Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention

Written by Jarvis J. Williams and Kevin M. Jones, eds. Reviewed By Ronjour M. Locke

The image of a “stain” is used in the title of the recent book Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention. A stain, after all, is dirty, damaging, and can be quite difficult to clean. For several African-Americans in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the stain of racism is too deep for any hope of cleansing. But for the African-American contributors in this book and their white co-contributors, “The gospel of Jesus Christ requires and demands all Southern Baptists to do their parts to erase this stain from the SBC—or at least to make the stain less apparent” (p. xxv).

Each contributor represents a particular segment of Southern Baptist Convention life and influence. Two writers are SBC seminary presidents, and one is a college dean. Several authors serve as Southern Baptist seminary professors, while two serve in other schools related to the SBC. Two serve on the state convention levels, and two serve as pastors in SBC churches. One works at Lifeway, the SBC’s products and services ministry.

Such an interdisciplinary lineup produces a work that can analyze the complexities of racism from multiple angles and perspectives. Doing so reinforces the contention that racism, if it will be “erased” or at least “less apparent,” must be addressed across the board. Mohler (pp. 1–6) and Hall (pp. 7–14) consider the historical roots of SBC racism, from its birth over the issue of slavery to the Jim Crow era. Williams (pp. 15–51) and Strickland (pp. 53–60) consider biblical and theological grounds for racial harmony.

The next five chapters address practical steps toward progress. Mitchell (pp. 61–70) addresses the anti-racism contributions of SBC ethicists and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC. Other contexts include pastoral (Smith, pp. 71–79), administration (Croston, pp. 81–87), education (Jones, pp. 89–103), and publishing (Jennings, pp. 105–11). The book concludes with a summary from Woods (pp. 113–29), personal testimonies from McKissic (pp. 131–35) and Akin (pp. 137–41), and a postscript from Walker (pp. 143–47). The book also includes a catalog of the race-related resolutions adopted at past SBC Annual Meetings (pp. xxxv–lix), a reading list for further research (pp. 149–58), and a sample syllabus for an introduction to African-American history (pp. 159–64).

Several features make this a useful resource. First, the book’s brevity makes it easy to hand to anyone interested in an introduction to the subject matter. Second, the authors, as Southern Baptists, are candid about the history of their denomination. Both African-American and Caucasian writers are additionally candid about their own experiences of racism. Williams speaks of his experience as the first black member of an all-white Kentucky SBC church (pp. 17–20). Smith discusses his experiences growing up in predominately black non-SBC churches and spending his adult years in predominately SBC institutions (pp. 73–74). Woods recounts his experiences as a minority in a ministry moving toward diversity (pp. 115–19). Akin shares his perspective as a lifelong Southerner grappling with the racial sins of the past and present (pp. 139–41).

Third, the writers give intentional steps towards removing the stain. They speak of individual steps, like developing personal relationships beyond one’s personal ethnic group (p. 47) and providing opportunities for the voiceless to speak out (pp. 59–60). They also speak of institutional steps, like more minority leadership representation (pp. 46–47), incorporating diverse cultural expressions like music into local church gatherings (p. 79), disconnecting political alliances (pp. 85–86), and adjusting academic curricula for better representation (pp. 89–103).

Several features would make this work better. First, while several writers mention the need for diversity among SBC ranks, expanding the list of contributors from other ethnic groups would help broaden the conversation beyond the two ethnic groups currently represented. Second, while the book’s size makes it easily accessible, some chapters could be lengthened. For instance, direct quotes from Southern Baptist leaders of the past would help to reinforce the claims of racism. Williams’s 38-page chapter, the longest in the book, only has eighteen pages of actual lexical/exegetical study. In addition, Hall’s account of the history of the SBC is helpful (pp. 7–14); nonetheless, the SBC’s racist history is puzzling given the catalog of resolutions also included in the book. Is there an explanation to reconcile both realities? Further exploration into matters like this may give deeper insight into the complexities of the Southern Baptist story.

Third, while several SBC entities are represented, one notable omission is the International Mission Board (IMB). How does the issue of race affect the SBC missionary movement? What are the ethnic demographics of the IMB? Does the very nature of international missions help to curb racist ideologies and behaviors? If racism exists on the field, what are practical ways to address it?

The fourth improvement is a minor one regarding format. Woods’s chapter seems meant to conclude the book, but he references a quote from Akin (p. 122), which does not come until the second epilogue later in the book (p. 139). Future versions of this book may want to put Woods’s chapter later in the book to serve as a better conclusion.

There is promise in this book. The forthrightness of the title is matched with straightforward content and clarity throughout the book. The individual and institutional steps recommended in this book may prove prudent for the Southern Baptists who take up and read. May it further the internal discussions toward action, lest the stain linger for another generation.

Ronjour M. Locke

Ronjour M. Locke
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
Wake Forest, North Carolina, USA

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