Ralph D. West Sr. does more for race relationships by walking into a diverse room than many of us will do in a lifetime trying to help. My friend Ralph has merely to be present in a group of Blacks and whites for everyone to overcome the obstacles of color. The warmth of his smile, the genuine affection of his heart, and the humanity of his compassion for all people spans a width wider than his very tall frame.
A man without malice, a pastor for everybody of every hue, and a magnanimous soul without a trace of animosity toward any group, he is a world Christian citizen. His church is one of the largest in America, his preaching circles the globe, and his friendships reflect the children’s song “red and yellow, black and white.”
For all those reasons, his recent response to the staggeringly misguided unanimous statement of the six presidents of the Southern Baptist seminaries conveys massive weight and historic influence. It has resulted in an avalanche of resignations from both the SBC and withdrawals from its seminaries. If Christ delays his imminent, bodily, personal return, a hundred years from now the valiant statement of West will be in American church history books and those who caused it will be footnotes in the history of a once great denomination.
Yet defenders of this misguided, misinformed, untimely and unqualified rejection of a theory about the sources of racism have labeled West a Marxist. Even their own president, J.D. Grear, has rejected this unloving, insensitive statement: “We must not default to labeling believers who parse certain questions differently ‘Marxist’ or ‘racist.’ This uncharitable spirit is not only intellectually lazy, it is a sin against the body of Christ.”
Why in God’s name— literally — would any six church institutional leaders end 2020 decrying a theory that presents what any honest person knows: America demonstrates institutionalized racism? In the year that witnessed George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, could these six presidents not find anything to oppose rather than a theory of the causes of racism?
They have justified this debacle on the basis that the theory is Marxist. Their view is one of opposing polluted origins and tainted world views. Unless the origin of the theory is 100% to their taste and unalloyed with anything they disdain, they would dismiss all of its claims as unworthy, with no acknowledgement of the validity of the burden of its concerns.
If gold alloyed with dross is a problem, they should look at their own origins.
“The Southern Baptist Convention was birthed in a poisonous delivery room.”
The Southern Baptist Convention was birthed in a poisonous delivery room. We all know that. Its founders abandoned the united Baptist body of the United States because that body would not appoint a slaveholder to take his slaves to the mission field. Abolition had been a 19th century Christian movement for decades. The voices of abolitionist white biblical expositors echoed around the nation.
In London, Charles Haddon Spurgeon excoriated slave holders and compared them to man killers. He refused to let Southern papers print his sermons because they excised his rabid anti-slavery sentiments. The Southern Baptist Convention was born in a toxic delivery room attended by monstrous attendants.
And yet God in his outrageous grace used that tainted body of believers born out of such impure motives to touch the earth in mission and witness. The seminary presidents should remember that.
Buildings at Southern Seminary were built by slaves. James Bruton Gambrell (1841-1920) was a hero of the founders of Southwestern Seminary, naming a street at the seminary Gambrell Street and thus a church I served, Gambrell Street Baptist Church. Yet he was a scout for Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, a dedicated racist and unrepentant Confederate.
Those of us who grew up as Southern Baptists witnessed God hit some good licks with very crooked sticks, we admitted it, and knew that our perfume originated from a poison plant.
“The six presidents would have done well to reflect on their own denominational history.”
The six presidents would have done well to reflect on their own denominational history, as well as their individual institutional histories. None of them would find 100% a priori, untainted, undebated histories inside their own shops. Let them look inside their own libraries. Why not toss the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament edited by the unrepentant Nazi Gerhard Kittle? It is in the libraries of all six schools. If they wish to throw out a theory of racial justice, why not throw out a dictionary edited by a devotee of Hitler? Consistency is a rare jewel.
Enough said. These educators permit sources that by their own presuppositions are adulterated, tainted and polluted. Their students daily read books and journals in the seminary libraries written by persons who belittle their institution’s theological presuppositions. That is reality in any accredited institution.
Yet suddenly, in all of their epistemological universe, the one unforgivable tainted document deals with the sources of racial prejudice. In a world of dross and gold, gardenias in garbage cans, and historic slave owning Baptist preachers, could these six presidents not urgently find anything else — not one thing — wherein an admixture of truth and error horrified them other than a document speaking to systems of prejudice? Let my good friend Ralph West speak for himself.
Joel C. Gregory holds the George W. Truett Endowed Chair in Preaching and Evangelism and serves as director of the Kyle Lake Center for Effective Preaching at George W. Truett Theological Seminary of Baylor University. He is a frequent speaker and pulpiteer in churches across the United States and Europe. He is a former president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas.