(RNS) — At a recent annual meeting, seminary presidents in the Southern Baptist Convention reasserted the SBC’s dismissal of critical race theory, which examines the issues of embedded racism across institutions and culture in American society.
CRT shows how white supremacy — the belief that some people are more valuable than other people because of their skin color — is not just a personal prejudice but a structural and societal practice in America.
The seminary presidents’ statement, declaring the “affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory (as) incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message” was not quite the prophetic witness we needed from our churches given the twin pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism we’ve experienced in the U.S. — a deadly combination that has disproportionally killed Black and brown people based on demonstrably inequitable life circumstances tied to both past and current injustices.
Apparently, Southern Baptist leaders see the problem as bad sociology, but what their statement truly reveals is the bad theology that still haunts the denomination founded in support of slavery.
The Southern Baptist statement’s failure is biblical, not just sociological. Racism, in its many forms, is sin; indeed, it is America’s original sin based on the lie, the myth, the ideology and the idolatry of white superiority, or the assumption of whiteness as normative, and white privilege practiced through domination.
White supremacy assaults the image of God, throws away the imago dei, and undermines God’s purpose for humanity clearly stated in the first chapter of the Bible’s Book of Genesis, to make all humankind in the “image” and “likeness” of God and have stewardship together over all the rest of God’s creation. Therefore, white supremacy — which condones some people exercising violent dominion over other people God created as equal — offends the Creator and is anti-God.
To finally begin to understand how that sin of racism exercises itself both in human hearts and social systems — as we all saw in a white cop’s knee pressed on a Black man’s neck until he died, representative of all of those systems — is important. But these seminary presidents wanted to attack the sociology instead of facing the theology at its core.
Imagine what these seminary presidents — entrusted with training their denomination’s pastors and leaders — might have said if they’d chosen to confront this sin. The Southern Baptist seminary leaders could have called for their churches to begin preaching against white supremacy from their pulpits, and confess that the segregation of their churches exacerbates the racial separation within the body of Christ.
They could have acknowledged that any acceptance of racism in their political candidates is anti-Christ — especially reflecting on the election we just had. They could have prophetically called for removing Confederate statues and monuments that Black people in all their communities are forced to walk by every day.
They could have committed their communities to the safety of Black families, asking their churches and pastors to hold local police departments accountable to protect the rule of law for all people, and to commit to correcting the disproportionate incarceration of Black and brown people.
They could have called for all their Baptist pastors and congregants to ensure that all of our nation’s families have health care, to promote the best education we have available for all of our children, and encourage Christian employers to offer equal job opportunities to all.
In particular, the Southern Baptist seminary presidents could have warned Southern Baptist pastors against the great and growing dangers of white Christian nationalism, even in their own congregations, which is now a chief national security threat to the peace of our country.
Now, that would have been a prophetic response to this once-in-a-generation time of racial inflection and reckoning. But we didn’t get that from the Southern Baptist seminary presidents. We did not get repentance — meaning more than statements of confessions, but a “turning around” from both personal and societal racism, both individual and systemic, both overt and covert, explicit and implicit.
What we got instead was distraction from racism — an inarticulate attack on critical race theory and “intersectionalism.” Racism is just something we should all get over personally, they say, as we are of course all doing. Right?
At issue here is the the narrow and unbiblical individualism of private piety, with no concept of structural sin and what the New Testament calls “principalities and powers.” This thinking is stuck in the privatization of both sin and the gospel. We need to teach our people better theology.
Here is what Jemar Tisby, a Black Christian leader who knows the white Southern Baptists well, said:
In the year 2020–when a pandemic has ravaged Black and brown communities, when millions protested the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, when so many others have dedicated themselves to taking steps on the journey toward racial justice–Christians in the United States have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to take bold steps for racial justice.
Instead, these Southern Baptist leaders have chosen to prop up whiteness.
It is ironic that in their statement, these Southern Baptist seminary presidents claim they are “standing against the tide of theological compromise.
There is no form of theological compromise that is more American than vigorously opposing those who advocate for racial justice while remaining silent about the racism and whiteness running rampant in the church.
Rather, here is what seminary presidents all over the country and the pastors they turn out ought to now make their message: It is time to call upon our seminaries and our churches to begin the long spiritual process of discipling white American Christians out of the idolatry of racism — both personal and systematic.
Let the church say Amen!
(Jim Wallis, the founder and ambassador of Sojourners, teaches at Georgetown University. He is the author, most recently, of “Christ in Crisis: Reclaiming Jesus in a Time of Fear, Hate, and Violence.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)