After the Civil War the SBC lost what few black congregants they had, because they were no longer forced to go. During Reconstruction and during the 1920’s and onward, a loosely-affiliated White-Supremacist terrorist organization calling itself the Ku Klux Klan flew through the South, intimidating and murdering Black, Catholic, and Jewish citizens – largely with tacit approval from the denomination’s pastors and leaders, and with no outcry from the SBC itself. In the Civil Rights era, the denomination – the largest non-Catholic one in the US – was, at best, silent while many of its preachers and lay people were preaching the virtues of segregation and racial superiority.
However, things started changing in the 1980s as the denomination started reaching out specifically to non-whites and building churches for mixed-race as well as people of color. And, in the 1990’s the denomination did something the United States has yet to do. They offered a formal apology for their role in slavery. More recently, Richard Land, the head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religion dept (and as such, a prominent leader and spokesperson for the denom), joined more liberal Evangelical groups like the Christian Community Development Association and Sojourners in calling for complete and comprehensive immigration reform.
It seemed that, at least in terms of domestic race, the Southern Baptist Conference was beginning to turn over a new leaf. Not, mind you, in terms of gender (its main seminary no longer allows women to study to become pastors and offers, in its stead, glorified home ec courses), and not that they were actually all that progressive, generally-speaking. In recent years, the leadership changed from a progressive/conservative mix (wherein Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton felt as much home as Billy Graham) to a conservative rule.
So it’s in this light, with its slave-holder origins and the KKK-endorsements, the cross-burnings, lynchings, and slave-whippings sponsored by the Southern Baptist Conference, that its most prominent spokesperson, Land, argues that those who bring attention to the murder of a black male teen in Florida as the result of racial profiling and a senseless pro-violence gun law are the real trouble-makers.
There is going to be violence. When there is violence it’s going to be Jesse Jackson’s fault. It’s going to be Al Sharpton’s fault. It’s going to be Louis Farrakhan’s fault, and to a certain degree it’s going to be President Obama’s fault.
I would not doubt that vigilante “justice” called by the likeness of Farrakhan is irresponsible and may lead to further violence, to say the least. It’s borne of frustration with the White-controlled American justice system, so it’s important to note that and give it some due attention – but that’s not to excuse it. What’s troubling is how Land can associate that with the role of Jackson or Sharp ton, which is to call national attention to a travesty of justice. Or, worse, to President Obama for expressing empathy for the family. Something Land, in his partisan role as spokesperson for the Republican Party-Evangelical alliance, clearly does not share.
But let’s also consider another historical context to throw into further light. Richard Land blasted this announcement on his radio show last week – during Lent. Lent, which in the Western church culminates today, God Friday, is a period for Christians throughout the world to recognize our sins that need to be confronted – our sins that led to Christ’s death that we would like to submit to Jesus.
Land may or may not practice Lent. But he, being a typical example of White American Evangelicalism, does not recognize institutional sins such as – and especially – racism*. Itrarely recognizes war as an institutional sin. The one unforgivable institutional sin, however, is abortion. And it is through the Abortion Juke – the ability of Evangelical leaders to say, “This isn’t a real travesty. The REAL travesty is Abortion!” during grown-up talk – that Land will be able to deflect blame for his White Supremacist rants.
The Abortion Juke – and more on this next week – is another way to tell when the anti-abortion forces aren’t really concerned about life, but only abortion. And often only as a way of controlling the political game and talking points. Racism or misogyny or poverty, after all, they say, can’t be nearly as bad as millions of aborted babies.
And in so saying this, they fail to acknowledge the connections, the ways in which racism, misogyny and poverty connect with abortions.
*It’s here I have to recognize the boldness of John Piper – someone whom I disagree much with on many issues, but all someone who has long called for White Evangelical churches to repent for their sins of complicit or implicit racism. It’s part of the reason why the Gospel Coalition has such a strong headway among younger African Americans.