters to power. Not because they necessarily agreed with that agenda but because it was better than losing ground on the cultural wars and losing a Supreme Court seat. But the message that gets sent is that racism is less important as an issue than abortion and sexuality. When faced with a choice White Evangelicals choose (hot) button social issues over persons of color every time. This choice clearly leaves the SBC with a problem and makes all its resolutions and rhetoric on the issues of racial justice hollow. It was not just a matter of parliamentary procedure, Ed Stetzer, it really was a matter of using it to silence legitimate non-White voices in the SBC.

4. White folks need to stop believing they have the right to set the agenda, language and tone of discussions on race in America.

Including conversations at their own conventions. As long as White Christians take resolutions that clearly express the anguish, fear, and righteous indignation of our African-American brothers and sisters and decide we know better how to speak on these issues then there can be no true reconciliation. The one thing that listening to the Black community has taught me is that on issues of race my place is not at the head of the table. White leadership must be vigilant in yielding the floor to Black voices, Black language, and Black tone on this issue in particular, regardless of perceptions or consequences. Right is right and it often takes authentic voices and types of expression to rightly convey it. Jesus said that if you enter a banquet do not seat yourself at the head of the table but at the foot. It is time for White leadership in the SBC to sit at the foot of the table and learn from their African-American brothers and sisters how to rightly oppose racial injustice in this country. Including allowing for language and tone that may at times be uncomfortable.

For what it is worth, that is why Pastor McKissic’s language matters and the SBC should be ashamed.

Editor’s note: This article was first published on LinkedIn.

Joseph Caldwell is President at the Memphis Center for Urban Theological Studies. Joseph has served in nonprofits in the community, educational and government sectors. His positions have focused on theological education, Urban Ministry, pastoral training, and church planting/church renewal. Joseph has a deep commitment to mission-based organizations that have the capacity for deep impact in church and society.

Photo by jacquesy_m

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