STRAINING GNATS, SWALLOWING CAMELS
©Wendell Griffen, 2016
Justice Is A Verb!
My parents were hard-working and God-loving black Baptists who reared me in rural southwest (Pike County) Arkansas. I never heard Daddy swear once. Whenever something happened that prompted anyone else to mutter an oath, Daddy’s response was “Foot!” Daddy’s condemnation for a person or thing that he considered worthless was to call it “sorry,” (meaning it was wretched or despicable). A recent New York Times column reminded me how Daddy responded to situations and actions he considered worthless.
The January 24, 2016 issue of the New York Times included a column by Laurie Goodstein, the national religion correspondent for that paper, titled Race, History, and Baptist Reconciliation (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/opinion/sunday/race-history-and-baptist-reconciliation.html). Goodstein’s column reported on a 2015 Baptist gathering, led by the Rev. Dr. Ronnie Floyd of Arkansas (leader of the Southern Baptist Convention) and the Rev. Dr. Jerry Young of Mississippi (leader of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc.). According to Goodstein’s column, Rev. Floyd and Rev. Young each invited 10 pastors from their respective bodies “to join in a public conversation on racial reconciliation in Jackson, Mississippi.”
I am struck by the following comments Rev. Floyd and Rev. Young made to a question Goodstein posed.
Q. Are there concrete things you see your churches taking on together? What about issues like criminal justice or sentencing reform?
FLOYD We’re going to encourage our pastors to swap pulpits, get them in uncomfortable or at least different environments than they’re used to.
YOUNG I will only go to Arkansas if he comes to Mississippi.
FLOYD It will be a joy to come to Mississippi.
YOUNG Fellowshipping is what he’s talking about. We’ve agreed to that.
Rev. Floyd and Rev. Young plan to swap pulpits.
Meanwhile, a black person is slaughtered by a law enforcement agent every 28 hours. Eric Garner was choked to death by police in Staten Island, New York. Michael Brown, Jr. was slaughtered by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri. Police later assaulted Brown’s neighbors with tear gas when they protested his slaughter. Twelve year old Tamir Rice was slaughtered by police in Cleveland, Ohio. Monroe Isadore, a 107 year old black man, was slaughtered by police while lying in his bed in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Eugene Ellison, a 67 year old black man, was slaughtered by police in his apartment. Walter Scott was gunned down by a cop in North Charleston, South Carolina. Freddie Gray was slaughtered while in police custody in Baltimore, Maryland. Sandra Bland was viciously mauled by a Texas cop and later found dead in her jail cell.
Rev. Floyd and Rev. Young plan to swap pulpits.
Meanwhile, people in Flint, Michigan (a predominantly black city) are suffering from poisoned drinking water. Black students are targeted and diverted from education to incarceration thanks to racially disproportionate school disciplinary actions.
Rev. Floyd and Rev. Young will swap pulpits.
A report released in August 2015 about sentencing disparity for major homicides in Arkansas revealed that white persons charged and convicted of committing murder are more likely to receive substantially more lenient sentences than black persons. Although data show illegal drug use happens at the same rate across all racial groups, black and brown people are disproportionately arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced as felons for possession of illegal drugs.
In the face of these and countless other obvious examples of systemic racial inequality, the leaders of the two largest Baptist bodies in the United States plan a pulpit swap. Foot!
I have followed Jesus as part of Baptist bodies most of my life. I was a member of a Southern Baptist Church during my early undergraduate years at the University of Arkansas. I was ordained for pastoral ministry by a National Baptist congregation. I am not personally acquainted with Rev. Floyd, but know and respect Rev. Young from our work as part of the leadership of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., from 2000-2010. I am now affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. However, I continue to cherish personal and professional ties with many people in the SBC and NBCUSA.
Nevertheless, after reading Goodstein’s column, I remarked to some friends in ministry that the SBC and NBCUSA “pulpit swap” response to her question about systemic racial inequality is worthless as two dead houseflies. Daddy would have called the idea of a pulpit swap in response to her question “sorry.”
I’m not being unkind. Jesus used much more graphic language to condemn religious leaders who practiced religious symbolism instead of justice. We read the following indictment in the Gospel of Matthew: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! [Matthew 23:23-24]
Jesus used a much coarser metaphor (strain out a gnat after swallowing a camel) than Daddy’s “Foot! However, Jesus and Daddy would damn (that means condemn, folks) Rev. Floyd’s and Rev. Yong’s pulpit swap idea.
So should we.