Yesterday, my denomination of birth, the Southern Baptist Convention, elected its first African American president. For an organization that was born for and by slave owners in the pre-Civil War years, that’s a pretty big deal.
Though perhaps not as big a deal as many would like it to be.
True, the Convention has made a concerted effort to diversify its racial make-up in recent years. In 1995, when now president Fred Luter helped to draft a resolution publicly acknowledging the Convention’s racist history, only five percent of Southern Baptists were African American. Thanks to new church starts and affiliations that number has risen to 20 percent though you’d be hard pressed to find them in mainstream Southern Baptist life. They still tend to keep to themselves.
Luter and his Franklin Avenue Baptist Church are good examples of this segregation remaining in the midst of diversification. Franklin Avenue started life in the 40s as an all-white Southern Baptist church. As the surrounding neighborhood experienced “white-flight” the church dwindled, so that in 1986 only a handful of black parishioners remained when they called Luter from street preaching to his first pastorate. He had no formal training, from a Southern Baptist institution or otherwise, and little awareness of the church’s denominational affiliation. Today, the church has 8,000 largely black members. Luter was nominated to the presidency by the pastor of the predominately white First Baptist New Orleans.
In anticipation of Luter’s election, president of the SBC’s Lifeway Research Ed Stetzer was quoted as saying: “Many Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of the hoses in Birmingham.”
In the coming months it’s going to be easy for the good ol’ boys of Southern Baptist leadership to pat themselves on the back and declare “mission accomplished” in the symbolic election of a black man to their presidency.
I also won’t be surprised if rumors soon surface linking Luter to speaking in tongues, liberation theology, or liberal social justice community organizations calling into question his Southern Baptist bona fides.
What I would like to see happen in the wake of Luter’s election, however, is a hard and no doubt painful look at what those Southern Baptist bona fides actually are. What are the values and motivations that inspired Southern Baptists to stand on that side of the hose in Birmingham instead of this one? Are they the same values that keep women out of ministry today? Why did it take so long for a black man to be elected to a leadership position and what really changed to make it possible?
It must be acknowledged that the Southern Baptist Convention as a culture has been defined from its inception not just by race but by racism and that even with a black man at the helm those values are still at work in the systematic marginalization and degradation of minorities and dissenters.
Jesus made it a point to welcome sinners and outcasts into the full life of his ministry. Southern Baptists now have a mandate to continue to identify the groups they have systematically withheld from God’s work and know that God will continue to do God’s work within or without Southern Baptist authority.