True “middle-of-the-road” Baptists seem to be the Rodney Dangerfields of the Baptist world. An old friend (whom I respect greatly and who happens to be on the Left) often dismissed others with the folk observation: “There’s nothing in the middle of the road except yaller lines and dead armadillers.”
Apparently one is doomed to travel exclusively the left lane or the right lane. There is nothing desirable in between. Further, the only real, genuine, authentic “Baptists” are those who speed along avoiding the right lane at all costs. (An especially interesting prospect when one considers the traffic flow patterns in the United States).
My friend’s dismissal may be humorous folk wisdom, but I also know another truth: “There’s nothing on either side of the road except ditches and telephone poles.” Indeed, I have driven many roads without any line whatsoever, but I am hard-pressed to remember one that did not at least have ditches on either side.
I learned that the driver most likely to reach the destination is the one who focuses on the horizon, while being alert to things happening on both the left and the right (especially road signs), as well as behind, and steering their course accordingly. The driver obsessed with looking out the left window, or the right window, intent on avoiding that side of the road will find themselves (and their passengers) in a ditch or wrapped around a telephone pole.
Still, I understand some of my friend’s sentiment. The middle can be a place of indecisiveness, muddled thinking, lack of commitment or slavery to compromise on all matters. I do not claim that place.
At the same time I know the Left is prone to confuse apathy with tolerance and tolerance with license, while those on the Right are prone to confuse combativeness with conviction and conviction with rigidity. And there exists a fundamentalist mindset on both sides.
The situation is complicated by those who want to define “middle” or “moderate” Baptists simply as those who are “not Fundamentalists,” absorbing anyone and everyone they can. Of course, they have defined “Fundamentalist” as anyone more conservative than themselves. Many seem self-righteously satisfied with that understanding.
But I have three problems with that approach. The logic of claiming a “middle” by defining yourself only in opposition to one other escapes me. It slanders others in the middle by playing into the critique of those on the Right that middlers are nothing but liberals ashamed or afraid to wear the label. Finally, on a very personal note, it does not accurately describe me. I am no more attracted to the totalitarianism of the Left than I am of the Right.
So what is a middlin’ Baptist to do?
I find it most helpful to see the road as a bounded pathway that leads to a destination far beyond my vision (or the vision of my fellow travelers) into the horizon, not as a place to park in either the right or left lane.
Yes, there are boundaries–this is a road going somewhere, not a mega-box parking lot!
Sometimes the roadway is straight, other times it switchbacks up a mountainside. Sometimes it has multiple lanes. Other times it crosses a narrow one-lane bridge. Sometimes it is well-paved and I can drive fast. Other times it is rocky and I must slow to a crawl. Sometimes the directions are clear. Other times they are not. I may even stop and ask for directions.
In any case, a true middle-of-the-road Baptist will refuse to be locked in to either the right lane or the left lane. Their pathway is not charted by an obsessive, exclusive fear of what is to either the right or the left. They carefully look at both.
They trust the advice and experience of my fellow travelers. They boldly discern. They act, moving left on one occasion and veering right on another. Rarely do they drive a predictable, perfect bisect down the geometric center of the highway. They may, at the same time, be called flaming Fundamentalists by one side, and godless Liberals by the other.
While there are things on both sides that I embrace, I am tired of the simplistic, exclusive, false alternatives presented by both Right and Left. There are times when options are incommensurate, and one must be rejected. But there are also times when paradox rules the day.
At other times, polarity management is the most faithful way to live. At still other times, a dialectic is at work–something new emerges out of the tension of conflicting alternatives.
I don’t know how to be authentically “prophetic” without being authentically “evangelical;” or how to advocate for social justice without advocating personal morality; or how to name personal sins without naming corporate sins; or how to talk about any kind of gospel, justice, or sin without talking about Jesus Christ—the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection, and ultimately, Redemption.
For me “go and sin no more” is just as literal as “blessed are the peacemakers.” The parable of the rich fool is just as true as the historical accounts of the Crucifixion. The injunction to make disciples as you go is no less compelling than “sell all you have and give it to the poor.”
While all are the Word of God, I do not read the Bible as a conservative Fundamentalist (nor do I read Baptist Principles as a liberal Fundamentalist).
But what do I know? I am just one of those middlin’ Baptists. Sometimes I wonder how many of us there are.
Dwight Stinnett is executive minister of American Baptist Churches of the Great Rivers Region.