By Andrew Spencer
When people get nostalgic for their childhood, they are usually remembering a time when things seemed simpler. That does not mean life was actually less complex, typically just that they were shielded from some of the twists, confusions, and injustices in the world.
My life was simpler before I knew about the powerful impact racism has had in our nation. Even in my early years in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) I was unaware of the racism that is at the very root of our denomination’s founding. I did not recognize that the racial homogeneity of my church was not simply a function of different preferences in music, but often because my denomination had not done enough to remove the stain of racism.
I now attend a church that is dually affiliated with the SBC and the National Baptist Convention (NBC). The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and is slowly becoming more racially diverse. The NBC is the largest predominantly African-American denomination in the U.S. My church has historically been predominantly African-American, but is becoming more diverse as we reflect more closely the demographics of our surrounding community. This is, in part, because my pastor has made significant efforts toward encouraging racial reconciliation.
Being involved in a truly multi-racial congregation has caused me to develop a new perspective on race relations and racism. Hearing some of our oldest members tell stories, I can no longer argue that the Civil Rights struggles were “a long time ago” and ignore the legacy of racism in our nation. Listening to conversations around me, I can never again claim I don’t know that systemic biases exist.
A few months ago, my pastor asked me to teach church history to the congregation on Wednesday evenings. In four sessions, I skimmed the surface of the major themes of our Christian past. I spent more time talking about African-American church history in part because of my context and in part because I needed to learn more about it. One of the most painful parts of teaching that lesson was tracing through this history of race relations within the SBC; clearly, we’ve made progress, but it is also apparent we have much more to do.
Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention is a volume that tells the story of the SBC’s past, provides a theological basis for moving beyond it, and makes practical recommendations for future progress. This is a necessary next step in a conversation that the SBC has been having, but which needs to continue in earnest.
This volume is an outstanding resource for Southern Baptists and others to learn about racial reconciliation. The volume opens with a collection of SBC resolutions about race, which show the convention has been talking about race—sometimes using the right language—but making insufficient progress toward healing longstanding division. In the first chapter, Albert Mohler recounts the historic origins of the Southern Baptist Convention, which were grounded in the misguided beliefs of slave owners that they could participate in race-based chattel slavery and still be effective missionaries for Christ.
Chapter two is an essay by Matthew Hall, which follows the ongoing participation of some Southern Baptists in racist rhetoric and sometimes political activity. As much as we might wish otherwise, there were many “good Baptists” who argued for Jim Crow laws. The third chapter, by Jarvis Williams, provides a biblical argument for racial reconciliation.
The next six chapters outline suggestions from theologians, pastors, and editors at our denominational publishing house for removing the stain of racism from the Southern Baptist Convention. The body of the book ends with a summary of the state of racial reconciliation within the SBC: we have made progress, but have a long way yet to go. Dwight McKissic and Danny Akin offer epilogues explaining further why the stain of racism remains in the SBC. In a postscript, Vaughn Walker commends readers to continue the work and offers encouragement that the stain of racism can be removed from the SBC.
Although published by the academic arm of B&H, this volume is accessible to the average reader. The writers and editors worked together to create a book that can inform a wide swath of members of SBC churches. More importantly, the contributors to this volume constructed a compelling testimony that (a) racism still exists in our society and our organizations, and (b) there is something we can do about it.
The uniting metaphor of this volume is “removing the stain.” In the preface, the editors explain what that means and their definition is important. To some advocates in racial politics, the stain of racism is like the blood stains on Lady Macbeth’s hands: invisible to living eyes, but indelible to the psyche. The only solution for some is for organizations once complicit in racism to self-destruct. This volume offers a greater hope, recognizing that just as people are redeemable through the gospel, so are organizations.
The metaphor is apt because it also reflects the significant and often time-consuming effort required to remove a stain. Many of us have invested a great deal of time in stain treatments and washing garments by hand to save something treasured from a permanently embedded stain. Rarely are significant stains eradicated in the first attempt, but must be scrubbed repeatedly as by degrees the offending pigment is removed. That is the sort of effort required to continue the work of racial reconciliation in the SBC.
The formal apology for the racist origins of the SBC, affirmed as a resolution in 1995 is important. Electing Fred Luter as the first African-American president of the SBC in 2012 is significant. The resolution opposing the flying of the Confederate battle flag in 2016 takes another step forward. These are important efforts in removing the stain of racism, but they are not enough.
Removing the Stain of Racism reminds readers, with voices from both African-Americans and whites, that though the SBC has made great progress, there is a lot of work to be done. The memory of the racism in the SBC will never be erased, but the stain of racism can be removed. The challenge for the white majority of the SBC is not to attempt to declare victory on our stain-removal efforts too soon. As many have experienced, once you throw the stained garment into the dryer, the stain is often made permanent. We still have scrubbing to do.
Racial reconciliation takes work. While we may remember a time in our denomination’s history when efforts toward removing the stain of racism were not at the forefront, those days only seemed simpler because we were unaware of the problem. Talking about race and racial reconciliation is hard, not least because of the extreme rhetoric on the right and the left of us. The gospel demands we work toward racial reconciliation—no matter how nostalgic we are for simpler days, the work before us cannot be ignored.
Andrew Spencer (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate vice president for institutional research at Oklahoma Baptist University. He is Director of Education at Galilee Baptist Church in Shawnee, Oklahoma. He blogs regularly at www.EthicsAndCulture.com.