Some people get to have their dark nights of the soul in private; others have them in public. I can only imagine what it is like for you as the head of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission right now as you struggle to win back favor with your Christian constituency after straying across the line of acceptability during the last election season.
It must be hard at age 45 to live sandwiched between generations of Southern Baptists — those who want to fight the battles of the past and those who long to create a more inclusive Christian community that cares about justice for the future.
I am a child of the church, too, nurtured by the civil rights movement and raised by my father, who taught Old Testament and Hebrew in the Presbyterian Seminary in Louisville, Ky. It was located just a mile away from the seminary of your denomination geographically, but considerably further in other ways.
When I was 16 in the 1970s, I had my own dark night of the soul: trying to take a faith that had been transmitted to me and make it my own. And it was the pastoral care of Dr. Wayne Oates at your seminary that helped me to remember that I was a beloved child of God and brought me back from the edge of despair.
You and I are both lovers of Jesus, which is why I was heartened during the election season that you spoke out so bravely about how leadership and character actually go together; and about your concern for fellow citizens, who are caught in poverty and racism, America’s original and persistent sin. It seemed as if you heard a still, small voice calling to you that all was not right in the rhetoric of bigotry and violence, of narrow nationalism and militarism that rang out through the land. You were onto something real!
Russell, when I listen for God’s voice, what I hear today are the voices of traumatized children who cry at their desks in school because they fear the deportation of a parent; the senior citizen or person with a pre-existing condition who feels whipsawed by the on-again, off-again repeal of the Affordable Care Act; the homebound person who depends on Meals on Wheels; those who work and remain poor, needing additional support to allow them to stay in their homes; the teachers whose job training will be cut; the young black Americans whose lives are criminalized; the children of the poor who will go to bed hungry; and the spiking number of suicides and drug addictions.
I believe that the voices of the most vulnerable are also crying out to you.
Now, I am very aware that we disagree on some important issues that face the church and nation. Yet, in these urgent times we all need to look outside of our silos and comfort circles to find new partners and allies. So I feel deeply called to reach out to you to see if there are ways that we might find common ground, and work together in solidarity with and on behalf of those whom Jesus called “the least of these.”
You and I are followers of Christ in a deeply polarized nation, and it is not clear how — or if — we will make it through. In light of this, Christian to Christian, I’m wondering, though the hour is late, if we might have a courageous conversation to pave a way forward together. We are called to be the body of Christ in the world. Could it be that together we have been called to find the moral courage to stand up and to speak truth to power for such a time as this?
Yours in Christ,