By Paul Baxley
Tomorrow I will be present with religious and community leaders at a worship service at St. Stephen Church in Louisville, Kentucky. The service will include readings and prayers as we mark the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in what is now the United States. In the service, we will honestly confront the sins of slavery and injustice; but we will also offer ourselves to the hope of a better day for the American church and particularly for brothers and sisters who are descendants of enslaved persons.
Because the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has joined with other Baptist denominations in the three-year journey to prepare for this anniversary, both Kasey Jones, CBF’s associate coordinator of operations and outreach, and I have been asked to participate in leadership in this service. Other Cooperative Baptists will also be sharing that day in the service and in worship leadership.
As part of the worship experience, white Christians will be invited to offer a shared statement of confession and repentance for the atrocities of slavery. This will not be the first time white Baptists have issued such an apology. Not only have Southern Baptists passed multiple resolutions admitting historic complicity with slavery and white supremacy, during one of our very first General Assemblies in 1992, Cooperative Baptists offered “A Statement of Confession and Repentance” naming our “historic complicity in condoning and perpetuating the sin of slavery before and during the Civil War,” apologizing “to all African Americans for that sin” and rejecting “forthrightly the sin of racism that has persisted throughout our history even to this present day.” So, in one sense, the statement that will be offered in worship Tuesday is not new.
But the words to be spoken Tuesday are significantly different than many spoken before. For one thing, white Christians will not repent for slavery in safe generalities, but rather in vivid specificity, naming in detail the different ways enslaved persons were abused and dehumanized. The language forces us to enter the horror of slavery in much greater depth. Doing so requires us to see in new ways the terror of the abuses enabled by heretical theology and sinful silence, thereby giving a deeper substance and transformative power to the confession. One cannot properly repent in the abstract for sins that had devastating specific impact. The specificity of the statement to be made Tuesday makes it different.
The space in which the statement will be spoken is even more powerful. Unlike many of the earlier examples, this statement will not be offered in the safety, distance or familiarity of predominantly white space. When white Christians speak these words Tuesday, we will not be offering apology at a distance, or from the familiar confines of one of our predominantly white congregations or denominational gatherings. Instead, we will be in a room with sisters and brothers in Christ who are black and descended from enslaved persons.
I will be standing next to Dr. Sam Tolbert, President of the National Baptist Convention of America, International Inc. The words will be spoken in the midst of relationship, and therefore will have entirely different nature than many past statements of regret. This statement will be offered in the context of relationship, outside places where white Christians are usually in control, in a gathering convened by brothers and sisters in Christ who are black. For this reason, I believe the words spoken to and not about will have a different and more dynamic power, both for those of us who speak and for those who hear and receive.
Offering these words of confession and repentance also forces us to come to terms with the ways in which sins of the past shape identity and experience in the present. Just as black Christians are keenly aware of the ways the experience of slavery and all that has happened since have shaped their lives and identity, those of us who are white Christians must come to terms with the fact that many of us are the descendants of slave holders, and that the world in which we were born and raised gave many of us tremendous advantages including attending schools that did not exist for children who were black.
It is sometimes easy for younger white Christians, who were born and raised not only after slavery was abolished, but even after the Civil Rights Movement and the initial integration of public schools, to believe that we are somehow removed from the patterns and atrocities of slavery and structural discrimination. The same worldview and heretical theology that have kept black people in bondage also gave white people opportunities and positions of privilege. While none of us who will speak these words of confession and repentance actually held slaves or committed the horrific atrocities the statement describes, our lives and communities were shaped and formed by the systems of slavery and persistent prejudice that continue long after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
So it is right, fitting, faithful and necessary that our worship on August 20 will call upon white Christians who desire a more faithful, reconciled and just future, to offer a statement of lament, confession and repentance regarding the sin of slavery, to do so in the presence of fellow Christians who are descendants of enslaved persons, and to come to terms with the way slavery and other structures of discrimination have shaped their lives and ours. My hope is not only for clarity, and an even greater depth of repentance, but that in the very act of gathering for worship, we will be putting ourselves in places, postures and communities where genuine transformation is possible in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Paul Baxley serves as Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This is part 2 of a three-part series reflecting on the 400th anniversary of black enslavement in America. Read Part 1 titled “What the 400th anniversary of slavery in America requires of us”
Through the Dr. Emmanuel McCall Racial Justice and Leadership Initiative, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is working to create avenues for God’s imperfect church to move toward meaningful unity between racially diverse communities. Learn more about the McCall Initiative here.