A COMMENTARY ON THE RECENT SOUTHERN BAPTIST SUMMIT ON RACIAL RECONCILIATION
©Wendell Griffen, 2015
Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Arkansas
March 28, 2015
The Southern Baptist Convention convened what it termed a “summit” about racial reconciliation earlier this week in Nashville, Tennessee. The event featured what the media has reported was a moving presentation by Dr. Russell Moore, President of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) during which Dr. Moore repeated what Southern Baptists affirmed in a 1995 resolution about SBC complicity and endorsement of racism, slavery, and discrimination during their 150th anniversary convention in Atlanta, Georgia. Other speakers are reported to have conveyed the same message. After reading media reports about the summit and reflecting on the reported comments, the 1995 resolution, and the history that Southern Baptists seem to acknowledge, I have two major comments.
First, it is worth noting that Southern Baptists continue to disregard or ignore the essential requirement that the beneficiaries of oppression do more than apologize for complicity in historical injustice to accomplish the biblical repentance that is a moral and ethical prerequisite for reconciliation. Repentance certainly begins with acknowledging one’s wrongful behavior and being remorseful about it. But wrongful behavior that causes injury, oppression, loss, and other harm to others is not made right by merely making an apology, however sincere that apology may be.
Without active conduct to repair what has been wounded, repay what has been wrongfully taken, restore what has been damaged, and otherwise divest oneself of undeserved privileges, advantages, and other benefits held to the disadvantage of people victimized by historical oppression an apology is merely rhetoric that preserves longstanding injustice while apologists expect forgiveness from the victims of oppression. Dietrich Bonhoeffer exposed and correctly dismissed that kind of thinking as “cheap grace.”
No media accounts of the SBC “summit” on racial reconciliation report that any speaker, including Dr. Moore, suggested a willingness by Southern Baptists to quantify the fiscal, social, and other costs of the racism and historical discrimination suffered by black people in the United States. Thus, it is fitting to remind Southern Baptists and the wider of society what an insightful black leader observed decades ago:
…Why is the issue of equality still so far from solution in America, a nation that professes itself to be democratic, inventive, hospitable to new ideas, rich, productive and awesomely powerful? The problem is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially. All too many Americans believe justice will flow painlessly or that its absence for black people will be tolerated tranquilly.
Justice for black people will not flow into society merely from court decisions nor from fountains of political oratory. Nor will a few token changes quell all the tempestuous yearnings of millions of disenfranchised black people. White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.
Stephen Vincent Benèt had a message for both white and black Americans in the title of a story, Freedom Is a Hard Bought Thing. When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process. Inferior education, poor housing, unemployment, inadequate health care—each is a bitter component of the oppression that has been our heritage. Each will require billions of dollars to correct. Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms. This fact has not been fully grasped, because most of the gains of the past decade were only obtained at bargain prices. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black public officials.
The price of progress would have been high enough at the best of times, but we are in an agonizing national crisis because a complex of profound problems has intersected in an explosive mixture. The black surge toward freedom has raised justifiable demands for racial justice in our major cities at a time when all the problems of city life have simultaneously erupted. Schools, transportation, water supply, traffic and crime would have been municipal agonies whether or not Negroes lived in our cities. The anarchy of unplanned city growth was destined to confound our confidence. What is unique to this period is our inability to arrange an order of priorities that promises solutions that are decent and just.
…If we look honestly at the realities of our national life, it is clear that we are not marching forward; we are groping and stumbling; we are divided and confused. Our moral values and our spiritual confidence sink, even as our material wealth ascends. In these trying circumstances, the black revolution is much more than a struggle for the rights of Negroes. It is forcing America to face all its interrelated flaws—racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. It is exposing evils that are rooted deeply in the whole structure of our society. It reveals systemic rather than superficial flaws and suggests that the radical reconstruction of society itself is the real issue to be faced.
Those words were written in 1968 by Martin Luther King, Jr. and published in an essay titled A Testament of Hope after his death. Dr. Russell Moore and the other Southern Baptists who convened for the recent “summit” on racial reconciliation appear to not know about them, or (if they know about them) appear unwilling to agree with Dr. King’s demand for an accounting of what King called the “substantial” “cost [of doing restitution for the historical oppression of black people] for this society … in financial as well as human terms.” Willful ignorance about or disregard for tallying the cost and paying the price of restitution, reparation, restoration, and otherwise remedying the effects of historical racism and oppression cannot be camouflaged by apologetic rhetoric.
My second observation about the “summit” may be best emphasized by the following questions.
(1) If this was a “summit” about racial reconciliation, who was summoned to present the claims of the victims of racial injustice?
(2) When were those claims presented during the “summit” by representatives of the victims?
(3) What authority did the presenters of those claims have to represent the victims of racial injustice?
(4) What evidence exists that the claims were presented at all, let alone considered by SBC attendees of the “summit”?
(5) If representatives of the victims of racial injustice were not invited to present claims on behalf of the victims, why was this titled a “summit” about racial reconciliation?
(6) If representatives of the victims were not invited, or if invited representatives of the victims were invited, attended., and presented claims for restitution, restoration, reparation, and remediation of the inequities suffered by present victims of historical racial injustice, what evidence exists that the Southern Baptist Convention committed to do anything to remedy racial injustice at what they labeled a “summit” on racial reconciliation?
(7) If the Southern Baptist Convention is unprepared and/or unwilling to accept responsibility for taking substantive measures to remedy racial injustice, how does an apology produce justice for the historical victims of that injustice that will pave the way for reconciliation?
These are not idle questions. Southern Baptists deliberately convened in Nashville recently for what they termed a “summit” on racial reconciliation. But a “summit” that excludes victims is no summit at all. It is merely, at best, a gathering of apologetic oppressors who misunderstand the vital relationship between repentance, justice, and reconciliation. Otherwise, and at worst, it is a gathering of hypocrites who assembled for a spectacle of self-assuagement for their guilt about historical and current oppression they are unwilling to devote existing time, resources, courage, and humility to quantify and remedy.
I prefer to extend to Southern Baptists the charitable presumption that their “summit” demonstrated misunderstanding rather than hypocrisy. However, it is not easy for me to do so, and I reserve the freedom to reverse my position upon further reflection and additional information.
If Southern Baptists and other beneficiaries of racial injustice hope for reconciliation with me and other descendants of the historical victims of that injustice, they must do more than hold apologetic revivals. They must sit down at the table and negotiate with us as equals. They must stop talking about their apologies and listen to our rightful claims of injury, wounded-ness, oppression, and loss. They must pledge and deliver on pledges of restitution, reparation, restoration, and equality. This is what repentance means in the biblical sense. This is what justice demands. This is the only genuine path to racial reconciliation.
 Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope, published posthumously in A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., edited by James Melvin Washington, (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), pp. 314-315. It is telling that this essay, like Dr. King’s prophetic sermon titled Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence, is never cited, let alone quoted when people invoke the name of America’s greatest prophet for social justice.