Last week the Southern Baptist Convention elected a new president, and they elected Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, and the first African-American to be elected to the position.
This is newsworthy for the fact that Luter is the first African-American SBA president, but even moreso because when the SBA was founded–167 years ago–it was formed, at least in part, out of an effort to defend segregation and even slavery. In 1995 the SBC apologized for its history. I am not a huge fan of apologies made by individuals years, decades, or in this instance, centuries, after the offense occurred because I fail to see the significance in most instances. I am not sure how I could apologize to someone for something that I did not do and that they did not suffer from and have it carry any real meaning. I am getting off track now, though…. In this instance, anyway, I believe it was appropriate for SBA leadership and the denomination as a whole to express regret over the offensive elements of its history, and certainly to clearly articulate that those principles are no longer a part of the organization now. And it certainly is noteworthy that an organization–any organization–that has such a past would now elect as its president an individual who, at the time of its founding, would have never even been considered for membership.
I do not know Fred Luter, nor do I know anything about him other than what I have read in news stories, but it certainly sounds from those stories like the Lord has worked through him to greatly impact the New Orleans area. His dedication to his church after Hurricane Katrina, and the rebuilding of that church, is incredible.
In actuality, though, what has prompted me to write about this issue today is not the election of Fred Luter per se, but some of the realities that still exist in some SBC churches. Full disclosure: I am a former member and deacon of an SBC church. I do not consider myself a southern Baptist, nor did I even at the time of my membership in an SBA church, but it was the church in our community that was most faithfully teaching and preaching the Word of God and carrying out the Great Commission.
On usatoday.com there was a comment made by a reader regarding a report that stated that Luter “came out of the racist south.” The commenter was expressing chagrin over such “unbiased reporting”–a term he was using sarcastically. Unfortunately, however, it is true. Whether or not it is relevant to the story of Luter’s election may be debatable, I suppose, but it is a fact that Luter was raised in a part of the south that was in many instances still very racist during his formative years. This same commenter said, in a later post, that in all of his traveling in the U.S. the south is one of the least racist parts of the country. Perhaps he has been very selective in the parts of the south that he has visited, or perhaps he–either by choice or by lack of perception–failed to see the racism that does still exist.
Apparently his commenter is not the only individual so deceived, either. Another individual commented on the story of Luter’s election, and the comment referenced above, with this statement: “This actually has nothing to do with racism. Since racism hasn’t existed in most SBC churches in 35 years only an idiot would think there is a connection. The only reason the major media thinks there is a difference is that it has been that long since any of them went to church.” The word idiot is a strong one, but this individual apparently feels quite strongly that there is no racism in SBC churches, and has not been, in quite some time.
It saddens me to say, however, that I have seen racism first hand in SBC churches. And I use the plural on purpose, because in the position in which I served I had the opportunity to be in many different churches throughout part of the south, and I experienced or witnessed first had the racism that does still exist. I have been in churches that would not allow African-Americans into their church. I have been in a church that almost fired its pastor because he married a biracial couple. I have been in more than one church where the spoken and implied position of more-than-a-few of the members was that African-Americans should stay in their own churches and had no place “infiltrating” theirs.
Now, I need to interject a few things here. One, I think that same individuals–Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton come immediately to mind–cry racism over every and any little thing and attempt to make racism the source of most any wrong that occurs. Individuals of that ilk tend to stoke the racist flames and are just as racist in most instances as those they claim to be challenging. The dialogue they tend to engage in is not constructive, but destructive. At the same time, however, I also recognize that the existence of all-white or all-black churches does not in and of itself mean that the congregations are racist. There are cultural differences, differences in worship style and tradition, and a variety of other reasons why churches may remain predominantly or even exclusively made up of one race, none of which are racist.
I am pleased to say that the SBC church that I was a part of made tremendous strides towards breaking down long-standing walls of division that stemmed from a long tradition of racism in an area of the country that had once been covered with tobacco fields worked by slaves. I do not think that that church is a racist church. But that does not mean that there are never racist individuals or racist thoughts within the church, either.
Here’s what it comes down to: (1) racism does exist, and it does exist even within the church; (2) racism does not exist, in most areas, to the level or the extreme that it once did or that some instigators would still have us believe, but (3) that is not justification to get lax or to turn a blind eye to racism when we do see it. Oh, and (4) the fact the he grew up in the “racist south” and is now the president of an organization founded in part with racist principles is relevant to the newsworthiness of the election of Fred Luter as SBC president.
Bottom line, though–there is simply is no excuse for racism. The Bible makes it absolutely clear that God created all humans, that He creates them in His image, and that we are all–regardless of the color of our skin–descended from common ancestors (both Adam and Noah). The old children’s song is right on: “Jesus loves the little children/all the children of the world/red and yellow, black and white/they are precious in His sight/Jesus loves the little children of the world.” He loves the adults, too. And there is one other thing that the Bible is just as clear on–we are to love each other just as God loves us, without qualification or clarification.