Whereas Responsibility and Repentance

(13)WHEREAS, Messengers to the 1961 Southern Baptist Convention acknowledged “an especially keen sense of Christian responsibility in this hour” of racial tension; and

(14)WHEREAS, Messengers to the 1944 Southern Baptist Convention sought to avoid “the danger which crouches at our doors, that we shall be guilty of unchristian attitudes and actions” related to race; and

(15)WHEREAS, Messengers to the 2015 Southern Baptist Convention stated, “Racism is sin because it disregards the image of God in all people and denies the truth of the Gospel that believers are all one in Him”; and

(16)WHEREAS, Messengers to the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention confessed “our continuing need to root out vestiges of racism from our own hearts as Southern Baptists”; and

(17)WHEREAS, Messengers to the 1995 Southern Baptist Convention apologized, “and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27)”;

Southern Baptists have for decades made strong statements against racism and the call to oppose it wherever it is found. We have recognized that racism can manifest both in individuals and systemically and that we can even engage in it unconsciously. In other words, we are not always the best judge of our own lives, our own actions, or even our own society. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” If racism is a heart issue, the Bible says that it is easy to miss and hard to understand. How does a fish know when it is wet? Because Southern Baptists were formed in our founding as a form defense of race-based chattel slavery and the supposed right of missionaries to take their slaves with them as they engaged in gospel mission work, it is clear that we had a deep propensity for self-deception. And, whatever it took to create a denomination and to buttress it theologically in ways that made us incapable of recognizing the incredible evil being perpetrated on Black slaves, we recognize that the sin and deception is persistent and has affected us. Even though we are forgiven by Jesus and the Cross is sufficient to deal with human sin and bring transformation, the fact that we tolerated and defended the sin of racism for so long means that there are things we cannot always see on our own, even with a Bible in our hand standing in a pulpit.

Some have asked how many times Southern Baptists must address the sin of racism and the resulting injustices that flow from it. Apparently, generations of Southern Baptists have sensed the need to address it and say, “this is wrong.” In 1966, white Southern Baptist ministers in the Montgomery (AL) Baptist Association gathered together to engage in introspection into how they had failed in the moment of racial crisis. The Selma to Montgomery March had occurred a year before. The Freedom Riders had been brutally assaulted and beaten in Montgomery and the historically Black First Baptist Church had been laid siege in 1961. Much evil had happened from bombings to assassinations to daily persecutions and indignities. They asked what could they have done better to renounce this evil and seek to set things right and they came up with three things that went wrong.

  1. A lack of dialogue with Black leaders. 
  2. They allowed non-Christians who were racists to infiltrate their churches and influence them.
  3. They had a too-close allegiance with racist white Southern culture. 

They recognized that they needed relationship with Black leaders because those leaders saw things they couldn’t see and understood what was happening differently from them. Their insight was needed because the white SBC pastors were not all knowing. They needed the Black leaders to help them understand what was happening. They didn’t have those relationships because their own relationships were siloed racially because of racial sin and injustice that kept races separated societally as well as religiously. 

The second thing was that they allowed unregenerate people to get into their churches and relationships and influence them on what they could  do and say. They recognized the wrong of listening to people who claimed to be Christians, but were hateful racists who sought to control their churches through fear, intimidation, and lies. They should have been stronger. 

Finally, they recognized that their own churches had been compromised by too closely identifying with the larger white Southern culture that was racist. Instead of being salt and light to a culture wrapped up in the sin of racism, they went along with it, seeking to protect, promote, and defend their “way of life” over the lives and interests of others in need. 

All of this was said in 1966 before Critical Race Theory was ever thought of. It was said by white Southern Baptist ministers in Alabama under the conviction of the Holy Spirit and reflecting on their failures theologically, ecclesiologically, and in their communities. What can we learn from them?

As we look back on past Southern Baptist statements on racial injustice, we must understand that these weren’t virtue signaling statements written to appease a secular culture. Rather, they were written because Southern Baptists recognized at that time that more needed to be said and done to set things right. It wasn’t “white guilt” that drove them to say these things, but rather, a desire for righteousness, justice, and reconciliation. The statements have shaped and formed our views on Race and injustice and they should be listened to today. Whatever disagreements we might have with the approach of Critical Race Theory to this ancient injustice and racial rift, we should recognize that Southern Baptists have also said for decades that we continue to have problems in our communities and nation related to racism and its historic scars and effects. Repentance and justice are continually required, as is a gospel understanding of forgiveness, God’s grace, and our new and true identity in Christ and how we participate in our culture to make crooked paths straight.

*Contributed by Alan Cross