Last summer, when UrbanFaith talked to New Orleans pastor Rev. Fred Luter, he had just been elected to the first vice presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. No other African American has ever risen as high as Luter in SBC leadership. Now Luter tells NPR that if he is elected to the presidency this year (he announced his intention to run in January), it will send a message that the denomination is serious about its efforts to diversify. “It will say something to the country and to the world that the Southern Baptist Convention is not just talking this thing, we’re actually walking this thing,” said Luter.
SBC Wants to Hear From Black/Hispanic Churches
Luter’s rise coincides with other SBC diversity efforts. The denomination has also created a three-year African American Advisory Council “to communicate the perspectives of black churches and their leaders to Southern Baptist Convention entity leaders” and a Hispanic Advisory Council “held its inaugural meeting in early February in Fort Worth, Texas,” with other “ethnically-oriented advisory groups” possibly coming in the future, Baptist Press reported.
McKissic Says More Black Leaders Needed
The Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Church in Arlington, Texas, first suggested Luter for the presidency in 2010, according to Associated Baptist Press. ABP quoted McKissic as saying on his blog that he didn’t believe “any serious additions of black churches joining the SBC” would be forthcoming until there are “at least two-to-three minority entity heads.” ABP also noted that “McKissic has spoken widely about his experience visiting the SBC headquarters in Nashville in 2007, when he asked to meet the highest ranking African American there and was informed it was the head custodian.”
Moody Publishers Increases Offerings for People of Color
As UrbanFaith previously reported, the SBC isn’t the only majority white denomination that is actively pursuing racial and ethnic diversity. Now, at least one Christian publisher is following this trend. Moody Publishers has announced that it “plans to develop products for urban communities by expanding its offerings for African-Americans, Latinos and urban influencers,” Christian Retailing reported. This effort is part of a restructuring that strengthens its collaborations with the radio and education ministries of Moody Bible Institute and its new “across the globe, cultures and generations” vision, according to CR.
“Brother White” Preaches Church Integration Message
Racial reconciliation seems to be a growing trend in Christian entertainment as well. Now comes “Brother White,” a television movie that tells the story of a white Southern California mega-church pastor’s awkward efforts to fit in at a small black church in inner-city Atlanta after he accepts a position there as senior pastor. “Evening Shade” alum David A.R. White stars in the film, “Sister, Sister” and “227” star Jackée Harry plays the church’s former first lady, and gospel music artist BeBe Winans guest stars as himself. Eurweb.com reports that Harry told a group of television critics her work in the film is some of the best she’s done “in a long time.” “Brother White” airs tonight at 9 p.m. EST on GMC.
What do you think?
Is pursuing ethnic and racial diversity a hot new trend or the only logical response to demographic realities?
CIVIL DISCOURSE: Lisa Sharon Harper and D.C. Innes provide a model for constructive Christian dialogue across political divides.
Left, Right & Christ is a thoughtful examination of the intersection of evangelical faith and politics by two evangelicals who have spent their careers working amidst the tensions of that sometimes-crazy political space. In the book, coauthors Lisa Sharon Harper, a politically progressive Christian, and D.C. Innes, a politically conservative Christian, engage in a constructive dialogue about the issues that are defining the nature of political discourse in our nation today — healthcare, abortion, immigration, gay marriage, the environment. (Full disclosure: I helped research Lisa Sharon Harper’s portion of the book.) A couple months ago, Innes and Harper held a panel discussion and book signing with Jim Wallis of Sojourners and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Innes, an associate professor of politics at King’s College, offered a construal of Christian public engagement from the right; Harper, director of mobilizing at Sojourners, shared one from the left. Needless to say, it was a lively discussion. Having read the book and attended the launch event, two things merit mentioning here here.
The role of technology in disrupting consumption and employment
An audience member noted that technology plays an often-overlooked role in reconfiguring labor markets and purchasing patterns. For instance, the advent of automated teller machines — ATMs — marks an improvement in the access and availability of money for consumers. ATMs, however, reduce the need for the traditional function of tellers in local bank branches. As more banks adopted ATMs, consumer patterns shifted and the demand for a certain type of labor diminished.
Neither Innes nor Harper fully integrates this ongoing development — Austrian economist Joseph Schumpter calls it creative destruction — of technology in particular, and capitalism more generally, into their account of the State, the Market, and the Church. To their credit, though, both authors acknowledged the point once it was made. Technology is an existential issue as much as an instrumental one. Phrased differently, it not only alters what we do, but it also radically re-arranges our way of being in the world. I left the panel thinking about this question: What does it mean to be the Church in a world where technology is such a powerful force? To put it crudely, is a proximate cause in unemployment and underemployment from Wall Street to Main Street and our consumption of everything — from the news we read to the Facebook updates on our profiles — is mediated through technology? I’m still pondering this one and I encourage you to consider it as well.
The use of Scripture in political arguments
While reading the book and listening to their remarks, I noticed an interesting difference between the co-authors. Ms. Harper generally constructs her arguments from passages of the Old Testament. Her treatment of Genesis 1-3 distinctively accents the image of God doctrine and shalom theology. It is rather commonplace to hear Christians from the left invoke the Hebrew prophets or the Imago Dei as a resource for biblical claims about justice and human dignity. Harper’s unique turn within that conversation is to take Genesis — rather than say, Amos or Isaiah — as her starting point and then to deepen the appeal to the image of God doctrine by connecting it to shalom — the sense of wholeness and right relationships between people, between people and creation, and between people and God.
Mr. Innes, conversely, places the weight of his arguments in New Testament passages like Romans 13:1-7 and 2 Peter 2:13-17. His vision: God ordains the government to restrain human sin, punish evil, and praise the good. The last point is particularly important for the professor, who draws a distinction between a government that praises the good (i.e. distributing civic awards like the Presidential Medal of Freedom) and a public sector that attempts to provide goods such as housing, healthcare, and so on. Innes’ arguments — in the book and in person — conclude that a State with large public expenditures and direct service programs overreaches the biblical proscribed role for government.
At the event, Wallis and Innes held a brief but interesting exchange on regulation, Wall Street, and punishing evildoers. Wallis agreed with Innes that punishing evil and restraining sin is a biblical function of government. He then challenged Innes with a question like the following: “Why not apply the insight about punishing evil when it comes to Wall Street?” Innes did not offer a response, although in fairness to him, Wallis did not substantiate his provocative inquiry with a specific example. Nevertheless, given the high-profile conviction of Raj Rajaratnam for insider trading — and his eleven-year sentence, the longest ever issued for this type of offense — Wallis and Innes certainly stumbled upon a discussion worth having.
The panel discussion took place with a refreshing amount of charity amidst contrasting perspectives. Despite harboring significant and perhaps irreconcilable differences of political opinion, neither one made the argumentative move of questioning the other’s faith, audibly doubting the “biblical” nature of the opposing argument, or otherwise resorting to ad hominem attacks. Harper and Innes’ book, and their public dialogue, provides a helpful example for Christians from left to right. In a political environment that incessantly caricatures and stereotypes contrasting points of view, a steadfast refusal to bear false witness — and its corollary commitment, telling the truth as we see it — is a distinctive gift of conversational charity that Christians can bring to democratic discourse.
Progressive Christian leaders including former Democratic congressman Floyd Flake and Sojourners President Jim Wallis held a press conference today near the World Trade Center site to announce that they are adding their voices to the conservative chorus of religious leaders (Richard Land, Tony Perkins, Pat Robertson) that has criticized New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to exclude clergy from Sunday’s 9/11 memorial dedication at ground zero, CNN reported.
“But there’s a twist. In addition to criticizing Bloomberg, progressive religious leaders are also taking aim at prominent conservatives who have blasted Bloomberg in recent days, alleging that those critics are stoking division at a time that calls for national unity,” the article said.
Surprised and Disappointed
“Utterly disappointed and surprised” was the response of Fernando Cabrera, a New York City councilman and the pastor of New Life Outreach International church in the Bronx to Bloomberg’s decision, CNN reported.
“There’s certain things that government cannot do, and answering questions of meaning of ‘Why are we going through this?’ and ‘Where am I going to get strength from?’ – those are existential questions that can only be answered from a spiritual aspect,” Cabrera said.
Cabrera and the Family Research Council have collected over 62,000 signatures asking the mayor to allow clergy, prayer and first responders (who have also been excluded) at the city’s 9/11 memorial ceremony Sunday, The Christian Post reported.
The Microphone Won’t Melt
Among Bloomberg’s critics is former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. Giuliani was widely praised for his handling of the 9/11 crisis when he was mayor. He echoed the recommendation of Southern Baptist Richard Land, who said there should be a priest, a minister, a rabbi, and an imam at the event.
“Say a little prayer. The microphone will not melt,” said Giuliani before launching into a brief lesson at the National Press Club on what the constitution says about church/state separation.
But clergy have never been an official part of the 10 remembrance ceremonies at ground zero; moments of silence have and will be again, The Huffington Post reported.
The ceremony was designed in coordination with 9/11 families with a mixture of readings that are spiritual, historical and personal in nature and this year’s six moments of silence allow every individual a time for personal and religious introspection, a spokeswoman for the mayor told HuffPost.
An Uphill Battle
Critics “face an uphill battle,” Religion News Service’s David Gibson said, because “Bloomberg is not one to second-guess himself” and “tends to get what he wants.” Besides, Bloomberg defended religious freedom when he “championed Muslims’ right to build an Islamic cultural center near Ground Zero” and when he “rejected the advice of secular critics and defended the inclusion of a cross made of girders from the fallen towers in the new 9/11 Memorial.”
Protesting a Call to Compassion
Meanwhile, protests are being lobbed by some Christians because Evangelicals won’t be represented at the Washington National Cathedral’s “A Call to Compassion” on September 11, the Daily Caller reported. The commemoration will include a bishop, a rabbi, a Tibetan lama, a Buddhist nun, representatives of the Hindu and Jain faiths, an imam and an Islamic musician, but no evangelicals.
The idea that a group that represents at least 35 percent of the population has been excluded “is difficult to comprehend, much less to defend,” said Southern Baptist Richard Land.
What do you think?
Are these egregious omissions or much ado about nothing?
The Southern Baptist Convention is the latest majority-white denomination to publicly reaffirm its efforts to pursue racial and ethnic diversity in its leadership ranks. Earlier this month, the SBC’s North American Mission Board (NAMB) announced that Ken Weathersby, an African American, would fill the newly created role of Presidential Ambassador for Ethnic Church Relations. Weathersby will work to facilitate diversity in the SBC’s executive leadership circles, as well as in the convention’s local churches.
The SBC’s efforts are bold, especially in light of its complicated history with race relations. But it’s far from the first predominantly white evangelical denomination to get serious about racial and ethnic diversity. The Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA) and the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC) have been at it for a long time, too. And, despite inevitable challenges, both are making headway.
A Long Road Ahead
“I definitely celebrate the progress that is being made in terms of Christ centered multi-ethnic development within evangelicalism, but I also would say we have a long way to go,” said Rev. Efrem Smith, Superintendent of the Evangelical Covenant Church’s Pacific Southwest Conference.
Smith’s sentiments were echoed by three other African American leaders that we talked to in the weeks since the Southern Baptists’ NAMB announced its appointment of Weathersby to his new executive role.
Southern Baptists Working, Not Talking
NAMB’s move follows closely behind the SBC’s election of Rev. Fred Luter as its first African American first vice president. UrbanFaith emailed Weathersby as soon as the news broke to request an interview as we had done after Luter’s election. This time, however, NAMB’s vice president for Communications Mike Ebert replied saying Weathersby needs time to settle into the job before granting interviews. Several other SBC pastors, including Luter, either didn’t return calls requesting an interview or declined to talk about the SBC’s diversity push.
Smith and other leaders in the ECC and the EFCA did agree to talk to us about the trend and wished the SBC well in their pursuit of change.
“The real progress in the Southern Baptist or any evangelical denomination will be when the president of Southern Seminary is a person of color, when the district superintendent in the Southern Baptist Church, when the president of the Southern Baptist Church is a person of color,” said Smith.
Evangelical Covenant Church Takes Holistic Approach
“Instead of one reconciling ethnic staff person who focuses on diversity, our president [Gary Walter] has said, ‘We need at all levels of leadership in this denomination to have a commitment to diversity,” said Smith.
“I’m a 41-year-old African American who is leading the largest conference in our denomination. A few years ago, I would have never dreamed that would have been a possibility for me, not because I’m saying the denomination is racist, but it’s not every day that an evangelical denomination elects an African American superintendent. … Out of 11 superintendents, we have three that are African American and one who’s a native Alaskan,” he said.
“One of the things that we discovered in the process is churches and organizations will hire a person and give that person that title, then what tends to happen is that everything ethnic goes to that person and so the buy-in wasn’t necessarily whole and complete,” said Spooner.
With a little over 800 churches and 200,000 or less members nationally, the vitality of the denomination has depended upon ethnic growth, Spooner said. Twenty-four to 25 percent of ECC churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic, he said.
“One of the things that we strongly believe is that God is a God of cultures. Yes, we’re created equal. Yes, we’re all human beings. But we also have various ethnic backgrounds that when you don’t deny the ethnic realities and embrace those, you become more whole as people,” said Spooner.
Reformed Church in America Follows ECC Lead
Spooner grew up in a predominantly black Harlem church in the majority white Reformed Church in America (RCA) denomination and worked for the RCA in the late 1970s. He recalls, at the time, his Reformed brethren would joke that “if you ain’t Dutch, you ain’t much.”
“The Reformed Church had a long way to go at the time. The interesting thing in the Reformed Church is that they are now looking at some of the things that we have done,” he said.
In a 2010 report, RCA general secretary Wesley Granberg-Michaelson said he is encouraged that more than one-third of its 249 new congregations are “racially or ethnically different than the RCA Anglo majority.” He warned, however, that a “relationship gap” between traditional and new congregations poses “the greatest threat to the RCA’s life together as a whole.” RCA created a Multi-Racial Strategy Coalition to guide its efforts toward diversity and has adopted its own Five-fold Test that mirrors the ECC’s.
Evangelical Free’s ‘Big Passion’ for Diversity
Dr. Alvin Sanders is Executive Director of Reconciliation for the EFCA. In collaboration with EFCA’s President, Chief Financial Officer, Chief Development Officer, and Vice Presidents of National and International Ministry, Sanders helps determine the direction of his denomination, he said.
“Our mission statement is to glorify God by multiplying healthy churches among all people. I’m the chief architect of the ‘all people,’” said Sanders. He was hired four years ago in response to an EFCA reorganization and said diversity has been “a big passion” for EFCA’s president Dr. William J. Hamel, who created a task force on the issue in the 1990s.
“I believe this is an emerging paradigm. I see within some Christian colleges and universities my type of position, but other denominations or para-church organizations are going at this at a different rate. To be quite honest, I don’t know anybody else who has my exact same position. That doesn’t mean they’re not out there. I definitely know within denominational circles, they’re not plentiful,” said Sanders.
“Christian organizations need to wake up. If we’re going to really reach the mission field of the United States, and fulfill the mandate of the Scriptures, we need to be more diverse. … It’s simply a matter of practicing transformative leadership and changing policies, practices and procedures so that the organizational culture becomes one where ethnics will self-select to be a part of what you’re doing,” he said.
Sanders advocates a “two-pronged” approach of helping white churches to realize that pursuing diversity should be a priority and working with ethnic churches and leaders to address historical distrust between the races. “Their major question is: why should we be joined with you all? It’s a different paradigm depending on which group you’re dealing with,” said Sanders.
About 15 percent of EFCA’s 1500 churches are now ethnic or multi-ethnic and 35 percent of new church plants are, he said. But EFCA wants 20 percent of its churches to be ethnic or multi-ethnic by the year 2020. When 20 percent of “the other” is incorporated, the fabric of an organization changes, he said.
Building Bridges of Loyalty and Trust
In 2004, the EFCA hired Rev. Dante Upshaw to serve as its first Director of African American Ministries. He had been a youth pastor and elder in a Chicago EFCA church, but said that like many members of urban and ethnic churches, he was only “marginally connected” to the denomination and felt no sense of loyalty to it.
“For ethnic and urban leaders, it really takes effort to have someone to be a bridge between the denomination and local leaders. That’s primarily my role, to be a bridge builder,” said Upshaw. With 15-to-20 African American pastors identified in 2004, EFCA’s prayer was to grow to 100 active and involved leaders by 2010, he said. “We reached that in 2009.”
African Americans are also serving on national and district boards, so they’re not just increasing in numbers, but having an impact, Upshaw added.
SBC Reports Its Progress
Although SBC pastors declined to talk to UrbanFaith for this article, last week the denomination’s own Baptist Press published an article about the change.
“African Americans comprise 6.5 percent of the 16 million members of the Southern Baptist Convention, according to 2009 figures. Whites comprise 81 percent; other ethnicities 12.5 percent,” Baptist Press reported.
“Luter’s election comes as the convention is focused heavily on multiethnic inclusion. At this year’s annual meeting in Phoenix, the Executive Committee and other convention leaders signed an Affirmation of Unity and Cooperation, pledging ‘to embrace our brothers and sisters of every ethnicity, race and language as equal partners in our collecttive ministries to engage all people groups with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,’” the article stated. Luter recently said he’s 80 percent sure he will run for the SBC presidency next year.
A Vocal Critic in the SBC
Among the SBC pastors who were unavailable for comment was Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. McKissic has been perhaps the most vocal internal critic of his denomination’s record on race.
In two blogposts last spring, McKissic outlined accusations of egregious racism within SBC’s churches. The Associated Baptist Press took note.
“The SBC must repent of systemic, institutionalized and historic negative attitudes toward women, race and dissenters. … When we repent of our sins and turn from our wicked ways, then God will forgive our sins and heal our convention and anoint us to go forth with power in carrying out the Great Commission,” McKissic is quoted as saying.
McKissic also started floating the name of Fred Luter as a candidate for SBC president back in 2010, more than a year before Luter’s rise to the position of SBC first vice president.
A Painful, Rewarding Process
As the SBC and other denominations attempt to more fully reflect and embrace the beauty and diversity God intended for his church, the process is sure to be painful.
“I’ve got to really understand God’s love for me,” said Upshaw. “That’s a challenge. When I’m struggling with that, it makes it really hard to love other folks, [especially] someone who is very different from me, be it culturally or whatever.”
He added, “What has to keep me getting up each morning and pressing through the disappointment is that this is a step of obedience in reflecting the kingdom. The family of God is a beautiful tapestry of all kinds of people: men and women, poor, wealthy, Hispanic, African American. When our local church or denomination doesn’t reflect that, we’re missing something.”
If you’re like me, the debt-ceiling debate seems like one more opportunity for various political operatives to sling mud without offering real solutions. But since the House of Representatives voted to approve a “Cut, Cap, and Balance” bill Tuesday that President Obama said he would veto and Senate Democrats are expected to reject in favor of the “Gang of Six” plan, perhaps it’s time to give the debt-ceiling debate serious thought.
First, what is the debt ceiling?
Reporting for NPR in June, The Root’s Cynthia Gordy said the debt ceiling is “the amount of money, set by Congress, that the federal government can legally borrow in order to pay for its commitments — things like Social Security, Medicare and military operations.” She reported that the government has been overspending since the end of the Clinton administration and borrows money by selling U.S. Treasury bonds, notes and T-bills to the public, financial institutions and other countries. We reached the current $14.3 trillion debt limit on May 16, according to Gordy, but by suspending payments to federal retirement funds, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner prevented a default and estimated that the government could continue borrowing until Aug. 2.
Now that we know what it is, what are Christian leaders saying about the debate?
Baptist Press reports that the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy enitity, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, is “sponsoring a three-part standard — including congressional approval of a balanced budget amendment — that must be met before raising the country’s debt limit.”
The “Cut, Cap, Balance Pledge” consists of substantial spending cuts, enforceable spending caps, and passage of a Balanced Budget Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, “but only if it includes both a spending limitation and a super-majority for raising taxes, in addition to balancing revenues and expenses.”
The Family Research Council (FRC) published an action alert this week that said, “The House of Representatives will vote Tuesday on Cut, Cap, and Balance to ensure immediate cuts to government spending, place caps on future spending, and would grant the President’s request to lift the debt ceiling only if the Balanced Budget Amendment is passed and sent to the states for ratification.” The organization advises its constituency to contact their U.S. Senators to “urge them to oppose any ‘back-up’ plan, such as Senator McConnell’s surrender plan,” which it says will “allow the President to lift the debt ceiling and only allow Congress a vote to stop it if it could garner a super majority.” FRC advises instead that constiuents ask their sensators to support efforts to pass the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act.
In a July 7 Sojourners blog post, Jim Wallis described the debate as a “clash between two competing moral visions,” one that pits “those who believe in the common good and those who believe individual good is the only good.” Wallis wrote:
“While a biblical worldview informs Christians that they should be wary of the rich and defend the poor, a competing ideology says that wealth is equivalent to righteousness and God’s blessing. It is a morality play in which Washington, D.C. is the stage, politicians are actors, lobbyists are directors, the ‘debt ceiling’ is the conflict, and we are the audience who will pay the cost of the production, whether we enjoyed it or not.”
A group of Christian Circle of Protection signatories including John R. Bryant, Senior Bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference; Stephen J. Thurston, president of the National Baptist Convention of America; and Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, co-facilitator of the National African American Clergy Network issued a statement that listed the debt ceiling among its concerns:
“Budgets are moral documents, and how we reduce future deficits are historic and defining moral choices. As Christian leaders, we urge Congress and the administration to give moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times, our broken economy, and our wounded world.”
UrbanFaith has not yet found any explicit Christian endorsements of the Gang of Six plan. CNN reports that the plan, drafted by three Democratic and three Republican senators, would “impose” $500 billion in budget savings, reduce marginal income tax rates, and ultimately abolish an alternative minimum tax, but create three tax brackets to generate an additional $1 trillion in revenue, require cost changes to Medicare’s growth rate formula, and cut the Pentagon budget by $80 billion.
Is the Religious Right driving the fight?
At The Huffington Post, anti-evangelical curmudgeon Frank Schaeffer, as he is want to do, blamed the current debate on the “religious right”:
“The reality is that the debt ceiling confrontation is by, for and the result of America’s evangelical Christian control of the Republican Party. It is the ultimate expression of an alternate reality, one that has the mistrust of the U.S. government as its bedrock ‘faith,’ second only to faith in Jesus.”
We’ll spare you the rest of his diatribe.
Finally, is this debate really about racism against President Obama?
Believe it or not, there’s a race angle to this fiasco, as well.
At National Review, Andrew Stiles quotes Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D., Texas) as “strongly suggesting” racism against President Obama is at the root of Republican opposition to raising the limit. Said Jackson Lee:
“I do not understand what I think is the maligning and maliciousness [toward] this president. … Why is he different? And in my community, that is the question that we raise. In the minority community that is question that is being raised. Why is this president being treated so disrespectfully? Why has the debt limit been raised 60 times? Why did the leader of the Senate continually talk about his job is to bring the president down to make sure he is unelected?”
If the reader comments on the post are any indication, the congresswoman may have a point.
What do you think? Is the federal budget a moral document? If so, is it immoral to keep borrowing against the future? Or does the current controversy amount to just another racially motivated political attack against President Obama?