Dwight McKissic said something to me the other day that absolutely shocked me. He had called me about another matter, and but he told me something that really disturbed me.
The podium at the SBC Annual Meeting last year was just like me – lily white! When he made his motion to make racism as serious an offense as homosexuality in the SBC bylaws, there was not a single person of color involved in making the decisions. He claimed that there was not a single black man on the stage during the entire convention.
Here’s the thing: I never noticed. It never occurred to me that the leadership of the SBC was exclusively white. I would put my hand on a Bible and swear before a court of law that I am not a racist. I have fellowshipped with predominantly African American churches in Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. When I was a pastor in a southern state, a hotbed of discrimination and racism, and I stood against racism, I preached against it, our church choir sang in black churches and we held interracial joint services (much to the dismay of some of our members). I am not a racist.
But when I was at the SBC last year, it never occurred to me that everyone on the podium was white. I don’t think about the fact that every entity head and pretty much every key administrative position in those entities was a white as a fresh Iowa snow. I just never noticed.
Seeing What My White Eyes Didn’t
But Dwight did. He noticed that Baptists of color have been asked to participate in Baptist life, but not in Baptist leadership (with a few exceptions). Dwight made a motion last year at the convention.
I hereby move to amend Article III, Section 1 of the SBC Constitution to read: “1. One (1) messenger from each church which: (1) Is in friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work. Among churches not in cooperation with the Convention are churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior or racial discrimination and bigotry in any form.
We have made a statement in our constitution that says that we will not fellowship with churches that affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior. Pastor McKissic simply wanted to include racism as a sin on that level. He wanted the convention to take a stand that says that we take the sin of racism and discrimination as seriously as we take the sin of homosexuality.
The motion was referred to the Executive Committee. Dwight tried to get a convention vote, but that motion failed. I told him two things that day. First, I told him that it was very normal for the convention to refer such motions. That was not a surprise. Second, I told him I would use whatever position I have to advocate for that motion. Despite indications of sympathy to the motion from the podium, the EC has decided not to recommend it for action. Unless someone makes a motion to the contrary, this issue is dead.
Dwight observed that the podium personalities who referred the motion, and the EC that decided not to pursue it further are as white as they can be. White people decided that we did not need to make a statement against racism in SBC churches.
Dwight is about ready to throw in the Southern Baptist towel. He is tired of beating his head against the wall. He says that the Southern Baptist Convention is a racist haven; that we turn a blind eye to the systemic discrimination and racism that are prevalent in our churches. I asked him if he intends to go to the SBC and try one more time to get a convention vote on this issue. He is not certain at this point, but I got the impression he is tired; tired of the battle and tired of the lack of understanding and support from the leadership of the SBC.
And it is my impression that he believes that the SBC is systemically and institutionally racist!
Is He Right?
Defining racism is a difficult thing. I do not believe that the leadership of the SBC is actively racist. I do not think that they are trying to exclude blacks and other people of color from positions of leadership. I think that they are like me – we just don’t see the problem. I’m white. I neither hate black people nor do I actively wish to oppress them or discriminate against them. I would vote for Dwight McKissic’s motion if it came before the convention. And yet, it never occurred to me that everyone on stage was white. I would bet my spleen that Johnny Hunt did not say to himself, let’s make sure to keep blacks off the stage. He wouldn’t do that. We wouldn’t do that.
But we just don’t see the problem. It would seem that we just do not see the problem like our black brethren do. We see progress. We know that in our hearts we don’t mean to be racist or discriminatory. But they see exclusion. They see white folks telling black folks that there really isn’t a problem with racism.
There’s a lot about this I just don’t know. But here are some things that I know or believe:
The SBC was planted in racist soil
That is a harsh statement, but I think that history bears this out. There was a time when Baptists, even in the South, stood against slavery. But as time went on, Baptist preachers began to accomodate themselves to the cultural norm and even found biblical justification for slavery. When the national Baptist organization enforced a policy that slave owners could not serve as missionaries, the split began which culminated in the founding of the Southern Baptist Convention.
I wish it were not so. But the fact is that racism is a genetic defect in the SBC. Our founders were good men who loved the Lord and wanted to proclaim the gospel. They loved the Word and believed it. But they had this giant hole in their convictions that allowed them to be good Christians and still believe that racism and slavery were okay. How? I don’t know? We all have blind spots, but this was a big one.
The SBC has been a haven for racism
Even when slavery ended, the SBC remained a place where one could serve Jesus and discriminate against black people. My first pastorate was in a Deep South church in the late 80s and early 90s. I was shocked when I saw the deep-seated racism that existed in the hearts of “fine Christian people” in that area.
Our youth ministry put up a basketball goal in the church parking lot so that we could have some “fellowship” games. One day, the goal was gone. It was a crisis. One of our men had seen some black teens playing basketball in a street and invited them to come down to our parking lot and play. They did. When some of the folks saw that blacks were playing basketball on the church parking lot, they removed the basketball goal that day. At next Sunday’s business meeting they “sent the pastor a message” by voting down a close friend as a deacon and taking away my raise for the year. Why? Because some black teenagers shot hoops on our parking lot.
And these people constantly told me that they were not racists! One man, a pillar in the church, told me a story that “proved” that he was not a racist. He and some friends used to go hunting and they would give the black lady who worked for them some of the meat (after she cleaned it of course). His wife gave me a history of the county we lived in. It mentioned the good race relations in the county and attributed this to the fact that the blacks there knew their place and stayed in it!
In the next county to the north, the courts had mandated integration in 1959, and instead of obeying the order, they shut down the public schools rather than integrating them. A whole generation of African Americans grew up without schools because these folks were so committed to segregation. And a majority of the folks that made that decision and enforced it were likely members of Southern Baptist churches. They believed that God wanted their educated separately from black children. Good Baptist folks and racists – at the same time.
I’d love to know what percentage of KKK membership through history has been Southern Baptist. Actually, I don’t want to know.
The SBC has repented of our racism
Things have changed. Even back in the heyday of segregation and discrimination, there were courageous men who took a stand against this blight. And the light began to dawn on us. Finally, in 1995, at our Annual Meeting in Indianapolis, the SBC formally repented of our racist past. You can look here to read the resolution that was passed. I was there and I was thrilled to stand on behalf of our forbears and repent of the institutional sin that had so marked our existence.
I think we have made great strides. A few years ago, I was sitting at a table with some pastors from our association and a pastor told a racist joke. Every one of those white pastors was offended at the joke. A few decades back, we would have laughed and told another one, perhaps. But, on the other hand, we did not move to disfellowship the pastor who told the joke. Maybe in another decade we will be at that place.
But the SBC has taken steps to repair the damage our racism has done. That is probably why men like Dwight McKissic are affiliated with us today.
The SBC is still a white man’s haven
But the simple fact is that the SBC is still a convention run by whites. SBC presidents. Entity heads. Key administrative positions. There have been so few blacks or people of color in any of these positions. And there are still Baptist churches in certain parts of the country that discriminate in less open but nonetheless heinous ways. It is shameful.
We have, by our actions, told people of color that we now want you on the bus, and you can sit anywhere you please. That’s progress, yes. But, the white folks are still the only ones with drivers licenses.
I do not believe that this is intentional. I do not believe our leaders are intentionally exclusionary. We just don’t see the problem, as I did not even notice that the convention podium was an all-white thing last year.
The SBC has not done enough to demonstrate our commitment to racial equality.
Dwight McKissic seems to think that there is institutional racism in the SBC. I’m not sure I agree. But I do think that we have NOT DONE ENOUGH to prove to men like Dwight that we are not racist. Since we have such an undeniable racist past, it is our duty to do everything we can not only to repent of racism (which we’ve done) but also to prove that we will not tolerate it in our midst any more. We have to prove ourselves and demonstrate the genuineness of our repentance. If we did not have the past we have, that might not be the same. But with our past, we have to go the extra mile and prove it! Our words are not enough.
Here are some suggestions:
1) We need to adopt Dwight McKissic’s motion! I don’t even know if Dwight will be there this year. He’s had it. But we need a motion to bring the referred motion to the floor and have a vote. Folks, we have to tell the people of color in the SBC that we are going to be as intolerant of racism as we are of perversion. We took a stand about homosexuality. Let’s take a stand about racism. Let’s tell the world that we are adopting a ZERO-TOLERANCE policy toward racism.
Our past dictates that we must take an aggressive approach in the future. In my humble opinion, the Executive Committee blew it on this one. We need to correct their mistake.
2) Let’s get some driver’s licenses for some of our black leaders. I hate quotas, but we need to instruct the committee on committees that they need to increase black and other ethnic representation on our boards. The next time there is an entity head search committee, could we at least consider some non-white candidates? I would love to know if either the IMB or NAMB search committees ever gave serious consideration to anyone but white candidates.
3) We must be personally intolerant of racism. If I had it to do over again, I would tell that pastor that his joke was not appreciated. Instead of just fuming, and talking about it later with other fuming pastors, I’d say, “There is no place in a Christian organization for racist jokes.” We need to be willing to confront racism.
So, I believe two things:
- Since we have a clearly racist history, the burden on us is much greater to demonstrate clearly that we will not tolerate racism in any form in our convention in the future.
- We have made progress in the last 20 years, but we have NOT done enough.
We can do better!