A popular hip-hop artist whose album was dropped by Southern Baptist retailer LifeWay Christian Stores after customer complaints says white evangelicals are trying to reach people in urban contexts without understanding their culture.
Amisho Baraka Lewis, a 38-year-old Christian hip-hop artist and writer better known by his stage name Sho Baraka, told the Washington Post the Southern Baptist Convention-owned chain dropped his album released last October titled “The Narrative” because of a lyric that contained the word “penis.”
The retail arm of LifeWay Christian Resources has taken similar actions before. In 2012 author Rachel Held Evans said LifeWay refused to sell her book A Year of Biblical Womanhood, most likely because it contained the word “vagina.”
Earlier the publisher stopped selling DVDs of The Blind Side, a secular film chosen for promoting Christian values, after complaints about its use of street language and ethnic slurs.
Baraka said in a 1,750-word story published Feb. 8 that the song about his past failures to live his life monogamously isn’t profane in context. He agrees with the publisher that sex is intended for marriage but said its customers aren’t used to how an artist like him articulates that point of view.
Baraka called LifeWay’s decision “typical of the Christian industry” but said it points to a larger problem between American evangelicals, who are three-quarters white, and an African-American culture often at odds with a Christianity dominated by political conservatives.
The story comes just days before Southern Baptist churches across the nation observe Racial Reconciliation Sunday Feb. 12. Added to the denominational calendar as Race Relations Sunday in 1965, the observance originally celebrated relationships between black and white Baptist denominations but was renamed as the historically white SBC grew more ethnically and racially diverse. Of 50,500 Southern Baptist churches and church-type missions, 3,502 identified as predominantly African American, or about 7 percent, in 2013.
Russell Moore, head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, says racial and ethnic division and bigotry are a problem not just in secular society but also in the church.
“The problem is that Sunday morning, when we are signifying to the rest of the world, ‘here is a picture of the Kingdom of God,’ we gather with the same people we would gather with if Jesus Christ were still dead, and that’s blasphemy,” Moore said at a 2015 summit on racial reconciliation.
“What people will say is we’re trying to reach people with the gospel, and people would rather be around people like them,” Moore said. “Sure they would, and I’d like to fight and fornicate and smoke weed and go to heaven.”
Others note that when white people talk about greater diversity in church, they typically assume that means African Americans coming to their churches and not the other way around.
One reason so many African Americans today worship in churches that are historically black, defenders say, is because for much of the 19th and 20th centuries white churches didn’t want them, and today the black church is one of the few remaining institutions both serving and led by African Americans.
Isaac Adams, a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., said in a 2015 article on the 9 Marks website that white churches can be hard for black people in ways that white members do not understand.
While the black church has a long tradition of opposing inequality, Adams said many white Christians won’t acknowledge that racism even exists and don’t want to hear what it feels like to be black. White churches that think they have a safe place for blacks really don’t, he said, and minority blacks can be made to “feel like projects instead of peers.”
Miguel De La Torre, a professor at Illiff School of Theology and columnist for Baptist News Global, says it’s far more useful for whites to come to African-American and Latino churches to hear and learn from those cultures.
“For me to worship at an Anglo church, I must accept white theology, pray in a white manner, sing white German songs and eat meatloaf at the potluck,” De La Torre said in a Religion News Service story in 2015.
Baraka told the Washington Post that LifeWay isn’t consistent in its own policy when it comes to anatomical references. A sex manual for Christian couples stocked by LifeWay, for example, uses the word “penis” 45 times, not counting euphemistic references like “Mr. Happy.”
Baraka said that for all the conservative outcry over political correctness, both sides want to censor voices that don’t fit their narrative.
“The moment someone like me communicates something like this, who’s the one being censored now?” he asked.
Founded by slaveholders in 1845 and largely supportive of segregation before the civil rights movement, the Southern Baptist Convention apologized for its past mistreatment of African Americans in a resolution passed on its 150th anniversary in 1995.
The resolution pledged “to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life” and to pursue “racial reconciliation in all our relationships, especially with our brothers and sisters in Christ.”