An American Baptist leader encouraged the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to become “more Baptist” by standing alongside the “resistance and resolve” of minorities.”
To live with the minority experience is to live with the fear of being forgotten and excluded. It is the feeling of foreignness, of not belonging,” said Aidsand Wright-Riggins, executive director of National Ministries of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. “It is to live in the reality of what Ralph Ellison called the invisible man, to be present but not counted, speaking but not being heard, to be absent in places of power.”
Wright-Riggins, who is African-American, told the Religious Liberty Council of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, that 2008 marks the 40th anniversary of both the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Aretha Franklin’s remake of Otis Redding’s “Respect.”
Though originally a song about a man and a woman, Wright-Riggins said, four decades later “Respect” has become an anthem for civil rights, human rights and the women’s movement. “Why?” he asked. “Because the song informs the threatened in the words of Martin Luther King that nobody can ride your back unless your back is bent.”
Wright Riggins said the “enormous existential challenge” facing most minorities is how to “develop a self that preserves a sense of dignity and wholeness” in the midst of a society “that negates your being at every turn.”
But for King, Wright-Riggins said, a person was not a “thing” but rather dignified and in the process of becoming a “somebody.”
“There are those who want to help the world become more Christian,” he said. “That’s noble. There are those who want their church become more Christian–perhaps more noble still. But in the spirit of Martin Luther King, our Baptist brother–and he is our brother–I want to encourage Baptists to become more Baptistic–Baptistic by both recognizing just how fragile soul freedom, religious liberty, religious equality, really is and standing with those who resist majoritarianism in their road toward somebodiness.”
Wright-Riggins said he grew up in an era when “if you wanted to be counted,” black people had to use bleaching cream to lighten their skin and treat their hair so it wasn’t “nappy.”
The message to “come over to the other side,” he said, was that: “We do not respect you. We do not respect your human nature. We do not recognize your human dignity.”
“Baptists respect human nature and human dignity,” Wright-Riggins said. “Baptists fight for the rights of others to speak their own mind and live their own truth. Baptists believe that God’s stamp on all of God’s children is God’s seal of preciousness.”
Wright-Riggins said he lives in a culturally diverse community, where neighbors often fly flags of their country of origin, like Poland or Ireland. Wanting to do the same, he flew the African-American and Cameroon flags–until someone wrote a racial epithet on his gate and egged his car.
“I discovered I can’t fly the African-American and Cameroon flag unless I also simuItaneously fly the American flag,” he said. He called it “scary” when people mix up patriotism, religion and race.
But Wright-Riggins confessed he has been “both a victim and a victimizer” with regard to religious tolerance.
As a college student, he said, he gave a speech using the March 1969 cover of Ebony featuring an illustration of a “Black Messiah.” To illustrate how he felt torn, rejected and not heard as an African-American, he tore up the picture while he described its meaning. Then he took out a familiar picture of Jesus portrayed as a white man. Before he had torn it a quarter inch, attacking classmates slammed him against a wall.
Wright-Riggins said he told the story at the recent New Baptist Covenant Celebration in Atlanta, and afterward a young white woman approached him and told him she thought it was wrong for him to tear up the white Jesus.
“For almost 40 years now I have been walking around angry about how I was threatened and how I wasn’t heard about this example of the white Christ, but it never entered my consciousness of how deeply committed others were to that image of this white Christ,” he confessed.
Wright-Riggins quoted Martha Nussbaum, author of Liberty of Conscience: A Defense of America’s tradition of Religious Liberty, as saying, “There is real and genuine tolerance only when a person is firmly and absolutely convinced of the truth, or what he holds to be the truth, when he at the same time recognizes the right of those who deny that this truth exists and who contradict him.”
“My prayer is that we as Baptists will be persons who respect freedom, persons who promote equality and persons who respect each other,” he said. “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find it what it means to me and to you and to each other and respect and live it.”
After his speech, Wright-Riggins accepted the Baptist Joint Committee’s J.M. Dawson Religious Liberty Award, which recognizes outstanding contributions in the area of religious freedom and separation of church and state. Also receiving the award this year was Patricia Ayres of Austin, Texas, a Baptist philanthropist and advocate for social concerns.
Wright-Riggins is also a member of the Baptist Center for Ethics board.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.