You know we can hear you

A documentary on the last 20 years at Southern Seminary could have made its point without treating professors who came and went before as objects rather than persons.

By Bill Leonard

“You know we can hear you, right?” That’s what Daily Show “reporter” Aasif Mandvi recently asked Don Yelton in response to the Buncombe County Republican’s assessment of voter ID regulations imposed this year by the North Carolina legislature.

Yelton’s observations included: “I don’t think any part of this law is racist.” “One of my best friends is black.” “When I was a young man, you didn’t call a black a black, you called them a Negra.” “Now black persons are using the term N…. this and N …. that, and it’s OK for them to do it.” The new law, Yelton said, “is gonna kick the Democrats in the butt,” concluding: “If it hurts a bunch of lazy blacks that wants the government to give them everything, so be it.”

Yelton’s words exploded across the Internet, forcing Republicans to repudiate his comments and remove him from his county precinct position. Yet the interview remains perpetually online, at once disgustingly racist and politically candid.

One suspects that Yelton has talked that way before, perhaps in contexts where listeners concurred or remained silent. So when spoken aloud in the Daily Show’s public square, did he think no one could hear him?

Did we really need more proof that “blacks” continue to be objectified, made the “other” by yet another southern politician? Objectification is what occurs when we transform individuals, races or movements into objects, articulating their personhood outside their own “voice.”

Objectifying “the other” is a danger for all of us, even when our commentaries are more subtle and religion-oriented. We’re all guilty.

I was reminded of that recently while watching an online video that celebrates the 20th anniversary of Albert Mohler as president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.

The film is both a “documentary” of the school, founded in 1859, and a paean to its current president said to have delivered SBTS from a century of “progressivism and liberalism,” thus restoring its original 19th century orthodoxy.

No doubt Southern Baptists, represented in the film by a bevy of white males who extolled Mohler’s successes, have every right to hail this historic moment. Mohler is a gifted advocate of Reformed theology and conservative evangelicalism in 21st century America.

What is troubling, however, is the seminary’s apparent inability to honor Mohler without objectifying decades of previous faculty personified “in video” by two females — theology professor Molly Marshall and social work dean Diana Garland — colleagues whom Mohler sent packing: Marshall for being too progressive/liberal, and Garland because she “hired faculty who approved of women’s ordination.”

No matter that Marshall is now president of Central Baptist Seminary in Kansas City or that Garland is dean of social work at Baylor University, their spiritual and intellectual contributions widely celebrated within the Baptist family. In this film they have no voice, no opportunity to make their own case.

Instead they serve as objectified evidence, confirmed by the all-male cast, for the “course correction” that purged some three quarters of the school’s faculty in less than 10 years. At no point does the video acknowledge decades of academic integrity and gospel fortitude personified by such amazing faculty “progressives” as William Whitsitt, E. Y. Mullins, A. T. Robertson, Alan Culpepper, Donald Hustad, Anne Davis, William Hull, Karen Smith, Page Kelly, Glenn Hinson or Henlee Barnett. (To name only a few.) There are only the 19th century (slaveholding) founders, and the current president.

Baptist theological debates are real and divisive at SBTS and beyond, but objectifying two long-departed, voiceless female faculty members serves only to open old wounds and cheapen what should be an important commemoration for conservatives. They got what they wanted! The “progressives” are long gone!

Indeed, Mohler’s presidency and voice continues to have significant influence for large segments of American evangelicalism. Why is that contribution degraded by reopening a 40-year controversy at the expense of two women who also have significant impact on large segments of American evangelicalism?

Is the continued institutional objectification of assorted “enemies” one explanation for the 20 percent decline in Southern Baptist baptisms or the prediction of their own statisticians that today’s 14 million members will become 8.5 million by mid-century? Is it a factor in Mohler protégé Russell Moore’s recent call for Southern Baptists to soften their language and attitudes toward homosexuals and stop sounding so harsh in the public square?

So here’s a soft suggestion to the SBTS folks: Why not set things right by contacting Drs. Marshall and Garland and apologize for objectifying them in the seminary-produced video? THEN return to your celebrations. There would be so much GOSPEL in that, wouldn’t there? After all, you GUYS do know that we can hear you, right?  

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.