Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Distant Reflections on the 2016 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention by Benjamin Cole

Ten years ago this month, I lent my voice – and what some have considered my strategic parliamentary acumen – to affect change in the Southern Baptist Convention. I worked day and night, on countless phone calls, teleconferences and in-person meetings to alter the course of the nation’s largest protestant denomination.

I have since left the SBC with no intention of ever returning. But I retain, perhaps stubbornly, a distant interest in the health and wellbeing of the churches and people who helped shape my childhood and subsidize my theological education.

Today, ten years hence from a thousand miles away, I had a tremendous sense that these efforts – joined by many – were not in vain. There is no small degree of irony that they were made possible, in large measure, because of a man I opposed so vehemently in the historic presidential election of the 2006 Southern Baptist Convention, held in Greensboro, NC.

Having been removed many years from active participation in Southern Baptist life, and removed even further from so much of the theological and cultural adiaphora I once championed, I have a few brief reflections on the actions today of my erstwhile brethren – some estranged and yet wounded – who have spoken and voted with great courage to do the right thing in a world that desperately needs men and women of courage to do the right thing.

First, I owe my thanks to Ronnie Floyd. On the issue of racial reconciliation, he has led with boldness and vision. This week, for the first time in Southern Baptist Convention life, he convened a panel to speak honestly, humbly and openly about the tremendous racial divide that still infects the religious, cultural and political context of the nation. Watching the proceedings from an office in Washington, D.C., I was wistful about an earlier iteration of my denominational engagement. And I was also hopeful, recognizing as men ought often recognize that change of a substantial and lasting effect does not happen in a fortnight.

Today, Southern Baptists have taken a stand on the right side of history when it comes to the issue of race. Pastor Ronnie Floyd guided that evolution with grace and strength in a way that only a man of deep prayer, faith and character could.

Second, I found myself simultaneously saddened and encouraged by the convention’s repudiation of the confederate flag in a resolution proffered by Rev. Dwight McKissic of Arlington, TX.

First, why I was saddened.

As will doubtlessly be reported more often than necessary, Houston Judge Paul Pressler, an architect of the conservative movement in the Southern Baptist Convention and a man of tremendous Christian charity and genteel manner stood to object to the resolution. He was frail, emotionally animated, and clearly angry.

Flashing across my monitor I saw a man I know well, and deeply love, reduced to a shell before the convention messengers, many of whom will never know the price he paid, the arrows he sustained, nor the scars he bears having put his name, his family, and his reputation on the line for a cause in which he deeply believed over the last half century.

He was a lion in winter. Having built his life’s witness and work on a reputation for correctly adjudicating the hills upon which a man should offer his life, he chose this last one very poorly.

It is likely that Southern Baptist’s last public memory of Judge Pressler will be these few moments yesterday in St. Louis. For those of us who have known him well – whose lives have been marked by his kindness, counsel, and courtesies – it is but a passing moment, albeit painful to behold, when a man who might and should have known better wrongly judged the momentum against which he summoned his strength and voice.

And then, why I was encouraged.

For many years I have known Georgia pastor James Merritt. Years ago, as a young seminarian, he encouraged me individually and personally in ways I have never discussed or written. In recent years, my appreciation and admiration of him has grown as I’ve observed him – listened to him – and learned about his integrity, though I myself am far removed from the natural orbit of his influence.

Today, without any forewarning, I saw him stand and speak. He spoke boldly – as he always does. He managed to alliterate – at which he is famously unparalleled. But above all, he threw down a gauntlet before the Southern Baptist Convention with no certainty about whether he would be reviled or revered.

Headlines today coming out of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention will surely acknowledge, with singular interest, the messenger’s unmitigated determination to repudiate the last emblem of racist bigotry from it’s storied past. It is unlikely that Merritt will receive the credit, but it is certain that he wasn’t seeking it.

Some months ago I was asked to attend this year’s Southern Baptist Convention. Until last week, I contemplated that possibility.

Today, I’m glad I chose to stay in DC and watch from afar. I saw, without question, the end of an era that needed its final chapter closed, and the rise of a statesman from yesterday’s battles who spoke with eloquence and precision to nudge the convention toward an unequivocal stand on the right side of history when it comes to the matter of race.