Sunday, January 27, 2008


Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Reading Dr. King: Race and Reconciliation

I often have college students do an essay on race relations and the Christian heritage in light of reading Martin Luther King, Jr. Most students express an appreciation of King’s life and work but many add, “we are glad that the issue of race relations is over. We are glad that we don’t have to work on that problem anymore.”

Ouch. Of course we have more work to do. Of course we have more to learn (and unlearn). The use of the “n” word by the chair of the board of regents at Roger Williams University is only one recent reminder that the task of racial reconciliation must be ongoing (and please forgive me if I raise my eyebrows in disbelief about his claim that this was the first time in his 80 years of life that he had uttered the word).

When reading King I want students to learn how his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement was influenced by his understanding of the Scriptures and the Christian heritage. I have them read a piece in which King speaks of learning about the social gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch and Reinhold Neibuhr. Their main assignment in this introductory course on the “Christian Heritage” is King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Some have read it in a high school literature class, but no matter, I want them to read it through the lenses of what they have learned that semester. King quotes Augustine and Aquinas in his theology of civil disobedience. Both Augustine and Aquinas had been covered earlier (as well as the 1823 classic defense of slavery by Southerner Richard Furman). King also references several biblical passages and the students have already had an introductory course on the Bible.

But I also want them to realize that learning about race relations comes when we get to know each other. There are elements of King’s story that we don’t understand because we have no clue about the manifold ways that discrimination took (and takes) place. I highlight the following passage about why King pressed for equality and was willing to commit civil disobedience:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, "Wait." But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will …. when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading "white" and "colored"; when your first name becomes "nigger," your middle name becomes "boy" (however old you are) and your last name becomes "John," and your wife and mother are never given the respected title "Mrs."…. then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.

And then I tell them a personal story (something profs don’t do often): I was entering the 9th grade when “bussing” was implemented in Richmond, Virginia, to desegregate the public schools. I attended a historically African-American school; just months before it had no white students. Playing basketball in gym class, I thought I was fouled. In typical “neighborhood” fashion, I yelled, “You fouled me” after I had been hit on the arm shooting the ball. But play stopped and things got silent. I had not just said “you fouled me” but “you fouled me, boy.” I had no clue that I had said something wrong. But the African-American student who fouled me looked at me with anger in his eyes and said I was in trouble. I ran, but he caught me at the other end of the gym. We were alone. He said, “you were disrespectful to me so let me give you some advice. You need to learn that you never call a young black man a boy. Don’t ever do it again.” I learned about dignity that day. Years later when I read King’s Letter I understood what he meant.

Getting to know someone opens doors to reconciliation when the various parties are willing to learn and to fellowship. The highlight of the recent annual meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was seeing the leaders of American Baptists, Fellowship Baptists and Progressive National Baptists on the same stage. Why have we waited?

The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant next January gives us a chance to learn and fellowship in ways that we haven’t. If you need a primer on why reconciliation is not a past event, but must be an ongoing process, read King’s letter. You won’t even need a basketball game to open your eyes.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Breaking The Glass Ceiling

In a recent blog, Al Mohler of the new Southern Baptist Theological Seminary wrote about the recent calling of Julie Pennington-Russell as senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia. He correctly noted that there is usually a “glass ceiling” when it comes to the calling of women to pastorates. Moderate and liberal (he cited Baptists and Presbyterians) Christians who often affirm the calling of women to pastoral ministry are very hesitant to actually call women to their churches as pastors. Of course, Mohler was pleased with the phenomenon of the “glass ceiling” because he doesn’t think there should be women pastors - period. Mohler told his Southern Baptist supporters that the calling of women as pastors was not a “triumph” but a “tragedy.”

The Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant in January 2008 gives the wider Baptist fellowship an opportunity to show the American public (or anyone looking at us) that the calling of women is not a tragedy but indeed is a triumph of the liberating, equalizing Good News of Jesus. The meeting of cooperative Baptists will be a demonstration that pastoral ministry is based on calling and gifts rather than gender. What should be clear is that the calling of God means “sons and daughters will prophesy.”

One of the sermons at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant will be given by Julie-Pennington Russell. “Pastor Julie” graduated from Golden Gate Theological Seminary. Since seminary days, she has been the pastor of 19th Avenue Baptist Church, San Francisco, and for the last nine years, Calvary Baptist Church, Waco, Texas. Two days ago, she was officially called as the pastor of First Baptist Church, Decatur, Georgia. I expect it took a while for 19th Avenue members to forgive Calvary for taking Pastor Julie away to Waco and I know it is going to take a while for Calvary members to smile at Decatur folks!

While a seminary student, Julie experienced a transformation. Her prayers were transformed by the (human) boundary breaking Holy Spirit. She ceased praying that “orthodoxy” be restored to the thinking of some of the females on campus who were open to the idea of women pastors after the Holy Spirit convicted her that God calls and gifts men and women for ministry without gender restrictions. Julie’s point—then and now—is that God calls people to ministry. A person is not a male pastor or a female pastor. A person is called to be a pastor.

Of course Pastor Julie (what she is called by parishioners) is a model for women in ministry (don’t you think it is time that people who don’t affirm women as pastors quit using the phrase “women in ministry” and start using the phrasing “women in (male) selected ministries”?). Pastor Julie has been a wonderful model of a pastor for young women like her who have experienced a calling from God but know about the “glass ceiling.” I’ve seen young women—students so deeply conditioned by restrictions against their gender that ordination is called the “Scarlet O”—find encouragement and wisdom from Pastor Julie’s spiritual nurture. By the way, she is a wonderful model of ministry for males too. An excellent preacher able to reach a congregation of diverse economic realities and educational levels, a compassionate counselor, a visionary leader: these are all qualities that describe the pastoral ministry of Pastor Julie.

How is it that someone can suggest that the calling of a woman as a pastor is a tragedy? For some (but clearly not AL-L), they have only had the opportunity to hear certain types of people in the pulpit. If they did, they would recognize the liberating, equalizing nature of God’s Good News. There are many reasons to attend the New Baptist Covenant celebration next January. One surely is the opportunity to hear Pastor Julie preach. Bring a Bible with you. She preaches from the Word. And then throw it upward and I expect you will help to break that nasty stubborn “glass ceiling”. A (human) boundary breaking gift from the Holy Spirit is what you will receive.

Doug Weaver
(member of Calvary Baptist Church)

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