The SBC and Racial Reconciliation

Keith Echols

I remember the conversation as if it happened yesterday. My father and I have a wonderful relationship, but on that day in the Fall of 2010 we were locked in a tug of war. Neither one of us was willing to budge. At the end of the conversation my father told me that had loved me and he trusted that, as an adult, I had the ability to make an informed decision. He also made it clear that he thought the decision I was making was not the best. I told him that I loved him too and that I was going to do what I believed was best for me and my soon-to-be bride.

The topic of the discussion that day was my decision to attend a Southern Baptist Church.

During the course of our discussion my father and I discussed many different issues, but the largest concern he brought up was the troubled history of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and slavery. In those moments, I did not disagree with him because I, too, shared the same concerns. The challenge I faced was the fact that in attending church with my fiancé—now wife—I learned more about Christ and the Gospel than I ever had before. Hence the struggle. How could I, as a black man, attend a church that has such a rich understanding of the Gospel, but one that is part of a denomination with such a racially charged past?

In her article entitled Southern Baptists and the Sin of Racism, Emma Green gave a well written review of the recently held Summit on Racial Reconciliation. In it she offered the following quote from Thabiti Anyabwile:

“Most of my white brothers and sisters place a great emphasis on individualism and meritocracy. 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 individual and speak of ‘I’.”

Anyabwile’s point resonates greatly with me because it gets to the heart of the most formable roadblock to achieving racial reconciliation in my denomination. There are two opposing viewpoints regarding race and the roadblock is that there is not enough effort being made within our churches to remove the barrier.

It did my heart much good to hear that the SBC sponsored a summit on racial reconciliation. It is yet another positive step made to repair the relationship between blacks and the convention. In the heat of racially charged moments it is easy to forget the official apology issued from the convention in 1995, and the improved status of blacks in the convention which was highlighted by the election of Fred Luter as convention president in 2012. There are many in the convention that are passionate about moving towards racial reconciliation. In my experience, the everyday SBC church member is mostly not focused on this.

Therein lies the challenge. How can the SBC build upon the foundations that have been laid for racial reconciliation and translate it to the convention membership?

As I write this today, I am still working to make peace with my decision to be part of the SBC through the grace of God. This process has been redemptive, however, it has not come without struggle. My family and I are members of a large, predominately white SBC church in Marietta, GA. First, I must say that I do enjoy my church and I appreciate that heart of the leadership and the membership. It is a church that is seeking to be more like Christ, and one that is fiercely dedicated to taking the Gospel to a world in crisis. That being said, it is a church that has been eerily silent on the topic of racial reconciliation.

I find it interesting that many of my white brothers and sisters in church are willing to take the Gospel to black and brown people across many parts of the globe, and yet they are unable to carry on a meaningful conversation with black and brown people sitting in the pews next to them. In the past year, as news stories of racial bias have gripped and divided the nation, the topic of racial reconciliation has not been publically addressed by the leadership of my church. I imagine that this experience was not unique to me, but one that is shared by other black men and women who attend predominately white SBC churches.

When it comes to the topic of racial reconciliation, I believe that many members of my convention, both black and white, suffer from a lack of empathy. Progress will only come from a willingness of men and women to put themselves in the shoes of others and seek to see things from a different point of view. This is what Christ did for us when he traded the immortal for mortal flesh. He became like us, was tempted like us, and was touched with grief just like us. Christ felt the pain of rejection and responded with the greatest act of love in giving His life for us. This is the pattern we must follow.

Without empathy it will be impossible to make any meaningful progress in the realm of racial reconciliation. Emma Green said it well when she stated:

“But for the most part, Southern Baptists still see the issue of race as a matter individual hearts and minds, not collective experience and collective policy. Church leaders left Nashville with promises to improve diversity in seminaries, plant churches in urban areas, and listen—truly listen—to the experiences of others. Undoubtedly, these are all good things. But they might not be enough to lift up struggling black and Hispanic communities—or for that matter, struggling white communities.”

I agree wholeheartedly. No change will occur if the SBC as a whole and individual churches and pastors are not willing to address the social issues of poverty, fatherlessness, mass incarceration, and other challenges that face minority populations in America. For those who are passionate about racial reconciliation the work that must be done now is to educate others on how to take steps forward in these areas. A conference on racial reconciliation is a wonderful idea, and I pray it continues to happen, but it will be of no consequence if pastors of predominately white churches do not preach on the subject. The conference will be of no effect if convention members do not take personal responsibility and commit to participate in the process.

I believe Emma Green did miss the boat a bit in not emphasizing enough that issues on the matter of race do stem from the fact that we are all sinners. The only remedy for sin is the Gospel. In Ephesians 2, we can see how Christ has made all who believe in Him one through his death on the Cross. Addressing social issues is important, but this work will be fruitless if it is not done through the lens of the Gospel.

The Gospel has the power to cross all lines of race and break through all the roadblocks that have prevented racial reconciliation. It is my prayer that the summit on racial reconciliation has planted the seeds in the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention that will eventually blossom into racial harmony. My hope, however, is not in a summit or in the hearts and abilities of men and women to achieve racial reconciliation. My hope rest in Christ. Because, in him, I have found the only reconciliation that truly matters.

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