A delegation representing British Baptists travels Thursday to Jamaica to personally apologize for their nation’s role two centuries ago in transatlantic trading of slaves.
The Baptist Union of Great Britain adopted a statement last November not only apologizing for slavery but also repenting of failure to listen to black brothers and sisters who still suffer as a result of that legacy.
Some had criticized British Baptists for not making such an apology at an annual meeting of the Baptist World Alliance in Ghana last July. At that meeting, representatives of the Union of Baptist Churches in the Netherlands issued a formal apology for Dutch involvement in slave trade. The gathering was highlighted by a moving service of memorial and reconciliation held at a historical site associated with the transatlantic slave trade.
That prompted a discussion among British Baptists, including a number of letters in the Baptist Times newspaper, that led to the Baptist Union Council of Great Britain issuing a clear and direct apology last fall. It acknowledged “our share in and benefit from our nation’s participation in the transatlantic slave trade” and repented for “hurt we have caused, the divisions we have created, our reluctance to face up to the sin of the past, our unwillingness to listen to the pain of our black sisters and brothers, and our silence in the face of racism and injustice today.”
The apology is particularly significant for Baptists in Jamaica, who trace their history to a freed black slave missionary from the United States and were very active in their nation’s struggle for emancipation.
“The Jamaica Baptist Union received the news of the apology made by our sisters and brothers in the Baptist family in the United Kingdom with openness, humility and appreciation,” said Karl Johnson, general secretary of the Jamaica Baptist Union. “For years we have felt that such an action was necessary and have indeed encouraged them to consider same. It therefore goes without saying that we are grateful to God that in God’s own time and in the lifetime of some who were part of the original request in 1994, it has come to pass.”
Taking the apology to Jamaica in person “seemed to many people a vital step on the journey” toward reconciliation, said Jonathan Edwards, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain.
Alistair Brown, general director of BMS World Mission, said “Baptists in Britain were slower than we should have been to take a decisive stand, and I’m very sorry about that.
“It matters now to stand shoulder to shoulder with Caribbean sisters and brothers, acknowledging failures and rejoicing in Christian fellowship,” Brown said.
Wale Hudson-Roberts, racial justice coordinator of the BGUB, said the apology statement was not only timely, commemorating the 200th anniversary of abolition of slave trade by the British Parliament in 1807, but it has also been “a theologically powerful act.”
“The truth has set many Africans and Caribbeans free,” he said. “Emerging from the apology is now a willingness and enthusiasm to work towards addressing, and strategically challenging the legacies of the transatlantic slave trade with the hope that one day all Baptists will belong to a family that is free from prejudice and racism.”
Neville Callam, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance who is originally from Jamaica, said he thanked God for the apology statement.
“As members of the body of Christ, we treasure the solidarity we have in Christ and we know how to respond when fellow Christians admit to wrongdoing, if even by their forebears,” Callam said. “We know the joy and the blessing of forgiveness. With this, true healing is possible and liberation becomes the common gain of everyone involved.”
During eight days in Jamaica, the British Baptists expect to meet with Jamaican Baptist leaders, worship in their churches and visit sites associated with their history. The team is scheduled for two worship services this Sunday, which will include time for the apology and presentation of a plaque commemorating the event.
“Going to Jamaica with the apology will help black and white Baptists recognize and understand the legacy of slavery today,” said Pat White from Brixton Baptist Church. She joins the delegation representing the London Baptist Association and Black and Ethnic Minority Ministers’ Forum and Churches. “My prayer is that the visit denotes trust, wisdom, reconciliation and true koinonia between the Baptist Union of Jamaica and the Baptist Union of Great Britain.”
Last July’s reconciliation service at Cape Coast Castle outside Accra, Ghana, is among footage being assembled for an upcoming Baptist Center for Ethics DVD on Baptists and race.
“Our DVD on Baptists and racism will include how Baptists have contributed to, and fought against, systemic racism,” said Cliff Vaughn, culture editor for EthicsDaily.com. “This means that while we obviously abhor racist comments, we must go further and cast a keen eye toward the structures, institutions and ways of life built on and perpetuated by prejudice.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
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