Yes, I just used the cliched line from Apollo 13. It’s a good cliche: it states the situation without sounding panicked. That’s where we are right now as the Southern Baptist Convention: we have a problem and we need state the situation without panicking but still looking into it.
The problem is this: after we have roasted, toasted, and flamed one another since back in September over a name-change proposal to hopefully break from our past, especially the times we have embarrassingly embraced racism, we just blew that whole plan. All of the hope of moving past that issue originating from our Convention President in Marietta, all of the drive to change that perception of us coming out of the Executive Committee, meeting in Nashville, has been trainwrecked in Washington D.C.
We, as Southern Baptists, have spoken through our agency that is charged with speaking about ethical and political issues and spoken very badly about the current issue of racism and its relation to the Trayvon Martin case in Florida. Rather than endorsing an effort to see this case properly investigated, rightly adjudicated, and justice to be handled in accordance with the law, we spoke harshly about the racial issues that are lurking behind the shooting, the government response since the shooting, and the public outcry that has followed those two events. We did not speak of the need to find healing and reach a point where the racial identity of either party is not a factor in decision to prosecute or not; rather we decided to lob rhetorical bombs about politics.
This has us in the midst of a problem. I do not know how many of you look at the “Blogroll” above the posts on the main page here at SBCVoices.com, but one filler into that “Blogroll” is the Google Search Results for “Southern Baptist Convention.” Those results show us not what we say about ourselves but what others say about us. For about a day last week, many of those results were about the Lumpkins/Liberty issue. Then they shifted.
The results shifted to show blog posts and editorials about how the Southern Baptist response to Trayvon Martin’s death reveals that we are still just as racist as we were in Augusta in 1845. The editorials were harsh, but the comments sections make anything ever said here look like a playground tussle–we spoke, people listened, and they responded.
What we have done in how we spoke is drive a wedge between people and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a bigger wedge than our name has ever been, and it’s one that will likely be hard to remove even as we become Great Commission Baptists this June. It’s a bigger wedge than can be easily removed by electing any one person to the Presidency of the SBC.
Now, one could debate exactly which points in our speaking were right and which ones were wrong, but I would bring this to mind. When my father taught me to drive, he frequently said “Son, you can be right. You can be dead right.” His point was this: on the road, it may be your turn or your right-of-way, but if the other car hits you, being right does not change the physics and you can be dead. Even if some of the remarks we have made are right regarding the facts and the politics that have played out since February, I’m afraid we are head for being “dead right.” What’s dead, or at least dying, is our ability to reach the people of this country with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Which has to be more important than standing firm on those statements. The time will come that a court outcome will decide what happens in this case–and that’s another matter. We are supposed to be first and foremost about making disciples of all nations, not driving certain nations away to score political points. Yet that is what we have accomplished, whatever our intention has been.
We need to correct our statements with clear expression not that we are sorry someone was bothered but with clear expression that we should not have said it. We need to realize that what we have said was taken as racially divisive by reasonable people who were not looking to find fault, but it was there anyway. (I recognize that some people would find racism in anything–those fault-finders might be overlooked. However, many of the voices I have seen and heard are not that type of person.) We need to speak clearly, without reservation or double-speak, that we do not agree with judging anyone based on race.
Otherwise, our credibility with God’s Word is at risk. Certainly our credibility on ethics and politics is threatened: despite our protests to the contrary, our objections to certain policies will be pigeon-holed as coming from a group of racists. While the latter is of secondary importance, it is still important. The former, though, is the real reason we exist, is it not?
We need to speak again. Clearly and less divisively.
Some of you, though, will say that “we” didn’t speak, but given our organizational system, “we” did. The head of the Southern Baptist entity that speaks for the Southern Baptist Convention spoke for you. He spoke on your behalf, and his words are speaking for you. That’s the way this works: we elect trustees who select an individual to speak for the whole of the Convention. So, when Richard Land speaks as the ERLC President, he speaks for us.
We want people to listen to us, but right now what we said has not furthered the cause of Christ. Instead, it has added one more salvo in the long-simmering racial tensions in our country. Is that what we want?
It is not what most of us really want, I would not think. I think most of us want this shooting, as with any other loss of human life, investigated, examined, and considered properly in the light of the law. Life is precious: all life from conception to natural death is a gift from God. Any loss of life is to be avoided when possible, any taking of life needs careful accountability. If George Zimmerman was truly at the threat of his life, then he should be released. If Trayvon Martin was truly murdered, his killer should face justice. Yet we cannot solve that question or address its implications on radio shows and blogs: we have an open court system that will address it.
I do not know the right way forward for this. We are so predominantly white in the Southern Baptist Convention that it is far too easy to get exhausted over these issues. We may feel like we should have done enough to put the racist label away, but times like this it is apparent that we have not. What we do each time this wound gets reopened will determine whether the end result is a scar or healing. I’d like to see healing some day.