Last month Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), the oldest and most prestigious theological institution affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention – the largest Baptist body in the United States – issued a document titled “Report on Slavery and Racism in the History of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” The 71-page report is a concise history written by current and former SBTS faculty members about how racism, slavery and other aspects of racial injustice were accepted, practiced, excused, championed and otherwise tolerated from the seminary’s founding in 1859 through the civil rights era of the mid-1960s.
Reactions have been mixed, as one might expect. A sense of the varied responses to the report is apparent from news accounts such as “Slavery and racism reports stirs media flurry” (Baptist Press), “Report laments history of slavery and racism at SBC seminary” (Baptist News Global) and “Southern Baptist seminary confronts history of slaveholding and deep racism” (NPR). BNG also published an opinion article by university professor Susan Shaw, “The irony of a Southern Baptist seminary’s report on slavery and racism,” and a related commentary by Bill Leonard, “American racism, 1619-2019: exorcism of this demon is needed – now.”
My immediate reaction after reading the report was that SBTS appears more interested in – and hopes to be commended for – detailing its sinfulness about racial justice than repenting from it. Like others, I noticed how the report conveniently and inexcusably fails to include the last half century of racism practiced by school’s faculty, trustees and other stakeholders. Surely the distinguished authors of the report could have included details of that injustice if they intended to produce an honest and complete history.
“The report conveniently and inexcusably fails to include the last half century of racism practiced by school’s faculty, trustees and other stakeholders.”
However, doing so would have required them to speak truth to and about people who have wielded power at and over SBTS during its more recent past, and currently. Whatever the authors of the report and current SBTS President Albert Mohler may think otherwise, some people (myself included) know the difference between a full confession and an announcement that deliberately omits mention of the most recent instances of racism, white supremacy and white religious nationalism practiced and perpetrated at and by SBTS.
Furthermore, not a sentence can be found by Mohler (who commissioned the report and wrote its introduction) or anyone else among the seminary’s power structure indicating that SBTS is committed to doing anything to repair the harms of white supremacy and racism. Surely, leaders of the oldest and most prestigious of the Southern Baptist seminaries know that repentance involves much more than mere remorse (lament).
Remorsefulness alone is a far cry from repairing damage done by conduct that harms others. We should hope SBTS faculty make that clear to students studying the doctrine of salvation (soteriology) and the doctrine of sin (harmartiology). Regardless whether that happens, the rest of us know the big difference between remorse (regret about sinfulness) and repentance (changing from sinful ways and thinking to righteous ways and thinking). Remorsefulness, however sincerely and openly expressed, does not require a commitment to change. That is why the refusal of the report’s authors to include the last half century of the seminary’s endorsement of racism, white supremacy and white religious nationalism should not be ignored or excused.
We should also not ignore or excuse the seminary’s refusal to commit to engage in reparations and restitution for more than 150 years of systemic racial injustice practiced, preached and taught under the guise of preparing people for careers in pastoral ministry, religious education, missions and theological study as followers of Jesus. A robber who will not at least promise to make reparations does not deserve credit for publishing an announcement about having engaged in a career of robbery.
Rather than commend Mohler and the authors of the study, we should remind them what John the Baptist said about the need to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Luke 3:8). An incomplete report that expressed remorse about systemic racism, white supremacy and white religious nationalism at SBTS is not good fruit “worthy of repentance.” Neither is the refusal to attempt to quantify and repair harm done through racial injustice over the course of the school’s history.
What then should SBTS do? If we can trust what John the Baptist said to the crowds he addressed, the answer involves at least two obligations.
First, the seminary must change from being self-righteous and self-serving about its wealth and prestige. That would be consistent with what John the Baptist said about whoever had two coats being obligated to share with anyone who had none, and that whoever had food being obligated to share with anyone who had none (Luke 3:11).
“Surely, leaders of the oldest and most prestigious of the Southern Baptist seminaries know that repentance involves much more than mere remorse (lament).”
Repentance will require the seminary’s leaders and other stakeholders to do much more than admit a history of racism, white supremacy and white religious nationalism. SBTS must – in obedience to what John the Baptist said as well as the example of the tax collector from Jericho named Zachaeus who Jesus confronted (Luke 19:5-9) – pledge to give up the ill-gotten wealth it gained and now enjoys in part because of that wicked history. It is telling that Mohler hasn’t shown any sign that he even considered doing that, let alone that he urged the seminary’s trustees to do it.
Second, SBTS must start using its power to produce justice, rather than using it to maintain longstanding systems of injustice. John the Baptist told soldiers and tax collectors to stop using official authority for personal benefit. For SBTS, that should involve rejecting the slaveholder theology and hermeneutic and heresies of white supremacy, white religious nationalism, materialism, patriarchy, sexism (including homophobia and misogyny), imperialism, militarism, techno-centrism and xenophobia.
Imagine what the Holy Spirit might accomplish if instead this prominent seminary spent the next 150 years intentionally preparing people for ministry careers based on the gospel of liberation and justice!
None of this can be done in the echo chamber of the SBC. After all, the seminary’s racism, white supremacy and white religious nationalism are part of the original sin of the SBC, and have always been endorsed and extolled (directly or indirectly) by SBC congregations, pastors, mission workers and religious educators (at SBTS and the other SBC-affiliated seminaries). SBTS needs to hear from and be led by followers of Jesus who are not SBC-affiliated, not white supremacists, not patriarchal and not religious nationalists.
I suggest that Mohler and other SBC leaders seek help and guidance from a number of respected and reputable sources. One starting point could be Vanderbilt University Divinity School, including Dean Emile Towne, the Public Theology and Racial Justice Collaborative, and Forrest Harris, director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on the African American Church at the divinity school and president of American Baptist College in Nashville. Even closer to home, Mohler might drive a few miles across Louisville to seek prophetic insight and guidance about reparations and restitution from Kevin Cosby, a black SBTS alumnus and president of Simmons College, whose ministry is a shining example of what the Holy Spirit will accomplish when followers of Jesus reject slaveholder theology, hermeneutic and ethics.
“SBTS must start using its power to produce justice, rather than using it to maintain longstanding systems of injustice.”
Alert readers will notice that I have not mentioned reconciliation. That is an intentional omission. White religionists and others seem blind to the truth that reconciliation is impossible without repentance, and that repentance is impossible concerning racial injustice (including racism, slavery, white supremacy and white religious nationalism) without reparations and restitution. Until Mohler, SBTS, the SBC and other white Baptists “bear fruits worthy of repentance,” their appeals for racial reconciliation are “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1), and worth “nothing” (1 Cor. 13:2-3).
So, despite the publicity surrounding Southern Seminary’s recent report, the words of a Stevie Wonder song seem to apply: “You haven’t done ‘nothin.’”
The authors of the report, Mohler and other SBC leaders need to know why followers of Jesus who reject slaveholder theology, hermeneutic and ethics are not impressed. And they need to be reminded to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” I don’t expect they will respond favorably to that input. As my father often said, “that would be too much like right.”