The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Report on Racism and Slavery is Well-Done and It is a Big Step in the Right Direction

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In case you haven’t heard, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville recently issued a 66-page historical report on its long history of supporting slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, racial inequality, Lost Cause mythology, and white supremacy.  The scholars who composed the report produced an excellent work of institutional history.  I have known professors Gregory Wills, Matthew Hall, and John Wilsey to be first-rate historians and honest scholars.

A wise friend once told me that when it comes to dealing with race and racial reconciliation in America all of us (especially white people) are on a journey.  When we engage the darkness of race relations in the United States we are always going to encounter people who are at various stages on that journey.  What I have learned in recent years is that we must walk beside one another on this journey and help each other along the way.  As I see it, it is the only way forward.

I say this because I have been disappointed by the response the SBTS statement has received by those who seem to believe that they are further down the road on the question of race relations in America.  Rather than seeing this statement as a MAJOR step in the right direction for SBTS–a step that should be commended by all those concerned with racism in the Christian community–most of the coverage has attacked the statement as not going far enough.

For example, I think Rod Dreher, bombast aside, is generally correct in his criticism of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove‘s piece in the Washington Post.  Here is a taste of Dreher:

The gist of his column is that because the leaders of SBTS are theologically conservative, and because many white Southern Baptists are politically conservative, they are not much different from their slaveholding and white supremacist ancestors. If they were really sorry for slavery and white supremacy, Wilson-Hartgrove’s column says, then the Southern Baptists would become Social Justice Warriors like — golly! — Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove.

It’s an extraordinarily graceless piece of work. It’s important for this reason. Today I blogged about the Fairness For All proposal, an attempt by some Evangelical leaders — conservatives among them — to find middle ground on the struggle between LGBT rights and religious liberty. Already some conservative Evangelicals are calling it a sellout of principle that will in any case not be respected by liberals and progressives. Part of their argument is that progressives do not negotiate in good faith, that if you yield even a bit, they’ll take advantage of the opportunity to smash you.

A column like Wilson-Hartgrove’s gives ammunition to the “no compromise” side. To be clear, I don’t believe for a second that SBTS president Albert Mohler ordered the appraisal because he sought any kind of political advantage, whatever that might look like. I believe he did it because it was, and remains, the right thing to do. But those on the religious right who oppose initiatives like this on grounds that it will allow progressives to weaponize confession and repentance will cite Wilson-Hartgrove’s column as evidence that the Evangelical left is interested only in scoring points against their enemies.

Read Dreher’s entire post here.  I wonder if Wilson-Hartgtove, whose work I admire, just missed an opportunity to walk alongside SBTS as they embark on this journey.

And here is historian Alison Collis Greene, a historian I know and respect, at National Public Radio:

Notwithstanding the seminary’s new openness about its pro-slavery past, the detailed chronology ends in 1964. “In the decades following the civil rights movement, the seminary continued to struggle with the legacy of slavery and racism,” the report concludes, but without further elaboration.

“Making a statement about Confederate monuments might be a next step,” says Alison Greene, a historian of U.S. religion at Emory University in Atlanta, “or taking a stand on questions of voting rights in the 21st century. That would be really significant.”

Greene, who was raised as a Southern Baptist, found the seminary report lacking in its failure to acknowledge any consequence of the denomination’s recent association with conservative politicians and the policies they have promoted.

“It papers over a generation of hand-in-glove cooperation with efforts to roll back every single social program that served African-Americans or promised to rectify, even in the smallest ways, the gross economic and social effects of enslavement and segregation and inequality on black communities,” Greene says.

Greene’s criticism here is fair.  But rather than see the statement for what it doesn’t do, I prefer to see it for what it does do.

I know Greene has not been at Emory University very long.  Perhaps she will be able to help Emory add to its own statement about the school’s connection to slavery.  It is nowhere near as thorough as SBTS’s statement and it stops at 1962.

NBC’s coverage quotes my friend, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs professor Paul Harvey: “The Southern Baptist Seminary, and by extension the denomination leaders…did a very good job of reckoning with the past, and a not-so-good job of reckoning with the present.”  Again, this is a fair criticism.  SBTS has a long way to go on this issue.  Perhaps a model for moving forward might be what is happening at St. Paul’s Episcopalian Church in Richmond, the “Cathedral of the Confederacy.”  (Listen to episode 43 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast).  But in the meantime, I am glad to see that SBTS has begun the journey.  As someone on my Facebook page noted, “Let’s hope they keep walking.” Yes!  We will be watching.

I hope future coverage of this statement will be more balanced.  For example, why hasn’t The Washington Post, NPR, or NBC talked with African-American leaders within the Southern Baptist Church?  Where are the interviews with Fred Luter, Thabiti Anyabwile, Byron Day or anyone in the National African Fellowship or the Black SBC Denominational Servants Network?

I also hope other southern schools–seminaries, colleges, and universities–will do the kind of historical work SBTS has done as a necessary starting point to address their own racist pasts.  I am thrilled to see the way these SBTS professors are using the study of history to work toward justice.

9 thoughts on “The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary Report on Racism and Slavery is Well-Done and It is a Big Step in the Right Direction

  1. Though I agree that SBTS and its president Albert Mohler should be commended for its new admission of guilt for white supremacy and racism, I do think that more could have been studied and said.

    SBTS is not just “any ole institution”, but is a Christian theological seminary, standing in a very long line of similar institutions that have cited the Bible and Christian theology/ theologies to promote racist, xenophobic, etc ideas of oppression which pastors were then encouraged to use to promote among the members of their congregations.

    Maybe SBTS should have started their historical review with a study of all this, and then the legacy of that teaching which remains very much in place with several generations of pastors still on the job???

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  2. I just don’t think anyone who isn’t connected to SBC life or conservative (theologically), white, evangelicalism in the US South can appreciate how significant this report is, and the amount of infra-SBC political danger it puts Mohler and others.

    Those of us that serve white Baptist churches in the South (SBC and otherwise) have church members that are active members of the SCV and UDC. We have folks in our congregations that have confederate flags of various kinds as stickers on their cars or flying at their house.

    And these aren’t bad people. They simply aren’t. I serve them. I love them. But they ARE on a journey. These are people that have been lied to their whole life, who’ve drunk deeply from the well of “lost cause” ideology mainly because they didn’t know there was another well at all.

    For this report to state, as it does, that slavery was the major cause for the Civil War is seemingly insignificant to many of you. It is earth shattering to many here.

    And for this to be coming out of Southern, the bastion of the “conservative takeover” of the SBC is a shot across the bow of the court evangelicals in the convention that their conservativism should be rooted in theology and not partisan politics.

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  3. Evangelicals should go back to the nascent Church, a predominately Jewish body in the beginning but soon afterward the light to the gentiles. It was to be a universal body of disciples where Jew, gentile, bond, free, rich, and poor were one. Political Christendom messed that up with it’s racial and social hierarchies. That the SBC is looking inward gives hope for healing and reconciliation; yeah, that’s it-RECONCILIATION, the Church’s main ministry,

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    • Just a quick correction. You wrote, “It was to be a universal body of disciples where Jew, gentile, bond, free, rich, and poor were one.” It would be more correct to say that, “It was to be a universal body of disciples where Jew, gentile, bond, free, rich, poor, male, and female were one.”

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  4. We are all in different stages of processing our racial heritage and identities, and I like you’re “walking” analogy. The trouble is–it seems to me–that a lot of people come from such a retrogressive perspective that they expect affirmation for taking a step or two forward when they have miles left to go.

    It is commendable that SBTS is making an effort to more-clearly assess its trouble past, and I think you make a good point when you observe that we are all in different places. But when you lobby for more understanding and equanimity from their critics, it sounds like you are saying, “Hey, let’s cut them some slack now because–even though they are still pretty racist–they are slightly less racist than they used to be.” It’s unrealistic to expect people to treat dogmatic racists kindly just because they’re trying to be less racist about their dogma, especially when they’re still hurting people with their slightly-less-toxic racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and nationalism.

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    • Justin, along the same lines as Tony’s question, if I read you correctly, you accuse SBTS (and other Southern Baptists?) as a group, as “dogmatic racists, xenophobes, homophobes, and nationalists.”

      Was this your intent, or did it just come out appearing that way? As Tony suggests, you need a bit of supportive evidence behind such a statement as you gave….

      Your statement: “It’s unrealistic to expect people to treat dogmatic racists kindly just because they’re trying to be less racist about their dogma, especially when they’re still hurting people with their slightly-less-toxic racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and nationalism.”

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    • I am not saying that at all. I know these folks and I can attest to their integrity. What do you want them to stop doing, Justin? Seriously, would you rather they not have written the report? Are their past sins so great that they cannot be redeemed? These folks know the work is not done. So far they have been quiet about the criticism they are getting. There has been little response to the critics. (When I say I know these folks I do not mean Al Mohler. I am afraid he will open his mouth and make things worse. I am talking about some of the historians who authored the document).

      I have defended them publicly because I felt someone had to do it. I don’t want to “cut them slack,” I want to walk with them on the journey. Of course we will all be watching to see where they go next. I think SBTS is going to have to open its doors to people who may not agree with them theologically for help on this matter. Frankly, non-conservative evangelical Christians have more experience on this front. I am going to be watching closely to see who they allow to walk with them on the journey.

      I understand that progressive Christians want more. Many have suffered as a result of the Southern Baptist Convention’s racist past. This should not be ignored. There is time and space to be angry, but I am a Christian and I cannot dwell in anger any more than I think we should dwell in fear. Right now, progressive Christians should be getting on the phone and calling SBTS to ask how they can help. Instead, they are criticizing them in public. Isn’t this the kind of work progressive evangelicals want to do?

      I tend to view this statement in terms of hope. And God knows we could use more hope in the world rright now.

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