By Chris Hughes
Baptist gatherings tend to raise some very interesting issues. At the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina’s recent General Assembly titled “Living Justice and Mercy,” leaders took on many pressing social issues in beautiful ways.
But a gathering focused on justice and mercy also begs the question of what issues are not being raised. In conversations about injustice, what questions are left unasked? The reality is that the umbrella of justice issues can always be expanded.
A group of divinity school students gathered shortly after the assembly to eat and ask questions to a panel of staff members. Leave it to a group of rabble rousing, idealist students to ask the lingering, unasked questions: “In all of 92 sessions covering a diversity of justice issues, why was there not a dialogue about the LGBTQ community?”
Over the course of the weekend, we engaged in an interfaith discussion, especially geared towards the Muslim faith. We discussed issues of immigration in our communities, even in cases of illegal immigrants, and what welcome we should extend to them. We talked about environmental degradation and poverty affecting Appalachia.
With so many other highly politicized and controversial subjects, why not even a mention of the pressing need for justice for the LGBTQ community? What are we as a diverse family fellowship doing for justice in this community?
The answer from our panel outlined the guiding principles of Baptist life. They do not want to force the issues on the churches. A decision will not be made for or against this kind of conversation because churches have not brought the issue forward. The Fellowship is to be a bottom-up movement guided by the local churches.
These certainly are important guiding principles, but the reality is that in not having this kind of conversation, a decision has already been made. It is the decision that we are willing to take on other provocative issues facing our sect of Baptist life, just not THAT one.
This act of silence is an injustice against our LGBTQ family members. In times like these, silence can be deafening. The response, “We’re just not there yet,” is the equivalent of saying to an LGBTQ person, “We don’t value you yet.”
I do not want to understate the divisiveness of this conversation, and the deep wounds that restrain us from issues that divide rather than bring unity. But this is not just an issue to be dealt with — these are people in our churches right now.
Chances are that someone in almost every Fellowship church is asking questions — if not about their own sexual identity, then they are at least asking how to relate with people of different sexual identities. They are God’s beloved as well — right alongside the Muslim, the ex-convict and the illegal immigrant.
If it is true that programming decisions in CBF life are based on the interests of the churches, then as a Baptist involved in a CBF church and a CBF partner divinity school, I encourage others to urge their state annual gatherings and the national General Assembly this summer in Tampa to host conversations for the LGBTQ community. Make certain they are not just conversations for the sake of conversations, but that they are productive and stimulating conversations led by people who know full well the injustice by churches toward this community.
Realize that beginning this conversation is not an attempt to force an identity onto our Fellowship. Rather it is an act of liberation for a conversation that needs to happen.
In CBF life, it seems we will forever live in the shadow of the Baptist battles from which we emerged. Many have suggested that it is woven into our DNA. As such, top-down directives from a denominational institution should never be permitted to violate the Baptist principle of local autonomy.
But not telling people what to think is not remedied by saying nothing at all.
Those who systematically transformed the identity of the Southern Baptist Convention were not only able to do so through denominational directives, but also by silencing the voices from the margins and not welcoming people outside their pre-determined norms.
Let that be a lesson that is woven into our DNA as well, as we continue to dream of what our CBF family will be like.