There’s a story — maybe more of a legend* — involving the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai, who was asked in the 1970s what he thought of the French Revolution of 1789. Zhou replied, “It is too soon to say.”
That’s how I feel about two big recent stories from the white evangelical world, both of which might one day be regarded as positive “first steps.” But unless and until further steps are taken, we can’t be sure that’s what they are.
That’s the thing about first steps, after all. Their meaning and significance depends on whether or not there are subsequent steps, and what those steps look like. Without such additional following steps, even the best-seeming “first step” may mean next to nothing.
It’s like the difference between “John quit smoking on Saturday” and “John quits smoking on Saturdays.” The former might be a true first step. It might be big news, indicating a major positive change in John’s life. But the latter would tell us, instead, that nothing in John’s life is really changing at all. To the extent that it’s news, it’s bad news — the news that our friend John is stuck on a treadmill, trapped forever walking in place in an endless loop of meaningless “first steps.”
That’s why it can be difficult to know how to respond to such stories. Celebrating first steps can be a way of encouraging positive change — a way of reinforcing positive actions and thereby of making it more likely that those additional subsequent steps will be taken. But if we celebrate with John every Saturday when he repeats the same pretense of a first step, then all we end up encouraging for him is the meaningless ritual of empty words that will ultimately ensure he never takes any subsequent steps.
The other factor here, I think, is how well you know “John.” If you don’t know him at all, then hearing someone tell you, “Hey, John quit smoking on Saturday” will most likely seem as unambiguously hopeful and positive news. “Good for John,” you’ll think, wishing him well.
But if you and John go way back, and you’ve seen this happen many, many times before, then you’re bound to be a bit more skeptical on hearing this news. That skepticism will be appropriate — well-earned, well-deserved, and perfectly fair. You’ll think it still possible, in theory, that this might be hopeful and positive news. That could still turn out to be true, maybe. But if you know that this isn’t John’s first first step — that he’s taken so many false first steps that you’ve lost count — then based on that evidence and experience you’ll think it’s far likelier that this latest “first step” won’t mean anything either. You’ll expect that a few months from now, or a few years from now, you’ll find John exactly where he’s always been, exactly how he’s always been, unmoved and unchanged.
All of which is why I’ve struggled with responding to these two stories that might some day prove to have been positive first steps. I hope that’s true. But it’s too soon to tell.
The first such story comes from Louisville, “Southern Baptist seminary report ties founders to slaveholding, white supremacy“:
A 71-page report released [Dec. 12] from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention’s flagship seminary, says its early trustees and faculty “defended the righteousness of slaveholding.”
“They argued first that slaveholding was righteous because the inferiority of blacks indicated God’s providential will for their enslavement, corroborated by Noah’s prophetic cursing of Ham,” the report reads. “They argued second that slaveholding was righteous because southern slaves accrued such remarkable material and spiritual benefits from it.”
The seminary was founded in 1859 in Greenville, S.C., but suspended operations in 1862 during the Civil War and reopened in Louisville in 1877.
The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 when its members defended the right of missionaries to own slaves. Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. told Religion News Service the investigation expanded the knowledge and truth of what that defense meant.
“What we did not know and should have known was the degree to which open expressions of white racial supremacy were a part of the defense of slavery even on the part of some of the founding faculty of this school,” he said.
… “This report documents the contradictions and complexities of the experience of Southern Baptists and race in America,” it reads. “We have not overcome all the contradictions, but we are committed to doing so.”
The second such story comes from Wheaton, “At Wheaton summit, prominent evangelicals share stories of sexual abuse“:
[Beth] Moore was a featured speaker at a one-day summit on sexual abuse and harassment [Dec. 13] at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago — and one of many who described their own experiences of abuse and harassment.
Some shared their stories of sexual abuse for the first time, including bestselling Christian author and pastor Max Lucado and child advocate Kelly Rosati.
“We’re trying to help amplify a conversation others have started,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, which organized the summit.
Evangelicals have not always done a good job of listening to survivors, Stetzer told attendees at the summit, and “we want to do better.”
Both of these stories include the language of first steps: “We want to do better,” “We are committed to doing so.” But to be credible, that language needs to be followed by the tangible evidence of second steps, and of third steps.
Until then …
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* Zhou was being interviewed through a translator and may have thought the question was about protests in France that same year, which would have made his response merely accurate and prudent rather than, like, whoa, kind of deep, man.