Back during the heated battle for control of the Southern Baptist Convention, Ed Young once chided the denominational press for seeking information about a fundamentalist leader who had done something untoward. I can’t remember who had committed the sin or what it was, and that doesn’t really matter.
What matters is the Houston megachurch pastor’s expectation of the press. He said this: “As a man who seeks to understand and live by the Bible I should not in any way seek to uncover anything about your life and publicize it in a negative way, whatever you have done, whatever I have done. We are to cover our brother’s nakedness.”
What he meant was this: Don’t report on this unfortunate event because it will reflect poorly on our dear brother. And he referenced a truly odd story about naked Noah from Genesis 9 as Scriptural justification. Because everything needs a biblical prooftext.
You can imagine how that went down with those of us in the press. The powerful Houston pastor and TV preacher who had been one of the fundamentalist presidents shifting the direction of the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination by slandering seminary professors and denominational executives suddenly wanted to cover up a scandal. One of the powerful men who had gained control of the denomination by purportedly “exposing” hidden liberalism now wanted to keep even the inconvenient truth under cover.
Seeking to cover the nakedness of actual wrongdoing is the heart of the American dilemma today. And there’s a word for this behavior: “Enabling.”
In Dallas, where I live, the latest scandal with our police department is that the first internal review of documented-on-video misconduct by officers harming peaceful protestors after the death of George Floyd was simply omitted from the officers’ report. It wasn’t mentioned. Until the Dallas Morning News published an article documenting the missing (but well-known) abuse. The unfortunate nature of police culture in America today is to cover up for fellow officers, not to expose them.
We hear from the majority of cops that there are just a “few bad apples” in their ranks who are doing all these horrible things that leave Black men dead without cause. But why won’t the good majority expose and remove these bad apples? Instead, they cover up the scandal, and the problem festers.
“Why won’t the good majority expose and remove these bad apples? Instead, they cover up the scandal, and the problem festers.”
But the police are not alone in this mentality.
We’ve seen this play out with Roman Catholic leaders — and Baptists and others as well — who refused to expel clergy who are known sexual predators. Their version of covering a brother’s nakedness (in this case a literal nakedness) is to move a bad apple priest to another parish. And we now know how that works out.
This cover-your-brother’s nakedness mentality is what leads to the worst possible outcomes for drunken frat parties where women are raped and scandalous business deals where working people are robbed. Remember Enron, anyone?
On election night in November 2016, when Americans watched in stunned amazement — either with revulsion or joy — the unexpected election of a morally bankrupt narcissist as president of the United States, a dear friend and colleague said to a group of us: “Oh, this won’t be as bad as people fear because Congress will check his worst impulses.”
What we have seen instead is the most stunning circle-the-wagons movement in the history of the Republican Party as all but a few elected officials — remember Jeff Flake, anyone? — have worked overtime to cover the president’s naked ambition, self-enrichment and outright racism. Exhibit A: Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, who has used the Senate to block every investigation into truth and then has ignored reports of truth when presented to him on a silver platter. McConnell’s entire mode of operation seems to be aimed at covering the president’s nakedness.
Pay no attention to those children in cages at the border! Cover the president’s nakedness. Don’t look at the millions of Americans without access to health care! Cover the government’s nakedness. Don’t be distracted by the professional media and the things they report! Cover the nation’s nakedness. Yes, those are blatantly racist comments that are inciting hate crimes, but look at the economy! Yes, those executive orders and temporary appointments bypass required Congressional authority, but we’ll just ignore that fact for now.
Now, to everyone reading this who is deeply offended by what I have just said, I offer a personal appeal: You have the power to stop the advancement of racism in our country today. Will you do it?
You don’t have to stop being a Republican. You don’t have to vote for a Democratic candidate. You don’t have to stop believing in whatever economic policy motivates your political choices. Instead, you have the power to hold our elected officials accountable for racist tweets, statements and actions — and for silence when others use racism as political bait.
“You wield tremendous power. And with great power comes great responsibility.”
Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell do not care what Democratic voters think. But they do care what you think — because you elected them to office and have the power to remove them from office. You wield tremendous power. And with great power comes great responsibility.
Perhaps you’re thinking the problem of racism is so big and so ingrained that you have no ability to make a difference. Perhaps you even think “other people” are responsible for advancing racism more than people like the president and the Senate majority leader. Perhaps you believe the policy gains made possible by a Republican in the White House far outweigh any problem with the president’s Twitter habits or the Congress’ unwillingness to denounce racism.
For nearly four years, a majority of Americans have watched in horror as line after line has been crossed that they thought surely would elicit a response from business Republicans and especially Christian Republicans. Your friends and family and neighbors don’t understand why you have kept silent through all these violations of biblical, moral and social mandates.
Maybe you thought you couldn’t do anything constructive about the trivializing of sexual assault on women, the separation of babies from their mothers’ arms, the constant barrage of obvious lies, the bullying and the self-enrichment. Maybe you thought those are problems common to all politicians and therefore nothing new. Maybe you’ve found comfort in the “both sides are wrong” arguments. Maybe you want to see Christianity “win” against secularism or other faiths.
Whatever the case for every other problem, the acceleration of racism in America today is a uniquely Republican problem. It is not a both-sides problem. We do not hear non-Republican elected officials and candidates belittling people of other skin colors and native countries. From Charlottesville to Harlingen to Baltimore to Minneapolis, the chief accelerators and enablers of racism in America today come from one side of the aisle — which is not to say that all Republicans are racist. In fact, the majority of Republican elected officials need your help to be able to speak against racism as they would like to do.
That’s why you alone have the power to make a difference right now. Your voice matters more than ever. Here’s what you can do:
“The majority of Republican elected officials need your help to be able to speak against racism as they would like to do.”
Stop toeing the party line. The all-or-nothing mentality that has captured American politics since the 1980s is dangerous and unnecessary. You can still believe in Republican economic policies or social policies and at the same time denounce racism as a means to accomplish those policies. If any economic or social policy has true merit, it should not require belittling or isolating others to make it happen.
Speak up and write letters. For a Congressperson to hear complaints from constituents on the other side of the aisle doesn’t bear much weight in our heavily gerrymandered districts, but if you write your senator or representative and let them know you’re on their side but have a serious concern, you will be heard. Again, you have tremendous power.
Listen and learn. Knowing and working with someone of a different race or national origin is a good start toward understanding the realities of our world today — and comprehending the immense emotional and spiritual pain of being told you should “go back where you came from.” Having deep conversations where we listen and learn from each other creates even more empathy. Risk getting to know people who are not like you.
Read the Bible and pray. I know this is a boilerplate answer a pastor should give at all times. And yet this is a serious suggestion: Read the parts of the Bible you don’t like. Read the parts that challenge you. Read the “red letters” of what Jesus said. Read it all. And then open your heart and mind in prayer. Listen for the whisper of the Holy Spirit and allow yourself to be shaped in the mind of our Lord Jesus Christ, who humbled himself and became obedient unto death on a cross — nakedness and all.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. He lives in Dallas with his wife, Alison. They are members of Wilshire Baptist Church, where Mark for 17 years served as associate pastor. He is the author of Why Churches Need to Talk About Sexuality.
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