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ERLC’s Land signs statement on race, acknowledges concerns

WASHINGTON (BP)–Southern Baptist ethics agency head Richard Land joined a diverse group of religious leaders Dec. 13 in the nation’s capital to release a statement condemning racism.

While he signed the declaration to underscore his commitment to racial reconciliation, Land said he still disagreed with some of the language in the document.

The statement, which was released in a news conference at the Washington National Cathedral, describes racism as “a problem of the heart,” affirms the equal worth of each person and says “prejudice and discrimination should have no place among people of faith.” The declaration, which was endorsed by nearly 40 religious leaders, is one of the results of a White House initiative on race relations that began in 1998 and was continued in the religious community under the leadership of the National Conference for Community and Justice.

Among promises signers of the document make are to examine their own biases, to model a repentance that leads to reconciliation, to change their institutions to anti-racist ones and to demand equal opportunity for all people.

Land attended the original White House meeting on race more than two years ago and said his commitment to racial harmony led him to endorse the statement as an individual despite its problems.

“I felt that if I didn’t sign it would be misinterpreted as a drawing back from our commitment to racial reconciliation,” said Land, president of the SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “I felt that it was better for the cause of racial reconciliation for me to sign the statement as an individual and then to explain my reservations rather than not sign it and give my reservations as reasons why.”

His reservations with the document include:

— Its failure to describe racism as a sin, even though the endorsement form signed by Land and others called it such. He much preferred the language on the endorsement sheet, Land said. “It is a sin, and I think it needs to be described in those very biblical and personal, as well as corporate, terms,” he said.

— The document’s assertion racism is an “evil that must be eradicated from the institutional structures that shape our daily lives including our houses of worship.” It cannot be eradicated, Land said. “We must work to eradicate it, but as long as there are human beings with sinful human hearts, racism will always be a problem and a temptation,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that we acquiesce to it, but I think we get into giving the impression [of] at least underestimating the persistent nature of sin to say that it ‘must be eradicated from the institutional structures that shape our daily lives.’ As long as human beings are involved with those daily structures, it will always be with us and must be incessantly faced.”

— The document’s call to produce a society “where individual, cultural and institutional racism is not permitted.” Land said, “[I] think we’re making promises that we cannot keep. We can work toward a society where individual, cultural and institutional racism is not accepted, is not affirmed, but is not permitted? It’s beyond our power, number one. And number two, that has some rather dark implications for what we would do with people who are unfortunately still trapped in bigotry. Are we going to deny them freedom of speech?”

Land also said the entire statement “has to be understood in the context of racism.” It “should not be extrapolated to other issues,” such as sexual preference, he said.

He did not have input into the document’s language and believes it would have been a better document had “someone from an evangelically minded perspective” been on the drafting committee, Land said. “We could have hopefully dealt with some of the language and phraseology that is problematic in the loaded, politically correct climate we find ourselves in at the dawn of the 21st century,” he said.

Among endorsers of the statement are representatives of the National Council of Churches, various mainline Protestant denominations, the Roman Catholic Church, several Jewish organizations, some Muslim groups, two Indian nations, the Unitarian Universalists Association, The Interfaith Alliance and the Faith and Politics Institute.

The statement is one of a series of actions undertaken as part of the race initiative. Also released at the news conference were an evaluation form for congregational diversity and a list of guidelines for sponsoring interfaith forums on racial reconciliation.

In signing the document as an individual, Land said the SBC already has addressed the issue in its 1995 resolution on racial reconciliation and in a clear repudiation of racism included in the 2000 revision of the Baptist Faith and Message.

“Institutionally, we have spoken to this issue. … And I would consider that any additional statement would be a dilution of what we have very clearly said and what we have very clearly committed ourselves to in the resolution,” Land said.

The National Conference for Community and Justice was until recent years known as the National Conference of Christians and Jews.