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Racial reconciliation still lagging, Baptist summit speakers declare

ATLANTA (BP)–Former President and Baptist layman Jimmy Carter and Coretta Scott King, wife of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., were among Baptist leaders who called for an end to racial discrimination during the Baptist World Alliance’s International Summit of Baptists Against Racism Jan. 8-11 in Atlanta.
In a session at the Carter Center, Carter said the dreams of ending racial discrimination “have not been materialized. There have been legal changes, but too much separation of race and no adequate compensation for years of slavery.” Carter is the honorary chairman of the BWA’s Special Commission on Baptists Against Racism.
Describing the Christian church as “the last rampart of racism,” Carter blamed the continuing racial segregation at the 11 o’clock hour in the United States on the tendency of people to build small communities “and encapsulate ourselves with people like us, and this puts no burden of Christian action on us.” He called for churches to “reach out to a neighboring church that has a different racial and ethnic composition” as a beginning but important step toward better race relations.
To the BWA, Carter said, “…I am pleased that the international community of Baptists has taken such a strong stand against racism. Our Savior Jesus Christ has called us as one people to be equal before God with no room for racial discrimination or prejudice.”
In a session at the Morehouse College chapel named after her late husband, Coretta Scott King cited the global effect of her husband’s legacy, noting 100 nations now observe the King holiday. Churches are no longer as segregated as when her late husband declared 11 o’clock, “the most segregated hour in America,'” she said. King also noted the apology of the Southern Baptist Convention for the ways Baptists had supported racial discrimination, in a resolution of repentance adopted the convention’s 1995 sesquicentennial meeting in Atlanta.
Calling on Baptists to work for an end to violence between people of different faiths, King said, “We have done much, and we have much more to go, but I see the dim outlines of the beloved community” which her husband envisioned.
Wallace Charles Smith, senior minister of Shiloh Baptist Church, Washington, D.C., and chair of the BWA special commission, described racism as “a human scourge and pervasive evil that permeates every crack, corner and crevice of the known world.” While many governments and corporations get involved to fight racism, “unless God’s people get involved, the problem is not going away.”
“God can convert the chilliest, staunchest and deeply entrenched racist in the world, if we preach the Word of God with power,” Smith said.
BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz said in his address, “What God wants is more visionaries, more prophets and more dreamers to work for racial justice.”
Lotz formed the BWA special commission on racism in 1992 out of concern for the escalation of religious tensions in North America and the tide of the racial and ethnic conflict sweeping many parts of the world.
Supported by the weight of civil rights history as 200 delegates from 30 countries met at Ebenezer and Wheat Street Baptist churches and King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, which all played pivotal roles in the fight for civil rights in the United States, Lotz said, “What God needs now is men and women who are open to the movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives, … ready to go to the walls of injustice and say, ‘Enough! Enough! God says it is enough!'”
Lotz described Martin Luther King Jr. as a dreamer whose work has changed people around the world. “We honor tonight especially the dreams of one man who was cradled in this church,” Lotz said from the pulpit of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where much of the summit was held, “and to a certain extent, this church can rightly be called the birthplace of the civil rights movement, not only for black Americans in the United States but for the poor and marginalized worldwide.”
Lotz said there is a Martin Luther King Haus in Germany, Italy, Hungary and Russia, “because in their persecution they recognized the prophetic ministry of God in Dr. King’s life.”
“It was Martin Luther King’s dream that captured the world and continued the prophetic ministry of Jesus. It was the Holy Spirit working in his life that gave him a dream of equality and justice for all,” Lotz said.
“I still have a dream,” the BWA leader continued, although he warned the world has not dealt kindly with dreamers. Baptists who fight for racial justice and an end to ethnic and tribal conflict might also suffer, he said.
“We honor our martyrs but we kill our prophets, and this is true in Anabaptist and Baptist history,” Lotz said. He cited Balthasar Hubmaier, a German reformer who was burned at the stake in Vienna; Conrad Grebel, a Mennonite leader who was drowned in a Zurich lake; Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist church in the United States who was banned from the Massachusetts colony; John Bunyan, writer of Pilgrim Prayers who was imprisoned; Sam Sharpe in Jamaica, who was hanged as he prophetically said, “I would rather die on yonder gallows a free man, than live in slavery;” Adoniram Judson, first American missionary who was imprisoned in Burma; and Martin Luther King Jr. who was assassinated in Memphis, Tenn.
“All of these men and women were dreamers of whom the world was not worthy,” Lotz said, “but all made profound changes in the way we view the world. They understood that Jesus had come not to talk about life but to change life.”
Lotz also warned against false dreamers and dreams, like Hitler who was a great racist and enraged a whole people to commit the greatest racial and ethnic tragedy of history, the Holocaust, and Hendrik F. Verwoerd of South Africa who instituted apartheid and enslaved a people.
In this part of the world, Lotz said, the Christian church is shamed by false dreamers in the Ku Klux Klan who spew racism with Christian words. In the Balkans, there is ethnic conflict with dictators encouraging their people toward genocide.
“Part of the prophetic responsibility of the church is to warn people against these false dreams and against these false shepherds,” Lotz said.
“Jesus wants true dreamers,” Lotz said, “and he promised he would send the Holy Spirit in order to make new dreamers. … Indeed, Jesus Christ is God’s dreamer become reality for all humanity. In Jesus Christ we see and touch and feel the power and justice of God.”
Lotz urged, “Let us go from Atlanta and proclaim to our churches and the world, ‘I have a dream, that one day men and women in Kosovo, Albania, will leave in peace, that the Armenians and Azerbajainians will love and one another, that Hutus and Tutsis will sit down at the same table and break bread together, that in northeast India Kuki and Naga tribes will live in peace, that the Aboriginal in Australia will be fully integrated into the life of the community, and the inner cities in the U.S.A. will be highways of peaceful integration and love.”
C.T. Vivian, a civil rights veteran who chairs the Center for Democratic Renewal in Atlanta, also voiced hope in God’s power to change people during his address, but said it will not be easy.
“Why are we still dealing with a 16th-century problem at the end of the 20th century?” Vivian asked. “We have not gotten rid of racism within the church and without the culture that surrounds the church. Those who want to help find there is no place to go.”
Chiding the Christian church and Baptists for the continuing problem of racism, Vivian said, “Racism destroys more people in more places of the world than any other single factor. … No person of color under racism will ever know what they might have been, done or become for themselves, their family or their people. We have no values that are not daily being compromised by racism.”
Vivian described racism as “the greatest barrier” to winning most of the world to Christ. He called for black missionaries to come to Euro-American countries “to save them from their most atrocious sins” and praised Billy Graham for making this evident in his worldwide evangelistic efforts.
“If you are black, you become a Christian in spite of the Christian faith and culture because of the freedom Baptists gave blacks,” Vivian said. “The black church is now in control of itself, and this was given because we are Baptists. Without this, we never would have this great drive for peace and justice.”
Vivian offered several practical ways Baptists can fight racism and called for, among other things, “a racist-free Baptist church.” He called on theologians “to make powerful statements around the world” against racism and for every Christian teacher educated in a Baptist school to have a course in racism education.
“Our work can save us all, if we choose to do it,” Vivian said.
Robert E. “Bob” Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist North American Mission Board, before leading in prayer for reconciliation in the world, told the summit, “I’m sure glad the Savior who died for me did not give a whit about the color of my skin. It is an honor for me to stand here.”

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  • Wendy Ryan