Southern Baptists need to move forward in racial reconciliation

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Wednesday, June 14 was a significant day in the Southern Baptist Convention as the 2017 messengers overwhelmingly voted for a resolution condemning the Alt Right movement (Resolution 10). For a denomination historically associated with racism, the SBC in recent years has taken important steps toward racial reconciliation. The resolution against the Alt Right is a significant step toward this end, as the SBC distances itself from a vocal group that perverts the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

While this year’s convention is a high point in SBC history, what Southern Baptist churches and individuals do now is more important. Southern Baptists have a history of passing resolutions calling for members to minister to Blacks, denouncing racism, or calling for reconciliation. In their timely book Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention, Jarvis Williams and Kevin Jones highlight 21 resolutions and committee recommendations brought before the Convention since 1845 (certainly there are more, since in 2016 Resolution 7 was passed condemning the Confederate battle flag, which was not in the list provided by Williams and Jones), drawing the reader’s attention to the fact that racism within the Convention has been an ever-present reality since the SBC’s inception.

 

Yet, despite the Convention’s public denouncement of racism, there is little to show by way of action and change at the local church level. Without convictional action, Resolution 10 is nothing but empty words that will dissipate in the winds of the next cultural hot button issue.

 

If Southern Baptists are serious about eradicating racism in their church and in their own life, then there needs to be a distinction between overt racism and what I call “whitewashed racism.” Overt racism refers to those actions and ideas that explicitly proclaim the superiority of one race over another (or others).

 

For instance, the views of the Alt Right are explicitly racist, for members assert the superiority of Whites over Blacks (see Bruce Ashford’s four-part series on the Alt Right at bruceashford.net). It is fair to say that SBC members recognize and (rightly) oppose overt racism. In fact, it is safe to say that a majority of Americans oppose overt racism.

 

However, it is not enough to oppose overt racism. It is easy for one to denounce overt racism, especially when they do not participate in and are appalled by such actions. Taking such a stance rarely meets with opposition or controversy. Further, it requires little self-reflection and personal struggle in identifying and erasing racist personal beliefs. If recent American history has anything to show, opposing overt racism does not remove racism from society.

 

For example, Ibram X. Kendi notes in Stamped from the Beginning that despite the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, racism was not eradicated; rather, it continued in the laws passed by politicians that favored the status quo. Racism was further maintained in the attitudes and viewpoints of individuals and organizations, who expected that, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Blacks had been fairly treated.  That is, after centuries of oppression, Blacks now had the same opportunities as Whites, who were always free to pursue ambitions and opportunities. Now “free,” Blacks were expected to catch up in a system built upon and still employing racist ideas.

 

For Southern Baptists to move forward in racial reconciliation, we need to recognize that oftentimes, racist ideas, beliefs, and actions can be implicit, hidden from one’s cognitive awareness. In other words, this form of racism is weaved into the fabric of one’s worldview such that it is difficult to identify and acknowledge. I call this “whitewashed racism,” because this less-overt racism can seem to be honest, well-intentioned belief on the surface, but on the inside, it is reeks of death—making an ethnic group less than a human being created in the image of God. For instance, in a recent blog post I shared my coming to see whitewashed racism in my own belief structure:

 

For example, for quite some time I believed that African Americans were given the same opportunities as me – a middle class white male. They lived in an age where the Civil Rights Act was firmly in place. Thus, any African American who lived in poverty and its resultant problems did so because they didn't take advantage of what was available to them. That is, essentially, they "chose" to be who they were and where they lived (that is, that's how I saw things). Any protests or demonstrations by African Americans was just an issue of "playing the race card" and refusing to work hard to get out of whatever situation they were fighting against. In short, I saw the current state of many African Americans as their own fault.

 

How wrong I was! Racism is something that reaches down to one's very attitude and assumed beliefs. It can lurk unseen, impacting how one interprets current events, how one votes on issues, and how one acts towards others not like themselves. We tend to focus too much on one's visible actions; instead, the issue lies with the heart and one's underlying beliefs and attitudes.

 

What, then, can we as Southern Baptists do to put feet to Resolution 10? How can we denounce not only overt racism like the Alt Right, but also the more prevalent whitewashed racism in our midst? Several things come to mind.

 

1. Read and Listen. Not too long ago I came to the realization that throughout my studies, the authors and thinkers I primarily studied were of white European or American descent. I had done little to broaden my research to include non-White thinkers. My own personal reading was also devoid of authors of other races. I had unthinkingly tethered myself to White thinkers and authors. Doing so, though, limited my personal and academic growth.

 

Read authors of non-White ethnicity, both men and women. Listen to podcasts, lectures, or radio shows of non-White thinkers, pastors, and leaders. Be challenged to think through your worldview by listening to those with whom you may or may not agree. There is much that Whites can learn from our brothers and sisters of other races; White is not always right. Let's humble ourselves to learn from others and admit when we are wrong, and rejoice when we are in accord with truth.

 

2. Avoid Generalizations. A common charge against Blacks brought on by Whites is that of playing the race card when protesting political issues, community problems, judicial injustice, and economic hardship. It is easy for Whites who have little interaction with Blacks to see Blacks as a group as lazy, ungrateful, and unwilling to work hard to improve themselves in the existing system we have—a system that has been fair to Whites. But, to dismiss offhandedly Blacks’ cries of injustice and unfairness is to view Blacks is to ignore real injustices and problems. It is to equate all outcries—whether legitimate or dishonest—as one and the same. As such, we fail to see actual problems faced by Blacks that Whites may not face.

 

Generalizing Black cries of unfairness and injustice as all the same (irrelevant) is lazy, unfair, and racist thinking. If we as Southern Baptists are serious about racial reconciliation , then that entails fighting for justice and alleviating undue hardship. Not every cry is one of the “liberal agenda” or from a lack of self-responsibility. We are fellow citizens with all non-White ethnicities, and share in the unique status as image bearers of our Creator God. To understand the plight of Blacks in America entails that we rub shoulders with and do life with Blacks.

 

3. Do Life. In their book Divided by Faith, authors Michael Emerson and Christian Smith argue in part that White Evangelical Americans don't see the racial issues brought up by Black Americans because Whites primarily live in majority-White neighborhoods and suburbs. Many Whites’ lives are not intertwined with their fellow Black citizens such that they experience (at some level) what is unfair and unjust for Blacks (and thus for all). Instead, because of our largely segregated neighborhoods, most Whites only hear about Blacks’ struggles on the news, relegating these issues to something that is “out there,” irrelevant to one’s own “here and now.”

 

As Southern Baptists, we need to do more than publicly disavowing racism—our congregations need to foreshadow what heaven will look like (Rev. 7:9-10); we need to actively fellowship with Black brothers and sisters. In short, we need to do life with our Black brothers and sisters, not be separated from them.

 

Removing the stain of racism from the SBC requires much more from her members than passing resolutions against racism. Resolutions are good for publicly stating our convictions, but without action, these resolutions are nothing but paper tigers. Let us live out our convictions. Let us demonstrate to our Black brothers and sisters—and to the world—that we, the Southern Baptist Convention denounce all forms of racism.

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J. Daniel McDonald, Ph.D., is  Adjunct Professor of Christian Worldview & Apologetics at Boyce College.

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