Professor Bill Hoyt, chair of the department of religion and philosophy, returned what we students of old called “term papers” – pecked out on a typewriter and smeared with the brushed-on, corrective fluid branded as Wite-Out.
It was my first research paper in an introductory class in the department that would become my major. So, I went for something familiar (or at least I thought so).
As a loyal, dyed-in-the wool, lifelong Southern Baptist, I wrote about the formation of my denominational tradition. My “research,” however, wasn’t unbiased or complete; I ignored historical realities in favor of an inherited and false narrative.
What I’d been told about the division of Baptists – North and South – in 1845 followed the same revisionist story I’d been told about the American Civil War, which played out in part where I was born and raised in northwest Georgia.
Oh, I got the names of the major players, as well as the location and dates, right regarding the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention. However, the motivation for that gathering in Augusta, Georgia – resulting in a Baptist schism (excuse the redundancy) – was something I failed to fully and properly represent.
“Our story” – much like the tale of the South’s Lost Cause – was a romanticized and sanitized one that made Baptist leaders with a southern drawl the heroes. They had stood strong for missions.
Missions, missions, missions motivated the formation of the SBC. Well, sort of.
The intentionally misleading use of “missions” served the same purpose for Southern Baptists as the continuing emphasis on “state rights” by many southerners to define and excuse support for national sedition by the Confederacy and the resulting carnage.
Downplayed, when it couldn’t be completely ignored, was the reality of white supremacy. The argument – “It wasn’t the reason …” – simply can’t hold up to historical scrutiny because defense of slavery is clearly stated as the purpose of secession in the organizing documents, sermons and other records of the time.
So, the claim – “It wasn’t the only reason” – often follows. Well, here’s a hint: The defense of human slavery was the reason for both the formation of the Confederacy and the Southern Baptist Convention.
Baptists of the South, like the armies of the Confederacy, were hell-bent on defending the economically and socially advantageous institution (at least for the wealthier citizens) of holding persons of African descent in human bondage.
Even missionaries, called to take the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world, should be permitted to “own” other human beings made in the image of God – so the Baptists of the South believed to the point of splintering.
But I preferred to emphasize the deflective and defensive priority of “missions” in my pecked out, white-out paper.
My professor, a Christian ethicist and Presbyterian minister, gave me a better grade than I deserved and spoke favorably of my writing. He noted all that I had done well in researching and developing the paper.
Then at bottom of the last page he scribbled this much-needed comment: “You need to learn that one can be both loyal and critical.”
While modern technology enables better methods of research and communication than in my college years, there remains the same approach to interpreting our history and current cultural matters. That is, to make oneself more comfortable at the expense of truth and those harmed by clearly ignored or misrepresented realities.
My professor was right, and he taught me more from that one handwritten notation than all the lectures and readings for that class.
Our defensiveness gets in the way of both learning the truth – and learning to live in light of such truth. Some of the most important lessons come from facing the mistakes and even evil acts that have shaped our nation, churches, societies, families and our own individual lives.
Otherwise, we are left with falsities, lame excuses and tragic repetition of longtime wrong and harmful attitudes and actions. Yet, the whole Christian concept of confession and repentance relies on an honest rendering of sin’s reality and our participation in it.
Tragically, we’ve applied that concept of sin, confession and repentance much too narrowly.
Our larger American story and the much longer history of the Christian church often get told in ways that whitewash (or white out) the uncomfortable, yet true ways much of so-called Christianity has departed from the words and deeds of Christ.
Such whitewashing – even when repeated and repeated – gets nothing clean.
Some feel disloyal in bringing needed critical analysis to that which birthed and shaped them – and offered much that can be deemed truly good.
But why not aim for that which is both true and good – and good for the many others so often excluded or abused?
Jesus calls his followers to give up some treasured things, to choose truth over comfort, and to move boldly into an uncertain future that will be unlike the past. When Jesus said, “Follow me,” not one of his first disciples responded, “But that’s not how I was raised.”
We can be loyal to the shaping aspects of our lives while being analytical at the same time. In fact, we should. It’s a lesson worth learning again and again.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.