Henlee Barnette’s death at 93 silences one of the last great voices of a generation of Baptist ethicists in the South. They made Christian ethics a discipline both for Baptist seminarians and educators and for the churches their students would serve.
As much as any of his generation, Henlee embodied the journey from personal salvation to social consciousness. Like his own hero Walter Rauschenbusch, he combined deep piety with a transforming social vision. As one of his students I find myself forever changed by what he taught me.
First, agape is paramount. Agape, defined as “to will and to work for the well-being of the other,” was the Christian principle in Barnette’s ethics. He inveighed against the “sloppy agape” of those who would confuse emotion with authentic Christian love. He measured every decision by its adherence to true biblical agape. In so doing he pointed us unerringly to the moral compass of Jesus.
Second, agape is active. It was never enough for Barnette to think or write or even talk about his convictions on issues. All those things were important, but he also believed you had to act on your convictions. That meant he marched for fair housing in the city of Louisville. It meant in connection with Vietnam he declared himself a “selective conscientious objector,” who “will decide on Christian grounds which wars I support and which I will oppose.” And it meant he cared for those on the margins in specific, concrete ways.
Third, agape is inclusive. For Barnette, no issue of life lay beyond the reach of Christian ethics. In a culture where certain issues, e.g. race, were off limits for church discussion, Barnette challenged his Baptist brothers and sisters to put our Christian professions into everyday practice. Even more, he filled his consideration of issues with biblical content, searching the scriptures for principles which make agape specific to all the situations of life. He believed that scripture speaks to every issue of life.
Fourth, agape is intelligent. Barnette was intensely biblical in his approach to issues, but he was never content with simplistic biblicism. He sought to use every bit of scientific data available to inform Christian decision-making. And he was always willing to alter specific positions upon the discovery of new truth. The search for better decisions served as a constant in his approach.
Fifth, agape is personal. As a committed Christian himself Barnette believed each of us is called to follow Jesus in every area of life. He believed that meant showing love to one another in daily interaction. He was always giving blessing—to his family, to his students, to the marginalized, to the disenfranchised. At his funeral, with appropriate demurrers, Bill Leonard said “Henlee was what Jesus would have been like had he lived to 93.” That bit of pardonable hyperbole captures something of the essence of what interaction with Henlee was like for those of us who were privileged to know him. And he serves as a model for us.
Sixth, agape is Spirit-led. Barnette believed that decision-making should be bathed in prayer. He argued that, once you have assembled the facts and considered them in the light of scriptural truth, you must still consult the Author of Scripture for guidance as you decide. Only the Spirit can lead us beyond ourselves to true ethical wisdom.
Finally, agape knows no fear. Again and again through a long, long life, Barnette took unpopular positions, swam upstream, did what he believed was right in the face of the powers that be. He battled the segregated South. He battled the American war machine. He battled big business. He battled sexism. He battled institutional priorities. He battled Baptist fundamentalism. He paid a price for that approach. But I never once heard him regret doing what his Jesus and his Bible led him to do. God grant us all that kind of love!
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.