Saturday, August 18, 2012

Standing Up To Bullies In Church

It's always fun to see what new application of the same old story manages to hit the radar here in this part of the woods. Recently, it was a White minister that buckled to a few of his parishioners when they decided a Black couple needed to marry elsewhere. This in the Bible belt, of course. Where Christianity is bigger than the flag, mother and apple pie all put together. My friend Dayne Sherman had a little something to say about this story and I thought you might enjoy reading it as much as I did.

Standing Up To Bullies In Church
by Dayne Sherman

Unless you have been living under a big rock, you have heard about the brouhaha at First Baptist Church in Crystal Springs, Miss. On July 21, the pastor chose not to allow an African American couple to wed in the predominantly white congregation’s sanctuary. This was after the date had been agreed upon and invitations sent.

According to reports, a few racist members of the Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated church contacted the pastor after learning about the wedding. As a result, he caved under their pressure and had the wedding moved to a nearby United Methodist Church.

Most of First Baptist’s members had no idea about the controversy until after the decision was made and the act of cowardice had become a media firestorm. To say it caused a stir and shamed FBC Crystal Springs would be an understatement. My best guess is that the majority of the members were genuinely horrified by the decision. Unfortunately, the highest value in nearly all congregations is harmony. To keep harmony and peace, an immoral act was allowed to take place. By moving the wedding, the pastor was able to protect his own job and try to appease a few church bullies.

I am neither shocked nor surprised by the actions of the Mississippi pastor and his congregation, and I have little doubt that the response would be as bad or worse in most white Protestant churches throughout the rest of Mississippi and my native Louisiana. This kind of overt racism needs to be condemned, rooted out like the spiritual malignancy that it is. However, the condemnation offered by SBC leaders has been tepid at best.

For example, I have searched in vain on the Mississippi Baptist Convention’s webpage for a statement denouncing or even acknowledging the racism of FBC Crystal Springs. MBC Executive Director, Dr. Jim Futral, is quoted in various news sources as saying that he both wants to address the racism in Mississippi Baptist churches while also respecting local church autonomy.

Individual Baptist churches are autonomous bodies. This simply means they manage their own affairs. There is no institutional governing hierarchy for the SBC, or so the denominational rhetoric goes. Well, let a same-sex commitment ceremony be held in a Mississippi SBC church’s sanctuary and see how long it takes for a “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” campaign to start. With all of the righteous anger that can be mustered, the SBC power brokers will boot this gay-friendly church out of its local Baptist association, as well as the state and national convention. It will happen faster than whiplash during an interstate pileup.

One seminary professor, Dr. Russell Moore of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., has been the exception to the tepid response. He, a Mississippian, argues in a recent blog post tiled “Race and the Gospel in Mississippi” that racist churches should not be allowed to remain in fellowship with the SBC. He says racism is such a grievous sin that churches participating in racist acts should have no place in the modern SBC. Bravo, Dr. Moore. It’s nice to hear another voice crying in the wilderness.

I will try to put all of this into practical terms by employing Catholic novelist Flannery O’Connor’s communication method. She said, “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the blind you draw large and startling figures.”

Any predominantly white congregation that will not allow black people to be baptized, married, and buried is not really a church at all. It is a mere social club that happens to call itself a Christian church.

Furthermore, if a white church is not yet “ready” to denounce racism and call a qualified African American to the pastoral staff, it is a racist organization. Instead of being the Church of Jesus Christ, it is something else, a tax exempt gathering of homogenous religious people with uncomfortable pews, off pitch singing, and out of date hymnals.

Whenever a minister of a white congregation has been in the position for six months or longer and the members are not yet morally ready to denounce racism as a body and accept all of God’s children, the minister has either failed to lead in the area racial reconciliation or the congregation has failed to follow. Of course, not everyone will accept the Good News despite the messenger’s faithfulness to proclaim it.

After six months on the job, however, I submit that it is probably time for the minister to find another congregation or take up a new trade. In six more years or 60, nothing will change in that particular congregation as a result of the minister’s efforts in racial reconciliation. It is hopeless. Easier to move on and start another church than to try to convert the old racist one.

Is it too much to ask that white clergy risk their jobs and reputations by standing up to the racist thugs in their own congregations? I don’t believe it is, and it’s the very least they can do as ministers of the gospel.

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