Jim is an attorney (don’t hold that against him) and a frequent reader of Voices.
I was born in 1947 and attended integrated Army schools. I learned about white supremacy while visiting family in Alabama. My cousins would trick me into drinking from “colored only” fountains or going into “colored only” men’s rooms. It was easy to do.
I hated what I saw, so I rebelled. I held the door open for an older black woman and I saw fear in her eyes. Older, I realized I crossed a line. Seeing wrong and trying to make it right, I put this woman at risk. White supremacy rules by terror.
White supremacy is now like polio: we have been inoculated so that “white” culture no longer sees others as inferior. But, like polio, white supremacy is not eradicated, and any outbreak excites primal fears among our Black brothers and sisters.
I now understand that Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts of 1965, integration, affirmative action, and equal opportunity cannot, in a mere 50+ years, erase centuries of memory of those who descend from slaves and who endured more than a century of the Ku Klux Klan, lynchings, and Jim Crow.
In the SBC we never talk about the damage done by centuries of oppression. We are caught between Ta-Nehisi Coates, a descendant of slaves who believes that Black Americans still do not own their bodies [see: Between the World and Me, (Spiegel & Grau; 2015), and Jason D. Hill, a Jamaican immigrant of African descent who contends the American Dream is alive and well in America (“An Open Letter to Ta-Nehisi Coates”, Commentary Magazine, September 13, 2017, https://www.commentarymagazine.com/articles/open-letter-ta-nehisi-coates/).
It’s like a record with a bad scratch: racism is dead/racism cannot be dead because whites still control power, give us jobs/you won’t work because of ____ (drug abuse, criminal history, addicted to welfare, etc.), slavery broke our culture/slavery ended over a century and a half ago, and our young men are being enslaved in prison/dangerous men need to be in jail.
Apologies, Black presidents of the Convention, and more ethnic representation in seminaries won’t bring us peace. Read Brother Dwight McKissic’s posts, especially those dealing with his proposed resolutions. After the first laudatory comments, we get the usual stuff: police are good, affirmative action is bad, don’t forget black on black crime or welfare, or we just need the gospel. Even when the recent white supremacy resolution was passed, there was notoriety and a sense of “that’s done.” In my many years as a Southern Baptist, no SBC resolution, including this one, ever made a ripple in my local church.
We are not going to find a way out until we, as the Body of Christ, face chattel slavery and white supremacy. To do that, we are going to have to listen to each other and not talk over or at each other. Brother McKissic’s posts show that people like me think of the police as community protectors; those in Brother McKissic’s congregation see the police as enforcers of white supremacy. Brother McKissic’s congregation seethes with the wounds of white supremacy through crime, broken families, drug abuse, killing, and injustice. They see Trayvon Martin as just another innocent black man killed in a long line of murdered innocent men. We say Trayvon Martin wore a hoodie.
It is bad enough to live in a world stained with racism; what makes it worse is our silence or counter-arguments in the present in the hope that the future will be different, that “someone” will do “something,” or that somehow those who have long been oppressed will see that it is all different. The future never becomes different if we do not shoulder our responsibility to make it better.
We can go on this way, and nothing will happen unless and until we start talking to each other as brothers and sisters in Christ and then we, who are white, do the hardest thing there is to do: listen. Not just hear and formulate our responses or justify our opinions while someone is talking, but listen.
We need to listen like good intercessory prayer. You can pray for someone with cancer and ask God to heal them, but you don’t pray for the person; you pray for their condition and ask God to fix it. If you really want to pray for someone with cancer, you enter into their life. You let them speak, you listen, and then you pray for the fear that haunts them, the loss of all they love in this world, the brutality of chemotherapy, the powerlessness of a body that feels like it is no longer your own, and living in a world that seems to be pulling away. Prayer can be a palliative for the person who prays, or it can be a powerful act of love for the person for whom we are praying. We need to find the way of love.
I am not responsible for slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy in this country. But that is not the same as saying I do not bear responsibility. I bear responsibility as a child of God who is united in Christ with those who have borne an awful burden for so many years. My brother’s burdens are my burdens (bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ – Galatians 6:2). But like good intercessory prayer, if we are to find peace in our community of believers, we have to understand our brothers’ burden. We have to go into their experience, feel the pain (even though it cannot be fully understood), and walk with them where they live.
What we need is an exercise in love; the kind of love that strips us of everything but another’s pain – and the courage to walk in that pain hand in hand toward the Kingdom of Heaven. If we cannot do it for this country, I truly believe we can do it in the church. What I propose is that the Southern Baptist Convention convene something that has not happened in a long time: a council. It would be a council of reconciliation that would be charged with listening, sharing, and leading. I would call it the “Southern Baptist Council for Reconciliation,” and it would be similar to the one established in South Africa after the end of apartheid.
The Council would be open to all Southern Baptists, and we would invite them to share their stories about what it means to be the descendants of slaves and survivors of white supremacy. It would be a place for one brother or sister to speak to our community, to tell a story of hurt and pain and the legacy of the terrible sense of injustice that attends those of African heritage whose ancestors were bought and sold as chattel and whose freed progeny were again enslaved through the invisible chains of law, fear, and culture.
It would be a place to wonder what it will take to find shalom.
It would be a time to consider justice and what it means to be brothers and sisters in Christ.
If our Southern Baptist family has offended, the Convention’s President or one of our leaders can let those aggrieved speak to us through them. It would be a tangible presence that can help find the depths of pain and obtain a sense of satisfaction, much like the sentencing stage in criminal trials where family members can speak directly to the accused.
The Council would then share the stories with sermons preached, videos played, prayers led, and confession encouraged. We would see the truth of the past and would have an opportunity to ask for, and receive, forgiveness through our love for Jesus.
The Council would present its findings and point the way to a fellowship that transcends history and lets us live the righteousness that restores justice. By then we might be willing to listen. It could be the catalyst for a breakout of love that, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, is transformative, righteous, and restorative.
The Council can be charged with other matters, as determined by men and women of good will and deep faith.
If we do something culture cannot, and we do it for the glory of God, think of what might happen.