As the community that would eventually become the “church” began in the book of Acts, Luke says, “And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”
That description doesn’t seem to apply to white evangelicalism these days. That’s not surprising if you read the rest of that chapter in Acts, and everything leading up to that consequence of “the Lord added to their number”:
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.
The early church grew because they sought and won “the goodwill of all the people.”
Or, if you’re Southern Baptist Junior Spokesman Daniel Darling, the early church grew because it preached a “false gospel of nice.” Squishy liberals just wanna be liked, Darling says.
Darling — like his SBC mentors — aims to be a contentious prick. For Jesus. He seems to think that devotion to “orthodoxy” requires that we be abrasive, belligerent and deliberately unlovely. Darling quotes the words of Jesus, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.”
That’s scripture! That’s from John 15:18. Here’s the verse before that: “I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (Oh Noes!1! Even Jesus is a squishy liberal preaching a false gospel of nice!)
Folks like Darling see a conflict between “the world hates you” and “having the goodwill of all the people.” A Southern Baptist is bound to find that confusing because Southern Baptist theology was invented to be otherworldly — to accommodate and to bless injustice in this world. It is what Christianity looks like when Christians are trying to both: 1) Read and follow their Bibles, and 2) Own, buy, sell, steal from, beat, rape, scourge, torture and proselytize other human beings.
This is why Southern Baptist theology — the intrinsically white theology of American evangelicalism — will always be conflicted and always be confused when it attempts to engage the book of Acts or passages like John 15. This is why this white theology will never allow itself to understand what Jesus was talking about as “the world.”
Darling seems to think that “the world” in John 15 refers to the same thing as “all the people” in Acts 2. He thinks “the world” means the hoi polloi, the riff-raff, the public, the rabble, the unwashed and the unsaved and the unclean. As if those were the people in charge of this world. As if those were the people who run this world. That’s why if you want to understand what Jesus is talking about there in John 15, you’re much better off turning to Sister Sinead than to any member of the Southern Baptist hierarchy.
Poor Daniel Darling dimly grasps, as Steven Sondheim said, that “nice is different than good.” So far, so good. But he then takes a wrong turn by concluding that means that being un-nice is all that one needs to do to be good. To be good, then, means not seeking “the goodwill of all the people.” It means, rather, disdaining that goodwill.
And, actually, “good” isn’t even in the picture. Darling isn’t interested in “good,” only in “orthodox” — an orthodox white theology which is even more different from good than nice is.
Yeah, I know that 1845 was 169 years ago, and that Southern Baptists are probably tired of me talking about slavery. Tough. The fact is that you cannot understand the theology of white Southern Baptists today, in 2014, without understanding how that theology was shaped by and for slavery. That’s the whole of it. Take away the centuries spent concocting a theological defense of slavery and you could never, ever arrive at anything like today’s white Southern Baptist theology. You can’t get here without starting there.
Just look at Darling’s contempt for social justice. Look at the way he frames his argument as requiring a choice between either fidelity to the Bible or social justice.
Please go and read a Bible. Read the whole thing. Read the law, and the prophets, and the Psalms and Proverbs, the chronicles of kings, the Gospels, the Acts and the epistles and the apocalypse. Now consider what it requires to be able to read all of that and still be blind to how social justice is woven into every part of that story of redemption, from Genesis to Revelation. Consider the vast scope of the mechanism involved that would allow one to read that and somehow to see it as something separate from and opposed to social justice.
That astonishing achievement is only possible thanks to centuries of hard work reinterpreting, selectively disregarding and dismissing everything the Bible says about this world. It is the culmination of generations of rationalization in defense of the indefensible. It required an entirely new hermeneutic, and so a new hermeneutic was developed, a white hermeneutic in support of white theology. It required a redefinition of scores of biblical themes — salvation, redemption, love, justice, mercy, virtue — and so, over the years, these things were all redefined and their earlier meanings were rejected and forgotten.
American slavery may have ended more than a century ago, but the theology that evolved to defend it still thrives and flourishes. No one will ever accuse that white theology of being “nice.” But no one will ever mistake it for being good either.