Before her benediction at the Baptist Center for Ethics luncheon last week in Charlotte, N.C., Babs Baugh gave me a compliment with a twinkle in her eye. She said, “It’s good to be friends with the person everybody wants to hang first.”
Baugh, one of BCE’s board members, made her remarks after we surprised luncheon attendees with a minute-long video preview of our forthcoming documentary on the forbidden topic in churches.
Her remarks also followed the luncheon program where we watched one of the five stories in our documentary “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims” and heard from a variety of Baptists about how they were taking pro-active interfaith initiatives with Muslims. That’s not exactly comfortable ground for heirs of a tradition that thought the only way to relate to those of other faiths – Muslims, Jews and yes Catholics – is to convert them. Moreover, the documentary and those who spoke are challenging the prevailing cultural narrative that Christians and Muslims are at war with one another.
Baugh’s observation rightly underscores our record of being on the cutting edge of moral engagement.
We have indeed through the years afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted. We have countered the creationists and the climate change critics. We’ve spoken up for undocumented immigrants and public school teachers, both of whom have faced hate from within the faith community.
We took one of the earliest stands in the Christian community against the Iraq war and kept up the moral critique until everybody – but the far right – recognized that the nation went to war on the wings of a lie, that the war failed the rules of just war and that the war was an international disaster. We challenged the Southern Baptist fundamentalists who boycotted Disney, made June Cleaver the model for motherhood and demonized the Baptist World Alliance.
So yes, some folk are always lurking about with a rope and know the location of a sturdy tree. Others, who favor a privatized faith and prefer a faith of pious platitudes, wish we wouldn’t address issues in real time.
Truth be told, however, I have neither much courage nor a death wish. I’m always mindful that if one gets too far in front of Baptists that they will mistake you for the enemy and react unfavorably to one’s well being. I’m mindful that you’ve got to pick your battles. I’ve had more than my share of restless nights about articles we’re posting or calls threatening to defund the organization.
Nonetheless, after almost 20 years, we must be doing something that appeals to goodwill people of faith. We’re having good organizational growth and an abundance of successes.
Most recently was our annual luncheon during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s general assembly that drew some 300 attendees, who trekked three-quarters of a mile from the convention center to Pritchard Memorial Baptist Church.
The event may have been our best luncheon. The fellowship hall and church food were superior to a sterile hotel hall with corporate-priced grilled chicken and steamed broccoli. Any number of folk said the Baptist-friendly meal price was the wisest financial decision at the assembly. Others said it was the best event of the three-day meeting.
It was certainly the youngest luncheon crowd we’ve ever had. Twenty-three college students attended as part of the “collegiate missional experience.” Three students from the Baptist University of the Americas accompanied their president and provost. Central Baptist Theological Seminary and McAfee School of Theology sponsored tables. A number of recent seminary graduates purchased tickets. The current CBF moderator, four former CBF moderators, three state fellowship coordinators, the former executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and a number of big steeple pastors participated.
Another participant was Carolyn Weatherford Crumpler, who was presented with the annual Courage Award from the William H. Whitsitt Baptist Heritage Society. At that event, she was recognized as one who had a “smile with a steel backbone.”
At the BCE luncheon, we presented EthicsDaily.com’s 2009 “Baptist of the Year” award to Emmanuel McCall for his decades of courageous leadership on race relations.
If, in fact, I’m the first in line for the gallows, then I’m standing with some real good company – Crumpler and McCall and everybody else at that luncheon!
Benjamin Franklin reportedly told the signatories of the Declaration of Independence on Aug. 2, 1776, “We must hang together, gentlemen…else, we shall most assuredly hang separately.”
Sticking out one’s neck is a lot easier when one’s traveling companions are risk-takers for the common good – as those are who attended our luncheon.
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics.
To order “Different Books, Common Word: Baptists and Muslims,” click here.