A call to American Baptists
Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson
August 9, 2019
I love being Baptist. I hold dear our Baptist beliefs of Bible, soul, church and religious freedom. As a Baptist, the concept of congregational autonomy and the associational principles are important aspects of being church to me. And then specific to being American Baptist, like so many, I take tremendous pride in the fact that we are the most diverse denomination in the world. We are a big tent, minority-majority denomination. We are followers of Jesus Christ, recognizing him as the Son of God through the divine influence of the Holy Spirit rather than through a creed. We represent every race, ethnicity and culture. We are LGBTQ and heterosexual, male, female, and gender+. We embrace positions ranging from the most conservative to the most liberal, pro-life to pro-choice. Given this rich diversity of difference, it is difficult for American Baptists to come to consensus on anything beyond the assertion that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Even more so, given the diversity of our beliefs, it is virtually impossible for anyone to take a public position without upsetting someone in our American Baptist family. I know this better than most having served as the Executive Director of the Ministers Council, American Baptist Churches, USA. After the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary school in 2012, my office issued a statement. Naively, I was certain that colleagues would be of like minds regarding what needed to be done. That assumption could not have been further from the truth. I received so many angry calls from pastors for the positions that I took. I was astonished.
So, I understand the challenge of offering a statement conveying our feelings or thoughts regarding what should happen given the recent mass shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio. Knowing our diversity as American Baptists, is it almost certain that positions taken will alienate someone, which is anxiety producing for me as a leader. Yet, standing on the word that “God has not given us a spirit of fear,” I maintain that we cannot allow alienation anxiety to render us silent and inactive. I understand that we may have differing positions on the accessibility of guns and magazine capacity. We may have different beliefs about what people can say given the freedom of speech. Our political persuasions will be different. Yet there are times when the line of ethical values is crossed, and then we must speak and act.
We may have differing positions on the accessibility of guns and magazine capacity. We may have different beliefs about what people can say given the freedom of speech. Our political persuasions will be different. Yet there are times when the line of ethical values is crossed, and then we must speak and act.
This was the position that the Internet Cybersecurity Service Provider, Cloudflare, found themselves in after the El Paso shooting. Because, in the words of Matthew Prince, Cloudflare’s Chief Executive, “It’s dangerous for infrastructure companies to be making what are editorial decisions,” the company hosted the content of 8Chan, a user-created message board website known for extremist viewpoints. Cloudflare ensured that 8Chan’s content was protected against cyberattacks. Yet when the alleged El Paso gunman posted his manifesto on 8Chan’s site, Cloudflare had to decide whether to continue to support the site. Matthew Prince believed the content to be reprehensible; but he saw a decision to withdraw support as a slippery slope of censorship. Ultimately Prince decided to ban 8Chan because of its willingness to ignore laws against violent incitement. He said, “If we see a bad thing in the world and we can help get in front of it, we have some obligation to do that.”
I say that we as American Baptists must do the same even as we exercise the sensitivity for which our diversity calls. As people of faith we mourn the loss of life because we declare that all humanity is made in the image of God. We believe that all are precious, and therefore, declare that the targeting of anyone because of, in the case of the El Paso shooting, their race or ethnicity is wrong.
Furthermore, we denounce practices of privilege that declare white male gunmen as mentally ill while naming gunmen of color as terrorists. Domestic terrorism, regardless of the perpetrator, is an issue and we cannot abide by tactics that diminish the offense for some. Declaring our faith in the God of love, we condemn the hate speech that is dividing our country. Instead, we commit ourselves to teach the love of God through Jesus Christ, rebuking those who would spread hate.
Declaring our faith in the God of love, we condemn the hate speech that is dividing our country. Instead, we commit ourselves to teach the love of God through Jesus Christ, rebuking those who would spread hate.
We are Baptists. We are the ones who cry fearlessly in the wilderness to make way for the Lord. We are Baptists. We are the ones who advocate for God’s children as followers of Christ.
We are also American Baptists, descendants of those who boldly declared that slave-holding missionaries could not be appointed to serve. We are descendants of those who supported European, Mexican and Canadian immigrants through the American Baptist Home Mission Societies of the nineteenth century. We affirmed support of persons and churches participating in the movement to provide Christian sustenance and care to refugees from Central America in 1985. And as American Baptists today, we are the ones who must continue to speak out in response to the bad things that we are seeing in our nation. Our diversity is a strength and our voices are needed more than ever.
The Rev. Dr. Debora Jackson is director of Lifelong Learning at Yale Divinity School. Her book “Spiritual Practices for Effective Leadership: 7Rs of SANCTUARY for Pastors” is available through Judson Press.
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