REMOVING THE STAIN OF RACISM FROM THE SBC: A REVIEW


Biographical Sketch


Many within the Southern Baptist Convention believe that the Convention has a duty to work toward reconciliation between ethnicities. Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African American and White Perspectives (hereafter referred to as Removing Racism) is a collection of essays by distinguished scholars of the Southern Baptist Convention (hereafter referred to as ‘the Convention’). As the title indicates, it provides perspectives from both sides of the ethnicity line. The prestigious authors of this book – including two seminary presidents – are all respected members of the Convention and hail from a theologically conservative approach. In short, the book presents an impressive lineup of authors.


Summary of Contents


Using the analogy of a ‘stain,’ Removing Racism deals with the past and present history of racism in the church, and it suggests answers to the important question of how racism is to be removed from the convention. From a broad perspective, the volume consists of three primary themes: theology, history, and solution.


The theological theme of the book provides discussions of race, diversity, ecclesiology, and the gospel. The authors indicate that the modern conception of ‘race’ is unbiblical and that there is only one human race. They posit the church to be an institution containing Christians with restored vertical and horizontal relationships. They delve into the meaning of ‘Gospel’ to posit that it refers to more than justification by faith. The Gospel, they affirm, also deals with social relationships.


The historical theme of the book provides accounts of the racist past of the Convention. In these sections, the authors refer to the obvious racism and institutional approval for slavery that the Convention once stood for. The authors admit that the Convention came into being because of its racist stance, and they see racism as a continuing institutional problem.


The third theme of the book focuses on solutions to the stain of racism, containing exhortation and action steps for the audience. While the authors do not provide any discussion of the philosophy behind their recommendations, the word ‘integrationism’ seems appropriate, since a major part of their approach involves integrating more minority speakers, leaders, and books into the current culture of the Convention. Indeed, the contributor Toby Jennings seems to suggest a method (p. 108) which could best be described as ‘over-integrationist,’ in which the public profile of the Convention is more ethnically diverse than its constituency.


From a chronological perspective, the first two chapters are devoted to the theological and historical causes of racism in the church. In chapters three through five, the book moves to the biblical, theological, and ethical steps that will remove racism. The sixth through ninth chapters move beyond generalities to deal with four specific foci – the pastoral, administrative, educational, and publishing approaches that they believe will assist in the removal of racism. The tenth chapter contains an extended summary that restates each of the previous sections. Additionally, the forward, preface, epilogues, and postscript continue the discussion.


Critical Evaluation


The contributing authors to Removing Racism seem to be motivated by a two-fold purpose: to reveal an institutional ‘stain’ of racism in the Southern Baptist Convention and to show different ways that white convention members can work to remove this stain using the strategy of ‘integrationism’ or ‘over-integrationism.’

The dazzling lineup of authors and the obvious effort to include both White and African-American voices is not, however, sufficient for success. Four major issues prevent the achievement of the endeavor.


First, while Removing Racism shows nasty historical racist stain on the institution, the book does not convince one that there is a current stain in the institution. The authors certainly show plenty of muddy streaks, but they fail to prove that the Convention is currently smeared with dirt. A history of making mud pies does not necessarily demand a bath. Despite the undeniable instances of experienced or observed racism in their own lives, the authors fail to prove that the Convention as an institution is guilty.

After Jarvis Williams recounts numerous instances of observed racism prior to conversion, the church that he joins is startlingly anti-racist. Strickland refers to a presumably racist sentiment perpetrated by a Southern Seminary administrator, but this is not sufficient evidence to blame the entire Convention. Indeed, it is not until McKissic (in the Epilogue, of all places) details a list of several blatantly racist churches that we begin to see anything like systematic racism. Yet again, this is only a handful of individual churches, not the Convention as a whole.


If racism really is an organizational stain, how does one recognize the problem? The provided answer is both shallow and frustrating. At one point, Jarvis Williams launches into a laundry-list of situations (p. 25) in which “a white supremacist worldview may be present when…” Yet he fails to substantiate any of these situations, and the reader comes away with a sense of accusation and finger-pointing. Earlier in his chapter, Williams decries ‘Intellectual Racism,’ which he describes as insufficient minority representation in intellectual matters. This racism, he declares, is even evident in the mainline presses. His proof? “Most books published by mainline presses are written by white men” (p. 20). Later, he boldly declares that less qualified white Christians are selected for leadership “by virtue of their whiteness” (p. 47).


If Removing Racism is to prove that racism stains the organization of the Convention, more than finger pointing and accusation will be required. Even if, as Williams argues, underqualified white Christians are selected for leadership, that is not in itself evidence of racism. There are many reasons why someone may be promoted, and the argument that racism is the cause is both simplistic and difficult to prove.


A second issue that prevents the success of the authors is their internal disagreement. Of course, diverse perspectives will never be in total agreement, but a matter of such apparently massive implications demands more unity on core issues.


Several of the authors strongly imply that pastors and congregations are downright sinning if they do not have multi-ethnic friendships or diverse members within their churches. Kevin Smith candidly admits that this may not be possible (p. 78) and provides a more balanced example of sinning – “what should be considered sinful is a congregation’s intentional refusal to engage its community because of racism/classism” (p. 78). This clear statement of what actually constitutes sin is starkly opposed to the insinuations and implications of many of the other authors.


Another apparent disagreement centers on whether the stain of racism can be removed. The optimistic postscript is entitled “Southern Baptists Can Remove the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention,” but it does not say when. Al Mohler implies that this stain can be removed when he says, “…the power of the gospel is grace greater than all our sin” (p. 6). Other authors are less heartening. Curtis Woods states it bluntly when he answers the question this way: “No, we have not arrived. Christ has not set up His kingdom on earth” (p. 129).


Kevin Jones’s discussion of education is forward thinking and positive. He calls for more exposure to minority writers to prepare ministers for multi-cultural ministry. He recommends minority scholarships not as a method of reparation, but as a strategic approach to bringing minorities into the Convention. This tactical approach contrasts mightily with the inward-focused, reparations-implying social justice approach that many of the other authors imply.


A third issue pertains to the philosophy of ‘integrationism’ or ‘over-integrationism’ that forms the book’s undergirding. Not only do the authors fail to explain the philosophy behind their recommendations, but they also fail to explain how this approach will remove the stain of racism. Arguments that racism must be dealt with on an individual level, without trying to tilt the balance of public profile toward minorities, is never discussed. It is simply assumed that the recommended strategy is ‘the’ strategy.

Fourth, the authors failed to demonstrate that the stain of racism can be removed. Yes, they failed to agree on this, but the majority consensus implies that the stain cannot be removed. Such a conclusion is both deflating and counter-productive. If the Convention is stained simply by what it once did, then it must always labor under a sense of collective guilt. If the Convention is stained by what it is currently doing, then it may trust that repentance will lead to cleansing and restoration. That hope is not held out by most of the authors.


Conclusion


In conclusion, Removing Racism presents a two-fold call to see the Convention as institutionally stained and to start scrubbing with integrationism. The call is divided and unsubstantiated. While the book certainly continues the conversation on racism, readers should look elsewhere for a volume that will prove the Convention’s guilt and argue convincingly for a social justice approach.

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