A theologically and ethnically diverse coalition of Baptists gathered around the theme of racial justice and reconciliation at the New Baptist Covenant Summit Sept. 14-16 convened by former President Jimmy Carter.
The group’s dwindling attendance – down more than 97 percent from its 2008 inaugural gathering of what Baptist Press estimated as 9,000 attendees – led the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) to wonder about the coalition’s future prospects for survival.
Speaking to an estimated 240 people at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Atlanta, Carter said America has suffered significant setbacks since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but he believes the country has the resilience to assess its problems and resolve them.
The United States, he said, has lost “self-confidence and ambition for greatness” as well as “a lot of our inspiration, idealism and commitment” since the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.
Carter noted the prospect of sustained warfare, America’s financial woes and growing disparity in income. He expressed concern about “fear and distrust of people different than us” and talked about racially unequal punishment before the law and how poor people too often are deprived of equal opportunity in life.
Yet, Carter said, “our country is resilient and … has been able [in the past] to assess its own problems and resolve them over a period of time. Sometimes it takes too long, but we have that capability and that motivation in America.”
He commended the group for their determined efforts to build bridges between privileged and disadvantaged communities and challenged them, as the apostle Paul did the church at Thessalonica, “to be courageous, to be firm in their faith, to share love for one another, to be united and to persevere.”
Racial & theological diversity
The New Baptist Covenant launched in 2008 at Carter’s impetus. The group’s website says its “calling” is to “overcome historic divisions within our Baptist family” and create “vibrant, inclusive Baptist communities.”
The organization cites 220 congregations – many of which “serve historically segregated communities” – that are partnering to “nurture their relationships and transform their community” through literacy programs, feeding initiatives and economic development advocacy.
The group’s diversity was represented by the three-day program’s attendees, which included representatives from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), the American Baptist Churches USA, the Progressive National Baptist Convention, the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., the Hispanic Baptist Convention of Texas and the Indian American Baptist Association of Oklahoma.
In addition to their racial diversity, participants have espoused a diverse range of views on moral and theological issues.
On homosexuality, for example, Carter told The Atlantic in May that granting so-called homosexual rights is based on “the same principle” as granting civil rights to racial minorities. Meanwhile, the CBF includes Baptists with a range of views on homosexuality, and National Baptist congregations historically have denounced homosexual acts as sinful.
The coalition’s participants also have expressed diverse sentiments regarding the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Carter has announced his withdrawal from the SBC on multiple occasions, and the CBF was formed largely by moderates disenchanted with the SBC’s conservative direction in the early 1990s. In contrast, the National Baptist Convention (NBC) USA Inc. has partnered with the SBC during the past year to promote racial reconciliation, including an appearance at June’s SBC annual meeting in St. Louis by NBC USA President Jerry Young.
Chelsen Vicari, evangelical action director for IRD, a group that seeks renewal in mainline Protestant denominations, told BP “the New Baptist Covenant’s survival is absolutely dependent on black Baptist denominational involvement.”
“The New Baptist Covenant’s first meeting gathered” thousands of Baptists in 2008 “largely due to the coalition’s meeting coinciding with the national conventions of historically black Baptist denominations also meeting in Atlanta,” including the NBC USA Inc., the National Baptist Convention of America, the National Missionary Baptist Convention of America and the Progressive National Baptist Convention.
“When NBC organizers failed to follow this same formula for the New Baptist Covenant II meeting in November 2011, the Institute on Religion and Democracy staff witnessed a satellite image of Jimmy Carter speaking to an empty Washington, D.C. auditorium,” Vicari said.
In the future, “it’s questionable if the largely white liberal Baptist splinter groups involved [in the New Baptist Covenant] can even sustain themselves as denominations and caucuses, much less a vibrant coalition,” Vicari said. “Consider the CBF-affiliated Baptist Theological Seminary of Richmond that only counted 42 fulltime students and the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky which only enrolled 31 fulltime students in 2015-16. Compare these numbers to SBC-affiliated seminaries like Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary that enrolled 2,268 during the same academic year.”
In addition to Carter’s keynote speech, the “Journeying to Covenant Community” program featured three sermons:
– Frederick Haynes III and George Mason. Haynes, senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church, and Mason, senior pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church, both in Dallas, shared the podium as they told about the “Covenant of Action” their congregations have engaged.
Haynes talked about their “journey of two-ness” in “a city engineered for division” and expressed gratitude for a partnership that has not been limited to pulpit-swap worship services which “don’t make a difference on the street.” Mason challenged the group to “enter into each other’s lives” so white churches can begin to understand the points of pain their black brothers and sisters experience in everyday life.
To evidence the depth of their mutual understanding, Haynes pointed to Mason’s help in organizing a march in Dallas following George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an African American whose death drew national attention.
– Traci Blackmon. New Baptist Covenant leaders reached outside Baptist ranks to invite Blackmon, who serves as pastor of the St. Louis-area Christ The King United Church of Christ, which cooperates with the United Church of Christ denomination, a group that has affirmed same-sex marriage since 2005.
Drawing on Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow in Luke 18, Blackmon urged the group to keep doing the hard work of prayer and justice advocacy. In a society that lacks adequate fear of God and concern for others, Blackmon called on participants to “stand together across denominational polities, across class lines, across social stratifications and personal theologies, to support … the righteous rage of some of the most marginalized of our society.”
Blackmon said it is “far too easy to absolve ourselves from any complicity in the tenor of our [society’s] atmosphere” and “demonize” highly visible people like Micah Johnson, an African American who killed white police officers in Dallas July 7, 2016, and white police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, an African American, in Ferguson, Mo., Aug. 9, 2014.
– Tony Campolo. A veteran evangelical activist, Campolo called on the group to turn away from the Jesus who is an “incarnation of our cultural values” and take seriously the biblical Jesus, who “calls us to be people who create the Kingdom.”
“We preach half of the gospel most of the time,” Campolo said. “There are those who say, ‘We want a gospel that brings salvation and transformation to individuals.’ I say, ‘Amen.’ There are others who say, ‘I want to hear a gospel that brings social justice to play in the world.’ And I say, ‘Amen.’ But the whole gospel is transformed people living in a transformed world.”
Campolo departed from the summit’s focus on racial reconciliation to issue a call to inclusion of gays and lesbians in Christian congregations. The church, Campolo said, “is an inclusive community.”
“Right now we are struggling with [racial division], and we haven’t solved that one at all yet,” he said. “But no sooner are we dealing with this one than along come the gays and lesbians, who say, ‘What about us? Are you going to accept us into your church?’”
Adopting the voice of an imagined objector, Campolo protested, “Now, wait a minute. I don’t know about that. They’re unclean.” He replied to himself: “Don’t call anybody unclean who Jesus has called clean. I’ve got to tell you, when you call somebody an abomination, remember that person is a child of God and He went to Calvary’s cross to die for that person that you’re putting down, that you’re putting out of the church.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Mark Kelly is a career Southern Baptist journalist and freelance writer in Marietta, Ga. David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention’s news service.)