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FIRST-PERSON: Theology & race cards

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–The North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and the District of Columbia Baptist Convention have experienced a parting of ways.

Last fall, NAMB presented a proposal to the DCBC seeking to restructure the arrangement of cooperation between the two bodies. NAMB was seeking greater accountability regarding the use of the $475,000 it annually contributes to the DCBC. From the beginning, this proposal encountered resistance. The “proposal” NAMB offered was characterized as an “ultimatum” and a “threat” by the leadership of the DCBC. Early on, one could sense trouble on the horizon.

A prominent D.C. pastor said, “[T]he move by the Southern Baptist Convention to defund the District of Columbia Baptist Convention is deplorable, despicable and unconscionable.”

Trouble really brewed up as allegations of racism began to surface. Occurring two months after the installation of the DCBC’s first black executive director, some sought to insinuate that NAMB’s actions might be racially motivated at worst or racially insensitive at best. After mentioning the history of racism among Baptists in America, the same D.C. pastor stated, “Now, what makes this threat of defunding so odious is that Dr. Jeffrey Haggray … is the first African American appointed to that position.” In a July 2002 newsletter, Haggray himself left the door open that NAMB’s president, Robert Reccord, may have been motivated by Haggray’s skin color.

As one who has sought to make SBC seminaries a significant provider of theological education for black Baptists, these accusations and innuendoes attracted my attention.

As the SBC and other evangelical denominations seek to become more racially diverse and overcome histories involving slavery, internment and segregation, one must ask, “Can fellow believers of different racial backgrounds examine and critique one another without it being called racism?” Can a Christian who happens to be white ever challenge the theology or ministry of a Christian who happens to be black, Asian or Hispanic without opening himself up to the charge of racism? Without affirmative answers to these questions, how can multicultural denominations, that should characterize Christ’s diverse people, ever have doctrinal boundaries?

I realize that I am foolish to assume that everyone sees the need for doctrinal boundaries. Often in today’s do-good and feel-good religion, we are tempted to pursue human unity at the expense of doctrinal clarity. As we stroll through the intoxicating Vanity Fair of postmodernity, who has the concern to “earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered unto the saints”? Vague, mushy spirituality may be the foundation of much of mainline Protestantism but it certainly does not reflect the recent history of the SBC. It certainly does not typify the seminary I serve.

In order to get a balanced view of the situation, we must understand that the DCBC is a unique phenomenon to begin with. As a convention, it is trilaterally aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, the Progressive National Baptist Convention and the American Baptist Churches, U.S.A. This central fact forces the DCBC to attempt to sit on three different theological platforms. To conceal the precariousness of such an arrangement, the DCBC’s executive board decided that they would “take no stance on the statements of beliefs of the three national bodies.”

In others words, they want to let a supposedly missions-minded organization be atheological in this pluralistic and syncretistic society. Can anyone seriously consider that a biblical option?

Theological silence is not a viable option for the people of God living in perilous days. As the prophet Elijah challenged the children of Israel to not “halt between two opinions,” the Bible says they “answered him not a word.” How pathetic that was for Israel — likewise how pathetic silence is today.

The SBC has been on a course of theological reformation and renewal for the past two decades. Should one have thought that the SBC’s relationship with the DCBC would not be influenced by such an historic shift in the largest Protestant denomination in America? One Southern Baptist pastor said his church “has been discontent with the direction of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention for some time,” and he cites the DCBC’s apparent openness to several churches with ordained women as pastors, the convention’s various interfaith involvements and an uncertain tone regarding homosexuality.

Despite such obvious and apparent areas of theological difference, some chose to attempt to play the “race card” and see if it would carry the day. Often, in our culture when you do not want to engage in rigorous discussion or debate, you merely impugn the character of your opponent and avoid the discussion altogether.

The false cry of racism can be likened to “crying wolf” too many times. It deadens the ears of the hearers so that a legitimate case of racism may be overlooked, ignored or resented. The false cry of racism also can be likened to yelling fire in a crowded theater. It should be a crime (at least an ethical violation to be shunned) to falsely besmirch the integrity of another without sufficient evidence.

The false cry of racism can be used as a smokescreen to cover an aversion to theological accountability. In the midst of the many calls for “autonomy, autonomy,” one must remember the entities and boards of the SBC are accountable to the membership for the stewardship of the millions of dollars contributed annually to the Cooperative Program. NAMB rightly noted that complex stewardship issues also arise from the triple alignment.

As a black Southern Baptist who spent my childhood in an American Baptist church in Washington, D.C., I certainly find NAMB’s and DCBC’s recent actions consistent with the theological tendencies of all parties involved. If the DCBC is in a “theological fog,” as one of its pastors said, then certainly the SBC has journeyed farther along the road and has ascended to a high point where it can see the Son in all of his unique, exclusive and preeminent glory.

If we love Jesus and his mission, then black, White, Asian or Hispanic, let us stay away from playing “the race card.”

Legitimate racism must still be addressed in American Christianity, but this case does not apply.
Smith is the Martin Luther King Jr. fellow at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

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  • Kevin L. Smith