By Paul Baxley
For three years, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has participated in a powerful journey alongside two historically black denominations and a historically black college in the lead-up to the 400th anniversary of black enslavement in the United States.
The culmination of that three-year journey came Tuesday when Kasey Jones, CBF associate coordinator of strategic operations and outreach, and I stood on the stage with other Cooperative Baptists and other participants at the service held at St. Stephen Church in Louisville. Standing there, present in every way, I was reminded of the power of relationships and the need for repair. I was compelled to action for me personally and for CBF.
Going into the service, I expected that the time would be holy, filled with a wide range of emotion; and I knew there would be unique power in statements of confession and repentance being made in a black congregation, in the context of actual relationship. But the service was even more powerful than I expected.
White Christians offered statements of confession followed by extremely powerful and emotional statements of forgiveness offered by black Christians. It was particularly significant for me to be in same space as my black brothers and sisters.
The experience of hearing black brothers and sisters, with tremendous faith, offering words of forgiveness for the horrific wounds of enslavement and other oppressive social structures, particularly toward white Christians who either actively perpetuated those structures or sat silently and thereby enabled their existence, was overwhelmingly moving. I found my own places of honest confession last Tuesday and had very personal experiences hearing words of grace and forgiveness spoken.
While I have not worked actively to promote or support unjust structures, I am keenly aware of both the ways I have benefited from those structures and also the times I have been silent when I should have spoken. Theologians have long differentiated between sins of commission and sins of omission. But both are sin and, as Dr. King reminded us a half century ago, the silence of friends can be every bit as dangerous as the hostility of those who actively do harm.
A week after that worship service, I am praying actively about how my life, faith, ministry and leadership should be different because of that experience of grace. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer taught us almost a century ago, grace was never intended to be cheap and, while Jesus by grace meets us where we are, Jesus never intends to leave us where He finds us. Grace is given to set us free and allow us to live more faithful lives.
How can I be a good steward of the grace I have received? Words of forgiveness spoken on the 400th anniversary of black enslavement could not have been easy for my black sisters and brothers to speak; they were not offered cheaply. So, what does that costly grace compel from me?
I find myself asking another clearly related question: What does it mean to actually repent? To allow Jesus to change me so that I can be a more faithful Christian, minister and leader within this Cooperative Baptist family?
John the Baptist spoke of fruit worthy of repentance. What are the first fruits of repentance—for me? For those of us who are white Christians? Toward a kind of relationship with black sisters and brothers that truly embodies the kind of community Jesus wants His church to be?
After all, there is no denying that Jesus has given us the ministry and message of reconciliation, and that He is inviting us to join Him in His mission of bringing good news to the poor and release to the captives. What must we do to deepen our growing and long-standing commitment to racial justice and reconciliation? Are there questions we must ask if we are to continue this journey and move further into it?
Do we need to ask: What is it that holds us back from either beginning this journey or taking a next step? For those of us who are white Christians, struggling to come to terms with how centuries of enslavement and other structural prejudice have benefited us while holding others back? In the face of that recognition do we feel paralyzing guilt? Do we fear some loss of control or position?
Is there still some latent prejudice with which we must deal? Does this calling toward justice and reconciliation make us uncomfortable as individuals or in our congregations, for other reasons? A meaningful journey toward racial justice and reconciliation requires honest searching of our own lives and faith to see where we most need the presence of the Risen Jesus and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. Do we need to hear again the repeated message of Scripture, “Be not afraid”?
What kinds of friendships and partnerships do we need to cultivate to move toward racial justice and reconciliation? Over the years I have become more and more convinced that white Christians cannot make discernments about what justice and reconciliation should look like by ourselves. Those of us who are white Christians need to be in friendship, collaboration and under the leadership of our black Christian sisters and brothers. We need not only to invite black Christians into our communities of faith and seek partnerships with black congregations, we also need to accept invitations to be in black space so that we might listen, learn and be made whole.
Black enslavement followed by segregation and a series of other political and economic practices created relationships between white and black Christians that are built on prejudice, characterized by domination and distrust, and most often led to white people assuming a position of power, privilege or control in such relationships. If we are going to move toward repair and reconciliation, we first need a repair in the nature of the relationship between black and white Christians so that we can see each other, above all else, as sisters and brothers in Christ, uniquely reflecting the image of God, bound together by holy love and the call to follow Jesus.
In the context of such relationships, will we discover work we can do together—really together—in our communities? Are there ways we can, first by example and then by action, re-order the fabric of our congregations and communities?
Might the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship be called to build on the significant foundations laid in the New Baptist Covenant and the Angela Project and forge even deeper partnership with black Baptist denominations? Might our partner congregations seek reconciling relationships with black congregations so that the work of repair can begin closest to home?
Are there ways our partner congregations and theological schools through our Fellowship could build transformative relationships with historically black colleges and universities and theological schools? Could those relationships become the communities in which we discern further steps toward repair and reconciliation while also being a witness to a world in need of repair?
These days the words of the prophet Isaiah are on my mind often, because within them there is a clear calling:
If you remove the yoke from among you,
The pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
If you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
Then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your needs in parched places…
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt, you shall raise up the foundations of many generations
You shall be called repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
God, grant us faith, courage and the gift of restored relationships so that the holy work of repair and reconciliation can move forward.
Paul Baxley serves as Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. This is part 3 of a three-part series reflecting on the 400th anniversary of black enslavement in America. Read Part 1 titled “What the 400thanniversary of slavery in America requires of us” and Part 2 titled “Confession and repentance on the 400th anniversary of slavery in America.”
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.