Those Southern Baptists!

Behold the Southern Baptists! Meeting recently for their annual conference, they decided to extend the warm hand of evangelical brotherhood to Blacks and Native Americans. As one headline put it: “American Indians seen in need of evangelism.” Because, you know, those folks are struggling. Who better to help than the Baptists?

Surely this benevolence isn’t due to the continuing drop in the denomination’s membership. No, surely not. And with that drop, we might point out, tithes flowing to the denomination’s treasury also dropped.

Oh my God!

Okay, there are undoubtedly those within these ranks who honestly and sincerely want to help the downtrodden. But the group’s recent convention exposed a painful truth: on a personal level, racism is alive and well among the Southern Baptists.

There’s nothing new about the Southern Baptist’s narrow-minded view. While they’re courting membership from Blacks and Natives, they’re at the same time refusing to have anything to do with the LBGTQ community. Guess they don’t need membership that bad. Yet.

It’s only been 170 years since the Southern Baptist denomination sprang into existence to embrace racism. In a 2015 article in The Atlantic by Emma Green, she reviewed that year’s Southern Baptist convention, citing the founding rationale:

In 1860, a Southern Baptist pastor from Virginia, Thornton Stringfellow, defended the institution of forced enslavement of millions of African men and women in Cotton Is King, and Pro-Slavery Arguments, with the full force of scripture: “Jesus Christ has not abolished slavery by a prohibitory command. … Under the gospel, [slavery] has brought within the range of gospel influence, millions of Ham’s descendant’s among ourselves, who but for this institution, would have sunk down to eternal ruin.”[1]

To the Southern Baptists (and many others), God’s chosen people are white, descended from God’s favored sons of Noah. That was not Ham. As the story goes, Noah got pretty deep into the wine and passed out naked. Ham saw this and told his two brothers Shem and Japheth. These two backed up to their father with a blanket between them so as to cover Noah without looking on his nakedness. So when ole Noah sobered up and learned what had happened, he cursed Ham as the progenitor of Canaan:

And Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done unto him. 25 And he said, Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants shall he be unto his brethren. 26 And he said, Blessed be the LORD God of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

27 God shall enlarge Japheth, and he shall dwell in the tents of Shem; and Canaan shall be his servant.

Multiple interpretations of this scripture lead pretty much anywhere you’d want to go. Noah was supposedly over 500 years old when this happened and pretty tight with God. Why God let him get away with cursing one of his sons for something he himself did remains an unanswered question. Some interpretations claim the event actually involved Ham giving his dad oral sex. Another says he castrated Noah. These quirky ideas are based on scholars’ erudite studies of Biblical text.[2]

This is why there are over 33,000 Protestant denominations, a number argued when the concerned parties take a breath from discussing what happened with Noah and Ham as well as countless other minutia preserved in religious writings. According to one Catholic observer, 33,000 is an inflated number.[3] Be that as it may, the point is that when modern-day beliefs, laws, and actions are based on materials passed down orally for centuries before ever gaining the permanence of writing, and then those written records are subjected to successive centuries of translation, revision, and interpretation, these beliefs might as well have been snatched out of midair.

Which is exactly what happens when people formalize their spiritual beliefs in a way that excludes, discriminates, and otherwise separates them from other groups of people. These aren’t spiritual teachings. They are an outward expression of the smallest darkest part of primitive humans, fearful and ready to do violence. The only legitimacy such beliefs can claim is that our animal instinct assesses threat from another human first by how they look. If they look like us and talk like us, then there’s less chance they’re going to harm us.

In the times of slavery, any spiritual belief system other than the Baptist belief was counter to God’s will. Any effort to see minorities as ‘equal’ came hard up against the reality of life circumstances of minorities, a self-fulfilling prophecy of a sort, that there they are, those ignorant Africans, not well educated, not able to even clearly speak English, living in poverty—how can you say we are equal?

Or the Natives, living like savages in shelters made of skins, painting their faces, hunting with spears. They’re not like us.

A rational analysis points out that as slaves, Blacks were purposefully kept from learning to read or write, denied the right of marriage, and not taught skills of any trade other than the manual labor for which they were kept. In their homelands of Africa, from which they were torn against their will, they enjoyed well-established social order. They had family structures, spoke their language fluently, and otherwise had achieved a culture that succeeded for millennia.

As whites, we’ve got a few more millennia to go before we can say the same.

The same level of prejudice supported violent racism against Native Americans. Aside from genocidal acts such as outright slaughter or distributing blankets contaminated with smallpox, white invaders of the North American continent mitigated their murderous inclinations with attempts to bestow a “relationship with Christ” upon the Natives.

Take, for example, the ripping away of Native American children from their parents and forcing them into residency at schools where they were forbidden use of their native language. The schools intended to teach them to live like white men. In all ways—clothing, language, and worship—Native children were cut off from their ancient heritage and forced into a social construct for which they had no foundation or kinship.[4]

Like taking Africans from their successful societies and forcing them to labor at white’s man pursuit of wealth, ripping Natives from their ancient traditions and cramming them into reservations under the supervision of white law destroyed their foundations of belief and self-worth. They held value only by the metric of white civilization. In that, they hardly reached the scales.

Which makes it all the more outrageous that now, in 2017, as Southern Baptist membership continues to plummet, the conference decides to target reservations because “American Indians are 510% more likely to die of alcoholism and 62% more likely to commit suicide in comparison with the rest of the U. S. population.”[5]

Gee, can they possible be more ridiculous?

It’s not that the Southern Baptists don’t understand that their predecessors were wrong in declaring slavery the will of God or in trampling the ancient traditions of the Natives. They do. Some even claim to pray for forgiveness for their previous ignorance and the misdeeds committed against these minorities.

It’s that no matter what they do, these and other religionists seem to always conclude that their current decision is righteous and unerring and God’s will. They embrace their decision with fervor, rushing out to force the rest of the world to follow.

This is the hubris that created the Southern Baptists in the first place, and all the other evangelical denominations, and arguably every single religion that has plagued the world since such organized activities began. With the force of God’s blessing behind them, they have mounted wars and inquisitions and executions, overthrown governments and imprisoned the wayward, and marched across the globe leaving devastation in their path.

~~~

Recently with the shooting of Rep. Steve Scalise, Arkansas’ own Southern Baptist Pastor Ronnie Floyd opined that this level of violence against the Trump Administration is a new and abominable level of hatred.

In my life, I have never seen a more volatile political environment. Hyperbolized speech, wild accusations and blatant character assassinations have taken stage front and center … as a society we must be able to recognize that celebrating an ideology that says violence, especially against our elected officials, affects the way we think. Words have power. As the ancient biblical proverb says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.”

Floyd never once blinked in the face of the hypocrisy of his remarks despite living through eight years of outrages perpetrated against former-President Barack Obama that included effigies of Obama being lynched and burned, his daughters and wife smeared in every possible way, and the conservative Christian stance embodied in a Republican Party that obstructed every effort of Obama’s rightful governance.[6]

This year’s Southern Baptist conference heard a resolution put forth by Dwight McKissic, a black pastor from Texas, that would have affirmed the denomination’s opposition to white supremacy and the so-called ‘alt-right.’ At first, the committee in charge of resolutions refused to advance McKissic’s contribution to the full assembly. After all, they had resolutions about Planned Parenthood and gambling that needed consideration.

The next day, McKissic attempted to present it on the floor. According to one observer, “Chaos reigned.”

Once more attendees realized what had happened (and the glaring hypocrisy of their actions), “a number of leaders started lobbying to get the motion reconsidered.” After emotional debate on both sides of the issue and another twenty-four hours to confront the situation, leaders brought an amended version of the resolution to a vote.[7] Newly-elected leader Steve Gaines announced the results: “The affirmative has it. Praise the living God.”[8]

Oh yeah, membership.

~~~

[1] https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/04/southern-baptists-wrestle-with-the-sin-of-racism/389808/

[2] Wikipedia article on Ham: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ham_(son_of_Noah)

[3] http://www.ncregister.com/blog/scottericalt/we-need-to-stop-saying-that-there-are-33000-protestant-denominations

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Indian_boarding_schools

[5] Quoting the National Congress of American Indians, from an article by Francisca Jones, “American Indians seen in need of evangelism,” Northwest Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Tuesday, June 13, 2017. Pages 1 and 4.

[6] http://www.christianpost.com/news/america-dont-forget-words-have-power-188393/

[7] Amended resolution may be found at https://static.coreapps.net/sbc-am2017/documents/f618b2f02b1fc085697b4f5d147cb58e.pdf

[8] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/06/14/532998287/southern-baptist-convention-votes-to-condemn-white-supremacy

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The Confederate Flag: Just Another Step

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I doubt I’ll ‘wow’ anyone with my observations about the problems of ‘Other’ in America. It’s all been said in one way or another. But I think it’s worth pointing out that we still don’t get it.

The recent take-down of the Confederate flag is a good example.

In this eight-second attention span world, it’s not difficult to understand why so many people find justification for their prejudices. Unless we know history and have learned to reason, we have little chance to appreciate other people’s reality. Instead we see anything not of our ‘in group’ with fear and anger—an eight-second take.

Racism, for example. The longer version goes like this. Ripped from their native lands and cultures, indigenous African people sold into slavery had no previous experience in Western norms. And aside from the lash of a whip, precious little of those norms were imbued when they arrived on our shores. In the fields of the American South, they weren’t here to learn our ways but to labor as a slightly more capable worker than a mule. For two hundred years, they weren’t educated or otherwise enabled to gain knowledge of Western customs.

Then one hundred fifty years ago, they were turned loose. This would have been a good time to wrap these folks in our arms and invest significant resources in education, social services, and other methods of making them part of our world. But few considered them ‘equal’ whether or not they believed slavery to be wrong.

And how could we consider them equal?

They weren’t like us. They didn’t talk like us, didn’t look like us, and didn’t act like us. They were ignorant, uneducated, unsophisticated. They suffered all the disabilities of their isolated and abused status: a poor grip on our language, cobbled together speech patterns, behaviors and beliefs that reflected their African roots.

These characteristics justified a continuing discrimination that hasn’t yet ended. Ample examples exist today of blacks who exhibit tribal behavior in angry demonstrations or celebrations, whose speech holds little in common with ‘white’ speech, whose appearances are different from the white norm. Unequal and inadequate education, poll taxes, economic exploitation, Jim Crow, and direct attacks on any and all aspects of Black community perpetuate this vicious cycle.

Yes, there were and are exceptions. Blacks who matriculated through the institutions of white culture, who intermingled and socialized with whites, became—surprise—just as educated, intelligent, and sophisticated as many whites!

Substitute ‘Mexican’ or ‘Native American’ or ‘Italian’ for the word ‘Black’ and the truth of our cultural tendency to operate from a hard-wired position of prejudice speaks for itself. But unlike other immigrants to American shores, Blacks suffer an additional stigma. Because we knew Blacks had been enslaved, beaten and abused, their families broken apart, and their traditions denigrated, it didn’t take a lot of mental arithmetic for us to believe that freed Blacks would have it in for us.

If you’d been treated that way, wouldn’t you be mad as hell?

So as soon as Blacks could walk freely among us, fear took over. The Ku Klux Klan formed to save white women from black men, because just as surely as white slave owners had ‘improved’ the black race by rape and interbreeding, why wouldn’t we assume that black men would want to do the same? Blacks who talked back, organized with labor unions, had the nerve to walk about in white society were quietly lynched or burned out of their churches and homes. If not at the end of a whip as slave, at least the black could be kept in his ‘place’ through systematic terrorism.

In its most recent incarnation, the preferred instrument of our racial prejudice has been drug laws. Laws against opium (1914, 1935) had to do with controlling increasingly unpopular Chinese immigrants. (The railroads were built and the mines had become mechanized. No more Chinese needed.) Laws against marijuana (1937) had to do with controlling Blacks and Mexicans. (During the Great Depression, these two groups were seen as competition for scarce jobs, especially in the agricultural South and Midwest.)

anslinger copyAs stated before Congress by Henry Anslinger, godfather of our federal drug control agencies, banning marijuana was a matter of protecting white women. Coming in off a heady run busting moonshiners, Anslinger probably hadn’t failed to notice that the 1932 end of alcohol prohibition could easily spell the end of his job unless he came up with more substances to demonize.

In a perhaps-not-so-coincidental coincidence, drug prohibition laws expanded in direct proportion to the success of the civil rights movement. Arguably, hippies were the intended target of stricter drug policy, but like any unenforceable law, drug prohibition became an easy tool to use selectively against anyone that law enforcement wanted to target. After the Seventies when the counterculture had gone underground, drug policy became a useful weapon against blacks, resulting in arrest and incarceration rates for blacks that far exceeded white rates. (This in spite of the fact that multiple studies have found that blacks were statistically less likely to use and traffic drugs than their white neighbors. More here.)

As progressive elements in American culture have worked to bring an end to racial discrimination, those most likely to be threatened by ‘Other’ have become more active in resistance. It hasn’t helped that cynical political interests have seized on racism as an easy button to push in gaining avid supporters. Hand in hand with religious extremism, racism is a reliable tool for galvanizing voters. In response, persons elected by these demographics are resistant to passing laws that could feasibly reduce racism or religious extremism.

As a result, racists and religious extremists have become key operatives in hate-fueled reactionary politics. Private schools and homeschooling have increased in direct proportion to forced school integration. Fights over academic standards and tax allocations to schools are essentially fights over whether minorities will have access to equal education. The development and expansion of suburban neighborhoods parallel the consolidation of minority groups in the inner cities. Every advantage offered to Blacks in order to help them break out of the poverty and cultural isolation spawned by their history in America is seen as a direct ‘taking’ by extremist whites.

Their kids. Their jobs. Their tax dollars given away to undeserving welfare queens. The depraved depth of this unreasoning mindset has come to the big screen with Barack Obama’s presidency. Who has more than eight seconds to spare?

Drug laws have spawned a vast and lucrative underworld where the uneducated and stigmatized minority can grab a piece of the American dream. This is the path whereby the white extremist’s worst nightmare comes true. The terrible ‘Other’ is not only clasped to our culture’s bosom through laws attempting to force equality but also empowered to own guns and defy police. That this point has been reached in an accelerating statistic of black on black crime fails to succor the terrified white extremist.

They are coming for you and they have guns, a fear not missed by the gun industry and its lobbyists. Another eight-second response.

The combination of white extremist fear, the fallout of drug prohibition, and the rise of militarized police forces has brought us to the brink of urban warfare.  What might be a routine administrative process in a white neighborhood becomes a major SWAT operation in the black one where fifty men in body armor and wielding assault rifles storm an apartment with flash-bangs and battering rams in order to arrest a single black man. It’s a bigger operation than the take-down of Osama bin Laden.

This would be almost comical if it wasn’t so outrageous. So horrifying. So un-American.

There is nothing that we can do to immediately change the key factors which maintain the ‘Otherness’ of Blacks. They are not going to become light-skinned nor are their facial features going to become more European. They can’t immediately overcome centuries of failure by American law and institutions to facilitate equal and adequate skills conducive to social assimilation.

Unfortunately, there is also little we can do to immediately change the key factors which maintain the prejudices of extremist whites. They are of a willfully ignorant tradition, raised to see the world from an essentially defensive position. Like the minorities they despise, this segment of the white population is more often undereducated and poor. The threat is a misunderstood and exaggerated ‘Other’—other races, other nationalities, other religious beliefs, other lifestyles, other sexualities.

Taking down the Confederate flag as a symbolic act might reassure minorities and awaken whites to the underlying problem. But the backlash isn’t going to quickly die away. The flag has been an important identifier used to mark others of their own kind. Its denigration and disappearance only increases the extremists’ sense of threat.

What we absolutely must understand both on a personal level as well in our politics and public life is how much more remains to be done. Yes, we’ve come a long way. But much remains to be done. Government must become less ambivalent in enforcing meaningful educational standards and in addressing the physical and mental needs of families and children, not just for Blacks who have long suffered the parental nightmare of their children falling through the cracks, but for whites who ironically have the same problem.

Both need better reasoning skills and understanding of history.

Both must be brought to the table where they can meet and become friends with ‘Other.’

We can’t bargain hunt for solutions. We have to put our money on our people. All of them.

A rising tide lifts all boats.

[If you’re wondering about my use of a capital ‘B’ for Blacks and not a capital for whites, here’s some explanation.]