The Story of a Centrist

The Story of a Centrist June 1, 2012

This is from Jonathan Merritt, and we are pleased that we received permission from him to post this excerpt from his new book A Faith of Our Own.

I became an environmentalist at a Southern Baptist Seminary. Few people on the planet can say that. I was sitting in a theology class listening to a lecture about the general revelation of God in nature and became bitterly convicted that I was contributing to the muffling of God’s voice around me through my destructive lifestyle. Over the next few months, I decided to reflect on my life’s habits and make many personal changes. But I still wanted to do more.

I contacted a group of pastors, professors, and leaders in The Southern Baptist Convention to help me draft a statement expressing a Biblical view of creation care. A few months later, we finished the final draft and I began circulating it among denominational leaders for their support. To my surprise, the signatures poured in. People were overjoyed that others in the denomination were stepping out on this issue.

Then, the heads of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) found out. The ERLC is the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention with offices in Nashville and Washington D.C. The entity functions as a lobbying group within the most conservative wing of the Christian right, and they don’t like other people stepping on their turf. I had contacted their office early in the drafting process but received no response.

Then my initiative began gaining steam, and in their reading, it might give the impression that there was variance among Southern Baptists on environmental issues. I became a liability.

ERLC leaders prodded me to abandon the efforts, luring me with soft bribes and hard threats. They told me if I turned the project over to them, they would rewrite it. In return, they would pay for the public release and open up doors for speaking engagements. When I rejected the offer, they said they were obligated to contact signatories and dismantle the effort themselves. With the precision of a five-star political machine, ERLC leaders began locating signatories and trying to convince them to remove their names. Falsehoods circulated about my “hidden agendas” and “political ties.” Emails sent with the cadence of machine gun fire became impossible to contain.

At the time, I was a second year seminary student, unaware of the power and determination of the establishment. I never expected and wasn’t equipped to combat the hornets from the nest I’d accidentally kicked. The breaking point came late one night when I was studying for exams. I received a call from one of my favorite professors, someone I admire. He informed me that ERLC leadership was offering me one last chance to turn over the initiative. If I decided to move forward, the full force of their opposition would fall on me. This included telling “the truth” about my effort to denominational leaders, many whom I considered heroes. I was given 24 hours to consider their offer and decide.

I hung up the phone and wept. I was attempting to act on my convictions under the guidance of wise counsel, but I was not-so-kindly shown the door. Peeking behind the curtain of the establishment church, I was shocked to discover a political machine that looked more a lot more like Washington than Nashville. Rather than turn the initiative over to the group, I released it to the public. Major news media picked up on the story, and soon the toothpaste was out of the tube. The ERLC moved on, and I was left to ponder all that transpired.

Is this the current state of the Christian church in America? Has Christ’s bride become so hungry for influence that she will stop at nothing to protect her power? Is this community at the point where seminary professors will threaten students at the beckoning of the establishment?

Sadly, yes.

I’m not the only one who has been the target of such tactics. I’ve met many over the years who’ve shared similar experiences. Like me, they deviated from the platform, called out someone on the home team, or failed to run their projects through the gatekeepers. They were ignored, ridiculed or discredited, and might as well been handed the black spot from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

The political, economic, and social systems in our country don’t exist to glorify God. They were built to turn a profit, build an empire, consolidate power. Some Christian churches, leaders and organizations have been co-opted by these systems with the promise of benefiting from the resources and power they produce. Experiences like mine serve as a warning to all who might challenge these human systems in which Christian entities are enmeshed. Don’t expect to be embraced because you are a good person trying to accomplish a worthy goal or even because you’re “right.” Expecting culture warriors to leave you alone because you are a good person is like expecting a bull not to charge you because you are a vegetarian.

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