Things I Needed to Say After Growing Up in the Southern Baptist Church

Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

I was raised in the church. As I’ve grown, I have struggled to make sense of the many ways I have seen the church demonstrate inequality and exclusivity. I recognize that this does not apply to every religious organization or all people belonging to the Christian faith, but the message of the church is suffering at the hands of its own injustices.

[Disclaimer: I have earnestly tried to present accurate information and give appropriate credit to my sources. I have strived to use words that are inclusive, supporting, and uplifting to the subjects of my writing. If anyone finds offense with my terminology or phraseology or believes any sources are erroneously accredited, please let me know so I can address the mistake.]

OUR OWN RACISM

We must acknowledge that everyone is racist to some degree. I know I am not racist in a mean-spirited sense, but racism is not always malicious. Good intentions do not excuse ways we have inadvertently contributed to, supported, accepted, and normalized racism. A part of growing is coming to terms with things we have gotten wrong in the past, which applies to all of us. Small prejudices can open the door for bigger, more harmful and hurtful ones. It is important we begin to recognize ways we have been complicit in perpetuating racism, even if we know we are not acting out of cruelty. In an opinion article, Nadira Hira explains that in order to fight racism, we must first recognize our own shortcomings:

Racism in my world encompasses everything from overt bad acts carried out by avowed racists to the countless instances of unconscious bias I’m sure I commit every day — instinctively opting for the black or brown yoga teacher over a white one, say, or assuming the white guy’s our pilot when it’s the black guy behind him wearing the uniform. -Nadira Hira via Newsweek

I loved growing up in the church. I felt like I belonged, which is a terribly difficult thing to find in this world. But I’m also a cisgender white woman. Looking back, it has become clear that there was a lot of acceptance for prejudicial actions and beliefs at my church growing up and from its leaders. But my issues are not with this church alone; the same is true about many college groups and churches I have attended since. The church needs to be radically reformed in order to rid itself of prejudice, exclusivity, and hypocrisy as it attempts to emulate the example of Christlikeness it claims to believe. RaShan Frost, a Southern Baptist preacher in South Carolina, published an article in Providence Magazine discussing a Christian’s role in activism and reform, reminding us of the story of the Good Samaritan.

Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” -Luke 10:30–37

We have to do more than just try not to be racist. We must actively fight racism and step in when others are not being treated fairly.

BLACK LIVES MATTER

We all know by now how controversial the movement Black Lives Matter has been, resisted by a lot of the same people who assert they are not racists. Many people, including a large number of self-proclaimed Christians, take issue with the phrase “Black Lives Matter,” and cannot resist echoing back with “All Lives Matter.” That of course is true, and no one is arguing otherwise. But responding with “All Lives Matter” is extremely hurtful to those mourning their oppression, and it drowns out their cries to be heard. Atlanta pastor Leon McKenzie addresses this in his podcast, The Culture Shock, focusing on the overlap of faith and culture through his perspective as a black man of faith. In an episode discussing the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, McKenzie laments, “our grief is exhausting.”

I’m speaking to the white Christians. One of the most valuable things you can do for us is not to try to defend your position in this world when we cry to you about ours. -Leon McKenzie via Culture Shock

Instances of police violence towards the black community are regularly defended by some sort of victim blaming. People assert that they “had it coming” by doing this or that. The facts of the situation are often reframed by focusing on crimes being committed or previous run-ins with the law. These are nothing but deflections and excuses. A crime, especially one of non-violent nature, should not be met with lethal force except maybe, maybe, as an extreme last resort. In George Floyd’s case, the police had guns, training, and backup working to their advantage, and Floyd was sufficiently detained. Crime or no crime, George Floyd was not a threat to these men as he lay on the ground suffocating, and the level of retaliation was completely unwarranted. It is not the job of the police to assign and carry out punishment, nor should we want it to be. The pursuit of justice is a responsibility entrusted to a jury of fellow citizens, not law enforcement. But even then, once the “threat” has been diffused and an individual is apprehended and convicted of a crime, America has a long history of doling out gratuitous sentences for offenses committed by black people and other people of color. A study by the US Sentencing Commission shows that on average, a black man receives a sentence 19% longer than a white man for the same crime. The justice system should be just, and repercussions for unlawful actions should be consistent.

People have argued that he should not have resisted or that he should have held up his hands. Sure, fine, maybe so. That would be smart, but we shouldn’t have to be smart in order to not be killed, especially by those who took an oath to protect us. We can do all we can to keep ourselves safe, but that does not mean we are deserving of harm otherwise. I call this philosophy Locking the Doors. I choose to lock my doors at night when I go to bed in attempts to keep my family safe while we sleep. However, if I felt safe enough without it, or if I just forgot one day, do I deserve to have my home invaded because I did not have my door locked? Of course not, that is victim blaming. Evil is still evil, and wrong is still wrong, regardless of who was or was not fighting against it. Instead of casting blame or looking for ways to explain it away, Christians are instructed to show empathy.

Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. -Romans 12:15

WHITE PRIVILEGE & ALLYSHIP

Our white privilege must be used to advocate for those who need help. If he were here now, wouldn’t Christ surround the grieving with love and support? He would not be angered, calling black protestors selfish for centering a fight around themselves. In Luke 15, Jesus shares with his disciples the parable of the prodigal son. When the lost son returns home, his father throws him a party. The older brother is jealous, thinking himself more deserving. But the father tells the older brother that this is not about him. It is about celebrating the lost. In Matthew 18, when Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep, the same principle is exhibited. The other ninety-nine sheep in the flock may have been thinking, “What about us? Don’t we matter?” Of course they mattered, but they were safe. In that moment, it was the one who was in danger that needed help. Sometimes it’s not about us. For white individuals, there is so much that we do not know or understand because we do not consider it part of our personal history, and that needs to change. We need to open our eyes to the reality our non-white neighbors experience every day.

[This video explains the evolution of systemic racism in our country, and this free Yale course covers African-American history from emancipation to the present.]

I believe many well-intentioned people are staying silent right now because they do not understand the situation from any perspective besides their own. I used to think the battle cry “Black Lives Matter” was unnecessarily exclusive; however, I hear it differently after learning why it is imperative we not shift the narrative and let the black community’s plea for equality be heard loud and clear. I felt similarly regarding the damage resulting from the protests. I do not support violence, but focusing on the violence instead of the cry for equality and justice is another example of how we are guilty of diverting the conversation and avoiding the truth about racism in our society.

An example of white privilege. You keep saying, “It’s horrible that an innocent black man was killed, but destroying property has to stop.” Try saying, “It’s horrible that property is being destroyed, but killing innocent black men has to stop.” Priorities. Make sense? -Randall Telfer via Twitter

THE SPREAD OF INJUSTICE

Inequality in our country extends way beyond racial prejudices towards black people and other people of color. The LGBTQ community specifically has not been given equal rights and opportunities, regularly experiencing discrimination for their identities and beliefs. The controversy of this topic as it relates to the Christian faith is certainly not lost on me. To speak towards my personal beliefs, established predominately by learning from my LGBTQ friends, I do not believe someone’s sexual identity can be a sin. My gay and queer friends are incredibly loving people. Who they are causes no harm to others, and their sexual identity does not diminish their worth. Love is love.

Despite my beliefs and personal convictions on the matter, it is crucial to distinguish between religious precepts and matters of morals and ethics. If someone does not subscribe to your faith (or if they interpret that faith differently), they should not be expected to live their life by your standards, just as Christians are not expected to pray at five specific times each day in the same manner as Muslims do. Everyone should, however, be expected to uphold basic moral integrity, which I believe boils down to doing no harm to others and upholding just law. Your disagreeing with another person should not limit their rights as a human or their opportunities in this country. The church should be welcoming the LGBTQ community in with open arms, refraining from judgment. Doing so would in no way deteriorate their beliefs or doctrine. Jesus certainly did not think spending time in the company of Mary Magdalene undermined his teachings or example. He says to love your neighbor. That includes neighbors with whom we disagree.

This is something I’ve seen the church do very poorly. LGBTQ friends who have attended my hometown church have described how unwelcome they felt sitting in the congregation, listening to the pastor, Dr. Tim McCoy, deliver sermons on sexual identity. It is judgmental to disproportionately single out homosexuality as a sin that is somehow greater than other sins (if you believe it is a sin at all, which adamantly I do not, but I digress). Wouldn’t it be better to teach in a way where no one feels unwelcome or singled out? God works in our hearts through scripture and community, and he will convict us of the sins in our lives. If someone does not have the same convictions in their heart as you have in yours, that has to be okay too. They are still worthy of being a part of the church.

I admit that is a tricky one, as I recognize the right of Dr. McCoy to teach his beliefs to his congregation in the manner he sees fit, whether or not I agree. What is not tricky, though, is the truth that LGBTQ individuals are in no way lesser, inferior, or undeserving of equal rights. In 2017, Andrew Manis, a professor of history at Middle Georgia State University and a graduate of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, published an open letter to Dr. McCoy in the Macon Telegraph. I was ashamed to learn that my former pastor voluntarily spoke out as a private citizen against a resolution by the Macon-Bibb County Commission’s Operation and Finance Committee which would make it unlawful to discriminate against local members of the LGBTQ community in appointments, employment, and promotions.

Americans who don’t share that worldview, don’t interpret the Bible as Tim does, and who may not even view the Bible as the authoritative word of God should have the same rights as Americans who are Christians and who do believe the Bible. The problem is that Dr. McCoy wants to give LGBTQ persons fewer rights, while giving Christians who agree with him more rights — namely the right to discriminate with impunity. This is also the agenda behind the spate of the “religious liberty” laws being advanced in many states and municipalities across the country. -Andrew Manis via the Macon Telegraph

My best friend of over ten years is a trans man. He is a kind-hearted human and a talented artist. He has a wonderful wife and a young son who are completely supportive, having adjusted to his transition remarkably well. However, his Christian parents have disowned him because of it. They have said the nastiest things to him in the past, and now they do not talk at all. Because of their religious beliefs, they destroyed their relationship with their child. Regardless of one’s personal convictions on the matter, that does not sound like Jesus to me. Jesus would open His arms and say, “welcome home, son.” This is the kind of hypocrisy from Christians that infuriates me, reaching to their religious beliefs to justify their hateful actions and elevate their feelings of superiority. Intolerance is not a side effect of the Christian faith.

LEADERSHIP MATTERS

All the injustice and discrimination are nothing new. This has unfortunately been a huge part of our society for a long time, and it’s not going to get corrected overnight. However, we’re not even making progress. Instances of hate crimes and domestic terrorism are increasing, largely due to white supremacists. Years of progress are being lost, which should be unacceptable to everyone. This is why leadership is so important. It is impossible to divorce a conversation about the current leadership in the country and a discussion on political views, but I’ll try. Look at Trump as a person and a leader, not as the Republican Party’s candidate. His rhetoric and actions are extremely aggressive, unnecessarily divisive, and fundamentally dangerous. Many Republican leaders, including George W. Bush, have said they will not support his reelection. Even his former Defense Secretary, Jim Mattis, spoke out, warning of the terror coming from this administration.

Donald Trump is the first president in my lifetime who does not try to unite the American people — does not even pretend to try. Instead he tries to divide us. We are witnessing the consequences of three years of this deliberate effort. We are witnessing the consequences of three years without mature leadership. We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society. This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children. -Jim Mattis via the Atlantic

Trump speaks to and about anyone with whom he disagrees with extreme hostility and hatred. He recently retweeted a video that said “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat.” The President of the United States published propaganda asserting that half of the country would be better off dead. Exaggeration or not, that’s incredible.

Trump blatantly exhibits his racism and prejudice on a regular basis. When hatred is openly demonstrated from and applauded by our leaders, it becomes more normalized and accepted by the public. And when hatred is normalized, it creates a safe place for evil people to act on their impulses. While domestic terrorism and hate crimes are being committed, Trump is offering mere platitudes of regret coupled with excuses and deflection. He championed the protestors fighting the stay-home orders as “good people who should be listened to,” even though they were storming a government building, brandishing guns, and violating guidance from the White House regarding the pandemic. Days later, he responded to Black Lives Matter protesters by calling them names, escalating the situation and ordering an inappropriate and unreasonable amount of violence, leading to more victims and media suppression.

The facts around the protests have been manipulated to frame the protestors as the enemy. Most everyone would agree that cops should not be killing people unnecessarily. But by deflecting responsibility and rewriting the narrative that many believe, Trump has pitted the country against each other on an issue that by all rationality should be overwhelmingly agreeable. He has often blamed Antifa, which is not even an actual group but rather an ideology, trying to label it a terrorist organization. This means he attempted to categorize individual people as terrorists because of their beliefs.

Much of the violence arising from the protests can be attributed to opportunistic individuals indulging in the chaos. While not all the protestors were peaceful and some did instigate violence, we must acknowledge how frustrating it would be when, time after time, you are villainized for peaceful protests. We have a constitutional right to peacefully assemble, and protests have historically been extremely influential and effective. Even Peter protested in the streets after Jesus was killed. Before Colin Kaepernick chose to kneel during the national anthem, he consulted with a Veteran to ensure he was protesting in a respectful manner. Kneeling is a sign of respect, often accompanied by sorrow. Christians often choose to stand in church as they sing and praise God, but sometimes they need to kneel at the cross and plead for God to hear their prayers. Maybe our country is something Kaepernick wanted to kneel down and pray for rather than stand up and celebrate. This action was a respectful and peaceful protest, and it was affecting no one other than himself. I’m curious what Americans’ reactions would have been if Trump had not set an example by lashing out at him.

TRUMP & HIS CHRISTIANS

The power that Trump has gained is jarring. He has been able to possess blind, unquestioning approval from his supporters and cultivate a country of division and anarchy. Things that never would have been acceptable are becoming trendy devices to secure attention and power. Politicians toting guns has become a norm for political ads, and pointing that gun at a teenager wins you the key to the governor’s mansion. Conspiracy theorists are coming out of the woodwork, flaunting absurd beliefs that contradict not only sane logic, but also proven facts by scientists, doctors, and historians. There have always been extremist groups on all sides, but the fact that a self-proclaiming QAnon believer is set to win a congressional seat in Georgia’s 14th district is mind-blowing. It feels like we are living in a different universe where suddenly all semblance of civil decorum has been erased and literally anything goes, as long as it puts more dollars in the taxpayers’ pockets.

How does this man have the support of so many Christians? How has he deceived people into believing he is a hero? He does not try to hide his immoral, reprehensible character, nor does he apologize or recognize any of his actions as wrong. Instead, he pays lip service to his Christian supporters, thinking he can trick them all into believing he is on their team and supportive of their morals. And horrifically, it seems he has been successful, even as he ordered the attack on peaceful protestors in DC so he could take a picture in front of a church with a Bible. This is not a God-fearing man, so the only reason for that photo was to capitalize on an opportunity to rally support from his Christian followers. Religious leaders and politicians, including many Republicans, have spoken out against how serious of a transgression that was. The Bible says Jesus abhors hypocrisy. In Matthew 23, he identifies the Pharisees as hypocrites six times, warning us of the danger in looking to such people as teachers and leaders:

They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. Everything they do is done for people to see… Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices — mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law — justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. -MATTHEW 23:4–5, 23

Many Christians leap to defend him, claiming that we do not know what is in his heart. But the Bible says we will know them by their fruits, and Trump’s fruits are poisonous. We have been warned.

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves… A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. -MATTHEW 7:15, 18–20

His hateful actions are too many to number. He has talked about how he wants to keep people from “shithole countries” out of America, but he is happy to welcome those from European nations. He has called Mexican immigrants drug dealers, criminals, and rapists, amplifying feelings of xenophobia in Americans. His immigration policies are inhumane, separating families and letting adults and children die in detention camps. And through all this, his supporters applaud his decisions as they simultaneously assert that abortion is wrong and “All Lives Matter.” His treatment of women as sex objects, with his countless assault allegations and his classic “grab them by the pussy” comment, proves how invincible he thinks he is. How does he have the support of God-loving men and women? People with sons and daughters? People who claim to believe that righteousness will be victorious over evil? How is anyone okay with this? Are none of these things a deal-breaker? Does a Democrat really threaten Christian values and beliefs more so than this man?

Whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task. Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. -1 TIMOTHY 3:1–3

Now I know Timothy is giving instructions here for a leader of the church, not the country. But shouldn’t we still remain cognizant of this example? For Christians, what motivation is behind this support? An opinion piece by Anthea Butler published on NBC News offers an interesting answer to this question. While the target of her assertions is admittedly over-generalized, she presents a narrative we should be aware of. If this is how the world sees the church, then Christians are sending the wrong message. Thankfully, these inconsistencies are being recognized by organizations committed to helping Christians engage in politics in a Biblical manner, such as the (&) Campaign and the One Race Movement. It encourages me to learn about their efforts in bringing people together to fight for equality.

LET OUR VOICES BE HEARD

We cannot separate conversations around ethics from politics. But suppose we can agree that there is a difference between religious precepts and morals, that a moral person is law-abiding and causing no harm to others. What then do we do when the laws are created by amoral, self-serving people? Where do we turn when our leaders are not looking out for us? We can’t give up and say “they’re all evil.” Instead, we have to vote. We select new ones. We keep trying. The (&) Campaign has compiled a beautiful statement on their political views as a Christian organization to assist individuals of faith as they deliberate which candidate to support in the upcoming election:

Our Christian faith’s call to recognize the image of God in every person and to love our neighbor as ourselves compels us to speak into the public square to promote social justice and moral order. We have a spiritual responsibility as followers of Jesus to seek common ground and the common good. We are obligated to protect the vulnerable and defend human dignity even of those with whom we disagree. –(&) Campaign’s via their 2020 Statement

Christians have a responsibility to consider these arguments when preparing to vote in November. And if there is any hope of ushering in positive change at the polls, we must fight for each person’s right to be heard. Across America, voting is often treated as a privilege instead of a right. Voter suppression is an extremely real problem, whether by malicious intent or gross negligence. Policies and actions leading to voter suppression are often justified as attempts to combat voter fraud. However, despite repeatedly claiming that millions of votes were being cast fraudulently, Trump’s Voter Fraud Commission has produced no evidence to back up those claims.

My home state of Georgia has long been in national headlines for decisions that appear to be thinly vailed attempts to suppress votes. Mail-in ballots have been arbitrarily rejected, with poll workers making unqualified determinations on handwriting matches. Prior to the gubernatorial election of 2018, 560,000 Georgians eligible and registered to vote were purged from the registry (without being informed) by the Secretary of the State (who was also running in the election). Precincts have been closed and polling sites relocated, creating disproportionate challenges for lower income families who may not have their own transportation. Equipment shortages and malfunctions have lead to unreasonably long lines at polling sites, specifically in low-income communities with hourly workers less likely to be able to take such an exorbitant amount of time off work without suffering financially. A study from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that the sum of all these actions have hindered the ability of black individuals to vote more so than white individuals, regardless of intent. The ACLU’s information on voter suppression outlines changes in voting policy and the effects they have had on voter turnout. The disparities are obvious, and we need a system in place to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard.

It is not sufficient to say that the county you live in determines the quality of your democracy. That’s why we have the secretary of the entire state — not just the counties that do it right, not just the counties that have the resources, not just the counties that he likes. -STACEY ABRAMS

FUNDAMENTAL TRUTHS

We must stand for principles that are for the greatest good, with love for our fellow man in mind. We must take care of one another, and we can no longer afford to elect leaders based on what appears to be best for only ourselves. And if you don’t trust the government to do things right, then let’s try electing leaders who we think may be able to do a better job rather than turning access to basic rights into profiting opportunities for billionaires.

I know it is unlikely that a few words will revolutionize anyone’s political or world views. But we must speak up. We should not push our beliefs on each other, but rather we should strive to create a healthy dialogue to learn and grow. I know my thoughts are not always right, and I want to learn more in order to better fight for the fundamental principles of my beliefs. And I earnestly hope we can all agree on those fundamentals: that human life is precious, that we are all equal, and that everyone deserves to be treated with love, respect, and kindness.

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