By Paul Baxley
As our congregations have gathered for worship and study these past few weeks, our communities and our nation have witnessed a terrifying series of mass shootings.
Just this past weekend, even as members of the U.S. Senate worked to reach a bipartisan agreement on gun safety, at least five people were killed and 27 injured as the wave of mass shootings continued in seven cities. Ten died in a supermarket shooting in Buffalo, N.Y. and more recently 21 were gunned down in a school in Uvalde, Texas. In between and since those terrible days, two college students died in a church shooting in Ames, Iowa, and one worshipper died in a church shooting in California. Four were killed at a hospital in Tulsa, Okla. Four lost their lives on the streets of Chattanooga, Tenn., and four more died on the streets of Philadelphia.
We’ve seen little children and older adults of every racial and ethnic identity slaughtered. We come to church on Sunday, and we pray. We pray for the victims and their families. We pray for transformative government response.
As you are well aware, as our congregations gather each Sunday, particularly our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregations, they tend to include worshippers who have a wide range of positions, practices and convictions about guns. Many of our congregations include people who have different political affiliations and vote every way imaginable in elections with every conceivable attitude about the votes they cast. Even in our congregations that are more politically similar, there are still sometimes surprising differences around the most paralyzing issues of our time.
The unique call for CBF congregations
In this difficult and challenging time, my prayers have been for the families of the victims and for state and national leaders. But I’ve also been praying for all who are leading congregations in an increasingly polarized time. Amidst my prayers, I’ve been asking: “what is the unique call for our congregations in a moment like this?” What might be uniquely positioned to do as congregations across our Fellowship?
First, I increasingly believe that we can provide our congregations, our communities and our nation with a different question to ask in the midst of this crisis. I hear a lot of discussion about questions regarding the Second Amendment. But as Baptists whose faith journeys begin in the waters of baptism following a profession of faith, we know that the Lordship of Jesus Christ is the ultimate criteria in any decision making.
We walked aisles and stood in waters to declare that Jesus would be Lord of our lives, that we would make every other allegiance, interest and belief far secondary to a commitment to follow Jesus in the world. So what would it mean to see this present tragedy of gun violence through the eyes of Jesus? What is Jesus seeking? What does Jesus want to do? How can we join in? What would it mean to be faithful to the Great Commandment in this particular challenge? Do we believe Jesus is seeking a world where people are gunned down while teaching, learning, worshiping, buying groceries and seeking medical care? How do we believe the Prince of Peace is calling us to be instruments of peace, justice and healing? What would be different in our conversations about the present moment if we helped one another see the way and will of Jesus more clearly and then followed him in how we see, speak and act?
Because these challenges around gun violence are only one of the many difficult issues threatening our congregations and communities, and there is a great need to elevate the way of Jesus during these times, our Fellowship is inviting congregations this fall to participate in a journey toward “Seeing Through the Eyes of Jesus.” You can learn more about it here if you like.
In these difficult times I think we can encourage one another to ask the most important question, namely what it means to be faithful to Jesus and participate in his mission. But I also believe the church, particularly congregations that take our historic and convictional Baptist faith and practice seriously, have a powerful witness to offer the government in this time. And I propose that we do nothing less than unleash that witness.
The power of an August 2012 living room conversation
Almost 10 years ago I was early in my tenure as pastor at First Baptist Church in Athens, Ga. I spent Friday, December 14, 2012, on campus at the University of Georgia, where I’d been invited to participate in the morning and afternoon commencement ceremonies. But while I was celebrating with university graduates and their families, shots rang out at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. As we learned more about that shooting that claimed the lives of 26 people, six of whom were teachers and 20 of whom were six and seven years of age. The nation grieved and there were calls for change.
I still remember spending that weekend re-writing the sermon I had prepared to preach on Sunday. I felt no compulsion to change the text, which was Isaiah 40:1-11 and offered a Gospel witness in the wilderness. But I believed that our nation was living in a wilderness particularly after Sandy Hook, and I was seeking good news and a “way in the desert.” Later that day I saw one.
Because it was December and Christmas was less than two weeks away, my wife, Jennifer, and I spent that Sunday evening visiting a series of Sunday school class Christmas parties. One of those experiences still stands out almost 10 years later. I found myself in the great room of a church member’s home, surrounded by a wide range of my congregation. I looked around the room, and there were people who had voted every way imaginable in the 2012 election that had taken place a month or so earlier. Some owned guns, others did not. Some hunted, others did not. A few disclosed they were mere members of the National Rifle Association. Others were not.
The group reflected the wide range of convictions and experiences related to guns in the United States. And yet, to a person, they were horrified by what had happened, and they were determined to figure out what kinds of solutions might be pursued.
Being good Baptists, they didn’t all agree on everything, and being convicted Baptists, none of them were silent on matters where their consciences and positions were strong. But they had walked with one another through life’s darkest valleys, celebrated together in the most beautiful and joyful moments, spent years reading the Scriptures together and pushing one another to see the way of Jesus.
From that foundation, they witnessed to each other, listened to one another, pushed and challenged one another and yet simultaneously kept one another engaged until several possible solutions emerged that most or all of them could support, including enhanced background checks, extended waiting periods, and restrictions on the purchase of assault weapons. Ironically, those were key elements of the reform negotiations that stalled after Sandy Hook. Had those reforms passed, who knows how many lives would have been spared?
An opportunity to offer a witness
Many congregations in our Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are still like that congregation I served. They are politically and theologically diverse and are some of the last places in many communities where people who do not talk the same way, vote the same way, pray the same way, and practice the same way still come in close contact on a regular basis. Even more than that, they find in the worshipping, serving, praying, studying rhythms of life together a bond that is stronger than other things.
The fierce winds of partisanship have made these congregations incredibly unique, increasingly vulnerable, and particularly challenging places to be, because the rest of our culture has lost its capacity to be in the presence of difference and respond with anything other than demonization and destruction. When I listen to ministers and lay leaders across our Fellowship, I hear honest expressions of how hard it has become to cultivate genuine Christian community in a paralyzed partisan world.
But for all the challenges, our congregations have an opportunity to offer a necessary and unique witness in these days. If we can keep learning to be together in the presence of difference in honesty and love, without compromising convictions but instead being bound together in a stronger faith and a shared participation in Christ’s mission, could we be a demonstration of redemption? And might we offer a lesson that leaders in our public spaces dramatically need to experience? Might we show a broken world a still more excellent way?
I wouldn’t describe what happened in that Sunday school class party a decade ago as bland or moderate. I would certainly not characterize it as going along to get along, or some kind of artificial consensus. I’d describe it as beautiful, unique and transformative. I’d describe it as bold, and as a demonstration of a kind of the only kind of listening, seeking, challenging and searching that will heal our broken public spaces.
I don’t expect the U.S. Congress will ever be just like that Sunday school class, or that congregation, because it will never share the common life that is present in a congregation through Jesus Christ. But, if the U.S. Congress was a little more like that Sunday school class, we could see an end to catastrophic polarization and a curbing of senseless violence.
Our culture would less be the victims of special interest and be more likely to be transformed toward a common good. If a congregation comes to a place where it not only sees an approach to reform together, then the congregation can not only model a different approach to difference but can also use its collective voice to advocate for change at the local, state and national levels.
Our Fellowship has a growing suite of resources, including a newly released Amplify series to equip congregations to put advocacy to action.
I believe this moment calls us at the very least to refocus on the ultimate question. I believe it requires us to sharpen our capacity to be the kinds of Christians and Baptists who both discover and demonstrate what it really means to be Christian community in the presence of difference. That requires being together, reading Scriptures together, praying together, witnessing to each other, listening to one another, pushing one another and in all these ways growing in Christ together. Then we’ll offer a demonstration, both in the quality of our life and the content of our witness, of what I think Paul was really telling the Corinthians when he wrote: “Love is patient, love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing but rejoices in truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”
A demonstration of that life, made possible by living in the way of Jesus, is a witness that congregations like yours and mine are uniquely positioned to offer. It is a witness this broken world desperately needs. So let’s unleash it.
Paul Baxley serves as the Executive Coordinator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.