This past week has been very eventful for me. It was the annual Southern Baptist Convention, and I was attending this year, not as a messenger as in the year prior but as a student. I am currently doing graduate studies at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS) in Historical Theology. I came to the convention this year as a course in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). I left Louisville and by the time I arrived in Arizona, I had completed my flight reading which was the recently released book, Removing the Stain of Racism in the Southern Baptist Convention. No, the irony in my reading choice hasn’t escaped me. During the first few hours of the convention, I was told by several men in SBC leadership that this would be an “uneventful” convention. Honestly, I was a little disappointed. Last year, I felt like I was part of history as I stood next to my friend Dr. Moore and the vote to disavow the Confederate flag received an overwhelmingly favorable vote. For me, it was a little disappointing to hear various men in SBC leadership refer to this convention as one that would be very boring and uneventful. It wasn’t that I was desiring controversy or in any way wanting something dramatic to happen. By no means! To put it simply, I was just looking forward to witnessing Robert’s Rule in lively action. I was under the impression that the convention was not going to be lively this year, and I was completely okay with that. Then, I received a text message from a friend, and then another. Text after text came to my phone and before long, I had several texts come to my phone with screenshots of a Resolution that was declined and wouldn’t reach the Convention floor. It was a resolution that essentially sought to disavow the Alt-right and White Supremacy. My heart sunk. Here I was, a black Southern Baptist (with a multi-ethnic heritage) who is an active voice pursuing racial reconciliation and I am receiving questions I do not have an answer to. The awkwardness was intensified because some of the people who texted me, were the same people I just told a few days prior that the SBC was making great strides towards reconciliation. I then went into a panel discussion where the resolution was mentioned in passing by SBC leadership, and it was reiterated that the convention would be uneventful. How could they not see it? How could they think this would be an uneventful convention? The black and white disconnect within the convention became apparent to me at this point, and I knew that the SBC was in for another rude awakening regarding why the stain of racism persists within the denomination. There was hope in my view; I assumed that someone would bring this resolution up during the session. I was confident that the author would, and if not, I certainly planned to. How could I not? Over the past year, I have received numerous threats from members of the Alt-Right. I have received pictures of black bodies hanging from trees from members of this group and various other threats which I quickly deleted in an effort to guard my wife against the harsh realities I often face for engaging in discussions of racial reconciliation. How could I not demand that my brothers and sisters affirm my humanity be denouncing a group that has frequently denied it, and desires to oppress me through ambitions of white nationalism?
It is amazing how quickly tears of joy can turn to tears of pain. I stood there and listened as Pastor Mckissic spoke about the need for the Convention to reconsider his resolution. He was bold, prophetic, and truthful. By this point, I had read the resolution, and although I did consider the language strong, I agreed with everything he said. Coming from a family of lawyers, I recognized quickly how some of the language in it could’ve been worded for greater impact. For instance, his language regarding the curse of Ham was true, but it also overly generalized the alt-right. From my knowledge, I do not know any members of the alt-right who hold to that theological view. Affirming a resolution that included that language would actually weaken the resolution because it would only apply to those who held to that view which would be simply a sect of the movement. Still, I was surprised when I heard that the Resolution was declined due to inflammatory language. There was nothing “inflammatory” in the resolution. Was there a need to revise, yes I could understand that. But a need for revision for the sake of clarity is very different than charging the resolution as being inflammatory. In fact, to charge a black man with being inflammatory for writing strong words about white supremacy is in itself inflammatory. Furthermore, when there is a stain of racism on an entity, should not that entity do all that is necessary to remove it? You don’t remove a stain by just applying water. Often, water and soap are not enough. To remove a stain, you have to use water, soap, detergent, and whatever other resources are available to you to scrub it out with all your might. Why did the resolution committee not seek to have the resolution rewritten before the convention so that it could be brought to the floor?
These are all questions that were running through my mind. When Pastor Mckissic proclaimed the need for the resolution to be reconsidered, I assumed that there was no way that the messengers wouldn’t fix this mistake and vote the resolution to the floor, and ultimately be embraced as a convention. I was excited about the vote and fully expected to see a multitude of blue envelopes raised in the air. I waited to see such a sight, and in my mind, considering the envelopes were blue, I pictured the event would be like a glorious sea of conviction that racism was evil and the SBC was committed to racial reconciliation. You have to understand, as an African American evangelical Christian, I needed this. My heart needed it. I cannot describe in words the level of hurt and feelings of betrayal I struggled with after Trump’s election because of the overwhelming white evangelical support. All of my emotional and spiritual strength was exhausted in believing and hoping the best of my white brethren who voted for a man who I believe does not value the imago Dei in me. I had spent several months fighting to believe the best of my white brothers and sisters who chose not to opt out of the election. I needed to have the cloud of racial indifference that loomed over the racial unity of the church abated. When I saw not a sea of affirmation but a sea of dismissal, I broke me. I couldn’t believe that the messengers of the SBC would vote down such a resolution at the same convention where they had just elected new black leadership. It all seemed deeply disingenuous, and though I wanted to simply fall on my face and be silent; I believed that the Lord desired me to prophetically rebuke. I stand by my decision to do so.
There is indeed a cost in being a minority and pursuing ethnic reconciliation in majority culture churches. Most of my minority friends who are in majority culture churches understand and have experienced this cost. We are faced with a lot of challenges, but we constantly tell ourselves, “it’s worth it.” We endure isolation and weep when we are alone, but again, we tell ourselves “it’s worth it.” We hear our wives’ cries of loneliness and disconnectedness but we assure them, “it’s worth it.” We see our children grow up without meaningful friendships and we question our parenting on a deeper level than many can fathom but while we are on our knees in prayer, with tears, we tell God that we believe “it’s worth it.” We speak with patience and love but are labeled “divisive” by our brethren, but again, we tell ourselves “it’s worth it.” Then, we see unarmed black lives snuffed out, and we cry out in lamentations, “Our lives matter!” only to be met with charges of buying into liberalism from our white brethren; but again, we tell ourselves in the midst of not having our value affirmed in our churches, “it’s worth it.” We turn to those whom we have given our lives to, and we see utter silence or indifference. Many of us will see members of our covenant faith families ignore the reality of our pain and though they will share articles about the value of unborn life; articles about the value of black lives is considered “too political.” When it is all said and done, we look in the mirror and consider our wives, children, and future, and then we begin to truly wonder in silence, “is it truly worth it?”
Is It Worth it?
Jesus tells his disciples in John 13:34-35 that the testimony of the church to the watching world would be evidenced by the love each member of the church has for one another; therefore abounding in love is missional. As the world looks at the church, it should see people abounding in empathy, compassion, and understanding and as it does, the glory of God and the power of the church is displayed. This is one of the reasons why the stain of racism continues in the SBC. The SBC has always sought to define itself according to missional zeal, but its racial insensitivity and lack of racial compassion contradict any claim the SBC makes regarding its desire to be a light to the world. Yes, it is easy for Southern Baptists to go to the ends of the earth where the stain can’t be seen. However, the stain of racism will mark the Southern Baptist Convention and the reputation of its churches here in America until it is truly abounding in love regarding racial reconciliation. So, is being a black man in the SBC worth it? If speaking the truth in love and enduring the pain of racial indifference and insensitivity, will ultimately lead to the SBC becoming truly missional here in America than, yes. The Lamb deserves the full reward for his suffering. One of the things that the SBC needs to come to realize, however, is that God doesn’t need it. If the SBC does not abound in love through the expression of racial reconciliation, then God will use another denomination that will. The SBC is already way beyond the point of receiving divine patience in this area. Jesus is glorified when his church is abounding in unity amid diversity. Christ died to purchase a multiethnic people, and he has brought them together in unity under grace. The Gospel is the Good News that Jesus died under the wrath of God to reconcile all things to him. Racial Reconciliation isn’t simply a gospel implication. At the heart of the Gospel is the reconciliation of all things and the chief expression of this reconciliation is expressed through the unity of sinners under a New Covenant in which they are brought together into a new family as a new creation. As a family, they are indwelt with the very Spirit of God, and the Holy Spirit is sanctifying them in love. In John 17, Jesus prayed that the church would be one in fellowship even as the Trinity is. How can this be accomplished? The Holy Spirit is cultivating a divine love in the lives of God’s people towards one another, and it is in this bond that the power of the Gospel is demonstrated to the world. Pursuing racial reconciliation requires dying to self. But if through dying to self the glorious Gospel of reconciliation can be more greatly display then it is worth it. If through self denial, the manifold wisdom and power of God in uniting sinful people can be more clearly displayed; then with Isaiah I say, “Here am I Lord, send me.”
Black pain in the midst of racial indifference is a cathartic liability. On the one hand, African Americans lack a voice to such a degree that we are willing to take whatever we can get. One of the ways in which majority culture has allowed us to speak, is in the realm of expressing our pain at marginalization. This serves us in our healing as we will often have white friends and faith family members who affirm us in our pain and even express empathy for the struggles we feel. The problem is that expressing such pain to the majority culture has often led to black people being left in a position of vulnerability and with no actual tangible fruit from submitting to such a posture. In other words, in majority culture churches, black people are often only allowed to share their voice when it relates to their pain, but the pain can only be expressed through feelings of “hurt” and never frustration, or righteous indignation. Therefore, as black people share their experience and perspective, they do so only from a posture of vulnerability and are rarely granted positions of leadership and power because they are perceived as not being able to handle it. They are often perceived as lacking emotional self-control and are therefore not trustworthy with authority. It is a vicious cycle that leaves African American men always in a position of needing to prove themselves and never able to. Many of us see this happen all the time. Minority men who engage with racial reconciliation only through expressing “their hurt” or who hide their anger and frustration through expressions of ignorance are received and heeded, while those who express it through a fuller range of emotions are considered “unpredictable” or “lacking humility”. The prolific writer James Baldwin once said, “To be black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” Silent rage indwells the African-American experience in America and unless one has lived under the yoke of historic and systemic racialization, they have little right to critique it. Anger and Rage are emotions that have been expressed by both God the Father as well as Jesus, the Son of God incarnate. We are commanded to be angry but not to sin and the Bible does not tell us that anger or rage in and of itself is sinful. When it comes to the black experience, we have had to feel anger about our marginalization and oppression and yet we have not been afforded the right to express it or speak about it unless it is from a position of vulnerability. We are allowed to express pain as long as it comes from the posture of vulnerability, but if we are to express other emotions such as righteous indignation, we are labeled “angry black men”. In the church, we are told we are “divisive”, that we “lack self-control”, we’re “over-reacting”, we’re “speaking without the facts”, or “too emotional”. As more and more minority Christians, especially African American Christians, are offered voices in the SBC regarding racial reconciliation, they must be allowed to use their voice in a way that abounds in love but is able to come from anywhere across the emotional spectrum.
Is the SBC Desperate For Racial Reconciliation?
One of the primary reasons I have been told that the Messengers declined to hear the resolution is that many of them didn’t know who the Alt-Right is. Is that not part of the problem? If one truly desires racial reconciliation, they must pursue it through actively seeking out what they do not know and what they need to regarding the marginalization and oppression of their minority brothers. Abounding in love is the freest posture one can have, which is why it is the chief prayer of Paul to his beloved Philippians. In Philippians 1:9-11, Paul says, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” In this passage, Paul connects abounding in love with knowledge and discernment. In Paul’s mind, one cannot be abounding more and more in love, and not also be growing in knowledge and the application of that knowledge which is discernment. Therefore, if one is truly abounding in love towards their black brothers and sisters, they will naturally be zealous to pursue knowledge of them. This knowledge would most certainly include the burdens they carry (Galatians 6:2). As a person abounding in love gains knowledge of their minority brethren, they will begin to seek ways to apply that knowledge, such as affirming resolutions about white supremacy without perceived hesitancy. Though I want to be gracious and understanding when it comes to claims of ignorance by my white brothers and sisters in relation to issues of racial reconciliation; there comes a point when Christians must ask themselves a question, “Are my white brothers and sisters in the Southern Baptist Convention desperate for reconciliation in their churches and denomination?” If they are, then why does it often feel like the minorities in their churches and in the denomination are carrying the majority of the weight in the pursuit? If the SBC is truly desperate for reconciliation and for the stain of racism to be removed, then its messengers should go back home and be desperate to get to know the minority members in their congregation. White Southern Baptist pastors should be desperate to build relationships with minority members. They should be desperate in their pursuit to raise up minority leadership. Congregants should be desperate to pursue relationships with minorities in their midst. Seminary professors should be desperate to learn and recommend works from minority theologians and scholars. Seminaries should not only have required classes that focus on the cultural issues of the Middle East and Asia, but there should be required classes regarding the social issues affecting their black and brown neighbors across the street. It should be impossible for seminary students to graduate without reading a book by an author of color. Rather, that is currently the norm. I have been engaged in racial reconciliation long enough to know these things aren’t happening. Minorities often feel isolated in their churches. Many don’t have deep friendships with their white brethren. If they do, it is typically at a distance because they know the relationships the have can turn sour quickly if they ever express themselves from any posture other than vulnerability. I desire to see the SBC flourish. I am fighting for it despite the deep hurt that it often brings. For a very long time now, African American members of the SBC have fought with desperation to abound in love towards their white brethren. The SBC must get to a point where there is humble repentance from the majority culture in the denomination and saints are falling on their faces begging God to ignite a spirit of desperation when it comes to racial reconciliation. It is only at that point when I believe true change can happen. If things continue on their current trend, I am not optimistic I will see the stain of racism removed from the SBC within my generation. If a spirit of desperation were to fall on the members of the convention, we could see it before 2020.
Disunity is the result of necessary conversations never had. In order for unity to abound within the SBC, there are two primary things that need to happen in the context of necessary conversations. One, minority voices need to be allowed to lead in discussions. The simple truth is this; there are many minority Christian (especially African American) who have been thinking through theologies of race and reconciliation longer than the majority culture. Not only have they been thinking through it, but they have also had to live through the realities of racialization throughout their entire lives. They have had to live through it not only in the world, but in the church as well as they have sought to abound in love in the midst of racial insensitivity and indifference among their white brothers and sisters. If black Christians have been more engaged experientially and theologically with race and reconciliation, they should not only be allowed to lead conversations on the topic; they should also be allowed to engage with the subject on their own terms. As long as African American Christians are required to engage but are forced to do so on the eggshells of white sensibilities, the reconciliation that occurs will be superficial. Do black Southern Baptists have the right to engage with issues of racial reconciliation on their own terms? Do not be so quick to answer this question. Allow me to ask a few follow-up questions first. Do white Southern Baptists police black voices by being selective of the voices they listen to? Do White Southern Baptists only choose to listen to minority Christians who honor their sensibilities while engaging with these issues? In other words, are black prophetic voices allowed not only the SBC but in SBC churches? Or, are the only black voices that are given a platform those who are deemed “safe” and offer minimal risk of offending the majority culture as they speak. There are necessary conversations that need to be had in the SBC, and some of what needs to be said requires bold prophetic voices of color. Is the SBC and its churches open to hearing men like this? My experience over the past week tell me that many are. My experience over the last 13 years tells me that most majority culture churches are likely not. The necessary conversations that need to be had are being had, however. I have had the privilege of being a part of many of those conversations.
When I think of the SBC and the past week, I am actually more encouraged then I have ever been with the convention. Last year, the resolution concerning the Confederate flag was past almost unanimously. This year, the resolution concerning the Alt-Right once again almost passed unanimously. After speaking with friends in SBC leadership as well as a brother who was on the resolution committee, I have come to a deeper understanding of what transpired and what didn’t. I have been told by numerous reliable sources that the issue with the resolution had absolutely nothing to do with any hesitancy to deny white supremacy. As I have spoken with these sources in depthly about the resolution process, I believe they are being 100% truthful. Not only do I believe them because of the humility and piety they have demonstrated in the midst of their fumble; I believe them because they are fellow Christians who I am required, by love, to believe the best of. It was a mistake not to bring the resolution to the floor, but it was not a malicious one. It was a decision deeply rooted in the technical process and procedure that goes into approving and declining resolutions. It was a very bad decision. A decision that didn’t consider deeply the effect it would have on minorities and the world’s perception of Southern Baptsists. There have been charges made against the committee by others who were not present that I believe are unhelpful. Proverbs 18:13 comes to mind as I think about many of the articles that have been written over the past week that have assumed the motivations of members on The Resolution Committee. I do not believe they were trying to silence black voices in the recrafting of the resolution. Resolution authors are never present in the committee’s editing process. But, we must also be honest and admit that there is a lack of ethnic and cultural diversity in virtually all the committees of the SBC. [If you would like to hear more about my thoughts on this, you can read my other short article at the bottom.]
Words matter, and calling an African American Pastor’s clarion call against white supremacist “inflammatory” was a very poor choice of words. At this point, I fully recognize the issues surrounding the language of the resolution and why it was declined, and it is clear that “inflammatory” was a poor choice of words. I’d go further and say that it was more than simply poor wording, it was racially insensitive. The resolution was declined for a host of reasons, all that are understandable, and though I believe the language was fine; I can understand why others may consider it “hostile”. However, questioning whether or not language is overly hostile in a resolution is very different than calling something inflammatory. I am thankful that I was able to have conversations and work out what was actually meant when the term inflammatory was used to describe the resolution. I can only hope that in the future, there will be more sensitivity regarding the history of silencing black people in America, and how terms like inflammatory can trigger some of that history.
Though I can speak confidently regarding the intentions of the resolution committee, I cannot speak as confidently of the messengers who were present and voted on the resolution. I’d like to believe that the almost unanimous vote was more than simply PR, but my experience within the SBC does not support that. The same day the deeply traumatic events transpired at the convention about the Alt-Right, I had several white pastors private message me and ask me whether or not I would be just as willing to disavow “Black Lives Matter”. As long as we have churches and pastors who consider BLM to be in the same vein as the Alt-Right, we will have the stain of racism on the SBC. Please don’t mishear me, I am not a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement. There are many issues they support that I adamantly oppose. However, I absolutely believe in the statement and its need for emphasis in a world where for several hundred years, the answer has indeed been uncertain. The alt-right seeks to devalue and in some cases destroy black lives. There is no comparison between the alt-right, and an organization (albeit liberal) who desires to affirm the inherent value of black lives. I have heard from numerous sources that many messengers refused to hear resolution because they believed that it was an attempted “side eye” to Trump supporters and so they refused to hear a resolution on the Alt-Right because they felt it would cost them credibility as they supported and voted for Donald Trump. I do believe that the mood of the convention swung as media pressure began to overflow. Quite frankly, if two white brothers did not stand up and insist that the resolution be reconsidered, it never would’ve even come up again. The resolution was ultimately recrafted and presented to the floor not because of convention outcry, but because of the world’s rebuke. I do not fault the committee for this, they were simply doing their job and they were working out of an established set of guidelines. I, personally, fault a large portion of the messengers. I wish I could say that my personal experience with white Southern Baptists has been encouraging but it hasn’t been. I was deeply hurt by the initial response of the SBC messengers but I was by no means surprised. This shouldn’t be the case, Southern Baptists have to stop fumbling the ball if they ever want to remove the stain of racism from the Convention. Electing more minority leaders is definitely a good first start, but it is a first start.
I believe that the SBC is in the midst of a crossroads. The generation before me fought for the mind of the convention and today we celebrate the Conservative Resurgence. There is currently a battle for the heart of the SBC and the baton needs to be passed to the younger generation to accomplish it as the older is just simply not equipped to fight on the front lines of racial reconciliation. The heart of the SBC will be won when Southern Baptist churches across America are abounding in love and as the result of necessary conversations had. There must be deep repentance from many in the majority culture for lacking in desperation when it comes to truly pursuing racial reconciliation. I do not know whether I will see this battle won in my generation. If I am honest, I am tired and worn from fighting it, and I have come to embrace the reality that I may not see the glory in racial reconciliation in my generation. I don’t want to give up; I want to fight for it as long as the Lord grants me breath. However, there comes a time when one must dust off their shoes and move on, and I am not yet convinced that Southern Baptist churches as a whole will truly become desperate for it. Will the SBC split or will it abound in love and unity, I do not know. I pray the SBC will continue heading in the right direction and I pray more will join the battle within the convention and its churches. If not, the SBC will die, and it will have no one to blame but itself. In the meantime, I will remain hopeful because the Holy Spirit is indeed at work and he is truly cultivating divine love in the hearts of his people, and that includes Southern Baptists.
Kyle J. Howard currently serves the church as a Christian counselor. He is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received his associate degree in biblical/theological studies and a bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling. He currently lives in Atlanta & is finishing an advanced M. Divinity in Historical Theology and ultimately desires to pastor.