June 20, 1995 in Nation/World

Southern Baptists Consider Repentance Over Slavery Church Leaders To Take Up Issue Of Past Sins At Convention

From Wire Reports

Contrition for the past fills the air.

Japan’s government fumbles for the right word to express remorse for World War II. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara issues a belated mea culpa for his role in prolonging the Vietnam War. The Evangelical Lutheran Church apologizes for the anti-Semitism of its namesake, Martin Luther.

Now, the Southern Baptists, who split with northern Baptists 150 years ago primarily over the prerogative of holding slaves, are poised to repudiate their slaveholding links and repent of the longtime sins of bigotry and racism.

“We began in sin. In slavery. We need to deal with it,” the Rev. Gere Allen, head of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, says.

He’s a white son of the Jim Crow South, the descendant of slave owners.

Yet, he helped prepare “A Declaration of Racial Repentance,” one of at least three resolutions of apology scheduled to be presented when the nation’s largest Protestant denomination meets today in Atlan ta’s Georgia Dome.

There is word, however, that some Baptists don’t like it.

Critics say their theological views don’t allow them to apologize for the sins of their ancestors, said Herb Hollinger of Nashville, vice president for communications of the 15.3 million-member Southern Baptist Convention.

“They say, ‘I’m not going to repent for someone else’s sins,’ ” Hollinger said.

“We’ve already gotten calls from people saying that if we pass this resolution (repenting of slavery and racism) that they are getting out of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said.

But the Rev. Gary Miller, a pastor from Fort Worth and a messenger, the term used to denote a voting representative to the convention, predicted that most Southern Baptists will support the repentance statement despite the theological dispute.

“I can’t confess someone else’s sins and make them all right with God,” Miller said. “But I can at least admit the truth. I would have to be at least 90 percent ostrich to ignore that the Southern Baptist Convention was birthed out of the conflict over slavery.”

From Saul, struck down on the road to Damascus, to the Buddha, transformed by the awareness of suffering, conversions borne of insight form cornerstones for faith. Repentance is found at the heart of rebirth.

Whether spurred by a spate of landmark anniversaries or the changing world or the approaching millennium, not only church folk but also nations and their leaders are grappling with the sins of their fathers these days.

“What the Southern Baptists are doing,” Professor Amitai Etzioni, professor at George Washington University Center for Communitarian Policy Studies, “it’s a wonderful precedent for our society.”

Collective repentance for a shared history remains complex, painful.

“Can the present generation repent for the misdeeds of a previous one?” wonders Harvey Cox, of the Harvard University Divinity School.

Fifty years after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, he noted, “Polls have shown that about one half of Americans believe the bomb should not have been used the way it was.”

Yet the recent controversy over whether to include accounts of the human toll of the bombing in a Smithsonian exhibition is clear evidence, he said, “that there is no widespread national feeling of remorse.”

The Southern Baptist gathering this week marks the moment in 1845 when the southern Baptists declared their support of slavery and split from northern Baptists.

“We didn’t start because our theology was different,” said Allen, the Southern Baptist minister. “The reason for our beginning was slavery.”

And their confrontation with history is causing its share of pain.

“You will have a pretty hard time finding anyone to admit publicly what we did in 1845 was right,” said Hollinger. Still, he said, there is a school of thought that insists “That was then. This is now.”

Allen said he got one angry call, from an enraged man who was proud that his ancestors owned slaves. “You’ll split our church down the middle,” the caller warned him.

“Why drag this up?” others have asked him. “I’m tired of conflict,” they’ve told him.

The way as Allen sees it, though, “Jesus does not want peace at any price. It’s peace with righteousness.”

And the Rev. Gary Frost, a black Southern Baptist who is pastor of Rising Star Baptist Church in Youngstown, Ohio, believes some “Godly sorrow” over slavery and racism couldn’t hurt.

“I do believe it’s needed,” said Frost, who has helped craft another version of the resolution of apology. “You can’t expect God to bless you unless you are clear about your sin.”

As for Allen, he’s of the opinion that the Southern Baptists will somehow agree upon an apology next week. But, as he is well aware, the expression of repentance is just part of this story.

“The miracle isn’t going to be if the Southern Baptists pass this,” says Allen. “The miracle is going to be if the African Americans are willing to extend the forgiveness.”

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