Good News for Southern Baptists

By Brian McLaren 03-10-2008

As the nation's second largest denomination (after the Roman Catholic Church), Southern Baptists have been given much, so their potential to do good is considerable - as is the danger of missing opportunities to do good. Sadly, until now, constituents and leaders of the 16-million-member Convention have tended to lag behind other large Christian communities when it comes to addressing the issue of environmental stewardship in general and climate change in particular. But that may be changing.

In 2007, the Convention took the positive step of passing a statement affirming the need for Baptists to care for creation, but a new group of Southern Baptists - including many notable Baptist leaders - have said the statement was too timid: it could be interpreted by "the world," they said, as "uncaring, reckless and ill-informed." Through the new declaration, "A Southern Baptist Declaration on the Environment and Climate Change," these leaders are calling Baptists to keep moving forward in care and healing for God's precious planet. Jonathan Merritt, a young leader who helped inspire the new declaration, expressed his motivation in language that resonates deeply with Southern Baptists: to trash this beautiful planet - which is God's handiwork and declares God's glory - is like tearing out pages from the Bible.

True, many SBC notables have not yet signed the new statement. But current Convention president Frank Page did, along with 43 other exemplary SBC leaders including Ed Stetzer, Larissa Arnault, David Clark, Timothy George, John Hammett, Darrin Patrick, Jonathan Merritt, and two previous Convention presidents, Jack Graham and James Merritt. Their website (www.baptistcreationcare.org) has room for additional signatories, so we may see the center of gravity shift further toward environmental responsibility in the coming days and weeks.

This step is important for a number of reasons. First, and most obviously, when a group as large and influential as the SBC accepts increasing moral responsibility for better care of the planet, the birds of the air and flowers of the field will benefit, as will all our children and grandchildren. Not only that, but by taking more seriously what I call the prosperity crisis (that our kind of prosperity is unsustainable in relation to the planet, thus reducing the prosperity of future generations), the SBC helps shift the larger evangelical community toward greater environmental responsibility. This shift has been gaining momentum in recent years in large part due to the good work of Jim Ball and the Evangelical Environmental Network (LINK).

Building on this momentum, evangelical Christians, with obvious influence in the Republican party and growing participation in the Democratic party, can increasingly join other Christian communities in being strong advocates for better environmental policy in the U.S. at large, whoever is our next president and whichever party controls the next Congress. By further shifting public opinion in the nation that consumes disproportionate amounts of resources and produces disproportionate amounts of greenhouse gases, members of the SBC can play a greater role in helping our nation move from being a global laggard to a global leader in this important moment of danger and opportunity.

I frequently hear from young Southern Baptists who express deep frustration with the ethos and image projected by some of their leaders in recent years: they want their denomination to rise above the old polarities of left and right, choosing transcendent Biblical values over ideological and partisan alignments. The current and future signatories of this statement will give young Southern Baptists something to be proud of - and that's no small thing.

Brian McLaren (brianmclaren.net) is board chair for Sojourners. He writes and speaks about the intersection of faith and global crises.

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