Friday, June 16, 2017

Learning from Our Family History: Race Relations and the Southern Baptist Convention (Dr. Joel Rainey)

Joel Rainey is the lead pastor of Covenant Church in Shepherdstown, WV.

For more than 4 decades, I’ve been in denial.

It’s not as though the signs weren’t there for me to heed.  My mother has been on blood pressure meds for three of those decades.  My grandmother died of a sudden heart attack due to a blood clot.  My grandfather passed from hardening of the arteries—a complication of his diabetes.  He was 64.

But not me.  No way!  Wasn’t going to happen.  I was a former athelete who had convinced himself that my metabolism in my 40s at *#@ pounds was identical to when I was 19.  I was invincible.  Eating junk food on the run, insane work hours, and ignoring what my body was trying to tell me has pretty much described my routine for the last 20 years of my adult life.  Then came the diagnoses—high blood pressure, and diabetes.

At 45 years of age, my family’s genetic lineage had finally caught up with me.  It was time to take measures which included finally paying attention to my history, and that of my family.  To be sure, this wasn’t about the past.  I haven’t bought any grave plots, and I’m not obsessing about my health.  I’m still working hard, and loving the ministry.  The thing is, I want to keep doing those things and doing them well.  I want to walk my now 8-year-old daughter down the aisle (and that won’t happen for another 40 years!).  I want to enjoy grandchildren.  And I want to utilize our coming “empty nest” to travel globally with my wife as we minister alongside each other.  I also wouldn’t mind riding from coast to coast on a Harley Davidson Softail Classic.  That’s my dream bike!

You can’t do any of those things if you aren’t healthy.  And in my case, you can’t be healthy if you ignore, or deny, your history.

What is true of an individual is also true at the corporate level—including churches and denominations.  This past week, my denominational tribe experienced what can mildly be called a public relations faux paux.  In many ways, this has been a blessing in disguise, because it has revealed some major blind spots that still exist in our Convention that we need to work on.  In the end, we did the right thing.  We passed by near unanimity a strongly-worded resolution condemning the “alt-right” movement—a dangerous and currently subversive white nationalist group that uses the red herring fear of “white ethnic cleansing” to promote antichrist ideas that tie national and cultural identity exclusively to ethnicity and race.  Make no mistake, these folks are the 21st century equivalent of the KKK.  

That many of those attending the SBC in Phoenix were unaware of this movement was also, in a sense, a blessing.  Our Southern Baptist family’s ignorance on this subject automatically reveals that our people have nothing to do with it.  But on the other hand, 15 minutes of research by the Resolutions Committee would have revealed everything they needed to know about this movement.  In our polity, this committee has the right to edit any resolutions.  Instead, they simply and initially declined to bring it forward.

To be clear, they didn’t decline it because they are racist.  Anyone who knows Barrett Duke, who chaired this committee, would dismiss such a ridiculous assumption quickly.  But the initial refusal to deal with something our minority brothers and sisters view as an imminent threat brought a moment of great pain to our large family—and revealed a terrible truth.  We are still too often ignoring our “family medical history.”  

Just after the attack on Ft. Sumter in 1860, my wife’s great great grandfather left his upstate South Carolina home and walked across the state to enlist and fight for the Confederacy.  Not long afterward, my great great grandfather would also enlist in North Carolina for the same cause.  Smart phones weren’t ubiquitous in the 1860s, so we really don’t know what their views were of black men and women.  We do know that neither man ever owned a slave, and neither man fought to keep slaves.  In their minds, they were defending their home “countries” from a foreign federal invader.  Nevertheless, the “cause” for which they were fighting included the “right” of white men to keep our African brothers and sisters in bonds.

That’s my heritage, and it doesn’t make me a racist.  I too have never personally owned a slave.  I’ve never donned a white hood and I’ve never believed my ethnicity made me superior to anyone else.  And because of that, the temptation is to shrug my shoulders and say “what’s the big deal?” when issues of race come up.  And if I shrug, its because I’m once again ignoring my family history.

This is also true of the Southern Baptist Convention—admittedly birthed because our northern Baptist brothers refused to appoint slaveholders as missionaries.  I can understand why some of my white brothers would say “but that was 150 years ago!  Why do we have to keep dwelling on it?!”  But just as there is a difference between planning my funeral at 45 and better understanding my medical history to get healthy—there is a world of difference between “white guilt” and the outright, unadulterated pursuit of racial reconciliation.  What we saw on the floor of the Convention from Pastor Dave Gass and others wasn’t motivated by white guilt or disrespect for denominational leadership.  These were prophetic young men who love our tribe enough to wake us up to our tone-deafness and call us to do the right thing.

And eventually, we did.  The Committee not only released a superb resolution, but also asked forgiveness.  And as was appropriate, the people of our Convention granted that forgiveness as we should have.  But we still have a mess to clean up.

There are times when its necessary, not only to say the right thing, but to say it without a stutter.  Though we said the right thing, from a procedural standpoint, we stuttered heavily.  This was no small blunder, and in its aftermath, we don’t need to be looking at our minority brothers and sisters and asking “what’s your problem?”  They have been most gracious to forgive and assume the best.  I have yet to see any of my African American brothers call us racists.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a deep pain—connected to our past—that we should listen to.  Southern Baptists original sin continues to create complications for us.  We stuttered in Birmingham in the 1960s when many of our white churches were on the wrong side of the fire hoses and dog leashes.  We stuttered in reaction to Martin Luther King’s courageous and audacious stands by saying “he is stirring too much trouble.”  And while many of us may think “that was a half century ago!” to our black brothers and sisters, it was just a moment ago in time!  And the reason is simple.  Its because white people weren’t the victims.  They were the perpetrators.  

So today, we face another threat.  The Confederacy is dead, and those guys in white hoods are also dying off pretty quickly.  Its easy to speak out against dead people and dying movements.  But it takes actual courage to look a present, living, breathing, GROWING societal cancer like the alt right in the face and say “you are of your father, the devil!”  Now is not the time to stutter!

And we shouldn’t look back on this not-so-great moment in Phoenix to learn because we are trying to punish ourselves or those in leadership.  We should do it because a brighter future for us all awaits if we do.  As pastor of a church that is increasingly more multi-ethnic, things like this affect me at the ground level.  When an African American or interracial family comes through our “Discovery” membership class and asks me “are you guys Southern Baptists?” I want to say proudly “yes we are” without qualifying statements or long explanations.  Right now, I can’t do that—not because I’m not proud of who we are or think we are bad people, but because we have a self-imposed perception problem.   And I suspect many of my fellow pastors feel the same way.

I want a future in which our tribe of churches looks like the world Jesus died to save.  I think we are getting there, and the final resolution this past week is evidence of that.  But I also think we have a long way to go, and our path from A to B this past week is evidence of that.

So let’s not dwell on our past, but let’s not ignore the past sicknesses, tendencies and sinful habits in our family history.  Our life depends on it.  



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