ATLANTA (BP)–Progress in the area of racial reconciliation has fallen far short of the hope generated by early victories in the civil rights movement, said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Jan. 9.
Attempts to address the racial impasse in the United States have been “woefully inadequate,” Land said in an address at the Baptist World Alliance’s Jan. 8-11 International Summit of Baptists Against Racism in Atlanta.
Yet, Land said, Americans need to “draw courage” from the progress that has occurred “to move from standing on the border of the promised land of integration to go forward to the kingdom of reconciliation.”
“I am disappointed, sometimes even depressed, that in the year of our Lord 1998 we have not come farther as Americans in our quest for a racially reconciled society,” Land told the international gathering at the Wheat Street Baptist Church in downtown Atlanta. The BWA is a fellowship of 192 Baptist conventions and unions, including the Southern Baptist Convention, ministering in 200 countries.
Land recalled the joy of being in Atlanta in 1995 when messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention overwhelming passed a resolution on racial reconciliation that “asked for the forgiveness of our African American brothers and sisters and apologized to them for our past advocacy or acquiescence to slavery, to segregation and to racial prejudice.” He noted this groundbreaking action came 150 years after disagreements, largely over slavery, led Baptists in the South to split from northern Baptists in forming the Southern Baptist Convention.
At the heart of racism is the misguided belief in one’s superiority over others which mirrors the Scripture-borne truth that the heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked, Land said. “Racial bigotry is woven into the very warp and woof of our society’s nature,” he said, noting it is incumbent upon followers of Christ to remind society that the totality of racism cannot be effectively addressed apart its spiritual dimension.
As Christian men and women come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ, there is reconciliation to God, Land said, citing the Apostle Paul’s words to the church at Corinth recorded in 2 Corinthians 5:17. “The fact of that vertical reconciliation is symbolized in the universal symbol of our faith, the cross of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,” he said.
“The fact of that reconciliation gives us the hope of reconciliation with brothers and sisters around the world, whatever their background, whatever their skin hue, whatever their sex or their national origin,” Land said. “We must understand that the true reconciliation we seek can only come when it is rooted in and witnessed to that vertical reconciliation we have in Christ.”
There was an “astonishing blindness” to the religious motive and meaning behind the ministry of Martin Luther King Jr., said Land, speaking just a block away from Ebenezer Baptist Church where King served as co-pastor with his father. Land said that whenever the late civil rights leader referred to the religious and moral basis for the movement for racial justice, the television news cameras were shut off, only to be switched on again when King addressed the confrontational politics and tactics of the movement.
Land recalled a print interview with King shortly before his assassination in which King said, “They aren’t interested in the why of what we are doing, only in the what, and because they don’t understand the why, they can never really understand the what.”
It is an erroneous perception, Land explained, “that religion must be kept … from the public square and that matters of public significance must be sanitized of all religious witness.”
“Newscasters and social commentators like those are not part of any conspiracy against the transcendent and the religious,” Land continued, “but they are victims of a secularizing mythology of which they are hardly aware.”
Even though racism is at its foundation a spiritual problem and will be vanquished only by spiritual means does not mean that legislative and judicial remedies should not be sought, Land said, noting that when the laws regarding racial justice were changed, the country, particularly the South, changed as well.
Land echoed former President Jimmy Carter in calling the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 milestones in U.S. history which were not only giant steps forward in affording equal rights to minority Americans, but also served to free white southerners from a situation in “which we had manifestly shown we were unable to liberate ourselves.”
The legislative victories allowed southern white Americans “to be liberated from the segregation that victimized us all,” Land explained, noting both the oppressed and the oppressors are harmed by racial hatred and bigotry.
Land said he was optimistic about the future of race relations in the United States as a student in the ’60, considering the profound progress that began with the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the subsequent passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1967.
“Surely, if we made that much progress in a decade and a half, we would be much further down the road in terms of true racial reconciliation than we have come in the last 30 years,” lamented Land, who was a seminary student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in the late ’60.
Man will not find the solutions to society’s vexing social issues such as racism in intellectual ascendancy or technological advances, Land insisted, recalling the horrors of Nazi Germany wherein the most scientifically, educationally, medically, technologically advanced society in the world rejected the spiritual and the world suffered the consequences.
“What happened in that society between 1933 and 1945 is something that we haven’t been able to shake. It shattered the optimism of modern man and it reminded us that education, science, cultural sophistication and advancement do not inoculate us against evil that lurks within,” Land said, adding the German leadership purposely stripped away the people’s confidence in Martin Luther and Luther’s God.
As early as 1961, Martin Luther King Jr. affirmed that racism was a moral issue which called for confrontation by the people of God, speaking of the “church’s opportunity and responsibility on the frontiers of racial tension” during an address at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., Land said.
He recalled King told the students: “We have broken loose from the Egypt of slavery; we have moved through the wilderness of segregation; now we stand on the border of the promised land of integration.”
“More than three decades later, we still await the kingdom of racial reconciliation,” Land said, noting Sunday morning remains the most segregated period in the nation because “it is the most voluntary moment in American life.”
“The law changed a lot of things, and those things needed to be changed,” Land said, noting that “the salt of the law can change actions, but it is only the light of the gospel can change attitudes; the salt of the law can change behavior, but it is only the light of the gospel that can change beliefs; the salt of the law can change habits, but it is only the light of the gospel that change hearts,” Land said.
“We have the only answer as Christians to the sin nature that makes us think more highly of ourselves than we ought to think,” Land said, noting it is that mind-set which is at the core of racism.
EDITORS’ NOTE: Further coverage of the Baptist World Alliance’s International Summit of Baptists Against Racism will be posted this week by Baptist Press.