Personal Word about BCE's Expanded Public Witness

The Baptist Center for Ethics needs to step up its public witness and enter a larger national role.

The Baptist Center for Ethics needs to step up its public witness and enter a larger national role.


In shorthand, this means taking on the religious right more forcefully--critiquing its false religion and anointment of the GOP as God's Only Party. It also means speaking prophetically and practically for social justice and personal morality, informing, equipping and motivating thoughtful churches and church leaders.


This is where I would like to see BCE go through and Acacia Resources.


My concern relates to whether our supporters will go with us and will support us.


Since most moderate and progressive churches have members that belong to both the red and blue nations, we will create discomfort for some.


When we vigorously critique the White House and Congress, which are Republican controlled, we will be accused of partisanship. We will surely critique Democrats, as we have in the past. However, our primary focus will be on the sources of power, how that power is used and whether that power creates justice in a sinful world.


The foundation of our public witness will be the Bible.


"Remember you show your love of this divine word not by the words you say about it but by living it day by day," said a seminary professor, reciting a line Henlee Barnette had years earlier jotted in a pew Bible at Crescent Hill Baptist Church. 


When Barnette died at 93 years old, he still loved the Bible and showed his love for it by being a drum major for justice.


If we have a similar love for the Bible, we, too, will have a deep commitment for justice. 


One of the unmistakably dominant biblical mandates is social justice. Moses told the Hebrews to "open wide" their hand to the poor in the land (Deut 15:11). Isaiah said that God hated the people's solemn assemblies and refused to listen to their prayers, preferring instead acts of justice (Isa 1:11-17). Micah said God required justice (Mic 6:8). Amos said that God rejected feel-good worship in favor of justice irrigating the land (Amos 5:24).


Matthew offered two models for what commitment to Jesus meant: Zacchaeus and the rich young ruler. In his conversion experience, Zacchaeus pursued justice. He moved from wrongful economic accumulation to redemptive economic reallocation. He shifted from selfish power to social empowerment. The rich younger ruler, on the other hand, walked away from Jesus, holding onto his power and refusing to change his economic relationships.


Despite the Bible's clear mandate, social justice today has been severed from what it means to be an authentic Christian.


Perhaps it got severed during the civil rights movement, when justice meant equality and integration for people of color. Maybe it got lost in the therapeutic movement, when personal affirmation replaced moral accountability. Possibly the biblical call to justice got washed away in the contemporary worship movement, when phrases of adoration replaced words of responsibility.


Certainly the biblical mandate to do justice got distorted when fundamentalists read justice to mean punishment and not the empowerment of the poor, delivery of freedom of the oppressed, protection for the downtrodden and fairness in the marketplace.


Whatever the reason, we need a church reformation which restores social justice as a defining characteristic of what it means to be Christian and a central aspect of the church's mission.  


In tangible terms, what does a sharper-edged focus on social justice mean for BCE?


First, it means that we will support the global evangelical community's pursuit of the Micah Challenge, a movement which has significant Baptist leadership.


The Micah Challenge's goals are to halve global poverty by 2015, as well as to reduce child mortality, provide for universal primary education, advance environmental sustainability, promote gender equality and combat AIDS/HIV.


Such engagement means that we will challenge blind political partisanship, holding both parties accountable for whether our government is advancing human well-being or retarding it.


Second, a sharper social-justice focus means that we will quicken our pace toward becoming a pan-Baptist organization.


We, Baptists of the South, have lived for too long with a toxic arrogance and ignorance. We have thought that we were the only ones who knew how to do missions and who were really doing missions. Our missions' education has really been missions' fund raising.


We need to listen to and learn from Baptists abroad. Specially, we need to hear our Baptist friends overseas who have a greater faithfulness to justice for the poor and commitment to peacemaking than we do. We plan to profile their work and give them far greater voice in our material.


Third, a sharper justice commitment means that we will challenge the religious right's anointment of the GOP, as God's Only Party.


We will take on the religious right's definition of the nation's moral agenda and refuse to let those off the hook who enable the right's distortions. We will expose the religious right's hypocrisy, point out its idolatry of nationalism and critique its campaign promise to strengthen families based on false fears and faulty analysis.


Equally important, we will look for opportunities to highlight the leadership of Democrats and Independents who are active Christians, as a way to counteract the lie that the only Christians are Republicans. We will encourage Baptist Republicans to remain true to their Baptist heritage and faithful to the biblical witness.


Fourth, we will equip churches with resources which deepen and broaden the understanding of social justice and applied Christianity. We will continue providing biblically based, educational materials with a timely focus on real issues.


The religious right has pounded the same few educational drums for years. Not surprisingly, fundamentalist clergy and congregations only hear one note. Moderates, on the other hand, have been all over the map, playing chirpy little tunes. Imagine what would happen if social justice became a regular religious education note and worship theme. We would more closely approximate what the prophets said God wanted and we would impact redemptively our culture through our churches. 


These are the four ways that we will put a sharper edge on social justice. We hope that the end result will be that Baptists and others will reconnect the biblical mandate to do justice to what it means to be an authentic Christian.


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


See related editorials:

Personal Word About the Future

Critiquing American Religion






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