the wrong side of the hose

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.


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    1. Hi Cynthia – I’m ever wandering. Most often on Sundays to Trinity Church in Boston. Even with this historic election, though, I don’t think it likely I’ll wander back to the SBC. Hope to see you soon, Jonathan

  1. IT is sad….I thought we were in the days where we don’t see color but people instead. I guess I was wrong or we would never need to announce such an election or even have to write about it. It would just be a pastor elected to lead a convention and color being left out of the conversation. Both sides are wrong by mentioning the color issue rather than on this guy’s credentials and how he plans on leading the SBC in the coming year just as if he was any other president in the past. Why are we still seeing color even in this context of historical nature. We are one in God’s eye and we as Christians need to see things in the same way. So Jonathan, why not just write about Luter instead of making a deal out of his color. I don’t see color but I guess people still do on both sides of the issue. Just ask anyone who has to describe a person….it is…a black person about 6 ft tall with dark hair and never white or Asian or etc when it is not a person of color. God discribed people by their descent not color.

    1. It’s a great misnomer that color is not important. It is important that my name is “Jonathan” and not “Jon.” It is important that I grew up in Missouri. It is important that I am white. These things that are true and unchangeable about me, affect how I live in the world and how the world responds to me. For me, these are signifiers of privilege. For Luter, his color has historically kept him out of authority within the SBC and his different color and culture should introduce dramatic change to the convention that has persecuted, often violently, people who look like him. We should never stop seeing color, and I hope that during Luter’s presidency he makes it a point to show Southern Baptists what it means to see color in all its diversity. I also hope Southern Baptist women start demanding their share of authority.

      1. Obviously you see SBC in a very negative way. What has caused you to feel the way you do about SBC verses any other denomination? I am just curious as to why you feel the way you do. You said in an earlier reply to Cynthia that you once were involved in a SBC church and not a member of any church now. I do agree with what you were saying about color as an identifier but I was trying to make the point that it is just that and it shouldn’t affect the way we interact with people in this day and time. I am more of an equal but not separate kind of person when it comes to color but unfortunately society still makes that difference.

      2. I only speak more negatively about the SBC, because I know it better. I’m sure I could find plenty of negative things to say about every denomination if I tried. The fact remains, however, that the SBC was founded in large part to keep people who look like Rev. Luter out of authority and it only repented of this sin in 1995. What changed? As far as I can tell, what changed is that it was no longer socially acceptable to use the Bible to advocate slavery and white paternalism. Since repenting in 1995, the Convention has continued to use the Bible to keep women, divorcees, social drinkers, and charismatics out of leadership positions. It’s apparently still socially acceptable to think God has a lesser calling for people who look like them. If Luter’s presidency does nothing more than temper the Convention’s reputation for being racist, it will be a failure and his color will not have mattered. If he is to have a prophetic presidency, his color must matter, as executive boards and nominating committees look long and hard at who they have systematically withheld from doing God’s work and why.

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