LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP) — Southern Baptists must consider racial reconciliation as important as abortion and same-sex marriage, said leaders and pastors at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary during a Feb. 17 forum.

“Southern Baptists got [race issues] so wrong for so long that we have to deal honestly with it, because we do not have credibility,” said Matthew J. Hall, vice president for academic administration and assistant professor of church history. The forum, which was held at the seminary’s campus in Louisville, Ky., followed the SBC’s Racial Reconciliation Sunday, Feb. 14. “Southern Baptists were not just implicated in racial injustice, we were directly feeding it. We have blood on our hands so we can’t try and address other issues of injustice and kind of leap over this one.”

Hall participated in a “What’s the Word” panel discussion on racial reconciliation hosted by the ONE student group, which says it seeks to reconcile ideas across race and gender lines through cross-centered conversations. Other participants included Felipe Castro, director of Hispanic initiatives at Southern Seminary; Curtis Woods, associate executive director for convention relations at the Kentucky Baptist Convention; and Kaitlin Congo, member of the leadership team for the Arise City Summit. Jarvis Williams, associate professor of New Testament interpretation, moderated the discussion, which focused on the historical and biblical issues surrounding racial reconciliation.

“We want to talk about justice for the unborn or whatever your issue is and ignore racial justice, but we do not have that luxury,” Hall said. “If you care about life in the womb, but you do not give a rip about life in the hood or anywhere else then you will not have any credibility.”

Scripture commands Christians to pursue all forms of reconciliation, but many people do not understand the need for it because they view racism as individual acts of prejudice, panelists said. But, they noted, racism affects systems, not just individuals, and when people grasp the full extent of American racism then the need for Christian reconciliation will be obvious. Reconciliation begins with seeing the image of God in all people.

“The Bible mentions groups of other people and that is how we need to see race,” Congo said. “Christians need to desire groups of others and unlikely people coming together, because this is at the root of the Gospel.

“This is not just different skin colors, but also includes different genders and disabled people,” she said. “What Jesus ultimately does is bring groups of unlikely people together to display the power of the Gospel to transform hearts and causes us to desire relationships with Christians who do not look like us.”

Distinctly Christian reconciliation is rooted in discipleship and believers should allow the Gospel to tear down any sinful boundaries people establish, panelists said. Woods suggested that a biblical theology of friendship will overcome most barriers to reconciliation. Many white Christians do not understand the unique struggles that people of other skin colors face because they do not have close friends who are not white. Compassion for different groups of people only comes through deep friendships.

“Spiritual friendship is a means of grace,” Woods said. “What I seek to do is enter the life of another image bearer and see that image bearer as the most important person I will ever meet. And I seek to help anyone who has been placed behind the 8 ball.”

While seeking friendships with different groups of people, Christians cannot see them as just another need to meet, said Castro, who noted the deep desire for Hispanics not to be seen as simply a compassion ministry.

“This is especially important for Hispanic people,” Castro said. “Often times we see poor people and want to be God for them so instead of asking them about what God is doing in their life we just ask them what do you need. So if we are talking about the Gospel and walking with other people then for Hispanics it means meeting them at their level.”     

Christians should also see reconciliation as practice for the age to come, Hall said. In the eternal kingdom people will only be divided based on their relationship with Christ, not skin color, gender, or any other physical characteristic, which is an often overlooked aspect of union with Christ.

“We should praise God because we are united to Christ by faith, but we are also united to Christ with a whole lot of other folks who look very different from you and transcend space, time, gender, race, or ethnicity,” Hall said. “The kingdom of God will be established with people from every race, tribe and tongue so the local church should strive to eliminate these distinctions now.”

Audio and video of the panel discussion are available at sbts.edu/resources.