by Matthew Y. Emerson and R. Lucas Stamps
We affirm that all people, regardless of race, ethnicity or gender, are created in God's image and, if they have repented and believed in Christ, are brothers and sisters together in the one body of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. Because of this shared imago dei and because of Christ's saving work among all nations, peoples, and tongues, we believe that one major task of Baptist catholicity is to promote racial unity, especially within the body of Christ.
The saddest aspect of the trope, “the most segregated hour in America is on Sunday morning,” is how true it continues to be a half a century or more after desegregation, school integration, and the Civil Rights movement. Whatever one thinks about the contemporary national conversations about race, it is undeniable that the legal enforcement of desegregation has had relatively little impact on local ecclesial life, especially in Baptist churches. I (Matt) recall serving at a rural Baptist church not a half a mile down the road from a black Baptist church, and never the twain did meet. This continued ethnic divide flies in the face of Paul’s statement that Christ’s death has broken down the wall of hostility, a wall that was erected to separate ethnicities, specifically Jew and Gentile.
Today in our American context we continue to erect, maintain, and reinforce similar walls of racial and ethnic separation, not through appeals to the civil regulations of the Sinaitic Law that distinguished Jew and Gentile, but through appeals to supposed “natural” distinctions between races and ethnicities, to the law of the land, and to certain strands of biblical interpretation. Whether racial separation arises through the abhorrent practices of chattel slavery or Jim Crow laws, or through interpretations like “unequally yoked” or the “curse of Ham,” or whether it arises through less obvious but still troubling means like systemically perpetuated racialization or the subconsciously racialized way in which we all think about the world, we want to say that this separation is anti-Christ.
Further, it is to our shame in American Christianity that so often racial separation is the result of white Christians writing, supporting, or ignoring legislation that fosters enmity between whites and non-whites. We find ourselves today in a situation in which many white Christians, and, to put a finer point on it, many white Southern Baptists, can be identified historically as leaders in the civil and legal adoption and perpetuation of chattel slavery, hostility toward and disenfranchisement of Native Americans, Jim Crow legislation and enforcement, and the “separate but equal” theory of race relations.
Of course, to their credit, there were some white Christians, Baptists among them, who opposed these racist practices. We commend them and pray that by God’s grace we can follow their example. But the process of reconciliation begins with an acknowledgement of wrongdoing on the part of the offender, and historically speaking a large portion of white Southern Baptists have been in that category many times. We can only begin to address the anti-Christ modes of racial separation today by, as Southern Baptist churches, repenting of our past participation in such abhorrent practices.
Additionally, past practices, including chattel slavery, the Trail of Tears, and the explicitly racialized legislation that endured until at least 1970, continue to deter our economic, social, and, ultimately, racial integration today. Christians reject a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality when it comes to salvation, but when it comes to economics in America, this is a prevailing attitude among many whites, including white Christians. What is often missed in that approach is that the 350+ years of slavery, hostility toward and military action against Native Americans, Jim Crow laws, lynch mobs, internment camps, and segregation have produced economic and social disadvantage for minorities, seemingly intractable in many cases. One needs only to read documentation of such systemic social disadvantage and its effects today to see how perpetual social and economic oppression leads to persistent social and economic disenfranchisement. Of course, we acknowledge that governmental actions like emancipation, desegregation, and the like have changed the landscape with respect to overt, explicit racial discrimination on a legal level. But this does not mean that the lasting effects of that now-defunct legislation have been effectively neutered.
We do not wish to dive deeply here into debates about the social and economic situation of minorities, systemic racism, or the like. What we wish to say is that reconciliation begins with an acknowledgement of wrongdoing and of the disruption of God’s shalom. It also begins with James’ instructions to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. Because the SBC is a predominantly white convention of churches, we want to say that it is up to us to first listen to our black and brown sisters and brothers, to go to them before bringing our sacrifice of praise to God’s altar, knowing that we have participated in injustice against them. Rather than being quick to argue the facts of a particular racialized legal case, we should be quick to listen to their cries of perpetual injustice. Rather than attempting to play CSI about a particular police shooting incident, we should be quick to listen to our black brothers and sisters, those of us bound together in Christ, who are pleading with us to hear their stories of inequality and economic disadvantage.
We readily acknowledge in this regard that there have been numerous resolutions, especially in the last twenty years, from the SBC regarding racial reconciliation, and deeply appreciate these endeavors. We are also incredibly grateful for other Baptists, including many Southern Baptists, who have worked and continue to work toward reconciliation. But we also want to clearly state that the effects of sin, including racial effects, were defeated at the cross but will not be purged finally from our midst until Christ returns in glory. And, in this regard, we still see the racial effects of sin in our houses, not only in the continued segregation of Sunday morning but also in racialized rhetoric from white Christians about the validity of maintaining separation between the races. This rhetoric includes arguing that (certain) white American culture(s) should prevail in SBC churches, that if our black and brown sisters don't like it here they can leave, and that all racial effects of sin were effectively neutered during the Civil Rights era and therefore that any attempt to discuss them today is equivalent to race baiting, laziness, or whining. Because these racialized attitudes remain in our midst, we therefore commit to confronting the effects of sin, including racial division, in our churches and in our world until Christ comes back.
We also want to emphasize here that our non-white brothers and sisters are those with whom we share in Christ’s body and blood at the Lord’s Table. When they come to us with a grievance, Christ calls us not to dismiss it but to listen. When they come to us asking for our support in ending racial inequality, we are not called to point out instead perceived problems in the black or brown community; rather, we are called to take the plank out of our own eye before we mention what we perceive to be our brother’s speck. Do we white Christians together accuse collectively our black and brown fellow Christians of lying, of bearing false witness about their own situation? Do we believe that we have no plank in our own eye? Perhaps, rather than our minority brothers and sisters bearing false witness or having a speck that our clean eye can pluck, it is instead we who do not want to hear the testimony of many witnesses against us.
Of course, reconciliation is decidedly not fostered by injustice toward the offender, or by ignoring the speck in the eye of the offended, or by withholding forgiveness. We do not want to exacerbate racial separation by placing responsibility only at the feet of white Christians. Christ tears down the dividing wall of hostility, a wall that must be crossed not only by those who erected it but also by those who it intended to keep out. Christ calls the offended to forgive. There can be no reconciliation without forgiveness. And so, while we believe that the burden of the offender is plainly at the feet of white Christians, we also maintain that Christ calls the offended, in this case, our black and brown sisters, to forgive, to love, to exhort, and, yes, to continue to have patience with those also in the body of Christ. We realize this is in some ways antithetical to the spirit of our times, especially in the face of trenchant unwillingness by some whites to acknowledge the continued effects of America’s racial history. Nevertheless, Christ calls us to it.
In the end, then, racial reconciliation is a product and sign of the gospel, and any attempt to foster Baptist catholicity, especially in an American context, must include working toward it. It is a matter of doing what we can to be at peace with all women and men, and particularly those in the Church. The body of Christ is united in him, and this union is emphasized over and over again in the NT to be, in part, a union between formerly hostile races. Working toward racial reconciliation, in our view, includes an acknowledgement of our country’s racial history and its continued effects today, being first in line to repent, being slow to speak but quick to listen, being willing to see the plank in our own eye before trying to remove our brother’s, and being those who, in humility, put the interests of others before our own, maintaining the bonds of peace through a stance of forgiveness, love, and forbearance with one another. A truly catholic Baptist life will seek unity between ethnicities and races in the Church because we are one in Adam and, more importantly, one in Christ.