Thursday, June 12, 2014

B93. Southern Baptists Are At It Again

The Southern Baptist Convention is at it again, in session this week in Baltimore, this time adding transgender people to its resolutions.

I don’t know when I first became interested in Jehovah’s Witnesses, maybe as a child when my church always warned against them, yet they continued regularly to walk the neighborhoods knocking on every door.  Later as I began to study them seriously though, I asked myself over and over, how can anyone choose a religious group with such a history.  

Several times the organization announced exact dates for the end of the world. The dates came and went, but the predictions brought dramatically increasing numbers into the society, with people not wanting to be left out should the world really end.  And by the time the next end of the world date was set, it was to a new audience, a new generation, who knew nothing of the previous times.

I understand now that their exposure to their own group and my exposure to it were very different experiences.  From the outside, I studied their almost 150 year history, their founding leaders, their beliefs and practices in comparison with those of other religious groups, etc.  The JWs though had never been taught their own history, but rather what was needed to perpetuate the group in the present: which verses of Scripture to use as talking points and how to interpret and explain them, public speaking skills, treating others with respect and kindness . . .

Now, I was never a JW, but for the first 49 years of my life I was Southern Baptist, a very devout and involved Southern Baptist, and often I find myself asking the same question: How can anyone remain in a denomination with such a history? But as an insider, I think I know.  It’s the same as with the JWs.  The church members know very little about their own denominational history, and if at some later point they encounter it, they are so entrenched in the SBC culture that they are able to ignore it, especially if the friendship bonds within the church are strong.  (Unlike the JWs though, they can leave without being formally shunned by family and friends!)
Like the JWs, they focus repeatedly on certain Scripture passages and how to interpret them (although they focus on different ones from the JWs).  They are taught weekly that the Bible was spoken directly from God and that every word should be taken literally as a daily instruction book for life.  (If some of the words don’t make sense, just ask the pastor to interpret them for you.)  They are taught, at least on an annual rotation, that God designed men as the heads of the home, and that if wives submit to their husbands, and husbands treat their wives with love, all is in perfect order.  And their teachings are presented, not as Baptist teachings, but as Christian teachings; thus anyone who questions the teachings is also questionable as a Christian.

In the past 30-40 years, the Southern Baptists have blurred with conservative party politics, making anti-abortion and anti-gay politics indistinguishable from the “all have sinned / repent and live forever” culture.  This marriage has created a very different denomination from the one my grandparents knew.

But even before the political mix, there was a history that is not advertised from the pulpit.  The denomination formed in 1845 in response to slavery tensions.  The Southern Baptists were pro-slavery and increasingly in disagreement with the Northern Baptists, leading to a denominational split.  To their credit, in 1995,  132 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, the denomination apologized for its racist history and elected in 2012 its first black president, whose two-year stint ended this week.

So why even talk about it now?  Because, although I have never heard a racist comment made from any Southern Baptist pulpit (well, OK, there was once, and perhaps the fact that I witnessed a gun being pointed at a young black man after a worship service counts for something), racism is not dissolved by mere words or resolutions; and, for probably a collection of sociological reasons, the people who make up the Southern Baptist churches overlap greatly with the very present white supremacist population of the South.  Racism is so entrenched in Southern rural culture that it is unnoticed by most, and most would surely label themselves non-racist and believe it.  In their defense, having been enclosed in the Southern Baptist fence, often for a lifetime, they have not seen themselves through any other lens.  In their view, they would not intentionally treat a black person unkindly, thus they are not racist.

Now add to that, the patriarchal culture of men as the “head.”  In Southern Baptist culture, women cannot be pastors, deacons, or teachers of men.  They are to teach children and other women, and do the behind the scenes church work.  In 2000, the SBC leadership revised the Baptist Faith and Message  to reiterate the submissive role of women in church and family.

And then, thanks to the political blur, there are the gay issues.  The SBC has consistently taken a hard right position on all issues involving homosexuality.  While other denominations are grappling with issues like marriage and ordination, in 2006 the NC Baptist State Convention voted to throw out any church that advocated homosexuality in any way, including knowingly having a gay person in its membership.

Which brings us to the new issue this week: transgender people, an estimated 700,000 in the U.S.  Let it be known, says the apparently omniscient denomination, that these people do not exist.  God created two genders, distinguishable by genitalia, and any gender-confusion is sin. Just like with sexual orientation though, prayer and repentance can change you and save you.  You tried prayer and repentance and it didn’t un-confuse you?  Well, that’s because you didn’t have enough faith, Southern Baptists would tell you.  Pray harder.

Ironically, also in Baptist dialogue this week was the lament over declining baptism and membership numbers in recent years, and the attempt to deal with the question of why.  Rather than listening to the many readily available voices of youth, women, gay people, and people who synthesize the changing world around them, who are exiting the SBC in droves, leaders are concluding that the denomination has not been diligent enough with evangelizing the unchurched.   More irony: the convention delegates sang Amazing Grace.

Oh God, the things we do and say in your name . . . We have surpassed our allotted 70 times 7.  I hope those numbers were not to be taken literally.

Note 1: Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. with a membership of almost 16 million.

Note 2: This blog is about the Southern Baptist Convention polity and leadership, not meant to be a blanket statement defining every SBC church or member.  Autonomy of the Local Church has been a traditional mainstay in the SBC, but in the past 20-30 years, it has been chipped away.

Note 3:  On transgender people: I certainly don't pretend to understand everything, and I think that's an OK place for most of us to be. For denominations too.  Why make a resolution about transgender people, unless it happens to be one of grace?  Here's the story of one of the 700,000: Ryland's Story (I found the music distracting. You might want to turn down the sound.)

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