Writing in The Atlantic, Emma Green attempts (and does so quite admirably) to navigate the turbulent history of Southern Baptists’ previous support of racism to their now vocal opposition. She notes that since 1995 the SBC has been publicly repenting of its history of racial discrimination, which marks a decisive turn from the denomination’s beginnings when it “helped define the history of American racism.”
Southern Baptists who defended slavery and then later segregation appealed to an inerrant scripture for their justification. Ironically, when Green spoke with pastors and church leaders in Nashville, most cited scripture as their justification for opposing racism.
While Southern Baptists believe that scripture is “truth without any mixture of error” it is obvious that Southern Baptists do not read the Bible without any mixture of error. Southern Baptists, along with everyone else, read the Bible as fallible, error-prone human beings who are about as likely to get things wrong as right.
Green also observes how Southern Baptists read the text with an emphasis on the individual. She spoke with SBC African American pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, who said,
Most of my African American brothers and sisters, we’ve had a group experience. Our experience in this country has been defined first and foremost by this pigment that we share. So when we have these conversations about how to make progress, African Americans go to group experience pretty quickly. We speak in “we”. And white Americans go pretty quickly to the individual and speak of “I” …
One of the things we have to repent of as a denomination or as conservative Christians … [is] the shrinking idea of justice down to abortion and homosexuality. There’s far more going on in the world affecting far more people that we also ought to be concerned about.
The issues Anyabwile mentioned that Southern Baptists should be concerned with included criminal-justice policies, education funding, and the alleviation of child poverty. This, of course, is not likely to happen. And why? Well, it’s back to the Bible.
According to Russell Moore, the head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), scripture is not clear on these social issues the way it is clear that racism reflects humankind’s sinful nature. Green perceptively comments,
Notably absent from the ERLC’s policy priorities are issues like mass incarceration or fiscal programs designed to support those in poverty. It’s one thing to aim to purge a man’s heart of ill will toward his black or white brothers in Christ. It’s quite another to try to rectify the after-effects of 250 years of slavery and decades of Jim Crow that followed.
Fred Clark, responding on his blog to Green’s article, argues that inerrancy and individualism were not mere impediments to racial and social justice, they were justifications for injustice. He contends,
Inerrancy is an artifice constructed to provide a way of reading the Bible to defend slavery … That’s why it exists. It enabled Southern Baptists in 1833 and 1845 and 1965 to cite pro-slavery proof texts in order to limit and trump the Golden Rule …
And the white evangelical ideal of individual salvation – a ‘personal Lord and Savior’ whose kingdom exists only in some otherworldly afterlife – was developed as a rationalization for the brutal injustice and denial of salvation [read social justice] that white Christians were determined to defend and endorse in this world and in this life.
Either way – as contributing factors or as justifications/rationalizations – the Southern Baptist belief in biblical inerrancy and over-emphasis on individual salvation continues to limit their participation in a holistic gospel that intentionally pursues racial reconciliation and social justice issues.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, and is also a contributor to the blog Faith Forward.