Southern Baptist Seminaries Are Choosing Whiteness Over Witness | Sojourners

Southern Baptist Seminaries Are Choosing Whiteness Over Witness

Inside the denomination's rejection of critical race theory.
Illustration of a white person's hand refusing a book being held out by a Black person's hand.
Illustration by Mark Pernice

IN THE WAKE of the horrific killings last year of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others at the hands of white vigilantism and aggressive policing, many institutions, companies, and other bodies sought to express their opposition to racism, even if their responses were merely symbolic gestures. But the presidents of Southern Baptist seminaries went in what seemed to be the opposite direction, issuing a joint statement in November that disavowed what is known in academic circles as “critical race theory.”

Many Black clergy were shocked but not surprised by the seminary presidents’ statement, coming from a denomination that had sought to defend its racist history and had criticized efforts at racial reconciliation and truth. Two prominent Southern Baptist-affiliated megachurch pastors—Ralph West and Charlie Dates—announced their out-migration from the denomination, and it’s possible that more Black clergy will follow.

Five weeks after the Council of Seminary Presidents released their statement—curiously, on the fretful day, Jan. 6, when a frenzied mob of homegrown white terrorists blitzed the U.S. Capitol—the six presidents, the heads of each Southern Baptist seminary, met with a group of Black Southern Baptist pastors. The pastors reported that the exchange was conciliatory, and that they felt heard—even as the seminary presidents doubled down on their rejection of critical race theory. The presidents offered gestures toward further conversations and a stronger commitment to recruit and financially back more Black students at their schools, but no counterproposal concerning critical race theory.

Such gestures from white cultural gatekeepers miss the point, at best, and will not drive improvement. Unless those gatekeepers are driven toward introspection, they will concede nothing and inevitably suppress discontent. And, ironically, given the date of the meeting, the seminary presidents’ decision to reject critical race theory fell in lockstep with Donald Trump’s September federal memo proscribing the use of employee training materials in federal agencies that espouse critical theory.

What is critical race theory?

THE PRESIDENTS' STATEMENT claimed that because of the alleged postmodern ideological origins of critical race theory, it could not be reconciled with the creedal commitments of Southern Baptists. In fact, since the origins of critical race theory are rooted deeply in the biblical call to justice, it’s fair to argue that they’re not “postmodern” or “ideological” at all, but profoundly biblical.

Similar to the inherently interdisciplinary field of practical theology, of which my discipline—homiletics (the academic study of preaching)—is a species, critical race theory is empirically oriented, critical reflection on the social systems, cultural histories, and power dynamics that contribute to racial problems in the world. Critical race theory/intersectional scholars note that since racism is never a stand-alone matter, investigation of issues such as class, color, and sexuality are indispensable to any sound analysis of racism.

The origins of critical race theory are tied to legal studies, and, curiously, like evangelical fundamentalism, critical theory was forged in reaction against liberalism. Black constitutional scholars such as Derrick Bell began developing critical race theory not as an engine for so-called “identity politics,” as often alleged, but to question the notion that the law was neutral and that every case had a single correct answer. For this reason, it should come as no surprise that critical theorists would draw on a range of sources and tools, both modern and postmodern, for interrogating claims of certainty, rejecting myths of objectivity and colorblindness, and calling into question unjust laws, policies, and structures that contribute to human oppression and inequality. One may rightly quibble about critical theory’s eclecticism, but it is intellectually dishonest to shut down conversations with “the Bible says” theological arguments, as evangelical fundamentalists and radical biblicists so often do.

The Bible is inspired, but it is not self-interpreting. Practical theologian Sally Brown rightly maintains that humans can’t not interpret because interpretative processing is the way all experience is navigated. Is it not possible for Christians to retain a high view of scripture and still have a fulsome approach to investigating sources that feed interpretation?

Must one be a critical theory devotee to find value in philosophical insights that come from sources other than the Bible? The Apostle Paul’s so-called Areopagus sermon, recounted in Acts 17, draws on Greek philosophy and stoicism to further his vision of the gospel’s agenda in the Greco-Roman world. “Both Seneca and Philo no doubt impacted Jesus’ teachings, if not directly at least indirectly, as they helped to shape the intellectual climate of which Jesus was a part,” notes Kelly Brown Douglas, dean of the Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, and “to be sure they had a bearing on the thinking of the apostle Paul.” Moreover, one can even find parallels between Augustine’s use of Platonic ideas and the commitment of critical race theory to locate, analyze, and cut off ideological allegiances that mar personhood and perpetuate racial bigotry, human inequality, and economic injustice.

Critical theory is threatening only to those who are fighting to preserve white propriety. The seminary presidents, in reasserting their position without offering any alternative to prompt racial repair or to do meaningful introspective work, decided that critical sociological analysis to understand and challenge the myth of white supremacy was not theologically useful. They decided which idol they would worship.

In the wake of the presidents’ decision, Black seminary faculty, who are now prohibited from using critical race theory for instruction, will need meaningful support, as will tuition-discounted seminarians and Black pastors who have received church loans—people who will have a higher price to pay for soul freedom should they decide to leave.

White identity politics and Southern Baptist life

AS LONG AS historically white denominations tether their theological vision to whiteness and its protocols, setting up public-facing anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion dialogues will continue to be deemed by whites as benevolent and even revolutionary. In ecclesial spaces where white presence dominates, people who identify as white carry policy-making privileges, and this has historically been the case with Southern Baptists. Consider the denomination’s history of Black inclusion.

Critical theory is threatening only to those who are fighting to preserve white propriety.

The Southern Baptist Convention was founded in 1845 by slaveholding Georgia planter and former U.S. Rep. Wilson Lumpkin and a few others. Lumpkin came to national prominence as Georgia governor and proponent of the Indian Removal Act. William Bullein Johnson was named the first president of the Southern branch of the denomination when it broke away from the General Missionary Baptist Convention over the issue of slavery. The SBC did not welcome its first African American congregation—Greater Friendship Baptist in Anchorage, Alaska—into its fold until 1951, and its second congregation—Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa, Calif.—six years after the first.

Ironically, these were not even Southern congregations. Greater Friendship was formed in Alaska before it achieved statehood and Community Baptist was formed in a city where today the Black population is only 2.4 percent.

Scripture is creed

ATTEND VIRTUALLY ANY Baptist worship service and you will not hear the Apostles Creed recited in worship. Why? Because Baptists, historically, are anti-creedal people. For Baptist evangelicals, the determinative document of faith expression upon which all decision-making is said to rest is the Holy Bible. Scripture guides conduct, sets foul lines, and establishes governance.

But has the Protestant faith’s most populous group lost its historical connection to this distinctive of rejecting adherence to formal creeds? Nothing says “creed” more than the doctrinal standard of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist Faith and Message (which has been revised three times, in 1925, 1963, and 2000). Its meticulous wording communicates that the composition committee saw its work of extracting and articulating self-contained truths of scripture as sacrosanct.

The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM)is the contemporary SBC apologist’s go-to when one has little time to thumb through the 66 books of the Bible. What it asserts the Bible says and means is crucial to Southern Baptists for an authentic life of faith. Article one states: The Holy Bible has “God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter ... It reveals the principles by which God judges us ... [it is] the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.”

But what are these revealed principles by which all things are tried and judged? The changes in the year 2000 version of the BFM were in reaction against challenges to the truth of scripture as the sole criterion for guiding faith and practice. The end result: A quasi-authoritarian creed emerged, which wittingly or unwittingly erected a religious firewall for preserving evangelical whiteness.

What’s missing in BFM 2000 and most other evangelical takeaway creeds is a full-throated doctrine on the principle of justice. What are the spiritual and sociopolitical implications if, in the 3,850 words of the BFM 2000, the word “justice”—which is so central in the Bible—is absent? And why is it absent? I would venture a guess: The powerless were not at the table when the statement was first crafted, and preserving whiteness must be upheld at all costs, especially if white Christians perceive their racial power is slipping away. (Similar dynamics can be found in questions around the ordination of Southern Baptist women.)

The roots of backlash

THE RECENT ACTIONS of the Southern Baptist seminary presidents grew out of the convention’s annual meeting in summer 2019. The gathering of “messengers” from cooperating churches approved an edited version of a resolution that had originally stated, without equivocation, that critical race theory and intersectionality should be rejected and not taught in Southern Baptist schools.

Along with 12 other resolutions up for convention approval, the critical theory resolution—known as Resolution 9—had come from the multiethnic Committee on Resolutions, chaired by African American Kentuckian Curtis Woods of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. In step with the resolution’s original author Stephen Feinstein, Tom Ascol, who serves as president of Founders Ministries, proposed an amendment that reasserted the view that critical race theory is incompatible with scripture, which the committee rejected. At the voting, the messengers overwhelmingly approved the “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” version of Resolution 9, which had acknowledged, essentially, that the theory held value, especially as an analytical tool for probing the effects of racism and oppression. The committee asserted that as a self-critical tool, critical theory—while clearly subordinate to the total sufficiency of scripture—could yield useful insights.

Within a few months of the summer 2019 meeting, public rebukes against the resolution started. Famed white tele-evangelical theologian John MacArthur mockingly declared that the Southern Baptist Convention had officially stepped into the netherworld of liberalism. When a worldview is perceived to be outside the Bible, SBC evangelicals are quick to put skilled apologists to work countering it with what they consider a biblical theology. That process soon led to the action by the seminary presidents.

Witness or whiteness?

WHAT ARE THE political implications if polities are shrouded in evangelical whiteness instead of evangelical witness?

Whiteness, as theologian Willie J. Jennings describes it, is not about biology or even culture. Whiteness is based on choice. Whiteness is a way of calibrating life hierarchically toward one group’s advantage, a way of being in the world built upon the propagation and cultivation of mechanisms of control, possession, and mastery of the world.

Jennings contends that the inability of many white Christians to deal with the fact that their whiteness is a blemish on their Christian witness is why talking about reconciliation in this deeply troubled moment is unhelpful. As a consequence, there will forever be an impasse in terms of theological progress because instead of affirming reconciliation’s intended agenda of promoting freedom and wholeness, the theological concept is used as a foil to constantly reinforce the status quo.

If Black Christian preachers are not thinking about how whiteness works in Southern Baptist life, they can become merciless critics of movements such as Black Lives Matter and the Poor People’s Campaign while simultaneously being, at best, uncritical, passive allies of evangelical fundamentalism bound politically to pro-establishment right-wing politics. At worst, they can serve as unwitting sympathizers for Confederate flag-wielding, “anti-establishment,” right-wing extremists.

Still, it is important to note that Black evangelicals have aligned with the SBC not simply because of material resources the denomination can provide church planters, community revitalizers, and mission and evangelism efforts. Many join ranks because they are persuaded that race relations can be improved and that, in Christ, reconciliation, one with another, is always achievable if individuals are prayerful and willing to repent of their sins and work collectively in love.

If justice is rooted in and emanates from God, and as a biblical principle is not separable from righteousness, then Christian preachers and teachers who fail to work toward its liberative goals—including unmasking idolatry and other self-serving, self-deceiving practices—will have nothing of consequence to offer a hurting world.

This appears in the June 2021 issue of Sojourners
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