When moderate Southern Baptists ran the Southern Baptist Convention, they kept great public distance from the National Council of the Churches USA. Contact was almost always under the cloak of darkness

Moderate Baptists have tilted. At least now we say the “e word,” ecumenism. Significant caution still accompanies our slight shift, however.

Given the cautiousness of moderate Southern Baptists about the NCC, why did I invite Bob Edgar, the organization’s general secretary, to be the keynote speaker at the 15th anniversary lunch of the BaptistCenter for Ethics?

I invited him for three reasons.

First, Edgar is a tireless advocate for justice, peace, the poor and Planet Earth. He is one of the most visible Christian leaders on issues about which many EthicsDaily.com readers care. He represents a wing of the prophetic and pragmatic American Christian tradition that we will honor at this luncheon.

Edgar, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, who served for six terms as a member of the U.S. House of Representative from Pennsylvania, has much that we need to hear.

Second, Edgar heads an organization with whom BCE works.

BCE interfaces with NCC staff at number of levels. Shanta Premawardhana, director of NCC’s interfaith work, is an ordained Baptist minister, who has contributed columns posted on EthicsDaily.com and been a source for news stories.

Wesley M. “Pat” Pattillo, NCC’s director of the communication’s commission, is a daily reader of EthicsDaily.com.

Having served at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for 14 years and Samford University for eight years, Pattillo is a deepwater Baptist, who knows us well, offers ready advice, opens doors and spreads good words about our Web site.

NCC has introduced BCE to the larger ecumenical world with two highly visible and substantive initiatives. NCC posted both our Worship Resource for Observing September 11 worship guide and our film resource, Munich: A Discussion Guide on Terrorism and Peacemaking,” above the fold” on its Web site.

Underscoring our ongoing synergy with public visibility makes sense.

Third, Edgar leads the nation’s largest ecumenical organization, a body with which moderate Baptists share common ground.

That doesn’t mean that we agree with everything that the NCC says or does. In fact, the NCC is a big-tent organization which houses much disagreement among its member bodies. More than most moderate Baptists know.

It does mean that moderate Baptists need all the friends we can find in our pursuit of the public good; and that the NCC is one of those needed friends.

Having Edgar speak at a public gathering provides an occasion for good-will Baptists to meet him and he them. It is another step down the path toward expanding good will for the common good.

We took an important step toward advancing better relations between Baptists and Jews with our 2004 luncheon in Birmingham at the annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. We take another big step forward this year to advance constructive relationships with an organization that includes mainline Protestant, Orthodox and Anglican Christians.

To those concerned cautious centrists, I ask you to consider this invitation within a larger historic context.

Since part of our luncheon’s purpose is to remember that we are heirs of the traditions of two Baptist ethics professors, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Henlee Barnette and Southwestern Seminary’s T. B. Maston, let’s us recall one thing that Henlee did.

He invited Martin Luther King 45 years ago to speak in chapel and in ethics classes at Southern.

In April 1961, Barnette had King on campus seven years after the Supreme Court pushed public schools to integrate, five years after the Montgomery bus boycott, four days after African-American students held sit-in protests at 10 Louisville restaurants and two days after the start of the failed Bay of Pigs. King was one campus when the nation was in turmoil.

King spoke to a packed chapel about the church on the frontier of racial tension. He said that integration was a moral problem and the church must help the age of segregation to pass away, not the kind of words Southern Baptists wanted to hear.

Reaction against Barnette’s invitation and King’s presence was profound.

Barnette wrote in his autobiography that Samford University cancelled an invitation to him to do a lectureship. Over 30 Alabama Baptist churches designated their financial gifts away from Southern Seminary. The seminary lost between $200,000 and $500,000 in support from individuals and churches.

When told of the seminary financial loss, Barnette replied, “Money well-spent.”

Bob Edgar is no Martin Luther King. I’m no Henlee Barnette. BCE can’t hold a candle to the historic ethics department at Southern. Today’s context differs in intensity from that of the 1960s, although much of the same theological venom and many of spiritual offspring of those old fear mongers still gush in the public square.

One positive thing is similar to that time. Having an outsider speak a prophetic word is the right thing to do.

I hope our readers agree. I hope you will show your agreement by attending and bringing at least one friend with you. Some churches and state fellowship organizations have already ordered tables for their members and supporters.

If folk choose not to attend for concern about those who see dots and connect them with conspiratorial imagination, so be it.

But know that you’ll miss the clarion voice of Bob Edgar. You’ll miss an opportunity to honor the past of Barnette and Maston with presentations about Maston by Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and about Barnette, by Larry McSwain, ethics professor at McAfee School of Theology. You’ll miss Bill Wilson, pastor of First Baptist Church of Dalton, frame a forward movement for those committed to the best of the prophetic and pragmatic Baptist ethics tradition.

I hope every attendee at the general assembly will register for our luncheon.

Robert Parham is the executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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