Race is the bone lodged in the throat of Baptists, affecting every utterance, every action.
Baptists tried yet again to dislodge the obstruction, which for centuries has choked whites and blacks in the tortured heritage of slavery, segregation and separation, at a gathering two weeks ago on the Ghanaian coast at a former slave depot.
The world’s largest umbrella organization for Baptists with some 110 million members, the Baptist World Alliance, held a memorial and reconciliation service at Cape Coast Castle, located some two hours west of Accra, the nation’s capital.
Before the service on an overcast day, Baptists smelled sin–the aging sweat, urine and despair in the slave cells, from which countless West Africans where transported to the Americas.
During the worship service, in the castle courtyard, some 400 Baptists prayed and pledged to fight racism. They cited earlier Baptist statements about the sin of racism, the repentance for racism and the commitment to work against racism.
Our moral clarity contained some mumbled disagreement, however. Some Jamaicans had spoken for reparations. Some Brits balked at apologizing for the slave trade, denying that either they or their ancestors engaged in or benefited from it.
Still most of us did what Baptists do so well. We resolved about a moral issue with godly talk without earthly accountability to tangible social reformation.
Such moral muteness in real time has marred the white Baptist commitment to racial justice, necessitating confessions without required actions from the safety of time.
If the service was symbolic, the vote the next day has the substantive power to dislodge finally the choking bone in the Baptist throat.
Global Baptists elected unanimously the first non-white general secretary in the BWA’s 102-year history.
A descendant of Africans, whose ancestors came to Jamaica on slave ships, Neville Callam, BWA’s new general secretary, had read in the service: “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.”
Is the truth of that courtyard confession really in us? Are we really aware of the enthralling power of personal and systemic racism?
Two tests will answer that question in the coming months.
The first is whether white Baptists in North America and Europe will financially support the BWA. Will we support Neville Callam with more than platitudes?
The second is whether white Baptists in the south will really get behind the New Baptist Covenant, a three-day gathering in Atlanta in January 2008 with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore as headliners. Will we be faithful to the original reason for the meeting–to offer a new voice for a justice agenda–and to the foundational text in which Jesus announces his moral agenda?
Goodwill Baptists can sing all day and pray all night for racial reconciliation outside Accra or in downtown Atlanta. But unless we align our faith in substantive ways with the politics of justice we deny the power of sin. Our confessions are but clanging cymbals.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and attended Baptist World Alliance gathering in Accra, Ghana.