In the midst of the seemingly insane news that we hear everyday, this week I saw piece of news that I simply found unbelievable. J.D. Greear, current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, talked about changing the Convention’s name.
“Our Lord Jesus was not a White Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee,” Greear told the Washington Post. “Every week we gather to worship a savior who died for the whole world, not one part of it. What we call ourselves should make that clear.”
As someone who grew up Southern Baptist I was shocked to hear such a thing. It made me wonder how he got in, if he had life insurance, and how good is personal security might be. You have to understand I remember a time when Southern Baptists were up in arms because a piece of Sunday School literature had a black family on the cover. The word Southern in Southern Baptist Convention stems from it having been organized in 1845 at Augusta, Georgia, by Baptists in the Southern United States who split with northern Baptists over the issue of slavery, with Southern Baptists strongly opposed to its abolition. Many prominent scholars on religious history in America, such as Bill Leonard, fell that this split sanctified the secession in the eyes of southerners that led to the Civil War. Even after that its first seminary in Louisville was led by former Confederate chaplains. Nor did the problems end there. Southern Baptists have a long association with racists and racist policies, including Segregation and the Klan.
So what does changing the name mean? Absolutely nothing if it is being done purely for public relations.
If, on the other hand, it represents a serious effort to reflect on the organization’s past sins, make efforts at reconciliation and inclusion that go beyond PR, and strive to set a new direction for the future then it is a wonderful thing. I would be all in favor of this. I would applaud it. I might, just might, even consider associating with them again.
But I doubt it.
The Southern Baptists, much like a lot of America, might simply want to put their racist past behind them without actually addressing the issue. How does the Bible talk about repentance? We must confess our sins, believe, and be saved.
People are decrying the “destruction of history” as monuments are torn down, names are changed, and criticism is leveled against institutions and edifices that celebrate atrocities committed against blacks, natives, and other minorities. Yet if we are unwilling to say “this was wrong and should not be celebrated” we cannot really repent, can we? Far too many people are unwilling to acknowledge the sins of the past (and the present) and instead want to cover them up.
We compound our sins with hagiography. Literally hagiography is the story of a saint, but used more generally it is any story that treats its subject as somehow holy, incapable of wrong. So much of what we treat as American history is hagiography. We do this in part because this is how we were taught and in part because we benefit from the systems they created.
There will never be an end to racial tensions in this country as long as we think changing some names and giving some money will fix things. We must be willing to deal with the hard facts of history. Slavery has been going on since 1619 in Colonial America. Some of our Founding Fathers owned slaves. They allowed the 2/3rds compromise. We systematically committed genocide against native populations. Even after we fought a war and ended slavery in the US it didn’t really stop, because we made being a minority a crime in so many places and even to this day unequally apply laws so that minorities are dis-proportionally punished and profited from. The reservation system, Tuskegee experiments, Tulsa bombings, Red Lining, Sundown towns, the founding of Oregon (look it up), loan practices, and so much more are testimonies to our sins.
How can I repent if I am unwilling or unable to see my own sins?
How can we get better if we cannot admit we have a problem?