Wallace Henley: Southern Baptists and the Institutional Sin of Racism

In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King launched a historic crusade for the end of racial discrimination and segregation in Birmingham, Alabama. Focal points for demonstrations were downtown streets, and especially an inner-city area around Sixteenth Street Baptist Church (an African-American congregation later to be bombed, killing four Sunday School children).

Howard College—now Samford University, a Baptist school—was nestled in a valley miles south of the downtown area. People there were almost oblivious to the historic actions underway across the hills and valleys from their institution.

Two student leaders in Howard’s Ministerial Association were troubled that they understood so little about Dr. King and the movement he was launching.

They decided to seek him out.

The pair found Dr. King at the A.G. Gaston Motel, one of only a couple of hostelries then open to African-Americans near downtown. Dr. King assigned one of his aides to meet with them.

When the students got back to Howard College, word had already reached there about their visit with Dr. King. One of the students was stunned when a theology professor quipped, “I could ruin you with every Southern Baptist Church in Alabama.”

The professor seemed to be warning the student about what could happen to his career if he supported Dr. King and his civil rights movement.

To its credit, the Alabama Baptist Convention years later would take many steps toward reconciliation, and now numbers African-American churches and institutions within its denominational fold, as well as multi-racial congregations. Samford University—the former Howard College—has a broadly diverse student body.

However, in 1963, the young ministerial student was starkly awakened to what would be understood years later as institutional sin.

Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and himself a graduate of Samford, recently released a report bringing to light a history of racism and support for slavery by the founders and other leaders of the Louisville Seminary, the “flagship” educational institution of America’s largest non-Catholic denomination.

“This report documents the contradictions and complexities of the experience of Southern Baptists and race in America,” says the paper.

Some critics would argue that the report is unnecessary in light of admirable efforts to overcome the sins of the past. Yet confession and repentance for institutional sin is a vital step toward corporate health.

Above all, it is the means for releasing the grace of God upon an organization. No individual and no group of individuals can escape judgment apart from God’s cleansing. Institutional sin is not an abstraction, but a hard reality that distorts social values and deforms the society it influences.

Institutional sin is shared sin, that of a community, or corporate body. The Prophet Isaiah sees God in His transcendent holiness, and declares: “Woe is me for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips…” (Isaiah 6:5)

Isaiah himself may have been a man of pristine personal character, but he knew he shared in the sins of his community because he had not confronted the corporate evil around him.

Institutional sin is compounded sin. “The belief in white supremacy that undergirded slavery also undergirded new forms of racial oppression,” says the Seminary’s report. “The seminary’s leaders (in its early days) long shared that belief and therefore failed to combat effectively the injustices stemming from it.”

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Source: Christian Post

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