Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics from the song “Streets of Philadelphia” have never been more haunting.
“I heard voices of friends vanished and gone … Night has fallen, I’m lyin’ awake. I can feel myself fading away,” he sings.
Two of my academic mentors, noted Baptist ethics professors, each passed away on Saturdays – one week apart. They helped me find my voice, sharpened my thinking and writing skills, opened career doors, gave needed correction.
And while I have personally mourned their passing, what has created a sense of “fading away” is that their deaths represent an end of an era in Baptist ethics.
One mentor was Glen Stassen; the other was Dan McGee. They were remarkably different, astonishingly similar.
Glen Stassen was a public figure, a tireless proclaimer; Dan McGee was a private person, a claim explainer.
Stassen was an activist whose platform was academia. He wrote 11 books, mostly on peacemaking and the Sermon on the Mount. His first book was “The Journey into Peacemaking” (1983) and his final book was “A Thicker Jesus: Incarnational Discipleship in a Secular Age” (2012). He also edited a book on capital punishment.
McGee was an educator, institution-builder, who invested himself in the life of the academia, establishing an institute for environmental studies and serving as chair of the university faculty senate. He was an anonymous contributor of a widely distributed pamphlet series on issues and answers published by the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Stassen was the son of Harold Stassen, who was the governor of Minnesota (1939-43), keynote speaker at the 1940 Republican National Convention, signatory of the United Nations Charter and member of President Eisenhower’s administration. He was a perennial Republican Party presidential candidate.
McGee was the son of a South Carolina farmer, who obtained a 60-acre sharecropper plot and was later a lineman for Duke Power. Neither McGee’s father nor grandfather went to college.
Stassen received degrees from the University of Virginia and Union Theological Seminary.
McGee graduated from Furman University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Stassen taught at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary for 20 years and then finished his teaching career at Fuller Theological Seminary.
McGee taught at Baylor University for 40 years.
McGee died at 81; Stassen died at age 78.
Following Henlee H. Barnette, who taught ethics for decades at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and T. B. Maston, who taught ethics for decades at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Stassen and McGee are perhaps the best known Baptist ethics professors in their era.
Despite different backgrounds, personalities and priorities, McGee and Stassen shared an abundance of similarities.
Both did doctoral studies together at Duke University under ethics professor Waldo Beach. Both directed a number of doctoral dissertations.
Both trained a generation of teachers, preachers and denominational leaders, albeit for a world much different than that of Maston and Barnette – more diverse, more fragmented, more ecumenical.
McGee and Stassen spent years toiling in the Southern Baptist vineyard when fundamentalists were breathing fire and brimstone about liberalism in seminaries and universities.
Fundamentalists falsely accused them of not believing the Bible, a nasty canard given the fact that both men were so thoroughly Christ-centered in their moral agenda, unlike the fundamentalists who favored Leviticus over the Sermon on the Mount.
Both men were churchmen. Stassen and his family could always be found on Sunday morning in the balcony of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, when I was a member there. McGee and his family were always at Seventh & James Baptist Church, when I was a member.
Both men were active for years in the Baptist World Alliance’s ethics commission.
Their passing represents an end of an era with no likely successors on the horizon. The future landscape appears barren. And Baptists will pay a steep price in the years ahead for that barrenness.
Lord, forgive us for not planning ahead. Lord, deliver us from our sin of omission. Lord, accept our thanks for the lives lived well. And may we hold on to their voices “vanished … and gone.”
Of course, as people of hope, we welcome the challenge in the lyrics from Fleetwood Mac: “Don’t stop, thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop, it’ll soon be here. It’ll be, better than before.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.