You are on a diet. For the past week you’ve been exercising like a professional athlete and eating nothing but rabbit food. Then you walk by a kid selling strawberry pies. You buy three of them hoping to share with your family. You eat all three. But you justify this by saying, “I’ve done so good on my diet that I deserve to cheat a little”.
Sociologists have coined a term for this behavior. It is called moral licensing. And it extends to far more than just eating strawberry pie while on a diet. Studies have found that when we humans do something that we consider a good deed rather than backing that up with more good deeds we tend to go the other way and give ourselves permission to do something less than favorable.
I first learned about this concept listening to Malcom Gladwell’s podcast, Revisionist History. Gladwell weaves together stories of outsiders who broke through a barrier only to have the door closed behind them. Rather than seeing the door remain open what often happens is that accepting one “outsider” serves as justification for the status quo to close the door again. There are exceptions to the rule, like Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the MLB, but more often than not the door closes after one outsider breaks through.
I’ve been wondering a bit lately about where the SBC will land on this issue. In my mind we face a bit of a crossroads as a denomination. We have seen significant growth over the past decade in terms of racial reconciliation. In 2012 Fred Luter was nominated as the SBC’s first African-American president. Was this opening a door for wider representation by minorities or will this serve as a license to slowly shut that door?
I’m a nobody with only one set of eyes, so take my observations for what they are worth. Yet, I must voice my concern that I see and hear a bit of moral licensing. I hear folks touting voting records on resolutions, raising a ballot for Fred Luter, and the like. What I’m hearing is the ol’, “I have a black friend, so I cannot be racist” schtick. It’s really no more than giving ourselves permission to not look deeper into potential vestiges of racism. It’s blinding our eyes to the pervasive whiteness on our committees and our stages.
In my opinion, a massive part of the problem with the recent dust-up concerning the alt-right resolution was the lack of minority representation on the resolutions committee. Our resolutions committee absolutely misread the situation and the importance of this resolution. I cannot help but think had there been more representation by minorities that the committee would have had a better read on our need to bring this to the floor.
Then we heard the names of those appointed to a personal soul-winning, evangelism task force. Look at the list of names. Notice a trend? The group is mostly comprised of white seminarians and white mega-church pastors. The wise words of Walter Strickland (our newly elected 1VP) are not being heeded, “Superior theological development results from the diverse collection of the church (across ages, genders, races, and cultures) rather than from an individual or believers isolated in their cultural context”. (Removing the Stain, 58)
There is one other thing I’ve noticed in the past few years that has me both encouraged and discouraged. I am happy to see more representation by minorities on our panel discussions. But I’m also discouraged that for the most part the only questions they are asked on these panels are questions related to race. To me this reeks of moral licensing. We are doing the good deed of having at least one minority represented on our panel and then giving ourselves license to not do the greater thing of considering them intellectual equals and asking for their perspective on significant theological issues not related to race.
In order to move forward we must be intentional about representation on our boards. This is not virtue signaling or affirmative action. It is about intentionality. It is about recognizing that unless I’m intentional about not doing this I will look at a pool of people and pick those who look like me and think just like I do.
I’m encouraged that the way forward has already been modeled by the 2017 Pastor’s Conference and hopefully will continue with H.B. Charles at the helm in 2018. We were blessed by hearing from a diverse selection of voices. We need this to continue. I was part of that selection process, and we had to be intentional about pursuing diversity. We had a pool of many qualified men to preach. We could have easily filled it with 12 white guys who were gifted preachers. We could have just as easily filled it with 12 minorities. But we chose to be intentional about hearing from many different voices.
Until a healthier balance is achieved we have to look at every committee and board and make certain that we have a diversity. We cannot let things like the 2017 resolutions committee misreading that alt-right resolution happen again. We cannot pretend that we are going to get the best ideas on personal evangelism and soul-winning when we are mostly leaving out smaller churches and minorities from having a voice. And why not have a panel of nothing but minority Southern Baptists talking to us about something like ecclessiology or pneumatology? Why not intentionally do something like this?
Here’s to praying that the open door of racial reconciliation and minority representation/leadership swings open wide and doesn’t slowly begin to close by way of moral licensing.