Should We Move On From Talking About the Racist Past of the SBC?

In 1845, when the American Baptist Home Mission Society, refused the nomination of James Reeve (a slaveholder) the seeds were planted for the birth of a new denomination. By May 1845 white delegates from the deep South gathered (293 in all) together and formed a new mission society—The Southern Baptist Convention. Yes, our beloved denomination was founded because our forefathers wanted to own slaves. Al Mohler is even more pointed when he says:

In fact, the SBC was not only founded by slaveholders; it was founded by men who held to an ideology of racial superiority and who bathed that ideology in scandalous theological argument. (Williams & Jones, 3)

We Southern Baptists have a racist past. We cannot get around this fact. In 1995, on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the SBC, the messengers overwhelmingly approved a resolution condemning racism and apologizing for our past. So is that the end of the story? We asked for forgiveness—now is it up to our African American brothers to grant this forgiveness and bury the past in the past? Shouldn’t we just move on at this point and work towards the future?

Certainly it takes two parties to live in full reconciliation. Unless someone asks for forgiveness and the other person grants that forgiveness you cannot live in reconciliation. But this issue is a bit less black and white (pardon the pun). None of those presently living can truly apologize for the sins of our ancestors past. Nor can another group of people accept that apology. Reconciliation will be a bit more complex than simply passing a resolution and burying our past in the past.

But I want to make an argument today that for the glory of God we should not even want to bury our past in the past. And I want to use the words of a former slave ship captain to make this point.

John Newton was haunted by his past. Nothing he could do could remove the stain of racism that was on his life. Even though he passionately fought to end the slave trade in Europe, Newton was still haunted by the screams which came from the slave ships he captained. On one particular occasion Newton was asked in a letter about how folks could have happiness in heaven when we are fully aware of our sins in the past. This is Newton’s response (and keep in mind that his own involvement with slavery is likely on his mind):

I think those are the sweetest moments in this life, when we have the clearest sense of our own sins, provided the sense of our acceptance in the Beloved is proportionally clear, and we feel the consolations of his love, notwithstanding all our transgressions. When we arrive in glory, unbelief and fear will cease forever: our nearness to God, and communion with him, will be unspeakably beyond what we can now conceive. Therefore the remembrance of our sins will be no abatement of our bliss, but rather the contrary. (Read entire letter here)

When the gospel redeems (and is still further redeeming) an issue in our past we do not want to bury it. We tend to want to bury sins which aren’t yet fully repented of or perhaps those sins which still carry the burden of shame. We want to bury what isn’t yet healed. But our racist past is a stain which Christ is in the process of removing. And every time we see racial reconciliation taking place it is fitting for the glory of God for us to be brutally honest about our past. No need to gloss over it and pretend like our ancestors were not engaging in “scandalous theological argument”. The light of Christ shines bright against our darkened past.

We don’t get sick of hearing about our racist past because we are confident in the provision of Christ. We don’t encourage folks to move on because we see our own sinfulness as a door way to savoring Christ even more. We encourage the light to shine upon our racist hearts (yes, racism for folks of any color of skin). We welcome the “clearest sense of our own sins” because we know it will only further glorify the God who can redeem and rescue such wicked hearts. We don’t tire of fighting for racial reconciliation because we love seeing the work of Jesus.

I’ve still much learning to do in this area, but I’m thankful that no matter how deep things like racism have settled into areas of my heart I know that Christ is always deeper and always sweeter. Even though we might be shocked at what we find in our hearts—he never is. And once He has captivated our hearts they belong to him. In that we can rejoice no matter what is dug up from our past. This and this alone is the foundation of our union with one another.

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