I recently engaged in my second mission trip to the southern African country of Zimbabwe. What an honor it was to connect with our Christian brothers and sisters over 8,000 miles away from my home.
This trip was made possible by Cooperative Program giving through the Kentucky Baptist Convention. To be sure, this was not a typical missional endeavor, but rather, a life-changing experience focused on Christian racial reconciliation. Having gone through this experience, I firmly believe humility is an essential virtue for those of us who are seeking the horizontal reconciliation the gospel demands of believers.
Our team was comprised of 13 KBC-affiliated men, 8 of whom are African-American and 5 are Anglo-American. These men minister in a variety of settings, in Kentucky: urban, suburban, and rural. The demographic makeup of the team alone made for a very unusual trip. However, the aim was not merely to have an ethnically and geographically diverse team. There was an intentional and thoughtful focus on reconciliation woven throughout the planning and execution of the trip.
All of us were asked to read the book titled Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, edited by Jarvis J. Williams and Kevin M. Jones. We were also asked to prepare for a discussion of the book to occur while in Zimbabwe. Removing the Stain is an excellent piece in which diverse voices present honest, biblical perspectives on the history of racism and white supremacy within the SBC. In my estimation, it is a must read, not only for Southern Baptists, but for every true believer.
For those who are not aware, the SBC's formation, in 1845, was rooted in systemic racism and support of the evil institution of American chattel slavery. In Removing the Stain, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, states, "Indeed, we cannot tell the story of the Southern Baptist Convention without starting with slavery. In fact, the SBC was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument." In his intellectually honest assessment, Mohler goes on to say that history proves slavery, not the Great Commission, was the true cause for the SBC's founding. He further notes that James P. Boyce and John A. Broadus, founders of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, were chaplains in the Confederate Army.
Boyce, for whom Boyce College is named, had a documented history of making racist statements. He, Broadus, and a number of other denominational leaders imbibed racist beliefs which undoubtedly shaped their view of and interactions with people of color. Such an uncomfortable truth gave rise to Mohler's statement, "As a white Southern Baptist and a historian, I feel profound emotional disturbance that people just like me wrote some of the most dehumanizing things imaginable about other men and women created in the image of God."
It should not be overlooked that the stain of racism is not unique to Southern Baptists. In Removing the Stain, Jarvis J. Williams observes that the American evangelical movement, as a whole, was born within an environment of racial injustice toward black people. Williams is absolutely correct in his observation. Further, I would argue that such injustice predated the American evangelical movement. The Roman Catholic Church as well as all Western “mainline” denominations had been baptized in the wicked waters of injustice. Simply put, racism has left an ugly mark in every corner of Christendom.
In view of this, KBC mission strategist Doug Williams initiated a very substantive discussion on Christian racial reconciliation. Kevin Jones and Curtis A. Woods, associate executive director of the KBC, facilitated the discussion, using the aforementioned text as our conversation piece. I contend that the timing of our discussion was perfect. Our ethnically balanced team had just completed 6 days of relationship building and ministry in Zimbabwe. Few things can soften the Christian's heart like serving others. Consequently, we were all humbled by the spiritual hunger, vitality, and resiliency of our Zimbabwean friends whose country has been ravaged by colonialism and corrupt leadership.
For me, the thing that set the tone for our discussion was the sincere and tearful apology offered by Doug Williams. Williams’ genuine humility bubbled over when he said, "I'm embarrassed!" The apology was offered in light of the racist ideologies and practices of his SBC forefathers. Williams directed his apology to those of us on our mission team who are of African descent. As he reflected upon his reading of Removing the Stain, his words dripped with lament and conviction. I was so moved by Williams' apology that I wept profusely. It was a cathartic and healing moment for me. My fatigue and frustrations from over 30 years of racial reconciliation work could no longer be contained.
It struck me that, unlike some white evangelicals, Williams was not in denial about the historical problem of race in American society. Our brother clearly understood the continuing impact of racialization and white privilege on the SBC. He did not say to the African-Americans on the team, "Can't you all just get over it? The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863!" He knew just like Barak Obama’s election did not alleviate the problem of race, in America, Fred Luter’s election did not accomplish the same for the SBC.
Williams did not invoke the oft used cliché, "Racism is not a skin problem, it's a sin problem." The use of such trite sayings trivializes the painful reality of race and the specific ways in which structural racism manifests itself in every aspect of the American experience. Williams apologized for what "we" did to "you." Rather than distancing himself from the privileges afforded members of the white majority in the SBC, he personally identified with the sins of the oppressor. It was evident he did not express so-called "white guilt," but rather, godly sorrow which brings repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). White guilt is a counterproductive mindset saturated in self-loathing, whereas godly sorrow involves a qualitative shift in one’s attitude and behavior. As Curtis Woods states in Removing the Stain, "Repentance is the key that unlocks the door to reconciliation."
To further put Williams' apology in biblical context, he beautifully modeled the attitude Paul encouraged the Philippians to exhibit, when he said, "Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others." (Philippians 2:3-4). It is this biblical brand of humility which serves as the building block of reconciliation efforts, regardless of our respective ethnic backgrounds. Yes, black and brown believers must also approach this subject with Christ-like humility, as well as patience.
While humility is a virtue to which all of us must aspire, a unique burden rests upon Anglo-American members of Christ's Church. Daniel L. Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, says, "Overcoming racism requires of the majority race humility and sacrifice ..." Moreover, Akin asserts humility is necessary because few people give up privilege and power without a fight. Woods importantly points out in his chapter that "many white brothers and sisters fought for and with African-Americans in the cause of racial reconciliation in the SBC." Thank God for these saints who were governed by biblical conviction, and thus, were on the right side of American history!
Championing the cause of racial reconciliation requires us to reject the faulty notion of "colorblind” Christianity. In Removing the Stain, Jarvis Williams says, “Southern Baptists should not claim they view all people in a color-blind fashion. When Christians deny that they see black, brown, or white skin, they appear to ignore the fact that many black and brown people have suffered much because of the color of their skin at the hands of certain white people in the SBC.” It should also be noted that, while color should not divide us, cultural distinctions are significant insofar as kingdom diversity is concerned. Our ethnic diversity brings glory to God. Consider the colorful picture painted by Revelation 7:9, "After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands ..." If color and cultural distinctions didn’t matter, then such a vision would not have been given.
In closing, my prayer is that, as a result of humility-driven efforts toward reconciliation, the Church would more fully resemble the heavenly picture painted in Revelation. Meanwhile, we, as God’s people, can look forward to the day when the kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ . . . He shall reign forever and ever (Revelation 11:15).
Joel A. Bowman Sr. is founder and senior pastor of Temple of Faith Baptist Church in Louisville.